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Everything Old Is New Again with Fabric.com: How To Do Shirring

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In between the simplicity of gathering and the intricacy of hand-smocking, lives one of our favorite texturing techniques: elastic shirring. You've probably owned a garment or two with shirring on the bodice or sleeve edge. It was the style on those iconic 1970s peasant dresses, and it's making a strong comeback in this season's fashion. Shirring is a great sewing technique to learn, and easy-peasy too! And just like the little boy with a hammer, for whom everything becomes a nail... once you learn how to do shirring, we guarantee there will be all kinds of projects that need this pretty, rumply, stretchy touch of texture.

Types of shirring

This article focuses on elastic thread shirring, which is the most common, but we also touch on a few other types: cord elastic shirring, waffle shirring and gathered shirring. Cord elastic shirring is done with a zigzag stitch and strong cord elastic in two rows on the wrong side of the fabric. You usually see this done on a sleeve. Waffle shirring is a subset of elastic thread shirring and is created by shirring in one direction, then shirring again at a right angle to the previous shirring to create a sort of checkerboard effect. Finally, gathered shirring is sewn with regular sewing thread in the needle and bobbin; this type of permanent shirring doesn't stretch.

Fabric considerations

We recommend using a basic woven to get the hang of the technique. However, don't let this recommendation deter you from trying shirring on other fabric types! The technique looks the most dramatic when used on lighter weight fabrics, but can be used on heavier ones. We've even had success with terrycloth. With these heavier and/or non-woven fabrics you'll probably need to adjust your sewing machine settings and possibly use a different presser foot appropriate for the fabric type. Regardless of which fabric you use, always test your stitching on a sample scrap first. And remember to pre-shrink your fabric, especially if you are shirring a garment. Once the finished piece is laundered, the shirring almost always pulls up even more.

Width and length

As we're sure you can guess, shirring "eats up" some of the width of your fabric. Exactly how much will depend on the fabric, and to a certain extent, how many lines of shirring you are doing. Testing on a scrap of the actual fabric you are using is the best way to determine how much extra width you should start with. Measure your scrap before and after your test to see how much the shirring changes the width. As with most things (and always where cookies are concerned), make more than you think you'll need. You CAN cut shirring, you simply need to run a vertical line of straight stitching (with a short stitch length) across all your lines of shirring to lock the elastic into place. Do this seam line PRIOR to trimming off the excess.

Length is more of an aesthetic decision and will be determined by the project you are making. For example, on a sundress, you'd likely want the shirring to be the majority (if not all) of the bodice. Measure that part of the pattern to determine how may lines of shirring you'll need. On a pillow, you might want the shirring to be just a feature strip through the middle. Again, measure the length or depth.

Elastic thread shirring

  1. The key component in creating elastic thread shirring, besides your sewing machine, is elastic thread. You can find elastic thread at your local sewing machine or fabric retailer, usually near the other types of elastics. You can normally find it in both black and white, although the black is a little harder to come by. Fabric.com carries white by Gutermann, black by Gutermann and black by StretchRite. Pick the color that will best blend with your fabric.
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  2. The other crucial element, and actual definition of shirring, is evenly spaced parallel rows of stitching.
    NOTE: In our examples, we used a dark fabric with white thread and elastic so you could clearly see our stitching. You would use a thread color to coordinate with your fabric.
  3. Prepare your fabric for shirring by marking parallel rows on the right side of your fabric, using an erasable fabric pen or pencil or marking chalk. Lines of shirring are traditionally from ¼" to 1" apart. The final distance will depend the overall look you want to achieve: closer together = really ripply, farther apart = softer and more puckery.
  4. When drawing your lines, don't forget to account for any seam allowance along the raw edge. In our example, we marked our lines ½" apart. To account for a ½" seam allowance, we marked our first line 1" in from the raw edge.
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  5. Set up your sewing machine for a straight stitch. You can also use a narrow zig zag stitch.
  6. Thread the top with regular sewing thread.
  7. Wind the bobbin BY HAND with the elastic thread, slightly pulling the elastic as you wind it. Do not actually stretch the elastic as you wind it onto the bobbin.
    NOTE: This might sound painfully time consuming, but it's really not. Elastic thread is much thicker than sewing thread. Plus, if you don't have the patience to hand-wind a bobbin... you might want to consider a more dramatic hobby than sewing.
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  8. Place the bobbin into your machine as usual.
    NOTE: We're lucky to use Janome sewing machines in the Sew4Home studios, and found we did not need to make any adjustments to our machines to accommodate the heavier thread in the bobbin. If you're experiencing difficulty with the elastic thread feeding through the bobbin case tension on your machine, you may need to loosen the tension. This step is fairly common with this technique. Check your machine's manual for how to make this tension adjustment.
  9. Begin sewing on your first marked line.
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  10. You can backstitch at the beginning and end to secure the threads. Or, you can bring the needle thread to the wrong side and knot it with the elastic thread on the back. Also, if you are sewing the shirred piece into a seam, that seam's stitching will provide an added anchor for the shirring.
  11. Replace the fabric and sew your next line. Be sure to gently pull the fabric flat as you sew each row.
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    NOTE: As you see in the photo above, we found using the Quilt Bar that comes standard with most Janome machines (and may be standard on your machine as well) was a fantastic tool to eliminate having to mark the fabric. We simply set the Quilt Bar at our desired distance (in our sample ½" from the needle), then guided it along the previous line of stitching.
  12. Continue shirring across your fabric until it is the length you need for your project. Your shirred fabric is ready to be incorporated into your project and YOU are an expert at elastic thread shirring!
  13. Spritz the shirred area with water then touch it with your iron to encourage the stitches to pull up even tighter.
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Waffle Shirring

  1. Prepare your sewing machine and fabric as above in the elastic thread shirring example.
  2. Sew rows of shirring across fabric, evenly spaced, to your desired length.
  3. When complete, rotate your shirred fabric 90˚, then stitch additional evenly spaced rows of shirring across and at a right angle to your previous stitching. Be sure to use the same row spacing in both directions.
  4. As you see in the photo below, we used our Quilt Bar again. But, you could certainly use drawn lines as a guide.
  5. Simple as that, you have the checkerboard or "waffle" effect.
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Cord elastic shirring

  1. This type of shirring requires round cord elastic.
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  2. Mark two stitching lines on the wrong side of your fabric for your cord elastic shirring. Don't forget about any seam or hem allowance. Again, we marked ours ½" apart. Traditionally, this type of shirring uses just the two lines of elastic.
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  3. Set up your sewing machine for a zigzag stitch with regular sewing thread in both the needle and the bobbin.
  4. Place your fabric right side down on your sewing machine. The wrong side is up so you can see your marked lines.
  5. Place the cord elastic along the marked line.
  6. It's going to feel like you need a third hand here, but with a little practice, you'll get the hang of it. We recommend working with a long length of cord elastic. It's easier to handle, and you can simply trim it to the correct length when you're finished sewing across the marked line.
  7. Put down your pressure foot and begin to sew. If your sewing machine has a knee lift, we recommend using it for this technique. It's that "third hand" we were recommending!
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  8. As you sew, be sure to gently stretch the elastic cord.
  9. Once complete, you can pull the elastic cord to create a tighter gather if desired.
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  10. Do NOT backstitch at the beginning or end. Instead, knot the ends of the thread and the elastic to secure. Again, as above with the other techniques, any cross seam will help to anchor the shirring too.

Gathered shirring

  1. Mark your fabric with two rows, evenly spaced, on the right side. We used ½" spacing yet again.
  2. Set up your sewing machine for a straight stitch, the same as you did for basic shirring above. However, you may want to increase your stitch length slightly.
  3. Sew along both lines, making sure to leave long thread tails at the beginning and end. Do NOT backstitch at the beginning or end for this technique either!
  4. By pulling the bobbin thread (the one on the wrong side of your fabric), gently gather the fabric. The density of the gather is your creative choice.
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    NOTE: You can knot the thread tails on one side to work the gathers. Or, you can work from either side equally toward the center. We like to work from either side.
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  5. Knot the thread tails to help hold gathers in place. But to hold the gathers exactly where you want them, you need to hand sew a cover strip to the wrong side of the fabric.
  6. Cut a strip from the same fabric as long as your shirred piece land wide enough to cover both lines of stitching plus ½".
  7. Turn under each long edge of the strip ¼' and press the folds in place.
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  8. Hand sew along both the long folded sides of the cover strip. Most of your stitch should be in the folded edges of the strip, catching just a thread or two of the gathered fabric so your stitches will be nearly invisible from the right side.
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Contributors

Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly

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Comments (24)

Vee Rowe said:
Vee Rowe's picture

Hi.  This tutorial is great but I would like to know how to do it without a machine. Hand stitched only.  Can you help with that please? 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Vee Rowe - Sorry, but we do not have any hand shirring tutorials. You might try searching online for "heirloom stitching" techniques.

Maggi May said:
Maggi May's picture

As a teenager of the 70's shirring was huge, all my sleeves and bodices front and back usually had shirring. I used a very old machine operated by knee and it didi a wonderful job, in fact some of the clothing items were stored and when I looked recently the shirring was still holding firmly in place. I used your site to refresh myself as I have a sleeve I wish to add shirring to. Thanks a very helpful site.

Tamz said:
Tamz's picture

Hi, I'mtrying to make a Top skirt withsherring, yourtutorial was excellent and I'm just wondering if anyone can tell me how much extra material I would need ?? :) 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Tamz - there is no hard and fast rule - here's what we suggest above:

As we're sure you can guess, shirring "eats up" some of the width of your fabric. Exactly how much will depend on the fabric, and to a certain extent, how many lines of shirring you are doing. Testing on a scrap of the actual fabric you are using is the best way to determine how much extra width you should start with. Measure your scrap before and after your test to see how much the shirring changes the width. As with most things (and always where cookies are concerned), make more than you think you'll need. You CAN cut shirring, you simply need to run a vertical line of straight stitching (with a short stitch length) across all your lines of shirring to lock the elastic into place. Do this seam line PRIOR to trimming off the excess.

Benitta said:
Benitta's picture

Thanks for the tutorial on cord elastic shirring. Very entusiastic about leaning shirring, I went and bought the cord elastic and it would not come out of the bobbin. Thought I should use it for shirring by hand, but luckily found our tutorial.

kittyklaws65 said:
kittyklaws65's picture

 I must be doing something wrong with my shirring attempts.. nothing is happening with the fabric. I've wound the bobbin with the elastic thread played around with length and tension and the fabric hasn't changed in appearance at all. What is the way you are setting up the length? I see you say a straight stitch but when I do that the elastic at times isn't even being stitched on to the fabric?? What gives?? I feel left out and am frustrated (need chocolate lol). Please help me.. what am I doing wrong????

Ronna said:
Ronna's picture

I had the same problem as you, kittyklaws. As Liz said, there could be a number of issues but what was causing mine was the fact that (being new to shirring) I didn't understand why my fabric wasn't changing after stitching one row. I tried a number of times. Finally, frustrated, I stitched the second row and it started gathering! I did a third row then a fourth and suddenly I had shirring! I lightly sprayed the elastic side with water, lightly ironed it and had the tightest shirring.

I don't know if this is your problem but I thought I'd post it just in case it is.

Also, I ran into the problem of the elastic not being stitched so I experimented with the tension. Normally my Janome machine is set at 4 but I loosened it just a bit and voila, the elastic started being stitched. I lengthened my stitches and sewed on a medium speed, not fast. Now I can shirr like a pro!

I'm no expert but I hope this helps.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ kittyklaws65 - don't take it personally! It could be a number of things. If we were sitting next to you, we could probably figure out what's up. Troubleshooting long distance is tough, especially when there are multiple machine variables. 

You say you've tried adjusting the length and tension. We used a default stitch length of about 2.2 - 2.4. You also said the elastic thread is not catching in the stitch - that can mean it's a threading issue. If you're missing the tension on the bobbin case it could definitely cause a stitching issue. Also, when you wind the bobbin by hand, you have to watch that you haven't stretched the elastic thread. You could also try a narrow zigzag instead. In addition, depending on the type of fabric, you do get different results. When we've done this technique, we've sometimes had to sew quite a few rows before seeing real results. It does take a bit of patience.
lorrienickel said:
lorrienickel's picture

I have to fix a really cute top because the elastic has come out.  Thank you for the idea on how it can be done.

laswa said:
laswa's picture

Well laid out tutorial, thank you.  I have just one helpful hint about shirring with elastic cord.  I tried this technique and understand why you recommended a knee lift, so I googled around a bit and stumbled upon the best tip (sorry, I didn't pay attention to where at the time).  Feed the elastic through the hole in the presser foot and it goes like a dream!

Jean Ann said:
Jean Ann's picture
I use the elastic thread in the bobbin to shirr dresses all the time. But I use the automatic bobbin winder on my Janome sewing machine to wind the elastic thread on the bobbin...no problems.
Caz said:
Caz's picture
This was so helpful, I really want curtains in my kitchen, but where the windows are placed so close to my cuboards and the fact it's tiled from top to bottom has proved somewhat of a nightmare lol, now I can finally have some gathered curtains, I'll just put them up inside the window frame, Thankyou
Liz Johnson, Editor, Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson, Editor, Sew4Home's picture
@ Dawna Jean -- Wind a bobbin with elastic thread -- you don't really measure the elastic thread. Stay tuned right here for more info... on Monday we have an article on how to make a shirred sundress, which will address some of your fabric measuring questions.
Dawna Jean said:
Dawna Jean's picture
I see how to shirr but how do I measure the elastic. So sew that I'm making my neice a shirred dress and her chest is 30 inches around. I don't know but I'm throwing a number out there. I want to shirr around. Do I use 30 inches of elastic?? I'm not sure about that part. Anyone who knows can chime in and guide me. Thanks for all imput.
mpistey said:
mpistey's picture
Bumblebeegrace - thanks for that idea! I think it will pay to try a couple of techniques out before doing it for real. I would rather not have to "unsew" if I can get away without it.
randysgirl said:
randysgirl's picture
Sooo timely! I am just about to attempt using elastic thread in my machine for the first time, I was a bit nervous, now I can't wait!!
Bumblebeegrace said:
Bumblebeegrace's picture
Mpistey: I just shirr tubes by just keep stitching in a circle. Like sew the first round then overlap your stitching a little bit. Then angle your stitching down until you're about 1/4" to 1/2" below your first line. Keep spiraling around like that until you're finished and then overlap on the last row... I don't know if that makes sense... but I've done a few tops like this with great sucess!
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
@ mpistey - Yep... shirring a tube would be dang challenging. Best to rip out the side seam and shirr flat. Have fun!
tsetsgee said:
tsetsgee's picture
Yes, its very helpful. Thank you Sew4Home. I very like second way.
Michelle jadaa said:
Michelle jadaa's picture
oooh something i was just thinking of doing!
Momlovessewing said:
Momlovessewing's picture
Thanks for the shirring lesson. I just bought a sundress pattern for my granddaughter that requires this. Now I know how to begin! And laughed out loud at the comment about finding a more dramatic hobby!Thanks for starting my day on such positive notes!smilies/grin.gifsmilies/cheesy.gif
mpistey said:
mpistey's picture
Your timing is perfect! I have a length of very nice knit fabric left after cutting my daughter's maxi dress short. It will make a really nice top for her. One question - it is a tube of fabric; would you advise to remove one of the side seams before starting?

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