Today we have a guest writer on the blog! Abby (@toiledunord) is a sewist we’ve known for quite a while and she’s written an awesome blog post on how to sew gathers. While gathering is a very common sewing technique, it can also be quite challenging to get them looking great. Our Pauline dress has both a gathered sleeve and skirt tier so we thought we would start you off right with some handy hints on sewing the gathers of your dreams. Take it away Abby…
Hi all! Abby here to talk gathering methods and tips. Gathering is a useful sewing technique that can add both design interest and functionality to a garment. It allows for a longer or wider piece of fabric to be fit to a shorter or narrower piece in a way that creates evenly distributed fullness. Gathering is secured with a stable final seam to keep the fullness in place.
Because this is a versatile technique and can be used in many types of garments and fabrics, there are many options and factors to consider when creating gathers. This post covers Two Thread Basting, Three Thread Basting, and the Zig Zag over a Cord methods of gathering. This was written with woven fabric in mind, but it is definitely possible to gather knit fabrics as well. Some of the process would look the same, but there may be additional factors to consider.
- Cut and Marked Pattern Pieces
- Strong, High Quality Thread
- Scrap yarn, cording, pearl thread, 6-strand embroidery floss etc. (optional)
- Hand sewing Needle (optional)
Before sewing gathers in final fabric, read through the techniques and methods shared below and test out some options on scrap fabric with these factors in mind:
Stitch Length: Shorter basting stitch length provides more control over gathering, but a stitch length that is too short will be hard to pull/gather. Longer basting stitch length provides less control over gathers, but is easier to manipulate.
Fabric Weight: Lighter-weight fabrics can generally use a shorter length stitch. Heavier weight fabrics may need a longer stitch to accommodate fabric thickness.
Seam Allowance: Gathering can involve sewing multiple lines of stitching within the seam allowance. If the existing seam allowance is small, it may be helpful to increase the seam allowance in gathered areas to allow more room to work.
Thread weight/quality: Pulling on thread, especially over longer sections of gathering (such as an entire skirt) can stress thread and cause it to break. Use high-quality thread, and consider using a heavier thread if gathering heavier weight fabrics.
Thread Tension: Thread tension can be adjusted to make pulling thread easier.
Fabric Qualities: Creating gathers requires more fabric handling than regular seams. If working with fabric that frays easily, stabilizing or finishing edges before creating gathers may help mitigate fraying edges. Does the fabric take/hide needle punctures well? Gathering can involve sewing, then removing, stitch lines in what will eventually be a visible part of the garment. If visible holes are left by needle punctures, keep all gathering prep work within the seam allowance
Once you’re happy with the chosen technique and settings, make sure the final pattern pieces are prepared. Mark gathering area on both gathered and flat pieces as indicated by the pattern with notches, tailor tack, or other marking.
If gathering a larger section of fabric, such as an entire skirt, divide both the gathered section and flat section into quarters and mark if the pattern doesn’t already include them notches. Use clips, notches or tailor tacks/small stitches.
TIP: Triangle notches (as opposed to single snip notches) may be easier to locate once the fabric has been gathered.
The key to beautiful gathering is evenly distributing your gathers and then accurately sewing them in place. There are multiple methods for the actual act of gathering fabric and we will be demonstrating them all here. Two thread and three thread gathering methods are quite similar as they both entail sewing lines of basting stitching in or near the seam allowance, pulling on threads to create gathers and then sewing gathers in place. The Zig Zag over Cord method differs in that you only sew one pass of zig zag stitches over a thick cord or string, which enables you to pull the cord like a drawstring to create the gathers.
FYI: these examples use contrasting thread to clearly demonstrate the methods. Using contrasting thread in a final garment can also be useful to make it easier to remove basting stitches when you’re done. In our examples, needle thread is magenta, bobbin thread is blue, and the final seam is sewn in black.
Two Thread Gathering
This method uses two lines of machine basted stitches to gather the fabric. It is easier to gather with longer stitch lengths, so we recommend a length of 4-5mm for gathering stitches.
There are two options for positioning the two lines of basting stitches:
Option One: Sew both lines of basting stitches 1/4″ apart within the seam allowance. This provides less control over the final gathers, but is easier on the final fabric. If your seam allowance is 5/8″, sew your two lines of basting stitches at 1/2″ and 1/4″.
Option Two: Sew one line of basting stitches 1/4″ apart, this time on either side of the stitch line seam allowance. A line of basting stitches will be holding the gathers in place on both sides of the final stitch line which gives more control over the final look of the gathering. If your seam allowance is 5/8″, sew one line of basting at 3/4″ and one at 1/2″.
To start, with fabric right side up, sew the first line of basting stitches starting and stopping at your notches (or wherever your gathering begins and ends), making sure to leave long thread tails at both ends. Do NOT backstitch – you need to be able to pull on these threads later.
Right side up, sew the second line of basting stitches at the determined seam allowance.
Try to always pull the bobbin thread – it’s easier to gather and less likely to break (I pulled the needle thread in the images below but please do as I say and not as I do). Hold both bobbin threads together, and pull gently to create gathers, using your fingers to move down the fabric and evenly distribute along the stitch line. If gathering a long section of fabric, it may be helpful to pull on threads from both sides of the gathered area. If gathering a short section, pulling from just one side may be enough. Continue pulling on thread and distributing gathers evenly until the gathered section is the desired/needed width. Check this by either measuring the gathered area or comparing it to the flat fabric it will be sewn to.
Three Thread Basting
This is the same method as the two thread above, but uses a third line of basting stitches for even more control. Again, you are using a longer basting stitch of 4-5mm long. Since sewing three lines of basting stitches takes more room than two, it may be helpful to add width to the seam allowance.
Option 1: One basting line at the final seam line, two basting lines within seam allowance.
Option 2: One basting line outside final seam line, two basting lines within seam allowance.
This example uses a 5/8” seam allowance with the first line of basting stitches at 1/4″, the second at 1/2”, and the third line of basting stitches at 3/4”.
Zig Zag Over A Cord
This method works well for gathering heavier-weight fabrics. In this method, a sturdy piece of yarn, cord or topstitching thread is run the length of the gathered area. Azig zag stitch is stitched over the cord, and the cord is pulled like a drawstring to create gathers. The zig zag stitch width should be set wider than the cord so it doesn’t get caught in the stitching, and the length depends on how much control over the gathers is desired. A shorter length means more control over gathers (creating finer gathers), while a longer length means less control over gathers (creating larger gathers). Heavier weight fabrics may require a longer length. Test on a scrap of your fabric to find your ideal length.
To begin, cut a piece of yarn/cord the length of your fabric to be gathered with a few extra inches on each side. Right side up, position the cord so it is within the seam allowance. Sew over the cord using a zig zag stitch. Do not catch the cord in the stitching. Ensure the cord and zig zag stitching remain inside the seam allowance.
Secure one end of the cord by wrapping it in a figure 8 around a pin.
Pull on the cord to gather to the desired length.
Regardless of which method you use, once the gathered area is the correct length, secure both ends with a pin, basting stitch, or knot. To secure with a pin, insert a pin at the end of the gathered area, and wrap the thread tails around the pin in a figure 8 pattern until secure.
To secure with a basting stitch, thread a hand sewing needle with the thread tails and tack in place with a few repeated stitches.
To secure with a knot, pull the bobbin threads through to the right side of the fabric, and knot together with the needle threads.
FINISH GATHERED SEAM
Right sides together, pin the gathered piece to your flat piece. Line up notches and edges as necessary, and evenly distribute gathers. With the gathered fabric facing up, sew the final seam with a regular stitch length along seam line. For more accuracy, you can also baste the gathers in place first to ensure they are distributed evenly before committing to a shorter stitch length.
Remove all gathering stitches – since they are long, they are generally pretty easy to remove. If you’ve used the cord method, remove the cord. You can choose to leave the zig zag stitches if it’s too time consuming to remove them.
Gently press seam away from gathers. Press up to but not over gathers or you risk smooching them.
Once the gathered seam is sewn, finish it as desired with bias binding, a zig zag stitch, or serging, then continue with constructing the rest of the garment. Gathering can take more time and attention than just sewing a regular straight seam, but it is worth it for all it can add to a garment!
Do you have any favourite gathering tips to make the process easier and more enjoyable? Tell us in the comments!