Gathering fabric is a great way to control fullness and give shape to your sewing projects, whether it's creating a fun, swishy skirt, a ruffled carry-all bag, or even shaping the bodice of a dress. There are lots of different ways to gather fabric, plus other techniques like smocking and pleating which give a different look, but are also useful techniques for getting a lot of fabric into a little space. Ready to start gathering? Check out these tips and tricks!
The basic gather
Gathering fabric requires scrunching up your material in tiny, irregular pleats that allow you to fit a larger piece of fabric into a smaller space. The amount of fabric you can gather will depend on how heavy the material is—thicker fabrics can only be gathered so much before they're too dense to stitch through. Before you start gathering, you'll need to make sure your fabric is marked at the start and end points of your gather, and that you know how long your gathered length should be once it's done. Once you're ready, there are several ways to gather up your fabric.
Traditional machine gather
This type of gathering is done by running two or three lines of machine basting stitches in the seam allowance of the piece that needs to be gathered. Do not backstitch at the ends of these lines of stitching, and leave long thread tails at both ends. To gather your fabric, lock one end of the thread in place by setting a pin parallel to the seam and winding the thread tail around it in a figure eight. Choose either your top thread or your bobbin thread, and carefully pull, allowing the fabric to scrunch and gather to the required dimension.
- Use contrasting top and bobbin threads. This will make it easy to make sure you're pulling on just one or the other instead of both, which can cause your stitching to lock in place rather than gathering
- Add three rows of basting if you're using lightweight fabrics. These tend to be prone to fraying, and three rows of basting provides a more stable base for stitching your gathered panel in place.
- Adjust your tension. If you find your stitching is difficult to pull, or your threads are continually breaking, you may want to tweak your sewing machine tension to allow you a little more flexibility. If this doesn't resolve the thread-breaking issue, you may want to opt for one of the other gathering techniques
This gather is great for heavier fabrics or long lengths of gathering, where a broken thread can cause lots of problems. Cut a length of very thin cord or string several inches longer than the length of fabric you are gathering. Your sewing machine should be set to a wide zig-zag stitch. If your fabric is particularly heavy, you will also want a long stitch length that will allow your material plenty of flexibility as it gathers. Lay the cord on top of your fabric, in the seam allowance of the area you are gathering. Stitch over the cord, being careful not to hit the cord with your needle. Once your line of zig-zag stitching is complete, pull the ends of the cord to gather your material and adjust the length.
- Use this technique if you're not sure how long you need your final gather to be, as it's easily adjustable.
- Once your fabric is gathered, pin carefully. These gathers can slide along the cord, causing uneven spots, if they're not well anchored.
- This technique isn't ideal for very lightweight or sheer fabrics, as it tends to create larger, less stable gathers than other techniques.
Ruffler foot gather
A ruffler foot is a specialty presser foot for your sewing machine that is designed specifically to gather fabric and produce ruffles. The operation of different ruffler foot attachments varies significantly from brand to brand, so if you're planning to purchase a ruffler foot, talk to an expert or do your research ahead of time to make sure you select the right one for your machine. Gathering using a ruffler foot is as simple as running your fabric through your machine, though your results may differ from fabric to fabric. You'll have to experiment with different settings to achieve the desired results. Ruffler feet create very regular pleat-like gathers, which makes it perfect for a neat finished appearance.
- Read through the settings on your ruffler foot to make sure you're using the correct stitch length and tension. Ruffler feet use ratios to gather fabric. For example, if you're gathering 20 inches of fabric into a 10 inch space, you'll need to choose the setting that gives you a 50% reduction.
- Ruffler feet don't work well with very heavy materials, as these can sometimes cause broken threads. Use the zig-zag method for those types of fabric.
Gathering using a serger
If you have a serger, you can use the differential feed to create gathers in your material. This technique is best for small, sparse gathers, as the differential feed doesn't create particularly dense gathers. There's also no way to determine the finished size of the gathered piece, so you may need to do a bit of scrunching by hand to adjust the size as you ease the material into the seam line.
- This technique can't be used to gather in the middle of a piece of fabric, a technique that is sometimes used to shape garments.
- Lightweight materials work well with this technique, as they're easily gathered and the overlock stitch of a serger helps prevent fraying, which can be a problem with the standard basting technique.
Alternatives to gathering
If you're looking to pack a lot of fabric into a small space, gathering may not be the best option. Too-tight gathering can be tricky to sew, and is often awkwardly stiff and uncomfortable. Thankfully, you have plenty of alternatives! Here are just a few of the more common options.
Knife or accordion pleats
These are the most common types of pleats used in sewing. Like most pleats, they work best in fabrics that can be pressed using high heat to set the shape. They're commonly used in skirts, full sleeves, and even in decorative panels. Form knife pleats by creating even folds of fabric lying parallel to one another. Pin and hand-baste to hold them in place, then press well to get a crisp appearance. For a softer look, use a cooler iron when pressing the bulk of your fabric, focusing instead on the areas near seam lines where the pleats need to stay perfectly even. Check out this tutorial for step by step help in creating knife or accordion pleats.
Box pleats are formed by using two knife pleats folded in opposite directions, leaving a box-like raised panel to the front. These can be used in sequence (think cheerleader skirt) or singly (as in the yoke of a shirt, or the "kick pleat" in a form-fitting skirt).
Inverted box pleats
Just like they sound, inverted box pleats are formed by creating an inside-out box pleat, folding two knife pleats toward one another over a flap of fabric. These are typically stitched part of the way down the length of the pleat, allowing for significant shaping and a "fit-and-flare" appearance. If you find making inverted box pleats tricky, try flipping your fabric over and making regular box pleats. They'll appear inverted on the other side of the fabric! For more help making pleats, check out this resource.
Though today these pleats are most frequently seen in drapery and curtains, they were once very popular in garment making, especially in creating the very full, wide skirts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Cartridge pleats are formed into figure-eight shapes by using lines of hand-basting. The process is rather similar to the technique for creating gathers, except that these stitches are quite long and very regular. Once the fabric has been gathered into those figure-eights, the pleats are stitched to the waistband of the skirt by their edges alone, so that the fabric falls away from the waistband in a graceful curve instead of being squashed flat by being stitched to the underside of the waistband. Cartridge pleats are also used to create the classic "Elizabethan ruff" of Shakespeare's day.
Though gathering and pleating fabric may look complicated at first, all it takes is a bit of practice and some patience to master these techniques. Start small, with forgiving projects and fabrics. Once you've gained some confidence, try something a bit more bold, like a dress or skirt. Experiment with combining different types of gathers and pleats, and don't be afraid to look for inspiration in all kinds of places, from historical sewing techniques to the runways of Fashion Week! With these tips in mind, before you know it, you'll be pleating like a pro and adding gathers to all kinds of projects, from ruffled bedskirts to ruched clutch purses!