Sewing School Day 8 ~ Four Ways to Gather Fabric

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Welcome to Day 8!

Gathering or ruffling is super simple.  There are four methods you can use, each having their own advantages and disadvantages.  I have used all of these methods at one time or another, but I’ll start out with my fave:
Technique 1
**No matter what method you are using, the gathering stitch should be within the seam allowance so that  it will not be visible once you sew the ruffle/gather to whatever you are attaching it to.  Try not to go more than 1/8″ in from the seam allowance, though.  For example, if the seam allowance 1/2″, I run my gathering stitch at 3/8″ from the raw edge.  I find that if the gathering stitch is too far from the actual seam, the ruffles/gathers don’t lay as nicely and evenly.


Start out with a regular straight stitch.   Do 5 stitches forward, then reverse back over those stitches to lock them in place.  Do NOT cut the threads!!


With the fabric still under the presser foot, reduce the upper thread tension to about 1 and adjust the stitch length to the longest stitch you have.  (yes, I realize my tension is at 0, but I wanted to be sure that what I am trying to show you came across in the pics, so I went over board, and forgot to change the tension to what it should be for the pic, sorry)  Now, stitch the length of the fabric, and when you get to the end, pull two long tails before cutting the thread.


Now this is overly exaggerated (I set my tension on zero), but I wanted you to be able to clearly see why you are able to gather the fabric so easily.  See how the bobbin thread is running  straight through the loops of the top thread?  It just lays flat against the fabric and hasn’t been pulled into the fabric at all.  That’s what you want.  You will be able to slide the upper thread freely back and forth along the bobbin thread.


 As I said this picture is exaggerated, (it should actually look similar to a regular stitch).  If  the upper threads are too loose, it will be difficult to keep the gathers even when you start pinning the ruffle to whatever you are going to be sewing it too.  You want the upper thread tension just loose enough that it doesn’t pull the bobbin thread into the fabric, and just tight enough that the fabric isn’t going to be slipping and sliding all around.  Since different fabrics will affect the thread tension, it’s always a good idea to test on a scrap of fabric.  Start out with the tension at 1, run the stitch for a couple of inches, give the bobbin thread a tug and see how the fabric moves along it.  As I said before, loose but not so loose that the gathers don’t stay in place.


Once you have the proper tension, then you can run your stitch and pull the bobbin  thread until the fabric is gathered down to the length it should be.  Then, tie a knot with the bobbin and upper threads.  Make sure you tie right over left then left over right so that the knot doesn’t slip.


Adjust the ruffle so that the gathers are evenly spaced.


Technique 2:


For this method, set the stitch to the longest stitch length and adjust the tension to the highest it will go.  This will cause the machine to gather the fabric for you.  The reason I don’t care for this method is as you can see from the above pic, it doesn’t gather the fabric much (unless it’s a very light fabric such as tulle or chiffon), and while you can still pull the bobbin thread to adjust the length of the ruffle/gather, the tension being so tight makes it difficult  and I often end up popping my bobbin thread.  Since all machines are different, you may get a better result with this method than I do.


You can see in this pic that I was able to reduce the length of the second ruffle further by pulling the bobbin thread, but it took me twice as long…


Another, thing to consider when choosing your method is that the ruffle will look slightly different.  Mostly likely no one would ever notice, but I prefer the look of the first technique.  IMHO, the larger gathers created by the looser tension makes the ruffle look softer and nicer.


Technique 3 


For this technique, you simply cut a length of string about 10″ longer than the length of the fabric to be gathered.  (I used this cotton perle, but any sort of string you have lying around the house will work.  I’ve even seen people use dental floss.) And run a zig zag stitch over it.  Then, use the string to gather your fabric.   I have three problems with this method:


1)  You are basically doing the same thing as Technique 1, only creating an extra step for yourself.

2)  I almost always mess up and stitch on the string a few times which makes it impossible for me to gather it without removing the stitches, so again I end up with an extra step…Don’t know about you, but I don’t like extra steps!  lol

3)  There isn’t really a way to tie off the ends once you are done so it makes adjusting the gathers more difficult because you have to make sure you aren’t letting your ruffle out while you are trying to get the gathers evenly spaced…Thinking about it, I guess you could always pin the string in place, though …


A couple of pluses about this method:


1)  A string isn’t going to pop nearly as easily as a thread will.  (Although using technique 1, it is highly unlikely the thread will pop.  I’ve never had one pop on me using that method)

2) The zig zag stitch will “finish” the raw edge of the ruffle.  (But you will still have to finish the raw edge of whatever you are sewing it to, and since typically you would finish both of these raw edges together, you really aren’t saving any time)


Pin the string in place.


I like to use my monogramming foot because having that opening at the center makes it a little easier to keep the string inside the zig zag stitch.



You can see in this pic why I said this is the same principle as the first technique…


Grab both ends of the string and gather.


Once you have attached it to whatever you are attaching it to, you can remove the string.


Technique 4


Use a gathering foot.   You use a gathering foot the same way you would with technique 2.  You just have to change the foot.  Set the stitch length to the longest setting and the tension on the highest setting.  The difference is that this foot is designed to gather the fabric so it will gather the fabric a lot!  The amount the fabric is gathered can be changed by adjusting the fabric tension and stitch length.  Once again it will depend on the fabric you are gathering, so you will have to play with it on scraps of fabric until you get the gathers how you want them.  Then, you can begin gathering.  Be sure to leave a lot of thread at the end of your stitch just in case the fabric is gathered too much.  This will allow you to make adjustments.

I very rarely use a gathering foot because I have to remove not just the presser foot, but the presser foot holder too.  Not to mention, it’s always a guessing game as to whether my fabric will be gathered down to the appropriate length I need.  Sometimes it’s too much, and I didn’t leave enough thread so I’ve got to start over or if it’s not enough my thread pops…so you know I generally just stick to technique 1 because it’s the fastest for me with the least amount of steps and very little chance of error.  As you saw from the pics for technique 1, even though my tension was way too loose, I was still able to gather my fabric quickly with no problems.


Now one cool thing  about this foot if you are brave, is it gives you the ability to gather the fabric and attach it at the same time.


You simply put the ruffle and whatever you are attaching it to right sides together with raw edges matching.  The ruffle should be on the bottom, and the other fabric should be in the opening in the gathering foot.  Then, you stitch.  This can be pretty difficult because not only you are having to keep the raw edges of two pieces of fabric even while they are moving through the foot at different speeds, you also have to be pretty confident that the fabric and the ruffle will end up even.  If you ruffle too much and you run out of ruffle before you run out of the fabric you are stitching the ruffle to, you will have to whip out the seam ripper.  {NOT FUN}  I have only attempted it a few times and I can tell you it is really difficult, but it could be a huge time saver if you can get the hang of it.


Here’s what it will look like once you are done.  If you look closely, you can see I had a hard time keeping the raw edges even.


But how nice to get this in one step!!


I do have a few tips for making things easier if you decide to go that route, but I’ll save those for another lesson.


And that’s it!  Another day down!  What’s your preferred method??



  1. Agnes says

    Thanks for this great explanation. I usually do number 2, but now will try number 1, looks so much easier.
    I have a question though. When I pull the ruffle together, arrange so the little folds are distributed evenly, and then start sewing it to the other fabric, the machine usually pushes the gathers from their places, so in the end they are not even at all. Are there any tricks I am missing that could help with this?

    • April says

      Hey Agnes! I usually stitch with the ruffle side up and as it’s about to go under the presser foot, I straighten out the ruffle and make any adjustments needed. Then, I lay my hand firmly on the fabric on either side of the presser foot…one hand on the seam allowance and one hand on the actual ruffle…and just allow my hand to glide with the fabric as the feed dogs pull it through. I get my hands as close to the sides of the presser foot as possible…just be careful because I’ve come close to sewing my hands a couple times! lol You’ll also want to make sure you aren’t pushing or pulling the fabric because this can cause skipped stitches or mess up the timing on your feed dogs…just let the feed dogs do there job and follow along with it. Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions! :)
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  2. mignon says

    good explanations thank yu:) i have some doubt, i tried to sew a gathered tank top, but while gathering the fabric it reduced the actual measurement of the fabric i measured.
    how can i sew without getting the fabric reducing in actual measurements.

  3. mignon says

    good explanations thank yu:) i have some doubt, i tried to sew a gathered tank top, but while gathering the fabric it reduced the actual measurement of the fabric i measured.
    how can i sew without getting the fabric reducing in actual measurements.


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