How to Sew Gathers: Step-by-step Guides To Five Essential Methods For All Dressmaking Projects
Elisalex de Castro Peake shares how she learned to love gathering and gives her top tips and tutorials to help you along the way
Fellow sewists often look at me like I’m completely bonkers when I say that gathering is one of my favourite sewing techniques. When I speak of how enjoyable, satisfying, even meditative I find the process of gathering fabric, I can see their faces twisting and contorting in disbelief and incredulity. How could something so fiddly and frustrating ever get to a point where it becomes a pleasure? I learned to love it. It was a slow process at first fuelled only by my stubborn determination to keep making clothes with gathered details simply because I love the way gathers look!
There are a few different techniques for sewing gathers, and some are better suited to certain fabrics or applications than others. There are also some that, in my opinion, simply don’t cut it and are best off ignored. Case in point: machine sewing only one line of basting stitches
along which to gather your fabric. This is a sure-fire way to get annoying puckers when you come to seaming. It may feel like more effort to sew two or three rows of basting stitches, but the extra prep will save you time and frustration down the line!
If you’re not working with a sewing pattern, you’ll also need to consider your gathering formula, i.e. how much longer your fabric needs to be in relation to the finished gathered length. This will boil down to your fabric weight – lighter weight fabrics can handle denser and fuller gathers, and your personal preference – I love super-full and puffy gathers, but you may prefer less full, more subtle gathers. As a general rule, the minimum gather is 1.5 times your finished length for subtle gathers in a heavier fabric like linen, going up to three times your finished length for full gathers in a lightweight lawn or tulle, and anything in between!
Opt for good-quality polyester thread. Cotton or silk threads can pill and don’t allow the fabric to glide smoothly along the stitches.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE BEST GATHERING TECHNIQUES AND WHERE TO APPLY THEM!
Two rows of basting stitches
This is the standard go-to gathering technique, and the one I use most often.
It’s good for most fabric weights, except for really heavy ones (see gathering by hand below).
- Choose a long stitch length on your machine (4.0-4.5) and run two parallel rows of basting stitches alongside the raw edge of your fabric, either side of where the final seam will be. If you’re seaming with 15mm, sew your rows at 10mm and 25mm respectively. Sewing your gathering lines either side of the final stitch line means that we’ll be creating beautifully even gathers within that channel which will be easier to seam with fewer puckers (or none at all!).
- Back-stitch at the beginning of your lines of stitching, but not at the end. Or, if you have a super long length to gather (like more than 80”) then leave both ends un-backstitched so you can gather from each end.
- To gather the fabric, take a hold of the un-backstitched bobbin threads only (this is crucial – if you are holding both thread tails and try to gather, the threads will knot and you won’t get past the first couple of stitches), and gently smoosh the fabric along the threads.
Three rows of basting stitches
This is exactly the same as two rows, but you’re going to sew three rows. This third row is an insurance policy in case one of the other threads snaps. This is worth considering if your fabric has a very tight weave, and doesn’t want to glide smoothly along the threads as you gather.
Zigzag and Floss Method
- Choose the widest zigzag stitch on your machine and cut yourself a length of floss (yep, I’m talking actual dental floss!) as long as the fabric you’re gathering.
- Lay the floss down about ½” or 12mm from the raw edge, and carefully zigzag over it. Make sure you don’t stitch directly through the floss, as you’ll want your stitches to glide easily over the floss as you gather.
- To gather, hold one end of floss and gently push the fabric along it to gather.
- When you’re happy with the length, secure each end of the floss with pins.
- When you come to seaming your gathers, you need to be really careful that you don’t trap the floss in the seam – this will make it really hard to remove it after the seam is sewn!
How to Gather by Hand
This method is essentially the same in principle as the two rows of machine stitches, only we’re going to sew the rows by hand instead of on the machine.
This is good for heavier fabrics, if you want larger spaced gathers (which creates a softer, almost fluffier effect than the more closely spaced machine gathers), or if you just really want to get in the slow zone and do more by hand!
- Thread up two hand sewing needles and knot the ends (individually, not together).
- Working each parallel row simultaneously, run two rows of running stitches just like I outlined in the first two rows on the machine method.
Elastic stretched and zigzagged
This is a nice and quick technique that’s great for – but not limited to – knit fabrics, and when you want to gather something that needs to stretch and doesn’t have to be seamed after, like a
seamless waistline or a cuff.
- Cut a length of lingerie elastic the length you want your finished gathered length to be.
- Choose a wide zigzag stitch and first anchor one end of the elastic at the beginning of your line of gathering.
- Lower your needle into the elastic/fabric and gently stretch out the elastic before zigzagging over it – you want to be stitching through the elastic, not either side of it like with the floss method.
- Keep going like this – gently and evenly stretching the elastic and zigzagging over it as you go until the end of you line of gathering. As the elastic bounces back the fabric will gather with it, and you’ll be left with a stretchy gather that is cute and comfortable!
When you’re done gathering
- Check your gathered length of fabric matches in length to the other edge it’s about to be joined to. When you’re happy with the length, knot the threads that you’ve been gathering along to secure your gathers.
- Take your time to evenly space out the gathers all along your length of fabric.
- Place your pins perpendicular to the seam so you can whip them out as you sew.
- Stitch your seam with the gathered layer on the bottom and the flat layer of fabric on the top.
- Finish/neaten a gathered seam on an overlocker, or with a mock overlock or zigzag stitch on your regular sewing machine. Bound gathered seams can be bulky and messy. Avoid using pinking shears.
- Remove visible basting stitches carefully.
- Press gathers gently from the wrong side.
Troubleshooting Problems with Sewing Gathers
Threads snap as I gather
Sew three rows of basting stitches instead of two, or baste by hand. You can also try using a sturdier topstitching thread, or use a bigger needle in your machine to make bigger holes in the fabric for the thread to glide through – so long as holes don’t show.
I keep getting puckers when I come to sew my gathered seam
Unpick either side of the pucker and stitch over that small section again.
Gathers get bunched up as I sew the seam
It’s probably the presser foot that is pushing them towards you as you sew. Flip your seam over so that the gathers are on the bottom layer and the flat layer of fabric on the top – the feed dogs will guide the gathered layer through while the foot glides over the flat layer on top.
I have a really long length to gather
Gather in sections, or from each end in towards the centre.
When you gather heavy or bulky fabrics, you risk threads snapping and bulky seams. Prep with hand-basted stitches, and don’t gather more than two times. If you’d rather sew your gathering stitches by machine, use a slightly bigger needle for heavy fabrics (this will create a bigger hole) and use a sturdier topstitching thread.
I want to gather multiple lightweight layers, such as net and tulle
Gather them together as though they were one layer. Once they’ve been evenly spaced, overlock the raw edge to set the gathers and reduce bulk before sewing your gathered seam.
Lightweight or delicate fabrics
Needle holes might show, so it’s really important to use an appropriately fine and sharp needle. Some suggest hiding the gathers in the seam allowance, but I think that gives you less control and more puckers, like with the one-thread method. Test how your fabric will recover from the needle holes by sewing a line of stitches on a scrap piece and removing the threads.
Gather with the zigzag and elastic method, or the zigzag and floss method.
Elisalex is the Head of Design and co-founder of By Hand London, an independent pattern company. It produces gorgeously designed, high quality patterns that are available as PDF downloads through the site www.byhandlondon.com
Why not try...
FREE PROJECT: Draft Your Own Ruffled Dressing Gown with Elisalex