TECHNIQUE: Gathering Fabric the proper way and the cheating way

by Dana on October 4, 2011

Back to the basics today.
Let’s talk about a very simple sewing technique: GATHERING FABRIC.

(check out other Technique posts by clicking the images below)

Gathering fabric is just as it sounds: gathering, or bringing fabric together so it creates a slight ruffle or bunch of fabric. It’s a simple technique used in many sewing projects, such as:

and many patterns you’ve likely sewn.

If you’ve never gathered fabric….have no fear! It’s nothing to be afraid of.
And, I have a simple “cheating” method that I use quite often to save time (and patience).
The Proper Method of Gathering Fabric:

When a pattern calls for a small area of fabric to be gathered (especially a garment or purse–a project where I want the gathering to be precise), I use the proper method. It gives you more control over the gathered area.

First, change the stitch length on your machine from a standard stitch length (such as 2.5) to the longest possible (such as a 5). This will help the fabric gather more quickly.
And you’re ready to sew.
Place the presser foot about 1/8 or 1/4 inch in from the edge of the fabric. You don’t want to forward or back stitch at the beginning of the stitch (as you normally would). Make sure you have a long tail of thread.
Sew a straight line all the way down, parallel to the edge of your fabric.
Don’t forward and back stitch at the end of your line as well. It’s important to leave both ends of your stitching “open” so you can adjust the gathering as needed. Leave a long tail of thread this end too.
Now, you could stop by simply sewing one line for gathering but I find that sewing multiple lines makes the process more precise. So…sew a 2nd line about 1/8 or 1/4 inch over from the first line. And then for even more precision, sew a 3rd line as well. Make sure you don’t cross the streams! (don’t cross the sewing paths of your lines)
And we’re ready to gather.

Grab either all three top threads OR all three bottom threads. It doesn’t matter which ones you choose as long as you stick to one or the other the whole time. In this tutorial I’ve used two different thread colors, just so you can see which threads are which. However, when you’re sewing with the same thread color, it may be hard to decipher which are the top and which are the bottom threads. I find that a seam ripper or something thin is an easy way to separate the threads (make sure you don’t cut any threads however).
Hold all the top (or bottom) threads with one hand and push the fabric over with the other hand. You’ll see the fabric easily gather up!
Continue gathering, pushing, and shifting the fabric till you have evenly spaced gathers–and the fabric is the length needed for your pattern.
That’s it!
Don’t cut the long thread tails till your gathered piece is sewn in place–otherwise all the gathers will fall out.

When sewing the gathered area into a garment, typically the garment seam is wide enough that it will cover and hide the gathered lines. If it’s not, however, and some of the lines are exposed on the outside of your garment, no problem. Once the piece is securely sewn in, use a seam ripper to remove the old gathered lines–since they’re no longer holding the gathers in place.

The Cheating Method of Gathering Fabric:

When it comes to gathering long pieces of fabric in areas that don’t require precise measurements (such as ruffled streamers and the Can-Can skirt), I like to cheat. The thought of pushing and shifting thread through yards of fabric is exhausting. Let’s have our machine do the work for us.

NOTE: You can purchase a Ruffler and Gathering Foot for your sewing machine, which help to sew precise gathers and ruffles. I don’t have either. So I keep plugging away at my simple/cheap method below and find that it works great. Do what works best for you!

Just as we did above, make sure your machine is on the longest stitch length possible.
Then adjust the tension as well. My Bernina machine typically stays on the red line for normal tension. So I’m changing it to a ten, which will make the tension as strong as possible–meaning, the thread is pulling through the machine rather tight, rather than smooth and loose.
Now, start sewing just as you did above (do not forward and backstitch at the beginning of your stitch). And you’ll see that the fabric will start gathering up all on its own:
With this method, various fabrics will gather (or not gather) depending on the weight and type of fabric. Lightweight fabrics gather best; heavy ones not as well. So let’s throw one more trick in there to help the fabric gather even more.

Use your right hand to hold the spool of thread on top of your machine just slightly as you sew. Don’t hold it completely still or your thread will snap. But hold it just enough that you create even more tension on the thread and thus….create more gather on your fabric.
Voila!
And just like that you have a very easy gather. You can still shift and adjust the gathers as needed. But overall the gathers come out fairly even, making it my favorite lifesaver method.
And there you go.
Gathering 101, the proper and improper way.
Now pick a project and start sewing!

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 emilia February 23, 2012 at 1:56 am

i even have another cheating way i saw on pbs from sewing with nancy….

first sew a teeny bit to attach the thread to the fabric.
then, pull the thread as long as your material to be gathered.
note, only a little bit is sewn right now at the beginning of your fabric.
then snip thread and return to the beginning where you sewed a teeny bit.
set machine to zig zag at its widest.
zig zag along where you want the gather to happen OVER the thread you pulled.
be careful not to sew it down, just OVER it.
when you get to the end, pull to gather.
i haven’t tried it, but it looked super nifty on tv.
btw, love your tutorials and site and i’m so happy to “know” you.
i now subscribe thru feedburner, and am SUPER stoked.
thanks

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2 Annie Rhodes June 7, 2013 at 2:53 pm

This works even better if you use waxed dental floss instead of thread under the zig zag. It’s easier to pull on and it is less likely to break.
-Annie

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3 Courtney August 20, 2013 at 9:03 pm

I learned the method while working as an apprentice seamstress! I love it. I always liked using fishing line as the center thread.

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4 Heidi March 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Wellp, I’ve tried your first one, but the second, and Emilia’s look promising as well! I found, though, that I did enough gathering (t-shirt dresses where you sew the skirt onto a cropped off t-shirt) that it was much less frustrating to just buy a ruffler for my machine for $25. I am by NO MEANS a seamstress, but enough snapped threads (method #1) were making me c-r-a-z-y. I think that next time I’ll try one of the other two methods rather than snap my ruffler off and on ~ thanks!

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5 Bejigle March 3, 2014 at 6:37 am

Make sure you are threading your machine properly and your threads will not snap!

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6 Robyn April 2, 2012 at 12:16 am

I have three Easter dresses to get done this week, and your gathering tips are going to save me so much time! Thanks!

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7 Maryam April 4, 2012 at 10:25 am

Thank you very much for sharing this beautifully genius tip! Gathering was such a pain for me, but now it is so easy!
Thank you!

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8 betsy April 12, 2012 at 9:30 am

Try using foot 39 – or 6, which have a small hole in the front center.
Slip a piece of pearl cotton, tatting thread, gimp, or dental floss through the hole, knot in back, by hand, behind the presser foot.
Stitch a zig-zag, 2.5×2.5 over the cord. The foot will keep the cord centered so you don’t stitch over it.
Pull from both ends – you will never have a thread break.
Be sure to stitch all the way to the end, so you don’t have an ungathered area

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9 Beth W June 12, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Hi – just found you via Pinterest and I am soooo grateful – this is just about the first time I have “watched” a tutorial on sewing that I actually felt I understood and could attempt just by following your instructions and pictures!!! Thanks for doing it, and I might just break out the machine (which actually belongs to my hubby who knows but doesn’t have time to show me how to sew), and attempt some simple skirts for my girls!!!! Keep up the good work and I am probably going to dig in and scour your blog and see what else I can learn!!! Thanks again, be Blessed!!!!

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10 Shauna (Love2Dream) July 17, 2012 at 12:49 am

Genius!

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11 Carole July 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I found the easiest way to gather most weights of fabric is to cut a piece of dental floss (I use green so I can see it well) and lay it on the fabric where the seam will be. Using the widest zigzag stitch on your machine, start zigzagging over the dental floss as you hold the floss with your right hand laying it along the seam line until you have reached the end of the fabric. Then just pull the dental floss to gather up the fabric. When you get it the width you want, stitch the ends so the gathers don’t fall out. That’s it. It works on most fabrics. If the fabric is too dense or thick, it is better to hand stitch instead.

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12 Kassie July 18, 2012 at 6:42 pm

I’m so glad I found you. I gathered for hours last night. T H A N K Y OOOUUUUU!!!!!!

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13 Linda September 17, 2012 at 8:36 am

While you are doing technique #1 above, place your finger behind the presser foot to sort of bunch up the fabric as it comes out behind the presser foot. Your fabric will be gathered when you finish stitching the straight lines. You will find that you don’t have to pull the thread and risk breakage as it will already be pulled into a gather. When the fabric gets too be to tight against the back of the presser foot, remove your finger and let some of the fabric relax, then put your finger back in place and step on the gas. You should still leave the long tails so you can adjust the gathers as needed. This works well on light to medium weight fabrics. After you have the gathers just the way you want them, put a straight pin vertically [going up and down] into the fabric at beginning and end of stitches, take the long tails and wrap them figure-of-eight style around the pins. This helps to keep ALL gathers in place.

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14 ruth sullivan September 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm

if i am making a skirt to be attached to a waist band or bodice, i fold the ungathered fabric in half and make a small “v” cut at the middle front, refold to find the sides and make the “v” cuts on each side. if making a dress i make a “v” cut in the middle of the front bodice, no “v” cuts are needed on the sides as they should match up with the side seams. if attaching the skirt to a belt, make the “v” cuts to mark the center front, and both sides. then when attaching the skirt, i match up the “v” cuts and pin, then gather, pinning as i go. this way each quarter of the skirt is equal.

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15 Alexia September 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Thank you sooo much! I spent all last night and this morning trying to figure out the best ways for gathering and you answered all of the questions I had. Thanks Again! :D

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16 Wendy February 22, 2013 at 5:19 am

Proper method is genius, I cheated a little and only use two rows of stitching

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17 Kery February 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

THIS IS GENUIS! Thank you :D

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18 Julie March 2, 2013 at 2:46 am

This cheater method made my night. I have such a hard time with my thread breaking when gathering the proper way. I must have terrible fine motor skills or something. :)

I used the cheat method for gathering the skirt bottom for matching to the bodice on CINO’s Charlotte dress today. It gathered to the *perfect* length using the cheater method (with finger on spool). I was shocked and so thrilled. I will certainly be using this method as my go-to!

Thanks so much for all of your sewing expertise and advice. I’m not necessarily a beginner, but I’m learning so much.

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19 katie April 6, 2013 at 11:04 pm

I’m trying to make a ruffled skirt, and the proper way is irritating and takes way to long. When I tested the cheating way on a scrap of my fabric it worked fine, but when i moved on to my skirt it was completely uneven, some places it didn’t work at all! Am I doing something wrong? Does the position of the fabric affect the ruffle maybe??

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20 Stephie April 22, 2013 at 7:35 pm

I am new to sewing and have been so frustrated trying to make my “gathers” look somewhat even. The directions made it seem so difficult that I almost gave up. I tried both of your methods and you are a GENIUS, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

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21 Jenny June 24, 2013 at 9:16 am

ok this is what i was looking for but i have a question (and you’ve prolly answered this somewhere, i just have to find it) but how do i sew the gathers without it stretching out and coming undone? every time i have tried i pretty much fail~ any help would be awesome.

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22 Hayley June 27, 2013 at 6:06 am

This has literally saved my cosplay, I can make a cloak from a bedsheet with this stitch so thank you so much! And to think both are so simple…

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23 streetdirectory July 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm

It’s hard to find well-informed people
on this subject, however, you sound like you know what you’re talking
about! Thanksstreetdirectory

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24 Rebecca August 3, 2013 at 11:08 am

Thanks Dana! You’ve saved the day again. My pattern simply said ‘gather’ and I hadn’t a clue what to do. x

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25 shauna October 22, 2013 at 2:32 pm

same here but glad to find it on here, a wonderful help

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26 Vicki August 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Hi Dana!

Thanks for giving me some quicker options for making gathers. I will try each “cheat” one. I’ve been doing it the proper way for years. My question involves your ruffled skirt pattern. “How do you finish the top edge of the ruffle/tier? I’m not sure if I am using the correct language, but I don’t llike raw edges. I don’t have a surger, but my machine does have 2 great edge finishing stitches. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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27 Gerre Greer October 14, 2013 at 10:49 am

I have a birdcage to decorate for a wedding, and I am using satin ribbing with a stiff tulle under lay.How much extra material should I allow for a very soft gather, i.e. half again the original length?

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28 shauna October 22, 2013 at 2:30 pm

WOW really good instructions, making a vapire cape and for sure will work for this, thanks for putting it out there with the pics. love that you metioned about the no backstitch :)

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29 jULIENNE Stewart January 6, 2014 at 10:58 pm

I have been sewing for 60 years, and cannot believe I never thought or heard of this technique… Just tried it…. FANTASTIC !!!

Thank You for sharing !

Julienne

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30 Betsey March 13, 2014 at 3:05 am

Its not my first time to visit this web page, i am browsing this website dailly and obtain good facts from here daily.

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31 ladybug March 14, 2014 at 8:26 am

Thank you for this great tutorial! It is so easy to follow. You rock!

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32 Cynthia Richards March 14, 2014 at 8:47 am

Hi Dana,

I just taught myself to sew this year and I recently got a sewing machine. My next project is your “market skirt,” and although, I don’t think (at least, I hope) I’ll have much trouble is it possible to use elastic thread for gathering? Btw, I love your work! I’ve had my sewing machine for two weeks now and I’ve made two skirts and I’m finishing up my second dress thanks to your site.

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33 Johnd872 May 15, 2014 at 4:54 am

What’s Happening i’m new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It positively helpful and it has aided me out loads. I hope to contribute &amp help other users like its helped me. Good job. dbkaegbeekfc

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34 Toni Scott May 28, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Bless you! You just saved my life with your cheat method. I’m making some dust ruffles for a friend and the traditional method was killing me!

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