But gathering fabric requires patience and precision, and can scare away beginner sewists. Many of us share bad memories of gathering threads breaking right in the middle of a tiered skirt or petticoat… So let’s go through three techniques that will give you pretty and even gathers, without breaking a sweat!
The most common technique to gather fabric is to use gathering threads. This is done by running one or more basting lines along the edge of the fabric, on which you then pull so that the fabric bunches up on the threads, until its width matches the width of the other fabric piece on which you want to sew it.
To run the gathering threads, set your sewing machine to a long straight stitch (3.5mm at least), and stitch a first line 3/8” from the edge, without backstitching. Leave at least a couple inches of thread hanging loose at each end of the seam. Stitch a second parallel line, 7/8” from the edge. This way you’ll end up with a gathering thread on each side of the seam line (5/8” from the edge), which will help you get more even gathers than you’d have if both gathering threads were in the seam allowance.
Before you pull on the threads, mark the center and quarters of the piece using chalk or an erasable marker.
Grab both bobbin threads on one side of the piece, and pull to slide the fabric along the threads. Pull slowly, and alternate pulling from one side of the piece then the next. Take your time and slide the fabric with your hand along the threads rather than pulling harder if you feel resistance.
Once the width of the piece matches the width of the smaller one, stop the threads with a knot or by winding them around a pin in an “8” shape.
Mark the center and quarters of the smaller piece, and pin both pieces right sides together, matching the marks. Slide the fabric along the threads to distribute the gathers, making sure the amount of gathers is the same between each pair of pins.
Stitch both pieces together between the two gathering threads, then remove them using a seam ripper. One last tip: if your gathers still don’t look neat enough for your taste, try using a third gathering stitch just next to the seam line.
If you’re lucky enough to own a serger, you’ll love this super fast technique! Unlike the gathering threads method where you start with a flat piece of fabric and gather it little by little until you reach the desired length, here you first create very dense gathers, then loosen them up little by little until the width of the gathered piece matches the piece to which it’ll be sewn.
To do so, change your serger’s settings as follows:
Test your serger on fabric scraps as you go to tweak the needle threads tension until you get a good result, similar to the picture below. Once you’ve found the right settings, simply serge the entire edge of the piece.
To assemble the gathered piece to the non-gathered piece, mark and pin the center and quarters of both pieces, as with the gathering threads method, then distribute the gathers by loosening them little by little. Important: if you have cut the edge of the first piece while serging the gathers, remember to trim the second piece by the same amount (for instance by serging it with your normal settings) and modify the seam allowance (3/8” instead of 5/8”)!
This last technique is particularly adapted to gathering knit fabrics, like for instance on the maternity version of the Givre dress, but also works on woven fabrics!
Cut a length of clear elastic of the width of the smallest fabric piece (the one to which you’ll sew the gathered piece), leaving an extra inch or so on each side that’ll help you hold on to the elastic as you sew.
To prepare the elastic, pre-stretch it a few times, then use a sharpie to draw marks corresponding to the edges of the small piece, as well as the center and quarters of its length. Mark the center and quarters of the larger fabric piece using pins. Do not pin directly in the clear elastic, as this might cause it to rip.
Place the elastic under the presser foot, and lower the needle so it goes through the first mark (corresponding to the edge of the fabric). Raise the presser foot to place the larger piece of fabric under the clear elastic, wrong side facing up, with the elastic centered on the seam line. Make a couple stitches (using a normal straight stich), then pull on the clear elastic so that the next mark meets the first needle, and sew with a stretch stitch up to the mark, carefully stretching the elastic from both sides. Repeat for the next three marks.
To assemble the two pieces of fabric, you simply have to match the sharpie marks on the elastic with the center and quarters of the small piece; no need to distribute gathers this time! Once you have stitched the two pieces together, just rip the clear elastic off.