The primary reason to gather is to add fullness and shape in fabric that is otherwise flat. Your gathers can be tight and frilly or loose and billowy. Along the raw edge of fabric, you might be creating a ruffle that will eventually be inserted into or attached onto a project. No matter how you use them, gathers are a lovely embellishment – a favorite for centuries.
The appearance of a gathered strip of fabric depends on two main aspects. One is the type of fabric selected for the gather; some fabrics simply gather better than others. Second is how the original length of the fabric you’re planning to gather compares to the length of the fabric you’ll be sewing the gathers to. If you’re following a pattern, you’ll be provided with this third piece of information, otherwise, you need to figure it out on your own.
There is a general rule of thumb regarding the cut length of the piece to be gathered. For medium weight fabrics (cottons and knits), the length should be 2½ times the length of the edge you will be sewing it to. For lightweight fabrics (voile or tulle), the cut length should 3 times as long. Remember: the longer the piece, in comparison to what it is being sewn to, the tighter the gathers.
How to make gathers
A gathering stitch should always be sewn within the seam allowance. Home décor sewing traditionally uses a ½” seam allowance, most garment construction uses a ⅝” seam allowance, and in quilting, you normally use a ¼” seam allowance. Keep these measurements in mind as you incorporate gathers into your sewing projects.
The traditional method of gathering uses a double row of long basting stitches sewn about ⅛” apart within the seam allowance. Are there other options? Of course; there are always other options in sewing! Our goal here is to review the classic technique.
In the example below, we’re using a plain fabric with brightly colored thread so you can see the technique. In addition, we’ve placed a different color thread in the bobbin from the thread in the top. This stark contrast is for sample purposes only. When you sew, you will stay with matching thread. We made our straight quilting cotton piece just 9″ long, therefore our strip to be gathered is 22½” long (2½ times our straight piece). Finally, we are assuming a ½” seam allowance.
Before starting, decide how you want to finish the opposite raw edge from where you’ll be gathering. With a heavier, single layer, you may simply want to create a hem. With a lighter weight fabric, you may cut your strip to be gathered at double the width and fold it in half, creating a folded finished edge. In this case you would then be gathering two layers rather than one. This is often used for the ruffled edge of a blanket. The choice depends on your project/pattern. It’s simply much easier to do this before the fabric is gathered.
Set up your machine for a straight stitch.
Adjust the stitch length to the maximum – this is the same as what you would use for machine basting. The maximum on the studio machine we used for this demonstration was 5.0mm.
NOTE: Depending on the type of sewing machine you have, you may find it necessary to loosen the thread tension for gathering.
Leaving 4″ to 6″ thread tails at the beginning and end, sew a basting stitch ¼” from the raw edge. Do NOT lock your stitch at either end!
Sew a second row of basting stitches ⅜” from the raw edge (or in other words, ⅛” from the previous row of stitching). These measurements may vary based on your seam allowance. The goal is to run two lines of stitching very close to one another but still within the project’s seam allowance. Remember to leave thread tails at the beginning and end, and do NOT backstitch or lock your stitch.
With these seams sewn, it’s time to actually gather the fabric. Remember, your are gathering the fabric to the length you need in order to sew it to your project.
Use a seam ripper to carefully untangle the thread tails at either end. This also allows you to identify the bottom (or bobbin) thread.
Some sewing experts will tell you it doesn’t matter which thread you pull to gather the fabric: needle or bobbin. However, our experience tells us differently. Because of the way a straight stitch is formed, the top (needle) thread is held down by the bottom (bobbin) thread. The bobbin thread is always the one that removes more easily and is less likely to break!
Holding the bobbin thread tails firmly, begin to gather the fabric from one side toward the center of the fabric. Your fabric will slide along these threads like a curtain on a curtain rod, forming gathers/ruffles.
Continue pulling, adjusting, and evening-out the gathering as you go. Hold firmly but don’t yank. If you pull too hard, you could pull out the stitches completely or break the thread. Depending on your project, it can be help to first mark the strip’s center point or any seams to keep the gathered sections consistent.
Repeat the gathering, working from the opposite side into the center.
When you’ve achieved the finished length needed, knot the thread tails at the ends to hold the gathers in place. Otherwise, your gathers have the potential to simply stretch back out again. Adjust the gathers one final time, evenly spacing them to your liking.
Re-set your sewing machine back to regular sewing. Depending on the type of fabric and the amount (or thickness) of gathers, you may have to set your stitch length slightly longer than you would if the fabric was not gathered.
Pin the gathered fabric to your sewing project. In our sample, we’re pinning right sides together; your pattern/project may call for different layering.
Place the pinned pieces under the machine’s presser foot with the gathered piece on top. It’s best to be able to clearly see the gathered layer.
Sew slowly and stop periodically (with the needle down) to check the positioning. The gathered edge creates an uneven surface that can become bunched up or slip out from under the foot. You can use a pin or stiletto as you sew to keep the gathers from becoming unruly.
With the seam finished, remove the original gathering/basting stitches and admire your ruffle.
For other, less traditional gathering techniques as well as helpful Janome presser feet options, for gathering and ruffling, visit Sew4Home for more information.
For more creative fun, click on the Sew4Home link HERE!
By: Liz Johnson, Senior Editor, Sew4Home – a Janome Exclusive Studio