Tutorial: 3 Ways to Gather Fabric

Gathering is an insanely common sewing task, especially if you are sewing with or for girls, right? Recently I hosted a sewing camp featuring “twirly skirts”, and I was stunned by how hard it was for kids to gather fabric. Clearly some things I have just forgotten after sewing for almost 50 years!

I decided to figure out a way that kids could successfully gather fabric regardless of the kind of sewing machine or accessory feet they owned. And by George, I think I’ve got it!

This is the first gathering method  I learned as a kid:

  1. Lengthen stitch length as far as possible.
  2. Stitch (at least) 2 parallel rows of stitching
  3. Pull up both bobbin threads equally to gather. If necessary, do the same from the opposite end of the stitching.

2 Rows of gathering stitches

Two rows of long, straight stitching

2 Rows of gathering stitches closeup

Close-up of the two rows of long, straight stitching

2 Rows of gathering stitches pulled up

Bobbin threads pulled to start gathering the fabric.

I think the pros of this first method are that it is quick to stitch, and no special equipment or stitch is required. The cons are that it is really only effective on lighter weight fabric and it is fairly easy for the threads to break when pulling on them. That breakage issue is really annoying, too, because you have to run a new row of long stitches. Not fun.

Somewhere along the line the next gathering technique I learned was this one:

  1. Set your stitch on a wide (4) and medium-long (3) zig-zag stitch.
  2. Place pearl cotton, sturdy yarn, or some other strong thread or cord under your presser foot.
  3. Zig-zag over the cord, taking care to not catch the cord in the stitches.
  4. Pull the pearl cotton thread to gather the fabric.

ZigZag over pearl cotton closeup

The red thread is normal poly, and the black is pearl cotton.

ZigZag over pearl cotton gathered

The pearl cotton is pulled to gather the fabric.

The pros of this method are that it is fairly easy to do, and virtually guarantees no thread breakage. The cons are you either must use a foot with a hole to thread the cording thru (not everyone has such a foot!), and it is pretty easy to catch the cording in the zig-zag stitch. I definitely cannot guarantee that all of my students will have a cording foot, and no way can an 8 year-old zig-zag over cording without catching the pearl cotton in the stitching!!

So, here is my brilliant solution.

  1. Hand-wind pearl cotton onto a bobbin
  2. Set stitch length as long as possible (max 5 or 6).
  3. Stitch 1 row of long straight stitching.
  4. Pull bobbin thread (aka pearl cotton) to gather fabric.

Pearl cottonbobbinflat

Black above is pearl cotton, and white is normal poly thread.

Pearl cotton bobbin gathered

Pull on the pearl cotton thread, and voila!

I tested this technique on an 8-year-old, and I sure wish I had thought it up before the Twirly Skirt Sew Camp. Ah well, next time!!

Happy sewing!

Maris Olsen



4 Responses to Tutorial: 3 Ways to Gather Fabric

  1. I like that #3. I’ll have to give that one a try! One more (if you use a serger): turning the differential feed way up with a long stitch length makes pretty gathers. 🙂

  2. Thanks Olgalyn! I like the serger method too – works great. Most of my students (especially the kids) don’t have sergers, but if you have it, it is a great method!

  3. Ah, brilliant! I JUST read today about the second gathering technique and couldn’t help thinking the same thing, that it would be way too easy to zig and/or zag over the thicker thread. I am going to try your method next time I need to gather something.

    • Thanks Catja! If you try the zig-zag technique it is helpful to have a presser foot with a “cording” hole in the center. Not required – but helpful. Otherwise you have to stay focused on the position of that heavier cord the WHOLE TIME you are stitching. Hard for us ADD-types! 😉

      Happy sewing!

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