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Nerdy sewing tips - 3 ways to gather

Gathering, or ruching, is a technique used to bunch together a length of fabric to create a ruffled effect. Gathering is most commonly associated with gathered skirts (aka Dirndl skirts) whereby a long rectangle of fabric is gathered at the waist resulting in a full skirt with pretty ruffled folds at the waistline (more to come on gathered skirts soon...). Among other things, gathering can also be used to create puffed sleeves and to manage fullness in maternity-wear.

Gathering is also the technique we have applied to the peplum and ruffle-hem variations of one of our soon-to-come sewing patterns, the Charlotte skirt. In this tutorial we will take you through three basic ways to gather fabric.

1. Gathering by hand

Gathering by hand is the traditional way to do it. It may seem time consuming to the impatient seamstress (only pointing fingers at myself here!), but it still remains the sure fire way to go, in my opinion. Applicable to any weight fabric; gathering by hand also enables you to determine the size of the folds simply by adapting the width of your stitches, which is something you can't achieve when gathering by machine.

Begin by threading up 2 hand sewing needles - thread doubled up and knotted securely at the ends. Your thread needs to be a little longer than the final length you want your fabric to be when gathered. Now handstitch 2 rows of running stitch 1/4" from the edge of the fabric and 1/4" apart from each other.

Gently push the fabric towards the knotted end of the thread as you go. When you get to the end, double check that the length of your gathered fabric is as you want it, and that the gathers are evenly spaced. When you're happy, knot the 2 free ends of thread together thereby securing your gathers. Baste into place by running a row or 2 of wide stitches on your machine.

2. Gathering by machine

When gathering lightweight fabrics such as cotton lawn, voile, organza, netting etc, gathering by machine is much faster. We do not recommend this method for heavier fabrics such as wool or twill as you won't get such a good gather, and the threads are more likely to snap as you pull back the fabric (soooo frustrating and totally happened as we were putting this tutorial together!).

Start by machine stitching 2 rows down the length you want to gather, 1/4" from the edge and 1/4" apart. Choose the widest stitch setting for this. Backstitch only at one end.

Now you need to start gathering from the end you didn't backstitch. Grab the 2 loose threads facing you and discard the 2 at the back of the fabric.

Being very careful not to snap the threads, gently push the fabric towards the backstitched end. Secure your gathers as outlined in technique #1.

3. Gathering with elastic

The cheaters way! This technique is by far the fastest and works on any weight fabric. Only avoid gathering with elastic if you don't want any extra bulk on the gathers.

Cut a piece of elastic (the strong but really stretchy kind used for lingerie is ideal) the same length you want your final gathered edge to be. Anchor the end of the elastic to your fabric by stitching and backstitching a couple of times. Now select the broken zigzag stitch on your sewing machine as shown below:

Stretch the elastic towards you as far as it will go and carefully stitch, firmly holding the fabric from the back and feeding it through from the front. It's a good idea to practice with some scraps as it can be a little tricky at first getting the stretched elastic and fabric to go through the machine smoothly - but it's pretty easy to get the hang of... and so worth it!

And that's all there is to it folks! Now go gather! But don't stop at that - there's a whole world of teeny pleats out there - shirring, smocking, tucks... But more on those later. Until next time...x

Comments on this post (15)

  • Oct 12, 2016

    Thank you your site is made to access without all the hassels, you made a situation turn into a very nice project again Thank Yoi!!

    — Cynthia

  • Aug 19, 2016

    Hi Alex, sounds lovely! Attaching a gathered frill to the hem would be a very pretty addition – you might try having a look at our Charlie Dress pattern as Variation 1 has exactly that sort of skirt

    I hope this helps! ~Elisalex

    — Elisalex - By Hand London

  • Aug 05, 2016

    Thinking about making an elastic acted skirt for 5yr old of 2 pieces of fine cotton so it is reversible inside out. Would it be easy to make a rushed or frilled hem?

    — Alex

  • Mar 08, 2016

    You might try using the zig-zag stitch across dental floss instead of cord. Dental floss is very strong and easily pulled without breaking.

    — Anne

  • Dec 08, 2014

    Hi! I am 15 years old and I am very interested in your blog. Please may I have a job on your blog so I can write about the struggles as a 15 year old women textilist in this modern day and age. I like to say in my blogs, how I wish I was a victorian. I think I would be very interesting to all your readers because I’m very talented and pretty and so this will get young male readers interested! Cushty!

    Love Anna xxx aka the goddess of textiles and all this arty farty crafty!!! :) :L :P bants xx

    — Anna Macdonal

  • Jul 10, 2014

    This was very useful!

    — MzCrafty1908

  • Mar 27, 2014

    One gathering method you didn’t mention is zig-zag stitching over a cord. Select a fine cord, a heavy thread really, and feed it through the centre of the presser foot (some machines have a foot with a guide for this) making sure that the needle passes on each side of the cord. If the needle catches the cord, you’re in trouble! But it should be no problem on a wide zig-zag. At the end, pull on the cord ends to gather then baste in place as usual. Fun and easy!

    — Gen

  • Feb 27, 2014

    Hi Jayne – ooooh this sounds like a VERY cool project! Pleeeeease share pics of it when it’s done?! In terms of basting by hand, I’d recommend a back stitch. Check out our handstitches tutorial for how-to – :)

    — Elisalex - By Hand London

  • Feb 22, 2014

    I am attempting to make a steampunk Poison Ivy costume for the comic con I’m going to and I don’t have a sewing machine. I looked all over to find a way to hand stitch ruffles like this, thank you for this tutorial! I do have one question. Since I don’t have a machine how would I baste it into place by hand?

    — Jayne

  • Feb 21, 2014

    When gathering fabric by machine, you should loosen the tension to make the threads on one side run smoothly. This makes machine gathering suitable for all but the stiffest/thickest fabric! The heavier the fabric, the looser the tension needs to be. Happy gathering!

    — Sally E

  • Jun 26, 2013

    Great tutorial! Thank you.

    — amanda rose

  • Jan 28, 2013

    Excellent tip! Thanks! :)

    — byhandlondon

  • Feb 16, 2013


    I asked this somewhere else on your blog I think but can’t find where… where is the fabric in the picture at the top of this post from? I LOVE it.


    — Jess

  • Feb 18, 2013

    Hi! The floral cotton is from Mermaid Fabrics in Hackney if memory serves…! It’s basically just a light-med weight cotton, not as light as quilting cotton, not as heavy as upholstery… Should be pretty easy to find something similar in most good fabric shops – have you tried Goldhawk road? With so many fabric shops it’s hard not to find what you’re looking for!

    — byhandlondon

  • Jan 27, 2013

    When doing large areas 1950’s dresses with 2 front/back skirt panels stitched together , I gather one panel at a time. This way you don’t have loads of gathers to handle and helps when attaching waistband or to the bodice of the dress.

    — Classical Retro

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