Learn how to gather fabric 5 fail proof ways

Let’s talk how to gather fabric. Gathering fabric is one of those sewing tasks we often end up doing, but yikes, it can often be a headache!

Threads can break and gathers can get all uneven on you. On the worst days, you might even miss sewing a whole chunk of gathered fabric into your seam and end up with a big old hole. Not so cute. And I say that because I’ve done it. A lot! It is zero fun needing to unpick gathers!

Here, my goal is to give you 5 different options for how to gather fabric. I’ll talk about the benefits of each one and when it’ll come in handy. Find some tips along the way and then you’ll be armed to gather fabric your favorite way the next time a pattern calls for it.

So grab some contrast thread (more on that later) and let’s get to gathering.

Why do you need to gather fabric in the first place?

Hey let’s get this question out of the way first…

Gathering happens when you take a piece of fabric and scrunch it up evenly across a length. Fabric that’s gathered can be sewn into a seam, a waistband, or make a standalone shape like a fabric yoyo. You see gathered features on things like shoulders, side seams, skirts, sleeve caps and ruffles.

Gathering creates shape like darts and princess seams do, but it’s much simpler to do (in theory!).

What fabrics are best for gathering?

For gathered elements, you want to stick to light to medium weight fabrics with some drape. Gathering creates a lot of bulk, but in a fabric that drapes softly, it can be lovely. In contrast, a heavy structured fabric like denim will look thick and bulky visually with gathers, plus it’ll be tough to sew those gathers in the first place.

Lightweight cottons, silks, linens, rayons all do well with gathering. For knits, rayon jersey is a great choice. Here you can see how the gathers sit pretty on the voile (left) and get increasingly bulkier with the flannel (center) and positively architectural with the heavy twill (right).

With these 2 questions out of the way, let’s talk all the various ways you can gather fabric. Here’s 5 different options, and you can choose your favorite!

How to gather fabric with basting stitches

This is the most common way to gather fabric.

To gather fabric with basting stitches, set your machine to the longest straight stitch. Sew 2-3 rows of stitches inside the seam allowance about 1/8″ apart.

Next, pull on the bobbin threads to gather up the fabric. I find it’s easiest to gather the fabric to its smallest size then spread out the gathers as you need to for the particular length. A lot of patterns tell you to gather a section to a certain length so that it fits into the next piece.

When it’s good:

  • I think this method is fantastic when you’re learning how to gather. It’s easy to understand how to do it.
  • It’s also great when you need fabric gathered in a small section like in shoulder gathers.

When it’s bad:

  • The main problem with this method is that the threads can break.
  • Even gathering: it’s also tough to keep your gathers even on a long section like in a gathered skirt. I once made a dress with a prairie ruffle with several yards of gathering. It took me hours to get the gathers looking good!
  • Removing threads: This method puts a lot of extra thread in a seam. It can be hard to tell the gathering threads from the stitching line! Use contrast thread for your gathering stitches so that you can remove them later.

How to gather with elastic

Elastic is another good tool when you’re thinking about how to gather elastic.

To gather with elastic, stitch straight through clear elastic or foldover while you pull on the elastic. Be sure to stretch the elastic only, not the fabric.

You can use a straight stitch here or a zigzag stitch. Either way, lengthen your stitch and use a ballpoint needle to avoid damaging the elastic.

Clear elastic can often get sucked down into your machine. I find it easiest to start stitching first on a scrap of fabric. After that, lay your elastic over the scrap and start stitching through the elastic. From there you can butt your pattern piece right next to the scrap and pull on the elastic while you stitch.

When it’s good:

  • This method is awesome for knit fabrics. The elastic gives some stability to the knits, and it’ll hold the gathers softly. If you’ve ever seen a t-shirt with side-ruching, there’s probably some elastic in that situation!
side ruching on dress

When it’s bad:

  • It takes a little practice to evenly tug at the elastic. Practice on some scraps so you can get the feel for tugging on the elastic evenly so you can get the most even gathers.
  • Also quality counts when it comes to clear elastic. Needles can easily shred clear elastic or skip stitches. I have always found that clear elastic not sold in a package works better. Fashion Sewing Supply used to carry awesome clear elastic, but Ebay always has some good choices.

How to gather with elastic thread

Another quick way to gather fabric is to use elastic thread or thin elastic cording.

Simply hold the elastic within the seam allowance of your fabric and zigzag over the elastic. After that, pull on the elastic ends to gather the fabric. Because the elastic is flexible, it’s easy to adjust the gathers.

After you’ve sewn the gathered piece into your seam/waistband/etc, just remove the elastic by pulling on the ends.

When it’s good:

  • Strength: the elastic thread is stronger than regular thread, so you’re unlikely to have problems with the thread breaking.
  • Long bits of gathering: elastic thread is awesome for long sections of gathering such as hem ruffles.

When it’s bad:

  • Cost: Elastic cording or elastic thread is more expensive than regular thread.
  • Waste: You might not want to throw away spent elastic. If I use this method, I personally aim to try and reuse my elastic for multiple projects. This also helps cut the cost down!

How to gather fabric with dental floss

This might be my favorite method for how to gather fabric if for no other reason than the novelty aspect. There’s a reason dental floss made it onto my list of 15 Cheap Sewing Tools! There is no bad with this method, though I have some pro tips.

This works exactly the same as the elastic cord. Lay your dental floss on top of the fabric in the seam allowance. Next, zigzag over the floss, making sure you don’t catch the floss in the needle.

To gather the fabric, pull on the ends of the floss and even them out before you stitch them in place. You must remove the floss when you’re done unless that is you want to hide some in that seam for a night out eating popcorn, LOL!

When it’s good:

  • Strength: the wax in the floss makes it near impossible to break the floss.
  • Easy: That same wax helps the fabric slide into nice little even gathers.
  • Long gathered sections

Pro tips:

quartered waistband matched to quarter markings on gathered piece right sides together
  • Be sure to hold on to the ends of the floss when you sew the gathers into place. Otherwise, the gathers towards the end of the floss can get a little loose.
  • Quarter your section: For the best results on a long gathered section, divide the fabric to be gathered and your piece it will be sewn into piece in quarters. After you zigzag over the floss, and pull up the ends, match the quarter markings on the gathered fabric to the quarter markings on your non-gathered fabric. You’ll find it’s much easier to adjust and make even gathers this way.

How to gather fabric with a serger

Your serger can be a fun tool in the fight to gather fabric evenly.

To use your serger, set the tension on your needles to the highest number. If you can, also set your differential feed to a higher number.

Serge on the edge of your fabric. From there, pull on the needle threads to gather the fabric.

When it’s good:

  • Even gathers: the serger stitch with the built in multiple rows of stitches, making it quite easy to gather evenly.
  • Fun: I don’t know, but this one feels good in your hands. It’s weird but true!
  • Small gathered sections: I love it for small doll skirts.

When it’s bad:

  • Well, you need a serger in the first place, so that’s a barrier.
  • Watch out because those needle threads are super easy to break. Go slow and be patient, and you’ll have great results.

See more in depth how to gather fabric in the video:

So what’s your favorite way to gather fabric? We’ve covered what gathering does, + gathering with basting stitches, elastic, elastic thread, dental floss and a serger. With a little practice, I hope you’ll find a method that will become your go-to for your sewing projects!

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