Sewing 101: How to Gather Fabric

Top right down: two rows of basting, three rows of basting, zigzag and string; Top down left: zigzag and thread, elastic, gathering foot, serger
Top right down: two rows of basting, three rows of basting, zigzag and string
Top down left: zigzag and thread, elastic, gathering foot, serger

Spring is in full bloom, and summer will soon be here. With temperatures on the rise and lots of opportunities to frolic outdoors, dresses become the go-to garment to feel and look great. If you sew your own dresses, you are all too familiar with gathering, the process of bunching fabric together to get volume and movement. Gathering can look beautiful when done properly, but it can take a long time to get done—and if you are like me, it can be a source of a lot of frustration when not done right.

When you create gathers—especially when there are yards of fabric involved—you want to do it in the most efficient way while making sure that the gathers are evenly spread throughout the fabric piece. There are many ways to achieve a beautifully gathered garment. 

With a Sewing Machine

Two Rows of Basting Stitch

Image of a piece of fabric gathered with two rows of basting stitch
Two Rows of Basting Stitch

This is the most widely used method. You sew two rows of basting stitch (I use the longest available in my machine, 5 mm), ⅛ inches from the raw edge, the other parallel to the first, ⅛” away from it. Then, turn the fabric to the wrong side, and pull the bobbin threads until you achieve the desired gathered effect.

Pro: This is the method most people use, so I guess that’s a pro?

Con: I find that this method delivers uneven gathers. 

Three Rows of Basting Stitch

Image of a piece of fabric gathered with three rows of basting stitch
Three Rows of Basting Stitch

Similar to the two-row method, you sew three rows of basting stitch starting with the first row ⅛” away from the raw edge, with the following two parallel to the first and ⅛” apart from each other. Once done, turn the fabric to the wrong side, and use the bobbin threads to gather the fabric. This is my favorite method when I need to be precise in my measurements—I can gather the fabric to match the piece it is going to be sewn to.

Pro: This method allows a lot more control when gathering.

Cons: It takes longer, it uses more thread, and it is not recommended for delicate fabrics.

Zigzag Stitch and String

Image of a piece of fabric gathered with zigzag stitch over a piece of string (dental floss)
Zigzag and String

Set your machine to a wide zigzag. Using some regular string (I have used unflavored dental floss and twine before), place the string lined up with the opening of your presser foot. You will sew over this string with the zigzag stitch, being very careful so that the string is not caught by any stitches. Then, pull the thread until you get the gathered effect you want.

Pro: This is a great method for thicker fabrics.

Cons: It can be annoying when the thread gets caught in the stitches, and it requires one extra item (the string).

Zigzag over Regular Thread

Image of a piece of fabric gathered with zigzag stitch over bobbin thread
Zigzag and Bobbin Thread

This method is similar to the one above, but instead of using some string, you will use the bobbin thread to sew over. It is a bit more complicated as it requires you to fiddle with the bobbin thread before you start sewing.

Place the fabric on the plate and sew a stitch, making sure that the bobbin thread comes all the way up. Bring your foot up; with a pin or scissors, pull the bobbin thread to the top of the fabric. Pull a length of thread as long as your fabric piece. Bring your foot down, and sew a row of zigzag stitches over the thread. Make sure not to catch any of the thread—line it up with the center of your presser foot, and it should be an easy task.

Pros: Faster than the basting stitch method; no need to go looking for some string.

Cons: The whole pulling the bobbin thread thing can be intimidating to beginner sewists.

Elastic (this method can also be used when sewing with a serger)

Image of a piece of fabric gathered with a piece of elastic

This one takes some Math, but it is a great option when working with knit fabrics. First, you have to figure out the length of the finished gathered piece. Then, cut a piece of elastic equal to that length PLUS a couple of inches on each end—trust me, this will make the whole process much easier. D

Divide both the fabric section to be gathered and the elastic into quarters, marking each one of them. Pin the elastic to the fabric at each of these markings, lining the elastic ⅛” away from the raw edge—you want the elastic to be inside the seam allowance.

Do you remember those extra two inches at each end? You will grab that bit as you start sewing the elastic with a zig-zag stitch. Backstitch a few times at the beginning to secure the elastic. Gently pull on the elastic as you sew, using the marks at each quarter as your guide. When you get to the end, backstitch again to secure the elastic.

Pros: This is a great way to gather knits. It provides a very neat and even look.

Con: Working with elastic can be tricky, and the elastic will add bulk to the piece.

With a Gathering Foot 

Image of a piece of fabric gathered using a gathering foot
Gathering Foot

I had never used a gathering foot before writing this post. It is really cheap—I got mine for less than 10 dollars—and it looked very promising in all the video tutorials I watched. The foot gathers according to the stitch length you choose; the longer the stitch, the more gathered the fabric becomes. 

The gathering foot has two plates. If you are simply gathering a piece of fabric, you will simply place the fabric under the presser foot, and gather away. If the gathered piece has to be attached to another layer of fabric, you will feed the flat piece between the two places—the bottom layer gathers at the same time that it is sewn to the top later.

You will have to experiment with the stitch length to figure out the ratio of flat to gathered fabric. 

Pros: Superfast method that provides the neatest, most even results. It also allows you to sew two pieces of fabric together while you gather, saving you a bunch of time.

Cons: You have to purchase the foot. You will also have to play around with your machine stitch length settings to figure out the right one for your project. Also, it takes time to get the hang of the two-layer feature.

With a Serger

Just a Serger

Image of a piece of fabric gathered with a serger
With Just a Serger

You can easily create gathers with your serger. The amount of gathering is determined by the tension selected for the right and left needles—the higher the number, the more gathered the fabric will be. You will also increase the stitch left and differential feed to their highest number. Then, serge away for even gathers that are beautifully finished.

Pros: Superfast method that provides neat, even results without the need for an extra foot. It works for both knit and woven fabrics.

Cons: Well, you need a serger. And Math—you have to play around with the settings to figure out the ratio of flat to gathered fabric before you start a project.

With a Gathering Foot and a Serger

The gathering presser works just like the gathering foot for a sewing machine. 

Image of a gathering foot for a Juki machine with description and price

Pros: Superfast method. You can sew two layers of fabric, one gathered and one flat, and have a beautifully finished edge. 

Con: The gathering foot is not as affordable as the one for a sewing machine.

With all these options of techniques for gathering fabric, you will never have to deal with uneven gathers again! Now, go sew all the puffy sleeves, the picnic dresses, and the Lolita skirts. You don’t have to fear gathers anymore!

Image of a woman against a wall covered in vines. She has long black hair and wears a mid-thigh black velvet dress with bishop sleeves and a ruffle as hem and black boots.
Gathered Ruffle, Vampire’s Wife Dress

Want a project to test your gathering skills? Check out these projects:

D(raft)-It-Yourself Summer Goth Skirt

A Victorian-Inspired Skirt

Sew Your Own: H&M Vampire’s Wife Velvet Dress

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