In between the simplicity of gathering and the intricacy of hand-smocking, lives one of our favorite texturing techniques: elastic shirring. You’ve probably owned a garment or two with shirring on the bodice or sleeve edge. It was the style on those iconic 1970s peasant dresses, and it remains popular in new fashion trends. Shirring is a great sewing technique to learn, and easy-peasy to create! Plus, just like the little boy with a hammer, for whom everything becomes a nail… once you learn how to do shirring, we guarantee there will be all kinds of projects that need this pretty, rumply, stretchy touch of texture.
Types of shirring
This article focuses on elastic thread shirring, which is the most common, but we also touch on a few other types: cord elastic shirring, waffle shirring, and gathered shirring. Cord elastic shirring is done with a zig zag stitch and strong cord elastic in two rows on the wrong side of the fabric. You usually see this done on a sleeve. Waffle shirring is a subset of elastic thread shirring and is created by shirring in one direction, then shirring again at a right angle to the previous shirring to create a sort of checkerboard effect. Finally, gathered shirring is sewn with regular sewing thread in the needle and bobbin; this type of permanent shirring doesn’t stretch and is essentially a sub-set of gathering.
We recommend using a basic woven to get the hang of the technique. However, don’t let this recommendation deter you from trying shirring on other fabric types! The technique looks the most dramatic when used on lighter weight fabrics, but can be used on heavier ones. We’ve even had success with terry cloth! With the heavier and/or non-woven fabrics, you’ll probably need to adjust your sewing machine settings and possibly use a different presser foot appropriate for the fabric type. Regardless of which fabric you use, always test your stitching on scraps first. And remember to pre-shrink your fabric, especially if you are shirring a garment. Once the finished piece is laundered, the shirring almost always pulls up even more.
Width and length
As we’re sure you can guess, shirring “eats up” some of the width of your fabric. Exactly how much will depend on the fabric as well as how many lines of shirring you are doing. Testing on a scrap of the actual fabric you are using is the best way to determine how much extra width you should start with. Measure your scrap before and after your test to see how much the shirring changes the width. As with most things (and always where cookies are concerned), make more than you think you’ll need. You CAN cut shirring, you simply need to run a vertical line of straight stitching (with a short stitch length) across all your lines of shirring to lock the elastic into place. Do this seam line PRIOR to trimming off the excess.
Length is more of an aesthetic decision and will be determined by the project you are making. For example, on a sundress, you’d likely want the shirring to be the majority (if not all) of the bodice. Measure that part of the pattern to determine how many lines of shirring you’ll need. On a pillow, you might want the shirring to be just a feature strip through the middle. Again, measure the length or depth.
Elastic thread shirring
- The key component in creating elastic thread shirring, besides your sewing machine, is elastic thread. You can find elastic thread at your local sewing machine or fabric retailer, usually near the other types of elastics. You can normally find it in both black and white, which are the two options offered by Dritz® and the most likely to be found at in-store and on-line retailers. Pick the color that will best blend with your fabric.
- The other crucial element, and the actual definition of shirring, is evenly spaced parallel rows of stitching.
NOTE: In our examples, we used a dark fabric with white thread and elastic so you could clearly see our stitching. You would use a thread color and an elastic to best coordinate with your fabric.
- After pre-washing and pressing flat, prepare your fabric for shirring by marking parallel rows on the right side of your fabric. Since you are working on the right side, make sure to use a marking tool that will easily wipe away or vanish with exposure to the air or the heat of an iron. Lines of shirring are traditionally from ¼” to 1″ apart. The final distance will depend the overall look you want to achieve: closer together = really ripply, farther apart = softer and more “puckery.”
- When drawing your lines, don’t forget to account for any seam allowance along the raw edges. In our example, we marked our lines ½” apart. To account for a ½” seam allowance, we marked our first line 1″ in from the raw edge.
- Set up your sewing machine for a straight stitch. You can also use a narrow zig zag stitch.
- Thread the top with regular sewing thread.
- Wind the bobbin BY HAND with the elastic thread, slightly pulling the elastic as you wind it. Do not actually stretch the elastic as you wind it onto the bobbin.
NOTE: This might sound painfully time consuming, but it’s really not. Elastic thread is much thicker than sewing thread. Plus, if you don’t have the patience to hand-wind a bobbin… you might want to consider a more dramatic hobby than sewing.
- Place the bobbin into your machine as usual.
NOTE: We’re lucky to use Janome sewing machines in the Sew4Home studios, and found we did not need to make any adjustments to our machines to accommodate the heavier thread in the bobbin. If you’re experiencing difficulty with the elastic thread feeding through the bobbin case tension on your machine, you may need to loosen the bobbin tension setting. This step is fairly common with this technique. Check your machine’s manual for how to make this tension adjustment.
- Begin sewing on your first marked line.
- You can backstitch at the beginning and end to secure the threads. Or, you can bring the needle thread to the wrong side and knot it with the elastic thread on the back. Also, if you are sewing the shirred piece into a seam, that seam’s stitching will provide an added anchor for the shirring.
- Reposition the fabric and sew your next line. Be sure to gently pull the fabric flat as you sew each new row.
NOTE: As you see in the photo above, we found using the Quilt Bar that comes standard with most Janome machines (and may be standard on your machine as well) was a fantastic tool to eliminate having to create as many marks on the fabric. We simply set the Quilt Bar at our desired distance (in our sample: ½” from the needle), then guided it along the previous line of stitching.
- Continue shirring across your fabric until it is the length/depth you need for your project. Your shirred fabric is ready to be incorporated into your project and YOU are an expert at elastic thread shirring!
- Spritz the shirred area with water then lightly touch it with your iron to encourage the stitches to pull up even tighter.
- Prepare your sewing machine and fabric as above in the elastic thread shirring example.
- Sew rows of shirring across fabric, evenly spaced, to your desired length.
- When complete, rotate your shirred fabric 90˚, then stitch additional, evenly-spaced rows of shirring across and at a right angle to your previous stitching. Be sure to use the same row spacing in both directions.
- As you see in the photo below, we used our Quilt Bar again. But, you could certainly use drawn lines as a guide, but you want to be sure to draw in both the horizontal and vertical guidelines while the fabric is still flat.
- Simple as that, you have the checkerboard or “waffle” effect.
Cord elastic shirring
- This type of shirring requires round cord elastic.
- Mark two stitching lines on the wrong side of your fabric for your cord elastic shirring. Don’t forget about any seam or hem allowance. Again, we marked ours ½” apart and 1″ in from the raw edge. Traditionally, this type of shirring uses just the two lines of elastic.
- Set up your sewing machine for a zigzag stitch with regular sewing thread in both the needle and the bobbin.
- Place your fabric right side down on your sewing machine. This wrong side is up positioning is so you can see your marked lines.
- Place the cord elastic along the marked line.
- It’s going to feel like you need a third hand here, but with a little practice, you’ll get the hang of it. We recommend working with a long length of cord elastic. It’s easier to handle, and you can simply trim it to the correct length when you’re finished sewing across the marked line.
- Put down your pressure foot and begin to sew. If your sewing machine has a knee lift, we recommend using it for this technique. It’s that “third hand” you were wishing for!
- As you sew, gently stretch the elastic cord.
- Once complete, you can pull the elastic cord to create a tighter gather if desired.
- Do NOT backstitch at the beginning or end. Instead, knot the ends of the thread with the elastic to secure. Again, as above with the other techniques, any cross seam will help to anchor the shirring as well.
- Mark your fabric with two rows, evenly spaced, on the right side. We used ½” spacing yet again, 1″ in from the raw edge.
- Set up your sewing machine for a straight stitch, the same as you did for basic shirring above. However, you want to increase your stitch length to its maximum.
- Sew along both lines, making sure to leave long thread tails at the beginning and end. Do NOT backstitch at the beginning or end for this technique either!
- By pulling the bobbin thread (the one on the wrong side of your fabric), gently gather the fabric. The density of the gather is your creative choice.
NOTE: You can knot the thread tails on one side to work the gathers. Or, you can work from either side equally toward the center. We like to work from either side into the center.
- Knot the thread tails to help hold gathers in place. But to hold the gathers exactly where you want them, you need to hand sew a cover strip to the wrong side of the fabric.
- Cut a strip from the same fabric as long as your shirred piece and wide enough to cover both lines of stitching plus ½”.
- Turn under each long edge of the strip ¼’ and press the folds in place.
- Hand sew along both the long folded sides of the cover strip. Most of your stitch should be in the folded edges of the strip, catching just a thread or two of the gathered fabric so your stitches will be nearly invisible from the right side.
Sample Creation and Instructional Outline: Jodi Kelly