Hey Mermaids! Brittany here with another 101 series, and today I’m talking about shirring. Shirring is the beautiful gathering you see on the back of the Quinn pattern. It’s accomplished using elastic thread, and it is one of those things that can be SUPER intimidating, especially for a beginner. But trust me, it looks A LOT more advanced than it really is. I’m going to give you my tips and tricks that I’ve learned along the way!
First thing’s first. You need good-quality elastic thread. I know some stores have their own in-house brands of elastic thread, but my favorite is Gütermann. I don’t have to worry about it snapping and breaking as I’m stitching, or as my daughters are wearing their clothing.
When you’re shirring, you will use just your regular polyester thread in the needle, and the elastic thread in the bobbin only. How you wind your bobbin will depend on your particular machine, and this part will take some trial and error. For my machine, I need to hand-wind the bobbin with SLIGHT tension. It can’t be too much, but I can’t use zero tension, either. Again, how much or how little tension you need when you are winding your bobbin will depend on your machine! I’ll talk about some troubleshooting tips at the end of the post to help you figure out whether or not you need more or less tension on your bobbin.
Next, let’s talk about threading your machine. If you have a machine that automatically brings up the bobbin thread for you, I find that doesn’t work very well with shirring. I bring my bobbin thread up manually by holding my needle thread in one hand and turning the dial on my sewing machine with my other hand so the needle goes down and back up. You may have to pull on the needle thread a bit to encourage the thick elastic thread to come up out of the plate. I like to draw my elastic thread up out of the plate a few inches to give myself something to work with.
With shirring, you will use a straight stitch with a slightly longer stitch length, and slightly increased tension. Depending on the type of fabric, I use 5-7 tension (out of 10) and a 3.5-4 stitch length (out of 5). Again, I’ll talk about some troubleshooting tips at the very end of the post to help you adjust the settings perfectly to your machine! Also, you need to GO SLOWLY. If you have a lead foot like me and tend to sew with your machine wide open, turn that speed down 😉 If you go too quickly, your machine may not be able to pick up the bobbin thread and you may end up with skipped stitches.
A word on technique: the BEST way to keep your rows of stitches perfectly straight is to use a fabric pen and draw straight lines all the way across your garment where you need your stitching, and stitch directly on those lines. I draw all of my stitching lines at one time before I start.
I find that sometimes it can take a few stitches for the machine to really pick up that bobbin thread, and therefore it takes a few stitches for the garment to really start to gather. If I am making something that has a 1/2″ seam allowance, I generally don’t worry about this too much, because I know that most of that “blank space” will be hidden in the seam allowance. If I’m working with something that has a smaller seam allowance, I will either use a “leader” fabric (a scrap of the same type of fabric) and stitch across that fabric, immediately followed by my main fabric, or I will backstitch at the beginning of the row. I tend to prefer the leader fabric so that my machine doesn’t get caught when backstitching with elastic thread. If your settings are correct, you will start to see your fabric gather slightly as you are stitching.
When I get to the end of the row, I also choose not to use my automatic thread cutter. Instead, I pull the garment back and slightly to the left to pull my needle and bobbin threads out a few inches, and cut close to the the fabric. This leaves the bobbin thread out a little so that you don’t have to manually draw it up through the plate again.
Once you’ve stitched all of those rows, your garment should look fairly gathered (the top picture below). Take your iron on a steam setting and hit that fabric with some steam and it will draw that elastic in even more, to give you that truly shirred look (the bottom picture below). Stretch it a few times to be sure that your tensions aren’t too high and your elastic thread isn’t going to break when stretched. It will be a lot easier to go and adjust settings/stitch again now before you’ve finished your project than it will be when your daughter is trying the completed garment on!
Alright, here are some of those troubleshooting tips as promised:
- Is your fabric not gathering as you are stitching? You either need to increase the needle tension on your machine as your are stitching, or you need a little more tension as you are winding your bobbin.
- Is your elastic thread breaking? Your tension is too high, or you applied too much tension as you were winding your bobbin.
- Skipped stitches? Decrease your stitch length and slow down.
Once you’ve finished your garment, step back and admire the work you did! I absolutely adore the classic look of a shirred back, and for me, it definitely beats threading elastic casings! 😉 I hope these tips were helpful for you, and you’ve gained the confidence to try something new! Be sure to share your Quinns in the Made for Mermaids Facebook Group – we’d love to see what you created!