Shirring is having a moment in fashion right now. It seems to be a main component in many cottage core dresses, tops, and beyond. A quick glance at garment retailers and you are sure to find some shirred items. We thought it was time to update our Shirring 101 post!
So What Is Shirring?
Shirring at its most basic form is parallel rows of gathering stitches and is a decorative way of controlling fullness.
It is unlike gathering, in that gathering controls fullness hidden in a seam, while shirring is used as a visual design element and typically is used over a large section of the garment. 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. Bekah and Brittany are here to help!
How Is Shirring Accomplished?
Shirring is done in rows and MUST be straight and parallel. Typically the rows are equidistant and between 1/4” and 1”
apart or (1 cm to 2.5 cm apart). The number of rows is determined by the pattern, or by how much of your garment needs to be gathered in.
Most modern SHIRRING is executed on lightweight woven fabrics with elastic thread in the bobbin and all-purpose polyester thread on the sewing machine needle. The benefit of this method is that the shirring is able to take a woven fabric and hug the body; expanding and contracting with movement of wear. Shirring also frequently eliminates the need for garment closures (like zippers or buttons) as it allows you to pull on the garment.
How to Shirr with Elastic Thread:
You Will Need:
- Lightweight fabric: Shirring will typically reduce your fabric width by 50%; use your pattern tutorial to determine amount of fabric required
- All purpose thread
- Elastic thread (Brittany recommends Gütermann)
- Empty Bobbins (typically 2-3 for a garment project)
Let’s Get Started:
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. Place your bobbins in the machine as you normally would.
*Tension is key to shirring. We want the fabric to gather, but not so tightly that the thread breaks. Winding the elastic on the bobbins by machine would increase the elastic thread tension and likely result in thread breakage or shirring failure. As you experiment with shirring you may wish to add tension to the bobbin. Do so by adjusting the screw on the bobbin case or slightly stretching the elastic thread when winding the bobbins. *
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.
Mark the area of shirring.
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. You can also mark one straight line, and then use your sewing machine foot to guide all additional lines.
Using all purpose thread, set the straight stitch length to approximately 4, and tension to approximately a 6-7, for nice, even gathers. This may vary a bit depending on your specific fabric and sewing machine.
Then, sew your first straight line. Using the first line of stitching as your guide, continue to sew parallel lines, pulling your fabric taut as you sew to avoid any puckering. You also want to be sure to go slowly. 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.
* Remember tension is key, you may wish to adjust the stitch length as you experiment.*
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 you’re making something that has a 1/2″ seam allowance, you likely won’t need to worry about this too much, because most of that “blank space” will be hidden in the seam allowance. If you’re working with something that has a smaller seam allowance, you can 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 you could backstitch at the beginning of the row. We tend to prefer the leader fabric so that the sewing 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.
It’s important to note that using a longer stitch equals more gathers, while shorter stitches equals fewer gathers. Also, the more lines you sew, the more your elastic bobbin thread will begin to pull in your fabric. This is where your creative vision comes into play. You get to decide how many rows of shirring you need for your project.
You may decide not to use an automatic thread cutter at the end of the row. Instead, we suggest that you pull the garment back and slightly to the left to pull the 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.
After you have sewn your row, baste along ends of the shirring to secure in place. 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 someone is trying to completed garment on. Complete these steps for each parallel row you wish to add.
Once you’ve finished shirring, complete your garment per the written pattern tutorial. Steam and press your garment; this will pull your stitches in even more and give you a more professional finish.
Shirring has a wide variety of applications and can even take your knit garment patterns into the woven world (with a little creativity)! Check out what Livia made using the Made for Mermaids Eloise Pattern, knit fabric, and a little shirring imagination. She also provides some additional pro-tips and tricks.
Remember that sewing is a creative process and all rules are made to be broken (or at least tested). Try varying your shirring stitch line width. Try shirring on knitwear. Try shirring on heavier fabrics. Try shirring with different stitch lengths. Try shirring with different stitch styles. If you want to take your sewing skills to a higher level, it is great practice to try new things and learn the breaking point of any skill. You’ll be shirring like a pro in no time!
Looking for other patterns to showcase your new shirring skills?
You could also shirr the bodice of many of our rompers or dresses, and you could even add a shirred back to our Princess Collection for a little bit of “grow with me” room.
Enjoyed this SEWING 101 Blog Post? Check out the many more free educational offerings in the 101 Series. Happy sewing!
-Bekah and Brittany