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Sewing Tip: Shirring/Smocking with Elastic Thread


Shirring is an old technique, I know.  (Shirring and smocking aren’t actually originally done with elastic…..but it sure makes things easier.  And faster.)  Sometimes I assume everyone knows how to do it.  But then I get another email asking how to shir (or smock) fabric.  So it reminds me I shouldn’t assume…………..because it is still one of the top questions I’m asked.


And if you’ve never given this a try, serisously stop eveything right now and try it.  It will knock your socks off.  It really does work and is really fun.  And you don’t need any special attachments or special needles.  Nope, just elastic thread (and that only costs a couple dollars).


I use this technique a lot.  And then I give it a rest.  And then I bring it back and use it some more.  I never tire of it for long.


Ahhhhh, shirring……quick and easy.  It will make you happy in 2 seconds.



The elastic thread is sewn into the back of the seams, and lets the fabric stretch but then pulls back in.



You may remember seeing me use it here:



And here:



And here:




I know, I use it a lot for skirt waist bands.  It’s because it’s so darn comfortable.  (Haven’t tried it?  You better.  It’s the coziest way to go.  Especially while pregnant.  Ahhhhh.)


I even include the technique in 2 of my patterns:  The Maddy Dress here and the Lily Skirt here.

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It’s stretchy, really comfy, seriously easy, and a great texture to add to clothing.

You need to ad this to your sewing repertoire, if you haven’t already.




Ready for some shirring?


First of all, all machines are different.  I have used this technique on probably 15 different machines, and it has worked on all of them.  But I know some machines are different, so keep that in mind.  (But if you lived next door, I wouldn’t mind coming over to figure yours out. There are several troubleshooting tips down below, so be sure to check those out.


Take note:  Lighter fabrics work best for this technique.  The elastic is not strong enough to gather in corduroy or bottom weight fabrics.  It’s just too thick and heavy.  I have had most success with regular cotton (quilters cotton or fashion cotton).


And the best part about this technique, is that all you need to buy, is some elastic thread.  I bought mine at Joann’s over by the elastic section, not the thread section.  But you can also fine elastic thread HERE.



See how it’s pretty thin (not as thin as regular thread….but still thin) and has a nice stretch to it?



You will use regular thread at the top of your machine (for the top thread of your seam)…….and use the elastic thread in your bobbin.  But instead of winding the bobbin on your machine, you will wind your elastic by hand.  Don’t worry, it goes fast.  (This is where some machines differ.  I have read that some machines need their elastic thread wound really tight.  I will explain some different techniques below.  Remember though, this is what has worked best for me.)  Stick the end of the elastic through one of the holes, starting from the inside of the bobbin (this just keeps the tail out of the way).



Then start winding.


But while winding, don’t keep it too loose or let it get all jumbled and messy.


But don’t pull it too tight either (unless your machine requires that…..see troubleshooting below).


Just pull it every so slightly as you wind the bobbin.  Seriously, don’t pull it very much at all.


And then drop it into your machine (like I did with my old drop-in Singer machine) or wind it into your bobbin case………


……..and then put it into the machine.  Pull it up through the bottom, just like a normal bobbin.


And now for settings.  All machines are different but I always put my stitch length to the very longest that it will go (basting stitch).  I know some machines don’t need to go the very longest stitch length, so you may need to play around with it.  The top stitch below is my standard stitch length, the bottom stitch is my longest stitch length.  By increasing the stitch length, it allows a bigger chunk of elastic for each stitch below, giving the fabric more stretch and pull when it’s done.


Begin sewing like you would normally, and you will begin to see the fabric beginning to pull from behind.  (And yes, you can back-stitch, just like normal.  Or, you can tie each end of by hand for each row, if it’s bunching too much while back-stitching.)


After you finish one seam, it won’t pull very tight.  And depending on your fabric, it will shir differently.  If your fabric is a bit thicker, it won’t shir much at all for this single seam.  But don’t worry.


Begin sewing your next line, but be sure and find a landmark on your machine to match up your previous seam.  This will help keep your lines straight.  I generally use the right edge of my presser foot as a guide.  But it I want more narrow shirred lines, I use the left side of that part that sticks out on the right.  (If you need to draw lines on your fabric while it’s flat……that may help you keep your lines even until you get more comfortable.)  But seriously, don’t fret if your lines are a bit uneven.  After it’s all gathered in, it’s hardly noticeable.  No stress.


And while sewing, make sure the fabric is flat going under your needle.  The easiest way for me to do this is to grab the fabric behind the needle with my left hand and the fabric in front of the needle with my right hand and pull in opposite directions, keeping the fabric flat as you sew.  (I only had one hand to use for the picture.)


Don’t let the fabric go under the needle all ruffled.  It needs to be flat……otherwise the shirring will not work.


After several rows, it will pull in more and more.


And if you want the shirring to pull in nice and tight, use steam and your iron and press down lightly over the shirred section.  Don’t iron and pull like you would normally while ironing.  Just press the iron down lightly over the shirred section, lift up and place on a new section.  The moisture and the heat will shrivel up the elastic from below and will pull in the fabric nicely.  If your steam isn’t working very well (or if you don’t have steam on your iron) use a water bottle to get the fabric moist and make sure your iron is nice and hot.  (Or you can throw your finished shirring in the washer and then the dryer……that will shrink it up too.)  It will amaze you how much this will help pull in your fabric.  Go on, try it!



This shirring below hasn’t been steamed/ironed……it pulls in much more than that.  But if you don’t want it too tight, just leave it how it is.  (By the way, the yellow and orange fabric are very lightweight cottons, so they shirred really easily.)



And that’s it.  Start shirring everything you own.

**You can even use it if you need to gather in some fabric and don’t want to do the standard basting-stitch-and-pull method.



Troubleshooting: Is your smocking not working?


  • Make sure that your bobbin is not too full of the elastic thread.
  • Try re-threading your whole machine.
  • Make sure your elastic thread isn’t too tight or too loose on the bobbin.
  • Make sure you didn’t mess with the tension (or any other settings) of your machine while adjusting your stitch length.  This can mess up the stitch and cause you problems with the smocking.
  • Try putting regular thread back into the bobbin and sew on some scrap fabric.  Make sure that it is sewing normally with regular thread.  This way, you can see if all of the settings are correct.
  • Pull the fabric flat in both directions with both hands, away from the needle in opposite directions, as you sew.
  • Make sure your stitch length is set to the largest stitch length.  (Or at least a larger one than you generally use.)
  • Take a look to see if you are sewing through multiple layers of fabric.  Sewing through multiple layers will make it too hard for the elastic to pull the fabric together.
  • Make sure to use cotton or other lightweight fabric.  Thicker fabric is harder to gather.
  • If you left your tension alone and it still isn’t working, try adjusting the tension a bit and see how your smocking reacts.


Are you using a Brother brand sewing machine??

And do you have a drop-in bobbin?

Your machine may not have a bobbin tension adjustment……

…….and if so, the smocking may not work using the instructions above.

Here are some helpful tips you may want to try with your machine:


  • Wind your elastic thread onto the bobbin with your feeder so that it’s pretty tight……and be sure to slide it under the tension lever in the auto feeder.
  • Ensure that the elastic thread is going through the “tension” spring in the bobbin holder……..because it’s easy to miss.
  • Adjust your stitch length……you may not want the largest setting.  Try it out a few times with different settings and see how your smocking reacts.



Hope that helps!

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Ashley Johnston

Administrator at Make It & Love It
Ashley Johnston is a professional DIY costume maker, sewist, crafter, and owner of Make It & Love It. She is a mom of 5 and a wife to a very patient (with the craft clutter) husband. In case you’re wondering, she always chooses crafting/sewing/designing over mopping/dusting/wiping base boards……but bathrooms/laundry/full bellies are always attended to. Whew!

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Hi, I'm Ashley

Hi, I’m Ashley—the DIY-enthusiast behind this crazy blog!

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