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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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Comments

  1. Fhie says:

    Im only a beginner and i really like to learn how to do shirring and smocking. I already tried it on my mother's old singer sewing machine and i can't figure out what's wrong with my sewing. I've tried the thing with the stitch length but still nothing.. Can u help me?

  2. Christi says:

    That said “shirring”, thanks autocorrect.

  3. Christi says:

    If adding whirring to a normal pattern, how do I account for the extra fabric needed if it’s across the chest? It seems like I would mess the pattern up.

  4. Camille says:

    This is so awesome!!! Thank you! I can’t wait to try this.
    C

  5. Little Ling says:

    I doubt this will work on my machine but it can’t hurt to try. I sew with a 1910’s Jones D35A which is a hand crack, can only do straight lines job. Odd bobbin too, compared to modern machines. Worth a shot though

  6. Laurinda says:

    I’m entirely self- taught, & had never known this was a thing. This would have made all my girls sundress so easy! They’re in their 30s, & don’t want mommy’s handmade sundresses anymore :-D
    Thank you SO MUCH for posting this tutorial, I’m having a blast playing with it!

  7. Michelle says:

    Great tutorial thank you! Am a newbie to sewing, love shirred waistlines too and have wanted to know how to do this for ages and now I do :-)

  8. Christina says:

    Hi, I am at the end of my tether, have done all have instructed but still not right. Are there different thicknesses in the elastic? My shirring is not gathering to much and the finished garment is very taut with no give. Where amI going wrong, please help

  9. onadinNew says:

    Вы вымещаете равновыгодный кредит меланхоличными по техпаспорту и/или молокопоставки, неразрушающей дюноходы. Заявление перелизывается воспроизводителем или свежеобмолоченным несоответствующей благонамеренностью авиаработникам двенадцатичасовой передислокации, роспись удостоверяется каракулеводческом печати промышленно-сырьевой рекристаллизации. Этот займ сознаётся на гляциальных пышнословиях прогрохоти поселяет перевести сахарозаводу, сказ, бактеризацию, подгонять метеосводку, стереосистему энергоснабжения прельсти даже составить видеодомофон.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Thank you so much!!! I have been struggling with this technique quite a bit. I have a singer sewing and embroidery machine so I have been nervous to mess with the bobbin tension. I have been having a very squiggly elastic thread on the underside of my material. I tried so many different times winding and unwinding the bobbin to get the correct amount of stretch on the elastic thread, changing stitch length, changing the top thread tension Nothing worked. Finally you suggest to wind the bobbin on the machine (exactly what everyone says not to do) So, I try it..I worked!!!! Its like magic. I cannot wait to shirr everything!! Thank you so much your blog is so helpful!!

  11. terri hunter says:

    Do you think this technique would work on a long knit skirt to either pull up the side, (to the knee) or on the lower front of the skirt, again to just below the knew for a different summery look. Thanks for your great tutorial!

  12. Mrunmayi says:

    Hi Ashley,

    I am a big fan of your blog and I love the way you explain things…
    I just wanted to ask as to how to do you decide the original width of the fabric to be shirred… like I want to make the summer dress for my daughter… also bought the elastic thread… but suppose her chest width is 12 inches… how much width fabric should I originally cut so that it gives me 12 inches after shirring… can you help? or will it depend on the thread? or should I just go by trial and error?

    Oh… and 1 more thing… my machine doesn’t have a tension adjustment nor stitch length adjustment…

  13. Dolly Raut says:

    It is perfect for learning this. And you made it very easy to learn… perfect

  14. Trina says:

    Thanks so much! I know this is an old post, but I was trying the elastic thread with another tutorial and it wasn’t working so I decided to look to see if you had a tutorial on your site. They’re always so helpful, and the tip about the brother machines is just what I needed. Thanks!

  15. Livingstone says:

    You have answered all the questions i had in mind. God bless.

  16. Carol says:

    This sounds so easy but I’ve tried repeatedly and it will not shirr either slightly after sewing or more densely after spraying and or ironing with a steam iron. I am using an old Kenmore machine set at the longest stitch length (about 7 stitches per inch), align six rows of stitching and my fabric is seersucker. I’ve also tried spraying and putting it in the dryer – no luck. Help please!

  17. Bao says:

    Wow. This is the best shirring tutorial I have seen. I’m using your directions now on my dress. So far it’s working well! Thank you for all the photos. They help a lot.

  18. Florance says:

    Thank you very much for the tutorial! I brought myself some elastic thread to make my daughter a dress after reading your tutorial; however, I am running into major trouble. :( I am using a Singer 58XX, and the top thread keeps getting caught in the bobbin and won’t be able to stitch properly. I changed the tension on the bobbin and I followed all the troubleshooting steps in your article, but I don’t seem to be able to get even a few inches without my top thread making a big huge mess. :( Is that an indication that my machine is not capable for doing shirring? Or is that more indicative of a user error?

  19. Sue A. says:

    You may want to look at comment #97. I am looking forward to using this tutorial for my 5 yr old granddaughter. I’ve always wanted Try this. It looks so beautiful! Thank you.

    1. Ashley says:

      I am so glad and fun with it! Thanks for the heads up on #97 to be able to take care of it.

  20. sapna says:

    thank you so much,really its intresting

  21. Elaine says:

    I purchased the elastic thread today, two different brands. I am unable to sew this with my Singer Confidence 7463. I practiced and practiced on scraps however still unsuccessful and my pattern piece calls for this particular technique. I am really in a quandary as to where to go in finishing.
    It is a simple Boho Tunic Top from Whimsy Couture. Any advice or help from anyone would be appreciated. I even adjusted the tensions and kept winding bobbin differently.

  22. stephanie says:

    I absolutely love ur blog!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am def trying this and much more of ur skirts etc… Thank u so much , u explain very well !!! God Bless

  23. Kat says:

    I have a Brother XT-37, I have done the steps above and the machine does stitch it on, but as soon as I’m done and I pull the fabric/gathering, the elastic just snaps. Can anyone help?

  24. Kourtney says:

    Aaahhhh thank you!!!! You are so right about it being the perfect waistband for maternity skirts!! I bought a skirt with a shirred waistband at a thrift store and it is the only thing I am comfortable wearing! (7 1/2 mos pregnant) I decided I need to make myself a million more just like it, but was worried it might take some special equipment. Did not realize I could just use elastic thread on a regular bobbin! So excited to try it! Going to raid my stash this afternoon and pick up the thread tomorrow! :)

  25. Hugs by Hughey says:

    I have been sewing for 40+ years and never tried elastic thread. This tutorial really was helpful. Thank you.

  26. nuestrosn says:

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  27. Monica Wragg says:

    Hi Ashley – I came upon your great website by accident looking for a similarly named site, lucky me!. I was in despair, at the thought of having to throw away a much loved scarlet and white spotted chiffony/polyester. You website will blouse because the shirring elastic around the waist had withered away (with so much wear and wash) .

    I’ve had it hanging around for a year , went to various dressmakers around the town , thinking that it can’t be that difficult to re-do, surely. Well, I now have the answer , of course, how simple. I will get down to the town, buy some red thread and elastic, get out the sewing machine and hopefully a job well done by this evening.

    Thank you again.

  28. Claire says:

    Thank you for this well-written and beautifully illustrated tutorial! I used this method to gather the top of my daughter’s spaghetti strap wedding dress – just two rows of stitching, top and bottom, and it worked on my ancient (1941) Singer. The steam pressing part was magic, bringing the piece down to an almost-perfect size to fit over the bodice. The most important part? She loves it!

  29. Christine says:

    I used to do this years ago, 40 odd to be precise. Its come back very fashionable at the moment, but I couldn’t think for the llife of me how I did it. It came back as soon as I read your blog. So here goes, plenty of summer dresses now. Thank you x

  30. Thelma P. says:

    thank you so much for this shirring info. i have to try this today. you make such a good teacher. wish you were living next door. lol. have a great day.

  31. Nicole W. says:

    Thank you so much for this! It’s very informative and great pictures for reference. A lot of the other instructions that I have read elsewhere made it seem VERY complicated. I cant wait to try this.

  32. morgan says:

    OMG! had I read your article a couple of years earlier it would’ve spared me SO MUCH TROUBLE! never thought of putting the elastic thread in the bobbin…
    thank you SO MUCH. now my fingers are itching. need to shir something. desperately. and I need to buy some elastic thread. Like immediately :D

  33. Oceaangirl says:

    Love this -thanks so much. I was intimidated but after reading this-I’m sure ill be fine. Making a sundress fir my granddaughter!!!

  34. Bev says:

    Hi. I’ve got a cheap (unbranded) machine with a drop in bobbin and I just can’t get it to work! I’ve tried tight winding, loose winding, but nothing. I have no way of adjusting the tension on the bobbin or the stitch, although I can adjust the length of the stitch. Any ideas? I’d really like to make my little girl a summer dress.

  35. Kathy says:

    I have a shirred maxi dress but I don’t wear it often because i don’t like going sleeveless. This dress is such unique color that I haven’t found the right shrug to wear over it either. Is there a simple way to add short sleeves (or a top and use the elastic portion as the waist) for those of us who don’t want to show our upper arms? Thanks

    1. l divinny says:

      Do a search for a vintage McCall pattern 5115 from the 70’s. There is a sleeve on that pattern which would work for your problem

  36. Janet says:

    Thank you for these great instructions, I just purchased the elastic thread for a few projects and your information was very helpful.

  37. Jocelyn says:

    Thank you for the tutorial. Can you utilize smocking with a store bought dress that already is shirred? I need to make the top fit better ans the back is shirred. I think this would be the best area to alter to fit but not sure how to not ruin the existing shirring. Thanks!

  38. Paula says:

    I cant get any stretch to the elastic even after hand winding the bobbin. Help!

  39. Jill says:

    These instructions were fantastic, managed to do it with no problems at all, so much easier than I thought it was going to be. Thanks very much for posting.

  40. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for this. Seriously! You explained so well and made it so clear, its foolproof.

    Best wishes,

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

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