Gathering one part of a garment, such as a skirt to match a dress bodice, to fit another can be a challenge. Sometimes it’s accomplished with pleats, other times with gathers—those soft fabric ripples of ease that have no puckers, just gentle folds. Gathers can also be used on sleeves to help them fit into armholes, or they can be used anywhere you need a little fullness.
There are three ways to gather—with basting stitches, with a zigzag over a cord or use a special presser foot. All draw up the fabric to the desired width for joining to an adjacent piece.
To gather with basting stitches, sew two lines of long stitches just inside the seam allowance. For example, with a traditional 5/8″ (1.72cm) seam the two lines of stitching would be sewn at 1/4″ (.64cm) and 3/8″ (.96cm) from the cut edge. On heavy or bulky fabrics, the two lines of stitching may actually span the seam line—like on the 3/8″ (.96cm) and 3/4″ (1.91cm) distances from the cut edge. Once the stitching lines are in place, gently pull on both bobbin threads at once to gather the fabric to the desired length. It’s best to pull from both ends toward the center for even distribution. Tie off both thread ends once the desired gathered length is achieved.
To gather with a zigzag, stitch over a tiny cord or thick thread like Coats Dual Duty XP Heavy. . The zigzag should be wide enough to span the cord without catching it. If the zigzag catches the cord in any place, gathering won’t work. Stitch over the cord along the entire length to be gathered. Then hold one cord end securely and pull on the opposite end to gather. When you’ve reach the desired length, tie off the cord to secure.
When joining a gathered section to a non-gathered section, match the center points of both sections, and then if the length is long, match quarter points as well for even distribution. Sew along the seam line, keeping the gathers smooth along the way. Do not let them form pleats or puckers. Remove any gathering threads that show on the right side of the seam.
The ratio of fabric to the finished length determines the density of the gathers. The minimum is 1.5: 1 and more common is 2:1. On very lightweight or fine fabrics, the gathering length may be increased up to 4:1. As an example, for gathering a skirt to a waistband, a 52″ upper skirt edge would gather to fit a 26″ waistband with a 2:1 ratio.
A third way to gather is to use a gathering foot or ruffler on your sewing machine. Consult your machine owner’s manual for instructions on your particular model.
Although most gathering is done near a seamline edge, you can also gather down the center of a fabric strip with finished edges to make a ruffle.