What Are Gathers And How To Gather Fabric Easily?

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There are multiple ways to gather fabric. I have tried all of them and again and again I was either unhappy with the outcome or struggled with broken threads. Nevertheless, after many experiments the “yes, this is it” moment came and it hasn’t failed me since. No wonder that it has quickly become my favourite way of cloth gathering.

In this tutorial, I am going to show you how this method works. It is amazing when you need to gather a really long piece of fabric. I used it to gather 8 meters (almost 9 yards) of embellished cotton fabric for my Mexican Jalisco skirt (see the image below).

In this tutorial you will learn:

Gathered Mexican Jalisco skirt with ribbon embellishment.
Gathered Mexican Jalisco skirt.

What are gathers?

Gathers are simply bunches of fabric ‘squeezed’ into an area that is smaller than the original length of that fabric.

Gathered fabric.

What is the most common use of gathers?

The most common use of gathers is a simple gathered skirt (see the image below). Also purely decorative purposes are very common.

Short gathered skirts with different gather ratio.

What is the difference between gathers and ruffles?

Technically, there is no difference between gathers and ruffles. Ruffles are gathered fabric used for decorative purposes on a garment. Like a hem of a skirt or sleeve cuffs for example.

Tools you will need for gathering fabric:

  • Fabric you would like to gather
  • Base fabric to which you will sew the gathered material
  • Upper and lower thread in your sewing machine
  • Additional thread (I find basting thread ideal)
  • Water soluble marker or pen style chaco liner (for segmentation markings)
  • Classic pins or Clover fork pins
  • Needle that can accommodate the basting thread

Do not forget to prepare your fabrics for sewing. By washing, drying and ironing them.

Tools needed to gather fabric with a cord and zig zag stitch.

What is a gather gather ratio

Gather ratio represents a rate how many times a fabric is ‘squeezed’ (gathered) into a specific length. The higher the ratio, the more fabric you need to gather into a specific length (look at the tables and images below).

Gather ratioFormula for fabric to be gathered
1 : 1length of fabric to be gathered = length of area to accommodate * 1
1 : 1.5length of fabric to be gathered = length of area to accommodate * 1.5
1 : 2length of fabric to be gathered = length of area to accommodate * 2
1 : 2.5length of fabric to be gathered = length of area to accommodate * 2.5
Gathered fabric with gahtering ratio 1:1.

1 : 1 gather ratio

Gathered fabric. Gather ratio 1:1.5.

1 : 1.5 gather ratio

Gathered fabric. Gather ratio 1:2.

1 : 2 gather ratio

Gathered fabric. Gather ratio 1:2.5.

1 : 2.5 gather ratio

Example

Gather ratioSegment length (cm/inch)Fabric (to be gathered) length (cm/inch)
1 : 110 cm/ about 4 inch10 cm / about 4 inch
1 : 1.510 cm / about 4 inch15 cm / about 5 29/32 inch
1 : 210 cm / about 4 inch20 cm / about 7 7/8 inch
1 : 2.510 cm / about 4 inch25 cm / about 9 27/32 inch
Gather ratio.

How to gather fabric step by step

If you plan to gather fabric that is shorter than 1 meter (about 40 inch), do the following steps:

1. Decide the gather ratio and cut the fabrics

First consider the gather ratio. Adjusting the ratio after you have cut the fabric might be tricky. Especially if you want to gather more fabric than you have prepared.

Measure the base fabric (the one that will accommodate the gathered one) and calculate the fabric for gathering according to one of the formulas above.

2. Sew a zig zag stitch over a basting thread

Set stitch type to zig-zag of middle length and width on your sewing machine. I have a basic sewing machine and the setting looks like this (see the image below).

Medium width and length zig zag stitch setting on sewing machine.

Depending on your project work either inside the seam allowance (in this tutorial, I’m working with 1,5 cm (5/8 inch) or outside of it.

Position the basting thread like shown in the image below. Leave the loose basting thread in front of the presser foot about 10 cm (4 inch) long. Make sure that the basting thread is in the middle of the zig-zag stitch.

Basting thread prepared to be sewn with a medium width and length zig zag stitch.

Carefully sew ‘over’ the basting thread with the zig-zag stitch. While sewing, make sure that the needle of the sewing machine does not go directly through the basting thread.

Sewing zig-zag stitch over the basting thread.

Sew until you reach the end of the fabric. Do not forget to secure the zig-zag stitch at the beginning and at the end by stitching forward and backward. Leave about 10 cm (about 4 inch) of thread at the end.

End of fabric with secured zig-zag stitch and at least 10 cm (4 inch) basting thread.

3. Secure the basting thread and gather

Secure ONE end of the basting thread to the zig-zag stitch (I always secure it on the left-hand side) (see the image below).

Securing basting thread to the zig-zag stitch.

Gather the fabric by moving it along the basting thread towards the secured knot of the basting thread (in this case to the left). The fabric should easily slide over the basting thread in the middle of the zig-zag stitch (see the image below).

After you have gathered the fabric so that it fits the area where it will be sewn, fix the other end of the basting thread (the one you were holding while gathering the fabric).

Fixing one end of basting thread to gathered fabric.

5. Pin and sew the gathered fabric

Pin the gathered fabric with the base fabric before sewing. For pinning I use Clover fork pins in combination with classic pins (see the image below). The more pins you use, the better. For quality results, hand baste the two fabrics together.

Sew the fabrics together (see the image below).

Sewing gathered fabric.
Gathers sewn to skirt hem.

Remove the zig zag stitch and basting thread after sewing.

How to gather a long piece of fabric step by step

Gathering a long piece of fabric (longer than 1 meter/40 inch ) will be done in a similar way. However the fabrics will be divided into multiple segments that can be gathered individually. A big advantage of the fabric segmenting is that you will not end up with uneven gathers – too much fabric on the one side and too little on the other side.

1. Decide the gather ratio and cut the fabrics

First consider the gather ratio and calculate the length of fabric that will be gathered. Adjusting the ratio after you have cut the fabric might be tricky. Especially if you want to gather more fabric than you have prepared.

2. Divide fabrics into segments

Before describing the process any further, I will show you an example.

Example in centimeters

You want to sew gathers to the hem of a skirt. The circumference of the hem is 200 cm. Gather ratio 1 : 1,5. For the gathers you will need fabric that is 300 cm long (200 x 1,5 = 300).

Divide the hem into 4 segments, which means that each will be 50 cm long. Therefore, make markings on the hem 50 cm apart.

Also divide the fabric you are about to gather into 4 segments (THE NUMBER OF SEGMENTS NEEDS TO BE IDENTICAL). The length of one segment of the fabric you will gather are 75 cm long (300 / 4 = 75). Thus, on this fabric make markings 75 cm apart.

Example in inches

You want to sew gathers to the hem of a skirt. The circumference of the hem is 78 inch. Gather ratio 1 : 1.5. For the gathers you will need fabric that is 118 inch long (~ 78 x 1,5).

Divide the hem into 4 segments, which means that each will be 19 inch long. Therefore, make markings on the hem 19 inch apart.

Also divide the fabric you are about to gather into 4 segments (THE NUMBER OF SEGMENTS NEEDS TO BE IDENTICAL). The length of one segment of the fabric you will gather are 29 inch long (78 / 4 = 19 inch). Thus, on this fabric make markings 29 inch apart.

Example in this tutorial

For demonstration purposes, I’ll be working with 1:2 gather ratio and base fabric 45 cm (17 inch) long while fabric to be gathered 90 cm (35 inch) long. Both pieces will be divided into 2 segments with one marking in the middle that divides them (see the image below). The gathered fabric will be sewn to the base fabric.

Base fabric and fabric to be gathered with 1:2 gather ratio.

2. Set zig-zag stitch on your sewing machine

Set stitch type to zig-zag of middle length and width on your sewing machine. I have a basic sewing machine and the setting looks like this (see the image below).

Medium width and length zig zag stitch setting on sewing machine.

3. Position the basting thread

Depending on your project work either inside the seam allowance (in this tutorial, I’m working with 1,5 cm (5/8 inch) or outside of it.

Position the basting thread like shown in the image below. Leave the loose thread in front of the presser foot about 10 cm (4 inch) long. Make sure that the basting thread is in the middle of the zig-zag stitch.

Basting thread prepared to be sewn with a medium width and length zig zag stitch.

4. Sew over the thread with a zig-zag stitch

Carefully sew ‘over’ the basting thread with the zig-zag stitch. While sewing, make sure that the needle of the sewing machine does not go directly through the basting thread. Sew until you reach the end of the fabric. Do not forget to secure the zig-zag stitch at the beginning and at the end by stitching forward and backward. Leave about 10 cm (about 4 inch) of thread at the end.

Sewing zig-zag stitch over the basting thread.

Once you have sewn over a marking stop sewing with the needle in the fabric. Lift the presser foot and pull the basting thread like in the image below. Make sure you are pulling the right end of the thread (see the images below).

Sewing machine needle in fabric. Segment marking sewn with zig-zag stitch.
Lifted presser foot, sewing machine needle kept in fabric.
Pulling the basting thread with a classic pin.

Once you have pulled out about 20 cm (about 7 inch) of basting thread, lower the presser foot and continue sewing. Lift the presser foot and pull the basting thread every time you sew past a marking you have drawn on your fabric.

Pulling basting thread in the zig zag stitch with fingers.

Leave about 10 cm (about 4 inch) of basting thread at the end of the fabric.

End of fabric with secured zig-zag stitch and at least 10 cm (4 inch) basting thread.

5. Clip the pulled basting thread

Clip the basting thread you have pulled out while sewing. You might have to do so numerous times if you pulled out the basting thread multiple times.

Cutting the basting tread pulled out from zig-zag stitch.

Secure one end of the basting thread to the zig-zag stitch (I always secure it on the left-hand side) (see the image below).

Securing basting thread to the zig-zag stitch.

Gather the fabric by moving it along the basting thread towards the secured knot of the basting thread (in this case to the left). The fabric should easily slide over the basting thread in the middle of the zig-zag stitch (see the image below).

Gathering fabric with the zig-zag stitch by sliding it over a basting thread.

Make sure that the marking on the gathered fabric matches the marking on the base fabric. This also indicates that you have gathered the right amount of the fabric (see the image below).

After you have gathered the fabric segment, secure the other end of the basting thread (the one you were holding in your hand) to the zig-zag stitch.

Now you have to gather another segment. Again, secure the basting thread on the left, gather the fabric and secure the other end – on the right side (see the images below). Repeat this process for every segment you have made.

6. Sew the gathered fabric and remove the zig-zag stitch and basting thread

Pin the gathered fabric with the base fabric before sewing. For pinning I use Clover fork pins in combination with classic pins (see the image below). The more pins you use, the better. For quality results, hand baste the two fabrics together.

I usually sew right through the pins. Both fork pins and classic pins. If you fear that you might break the sewing machine needle, remove the pins just before the presser foot.

After you have finished sewing, remove the basting thread and the zig-zag stitch. The easiest way to remove the zig-zag stitch is to unpick the lower thread first (there is no basting thread in it ) (see the images below).

And then the upper thread (see the images below). That should go really easily. Step by step remove parts of the lower thread and then the upper thread.

You can also use gathers allover a dress not only as decorative hem on skirts or sleeve cuffs (see the image below).

Dress decorated with ruffles.

Conclusion: How To Gather Fabric Easily?

This technique is suitable for any small- or large-scale project. Even if you start a big project right away fabric gathering should do well and without problems with this method. Good luck.

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