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How to Sew Shirring

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Are you sewing shirring correctly? Shirring provides a chance to add shape to the existing garments without interfering with alterations in the sewing patterns. 

Whether you are making a puff sleeve mini dress from scratch or upcycling a men’s dress shirt into a dress, shirring is great technique to use without additional closure notions. 

How do you sew shirring? Wind the elastic thread around empty bobbins without stretching. Straight stitch 3.0 to 4.0 mm and backstitch 2 to 3 times at the start of sewing. 

Depend on the sewing pattern, space out each row ½” to ” in between until reaching the desired number of rows. After assembling the garment together, hold the steam iron over the shirred stitches to shrink for a snug fit.

Shirring is a functional feature for gathering fabric compared to smocking, which is more for decorative purposes. Shirring and smocking serve entirely different purposes with varied technique

With shirring stitched rows, you can easily shape a loose-fitting into a nicely hugged garment. Create narrow rows of shirring stitches by using a thin elastic thread rolled into the sewing machine lower bobbin.

In this article, you will learn purposes of shirring, different types of shirring stitches and how to apply shirring correctly by sewing elastic on each row with easy to follow techniques. The answers to frequently asked questions will give you a full understanding of shirring before starting a new sewing project.

What is shirring used for?

In sewing, shirring consist of two or more rows of gathers that are used to decorate part of the garment such as along the neckline, sleeves, bodice, or front and back yokes. 

To make shirring, elastic thread is used to gather the fabric evenly between stitches to create texture and elasticity.

Purpose of Shirring:

  • Used to provide stretch to the fabric on the bodice for taking off and putting on easily.
  • Provides a comfortable fit on the torso when worn.
  • Creates a bubble effect at hems on pants, sleeves, or shorts.
  • Designs an elasticized waistband around a loose pant or skirt.
  • Able to use on cuffs and shoulders.
  • Gives fullness to the garment.
  • Adds texture and structure to a garment.
  • Snug fitting on the top and flare out in the abdomen area.

Not only does shirring provide comfortable fit, but also increase volume and aesthetic on the garment. The natural fullness created by shirring drapes and hangs beautifully on the body.

Types of shirring

There are several types of shirring for you to choose from that best suit different garment styles: waffle shirring, elastic thread shirring, gathered shirring, and cord elastic shirring. Each types of shirring has a different look that may work better with certain styles of garments rather than others.

Let’s take a look at each type of shirring:

  • Waffle shirring: This is a subordinate of elastic thread shirring. It is designed by shirring in a direction and then shirring again at 90 degree angle to the previous shirring. This creates a checkerboard effect or looks like a waffle.
  • Elastic thread shirring: Elastic thread is loaded in the bobbin of your sewing machine. Parallel rows of fabric are made on the right side of the fabric and marked with a disappearing chalk piece. Shirring lines are ¼” to 1” apart with seam allowance and a straight or narrow zigzag stitch is sewn with elastic thread.
  • Gathered shirring: This type of shirring is done with a regular thread in both bobbin and the needle. It is sewn normally and gathered. It is a permanent shirring that provides no stretch of the fabric.
  • Cord elastic shirring: It’s done with strong cord elastic and sewn with a zigzag stitch in 2 rows on the underside of the fabric. This type of shirring is typically used to sew sleeves.

How do you do a shirring stitch?

To begin with, choose a straight stitch on your sewing machine and alter the stitch to a 3-4 machine setting. While shirring, the fabric used gathers itself between stitch links to create a longer length of stitching. 

A longer length setting gathers more shirring, while a shorter length gathers less shirring with the fabric.

To do shirring on any fabric using elastic thread, follow the steps:

  • Load the elastic thread into the lower bobbin by hand without stretching it until it gets ⅔ full. 
  • Mark the fabric to be shirred with parallel lines on the right side using disappearing chalk or pen. Mark 5 or 6 rows depending on the sewing pattern and the lines should be evenly spaced from one another.
  • Thread the machine with a regular or all-purpose thread that matches with the fabric.
  • Set the machine for shirring to a straight stitch with the optimum stitch length for the sewing machine.
  • Inset the wound bobbin and loosen the tension.
  • Begin sewing on the marked line. To anchor, the thread makes a stitch or two with zero stitch length, then increase the stitch length to max or just below max to continue stitching.
  • Finish all the parallel lines. Let the distance be appropriate for a puffed-up look and not too close or very far apart.
  • Secure or knot the ends once the shirring is done.
  • Use an iron to lightly press the gathering in place. Do not overheat the iron or the elastic shirring can shrivel up and melt.

What type of thread is used for shirring?

Elastic thread is generally used for shirring to provide the stretch, however gathered shirring uses regular thread, even in the bobbin.

Elastic thread is used in the bobbin with regular fabric matching thread in the needle. Elastic is used for creating texture and stretch.

Elastic thread provides the wow factor, shape, stretch, and fullness to the garment. Make use of durable elastic thread to stand the stretch and garment shape over many wears. 

Load the bobbin with the elastic thread, preferably hand-wound, and match the needle thread with the shirring fabric.

How can I make my shirring tighter?

To make shirring nice and tight, appropriately adjust and alter the stitch length and tension in the bobbin thread. For a basic sewing machine, adjust the straight stitch to the longest or optimum stitch length of the machine and use a computerized sewing machine for an even basting stitch.

If the shirring stitches are getting too loose, then it is recommended to hand-wind the bobbin instead of machine winding. A hand-wound bobbin with an elastic thread can add sufficient tension to the movement all along with the stitching. 

Some machines have no issue with tightly wound elastic threads in the bobbin while other sewing machines may be completely opposite. It is best to test run before using on a rough fabric, the elastic should be relaxed when sewn.

Also, increase the stitch length even longer such as 3 to 4 or more. The longer stitch length means the more the sewing machine will grab fabric to shirr with to tighten the shirring easily. 

As a result, the garment will have more elasticity to wear in and out without popping the seams. 

Shirring troubleshooting

As a beginner, new techniques cause problems and may require multiple testing before getting it correctly, which directly applies when sewing shirring. Some troubleshooting tips for shirring fabric will help a great deal in shirring correctly.

Here are troubleshooting tips for sewing shirring:

  • If there is a disturbance in the back of your shirring, then the adjustment should be on the top thread for tension. If there is still an issue, try using a shorter stitch length.
  • When shirring is not tight enough, which is shown by squiggling elastic thread all over, then the tension issue is in the lower bobbin thread. Tighten the tension of the bobbin and the case itself.
  • Hand wind the bobbin with elastic thread so that it is not too loose or too tight. Do not stretch and do not spread, instead wind back and forth.
  • Make use of regular tension with maximum stitch length.
  • Shirring is done on the right side of the fabric.
  • Always start stitching around ¼” off the edge or seam, also referred to as seam allowance.
How to sew shirring

Sewing Shirring: Final Thoughts

Shirring is sewing with elastic thread in the bobbin of the sewing machine to create a smocked appearance on the fabric. There is big difference between smocking and shirring visually. 

Smocking does have decorative embroidered stitches compared to shirring, which does not have those features, and only uses elastic thread on the back side of the fabric. 

Start by slowly winding a bobbin with elastic thread by hand without stretching. Avoid using a sewing machine to wind the elastic thread on a bobbin as it may cause skipping stitches and other problems along the way. 

Place the bobbin in the bobbin case and pull the thread through the hole. Make sure you do everything the same as if you are threading it with regular thread. 

Thread the upper top part of the sewing machine with regular thread. Adjust the stitch length about 3.5 to 4.0 where 2.5 is the standard normal stitch length for most of sewing machine brands. Start without adjusting the tension on the machine at all and test on a scrap of fabric. 

Follow the sewing pattern instruction and start by straight stitching about ¼” away from seam allowance and sew another row about ⅜” or ½” away from the first one. You may backstitch 2 to 3 times before starting a brand new row and end with backstitch to secure the stitches in place.

After finishing the desired number of rows on the fabric, use an iron with lots of steam on both sides of the fabric. It will help gather the shirring even tighter.

Applying proper techniques to sew shirring is recommended. Read the sewing pattern thoroughly to sew shirring with correct distance apart and the necessary number of rows. Sew shirring correctly so that it provides shape, fullness, texture, and stretch to a garment.

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