Gathering and Ruffling Techniques

Gathering fabric is a common technique used in various sewing patterns. Depending on the size of your project and the weight of the fabric, there are different methods you can employ to achieve the desired result.

Now, it’s important to note that there isn’t a universally “best” way to gather fabric. The ideal method will vary depending on your specific project.

So, let’s explore four different ways you can gather or ruffle fabric, each with its own advantages and considerations.


Simple Stitch Gathering Basics

It’s best practice to use a seam width guide so you can sew at speed with high accuracy. The ruffle pleating foot has its own guide built in.

Some of the pics and videos featured here do not have seam guides as we want you to see the detail on the small sample pieces.

There are specific tasks, in the world of sewing, that people just loathe. Some people dread setting zippers, others loathe the process of hemming, and then there are those who simply can’t stand gathering fabric. If you find yourself in the latter group, whether new to gathering or just find it frustrating, worry not!

We’re here to help you overcome the pain by sharing the correct tools and methods for your specific project.

Gathering fabric doesn’t have to be a source of agony. If you hate gathering fabric, don’t worry!

We have the right tools and techniques to help you. With our tips, you can make the process easier and less frustrating.

Let’s explore the best methods for gathering all kinds of textiles. Our goal is to make gathering fabric a task you can handle with ease.


Simple Stitch Gathering

The easiest method to gather small areas is to sew a row of straight machine stitches using the longest stitch length and low tension.

Then, pull the lower thread like a drawstring. Sew a second row over the top to secure the gathers.

Alternatively, leave them loose if you want to adjust the spacing as you sew onto your next piece of fabric.

This method works best when easing pattern pieces and for small fabric areas such as sleeves into cuffs, sleeve heads, etc. However, it becomes more challenging for longer ruffles and heavy fabrics.

Multiple rows can be sewn using this method to give a more stable, regular gather.

The rows can be flexible or overstitched, so there is no stretch or give.

You can also add ribbon or cording over the gathered stitch lines to add decoration and strength.

Machine Gathering Foot

A mix of both a simple gathering foot and the more complex ruffler foot (located at the top right).

The gathering foot has a ridge on the bottom to allow the feed dog to push the fabric into gentle gathers. The ruffler has moving mechanical parts that make small pleats into the fabric.

Best for gentle gathers in lightweight to medium fabrics of any length.

The second method, suitable for any length, uses the simple Gathering Foot. This comes as standard with most domestic sewing machines. This type of foot gathers fullness evenly as it stitches. It also allows you to add fabric or ribbon to your ruffles at the same time.

On a domestic sewing machine, the ruffles/gathers are quite gentle. Using this method, you may need to adjust the machine tension to achieve exactly the density you need for a tightly ruffled fabric.

Test it on a scrap of fabric and adjust the stitch length and tension until you obtain the desired amount of fullness.

Here the gathering foot is being used to attach ruffles to a bottom layer of fabric. This technique allows for simultaneous gathering and joining of the ruffled fabric onto a flat top fabric layer. By inserting the top fabric into the foot groove, the gathering foot effectively gathers the fabric and securely joins the layers together during the sewing process.

Top Tip: Holding a finger BEHIND the foot as you sew also makes the ruffles slightly tighter.

However, you can only do this when sewing a single ruffle layer. 

This is a loosely woven linen gathered with a simple gathering foot and a finger held directly BEHIND the machine foot.

This allows you to gently slow the fabric as it passes under the ridge of the gathering foot to increase the ruffle density.

Machine Ruffler Foot

The third method, suitable for medium to longer lengths of fabric, is using a pleating/ruffler attachment foot.

It may seem complex, but it’s worth investing just 30 minutes to master it. These attachments can be expensive when new but can often be found at a reasonable price on websites like eBay or other second-hand sources. 

With the pleating/ruffler foot, you can achieve precise and evenly spaced gathers efficiently. Don’t let initial hesitation hold you back from exploring its potential – it’s a valuable tool for enhancing your gathering abilities.

The ruffler foot is suitable for medium to longer lengths, it can be called a  pleating or ruffler attachment foot. The blades make tiny pleats and can achieve a flatter result than the gathering foot. On a domestic sewing machine there are 2 flexible blades that pleat the fabric as you sew. On some models, you can remove the lower blade for ruffling further away from the edge.

The adjustment lever.

The attachment can be adjusted for tighter ruffles, using the lever shown in this picture. 

This lever changes the pleats made from every 1 stitch to every 6,  or 12 stitches to change the density of ruffles. The ruffler attachment is also capable of gathering large sections of fabric. The foot also has an edge guide to add lace, fabric or ribbon at the same time.

This attachment works best with fabrics of light to medium weight. However be careful using it with very shiny satins, as it can sometimes slip.

Showing the ruffler foot on lightweight fabric set at 1 pleat per stitch.

Ruffler foot is consistent, best for trims of ribbons, and when you want flatter pleat style gathers, great for long lengths.

Some ruffler attachments, however, can be fussy with very slippery fabrics or not work at all for heavier fabrics. 

Cord Gathering

The fourth and most versatile way that is excellent for long lengths is cord gathering.

This simply means making a machine zigzag stitch over a thread, cord or wire, then drawing the fullness in.

The advantage of cord gathering is that you can adjust the gathers as tightly or loosely as you want until you are happy. It allows you to quickly and easily gather significant amounts of fabric evenly, and the resulting gathers look much better than standard gathers made with a domestic gathering foot. It is a simple and painless way to achieve your desired result.

Cord gathering is the best method for heavier fabrics and long lengths.

It is recommended to use a longer stitch and the widest cord you can fit, or even nylon hat-making wire or nylon fishing wire.

You can sew using a regular zigzag foot for thin cords/threads or choose a suitable cording foot.

Corded foot attachments can vary a lot, with tubes, grooves, or be made for fine or chunky cords. They can either hold one or multiple cords.

In fact, we use the mini beading foot shown in this picture because it’s ideal for heavier-weight fabrics and can hold a thicker nylon cord that we can pull out at the end and reuse.

This sample is sewn onto a strong, thin nylon wire, similar to a fishing line. The leading end of the wire is wound around a toggle button to prevent it from pulling through while sewing.

It is effortless to slide the gathers along the wire and arrange them as desired.

Next, lay your flat joining layer over the sample, and sew through all layers to secure the gathers. The accompanying video provides a demonstration of the proper sewing method.

This technique involves using a larger cord for heavy fabrics to create medium gathers. It is particularly useful for heavy skirts and period clothing. After sewing the final seams, the cord is removed, and any excess seam allowance is trimmed or finished.

To perform this method, you will need a narrow beading foot, as shown in the picture above, which has a small plastic tube attached to it. Start by selecting a smooth and silky cord, as it will make gathering the fabric easier. Applying a thin layer of silicone to the cord can further facilitate the gathering process.

Secure the starting end of the cord with a knot or an object like a button to prevent it from pulling through the stitching. Set your sewing machine to the widest zigzag stitch and adjust the stitch length, ideally around 2.5 – 3. Sew over the cord, ensuring that you do not catch it in the stitching.

This is crucial, as the cord needs to function as a drawstring later on.

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