Gathering and Ruffling Techniques

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Three ways to gather / ruffle fabric.  

There are certain things in sewing that people dislike doing. Some people hate setting zips some people hate hemming, and some people hate gathering.  If you are new to gathering or just plain hate doing it, we hope to help by Removing the pain by using the correct tools and methods for your project.

Here are the best methods for gathering all kinds of textiles.

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.

Simple Stitch Gathering

The simplest way to gather for small areas is to sew a row of straight machine stitches with the longest length and low tension. then pull the under thread like a drawstring. 

Sew a second row over the top to secure the gathers, or leave them loose if you want to adjust their spacing as you sew onto your next piece of fabric. This method is used when easing pattern pieces and for small areas such as into cuffs, collars, sleeve heads etc. 

Multiple rows can be sewn using this method to give a more stable regular gather, the rows can be flexible or over stitched so there is no stretch or give. You can add ribbon, or cording over the gathered stitch lines to add decoration and strength.

Machine Gathering Foot

This pic shows a mix of both a simple gathering foot, and top right is the ruffler foot.

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

The first method suitable for any length is to use 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 and you may need to adjust the machine tension to achieve exactly the density you need for a very tightly ruffled fabric using this method. Test it on a scrap of fabric; adjust the length of the stitch and tension until you obtain the desired amount of fullness. 

Showing the gathering foot sewing the ruffles on the bottom layer straight onto a flat top fabric layer by slotting the top fabric into the foot groove, so  its gathered and joined at the same time.

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

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

Machine Ruffler Foot

The second method is suitable for medium to longer  lengths, is to use the more complex pleating /ruffler attachment foot.

Novice sewists can get overwhelmed with this tool but don’t let it scare you. 

They can be expensive new but always available on Ebay and other places second-hand for a reasonable price. It’s really worth taking 30 mins to learn to master it. 

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

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 light to medium weight, and can slip on very shiny satins. 

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

Cord Gathering

The third and most versatile way that is very good for long lengths is to cord gather.

This simply means to make a machine zigzag stitch over a thread, cord, or wire then draw the fullness in. 

The advantage of cord gathering is you can adjust the gathers as tightly or loosely as you want and adjust until you are happy. It allows you to quickly and easily gather huge amounts of fabric, perfectly and evenly,  and the gathers look much better than standard gathers with a domestic gathering foot. It’s a simple, painless way to do it.

For heavier fabrics and long lengths 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 normal zigzag foot for thin cords / threads, or choose a suitable cording foot.

Cording feet attachments can vary a lot, they can have tubes or grooves and be for fine or chunky cords. They can hold one or multiple cords.

We actually use the mini beading foot shown in this pic as it’s perfect for heavier weight fabrics and holds a thicker nylon cord which we pull out at the end and reuse.

This sample is sewn over a strong thin nylon wire, like a fishing line. Start-end is wound around a toggle button to stop it from pulling through as you sew.

It is very easy to slide the gathers along the wire and arrange them as you want them, then lay your flat joining layer over and sew through all layers to secure the gathers. 

 The next video shows this been sewn.

This sample uses a much larger cord for heavy fabrics to make medium gathers. For heavy skirts and period clothing, the cord is removed after the final seams are sewn and the excess seam allowance is trimmed or finished. 

The foot is the narrow beading foot in pic above and has it small length of plastic tube 

Start by choosing a cord that is smooth and silky to make it easier to gather the fabric at the end. We wipe it with silicone to make it easier to gather the fabric.

Tie a big knot or object such as a button to the start end of your cord so it won’t pull through your stitching.

Set your sewing machine to the widest zigzag, and adjust the stitch length to suit, approx. 2.5  -3 length. Sew over the cord, you must not catch the cord in the stitching at any point or it won’t act as a drawstring later.


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