Tutorial: shirring with elastic thread

I know that a number of you out there are terrified by the concept of shirring with elastic thread. You Fear the Shirr.

Shirring is sewing with elastic thread in the bobbin of your sewing machine to create a “smocked” appearance on your fabric (it’s not actually smocking, though; true smocking is a decorative stitching technique done on pleated fabric…my grandma used to hand-smock dresses for me back in the seventies and eighties).

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I completely sympathize with those of you who are intimidated by shirring, because when the shirring trend started to get really hot a few years ago I just could NOT get it to work on my machine — and, after attempting it a few times, I just about threw my sewing machine out the window. Eventually I figured it out, and now I use it all the time! It’s great for simple sundresses, and as many of you know, the back of the my Washi Dress Pattern is shirred, giving it a fantastic, comfortable fit and preempting the need for a zipper. The ability to shirr (I just had to look up that word to make sure it existed) is an excellent skill to have in your sewing arsenal, so I thought I’d put together a little tutorial for you today! Soon you’ll be shirring like a pro!!

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I use a Bernina Activa 220, which has a front-loading bobbin. I’ll address the top-loading bobbin, too, but be aware that each machine will be a little different, and you might find that you need to make an adjustment or two in order to find the perfect technique for you. I’ve included some links to other tutorials at the bottom of this post, so if you find that this method doesn’t work well on your machine, you may want to check out some of those.

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First, let’s talk about elastic thread. You can find elastic thread in the notions aisle of any sewing superstore next to the other elastics, but I’d recommend that you skip the store brand or Dritz brand elastic threads (I’ve had mediocre results with those) and look instead for the Gutermann brand, which I’ve heard has a higher quality elastic than the cheaper brands. At some point, I decided just to invest in the giant cone of elastic thread from CTS, and I’m so glad I did. Trust me, at $30 a cone, it’s definitely easier than going back and forth to the store 10 times, and you get about a million times more thread.

Okay, grab your elastic thread, and let’s get started! Slowly wind a bobbin with elastic thread by hand. You’ll want to be careful not to pull or stretch the thread as you wind.

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Now place the bobbin in the bobbin case, pulling the thread through the hole that the thread would normally go through. The key is to do everything the same as if you were threading it with regular machine thread.

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Place the bobbin case in your machine. You’ll be using regular thread in the top of your machine. Increase the stitch length so that it’s slightly longer than usual; for me that’s a length of about 3.5-4 (on a scale of 1 to 5, where 2.5 is normal stitch length). I do NOT adjust the tension on my machine at all; I’ve tried that, but I’ve never found it helpful.

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If you have a top-loading bobbin, it is really REALLY important to make sure that the thread goes through that little thread-guide notchy thing (see arrow in picture below). This is what gives the elastic thread its tension so that it doesn’t make spaghetti squiggles on the back side of your fabric.

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Now put the presser foot down, and just start sewing across your fabric. It’s a good idea to try this on a scrap of fabric before attempting shirring on a garment. You know…because it’s the responsible thing to do.

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When you get to the other side, lift up the presser foot and your needle, and sew another row, about 1/2″ away from the first line. Leave a loop of elastic thread on the edge of your fabric every time you start a new row. Note: you will eventually have to trim these loops, but to hold each line of shirring in place, stitch forward and backward over each elastic thread as you sew the side seams together. This will secure those ends so that they won’t pull out.

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Each row of shirring should seem fairly loose and stretchy, but as you add rows they will work together to gather your fabric. The elastic thread should not squiggle or bubble on the back of the fabric, and it shouldn’t be so tight that it feels like it’s going to break if you stretch the fabric to its original size.

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Once you have sewn all of your rows of shirring, use an iron to blast the stitches with lots of steam on both sides of the fabric. This will help gather your shirring even more. If you have a spray bottle, it may also help to spritz the fabric with a bit of water.

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This is what it should look like after you’ve finished steam-blasting it:

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Let me share one last thing that’s really helped me: on my Bernina (which has the front-loading bobbin), the stitches come out too tight when I’m shirring lightweight fabrics like voile or double gauze (it’s fine when I shirr cottons, though). To fix this, I loosen the bobbin screw slightly (a quarter- or half-turn is usually enough). Don’t forget how much you turned the screw though — you’ll want to turn it back when you’re ready to sew with regular thread again.

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You’ll find that the amount of stretchiness you end up with really depends on the type of fabric you use, so trying it out on a sample first is really important! Play around with ONE variable at a time (don’t change three things at once), sew a couple rows, blast it with steam, and if that doesn’t work, change something else. It may take some persistence to figure out what works best for your machine, but if you are patient and figure it out, you’ll be really glad you did!!!

Further Reading:
Jamie Christina’s Shirring Tutorial (drop-in bobbin)
Flossie Teacake’s Shirring Tutorial (front-load bobbin)
Heather Ross’ Troubleshooting with elastic thread

If you’re intrigued by shirring but don’t have a project picked out yet, here are a few easy practice shirring projects:
Rainbow Dress Tutorial
Baby Sunsuit Tutorial
Heather Ross’s Mendocino Sundress Pattern/Tutorial

71 thoughts on “Tutorial: shirring with elastic thread

  1. Do you find the large spool of elastic thread dries out before you can use it all? I like these projects but don’t do a whole lot of them and I’m just not sure I’d use a whole large spool. But going back and forth to get the small spools is a bother. And I adore your blog!

    • I haven’t had that problem…but maybe I haven’t had the cone long enough yet? Who knows? I have never heard of it drying out!!

      • I just want to say THANK YOU for the website for BULK elastic thread… I have been looking for awhile now & happened across you! You are a Godsend!

    • I was wondering the same, because dry-rot & hardening is a big problem with elastic/rubber. But I read that keeping elastic in a sealed plastic bag away from light and heat is one way to preserve it. Even better, store in air-tight container in refrigerator.

    • I made my first shirred maxi dress this week, for my granddaughter. It was a total flop and failure ! It was so bad that I couldn’t even pick out the elastic and just restitch the shirring. I had to cut out a new dress and start all over. The problem was old elastic thread (I don’t know how old, but because the sewing machine used to belong to my mother, it could in reality be 30 years old !). I should have known it wasn’t right as it didn’t have much stretch and it was very dry and brittle on the outside. A new spool of shirring elastic confirmed my worst fears- the original one was WAY past it’s expiry date ! So, yes, elastic CAN dry out and become cracked and rotten. It can still be wound onto a bobbin and stitched with, but you will see the poor results very quickly.

  2. Thanks for these awesome tips/tricks! I definitely agree about the quality of the elastic thread. Finally switched to Guterman last year and oh man!! The difference is amazing!!(compared to dritz)

  3. This is all extremely helpful. I have an old fashioned machine and have never once had an issue with the shirring, but it’s a front loader 1961 Kenmore. The gals in my Washi dress class all had top loaders and newer machines and wouldn’t you know, they all had troubles. We ended up figuring things out, but this tutorial makes it all so much easier for future classes. Such a great resource, you are! Thanks!

    • hi there!
      I have been troubleshooting elastic shirring all afternoon and your comment caught my attention. I have used older machines for sewing hundreds of shirred dresses over the years and recently bought a new Janome 2030. No luck so far in shirring pillowcase dresses. The elastic I have used is fairly thick and I am wondering if a thinner elastic would be better. What did you discover in your class?

      • I found thinner thread and my older Brother “front loader” DOES THE JOB but my brand new Computerized Brother LB6800 “top loader” just didn’t want to do it… I wasted almost a whole spool before remembered I had the old machine in my closet. Thankfully I kept it! It made “shirring” a snap!

  4. I tried shirring for the first time last week and could have really used this then! It took me a long time to find a way for it to work with my machine. Now I use it for everything! Some useful tips here as well though thanks!

  5. Hi Rae, I just wanted to chime in about shirring with a Brother machine. I had the darnedest time getting it to gather, turns out that the Brother will auto-adjust tension or something like that to prevent puckering (which is what you want in this case!) and I could not get it to gather properly. It took me a lot of googling to figure out it was the type of machine. I tried everything!

    In case anyone is having the same issue, here is a tutorial from Grosgrain Fabulous on how to get it to work better with a Brother (it involves tightening the tension of the bobbin): http://grosgrainfabulous.blogspot.com/2010/08/shirring-with-your-brother.html

    I finally just ended up using my ancient White machine that I bought at a garage sale about 15 years and it worked great!

    • Yes! The Brother machines are quite tricky. I spent a good deal of time and elastic thread working this out but it is possible!

    • I just read the post about shirring on a Brother. Well I recently took a class for the WASHI dress and couldn’t get my PHAFF

    • I took a WASHI dress class and couldn’t get my PHAFF 1475 to shirr….it has a front loading bobbin. I purchased another bobbin to use just for elastic thread and have tried and tried but it’s not coming out the way the instructors machine did it. I’ve adjusted the screw on the bobbin case but have left the stitch length at 3 and the thread tension at 4.5 but the shirring doesn’t seem to be stretchy enough. Any hints from users of this old PHAFF? thanks….

  6. I have thought about this non-stop since campstitchalot in May. I have tried to get myself used to skirts (longer) again and discovered that they are as good as jeans, and two weeks ago I bought elastic thread…it seems just so I can see this tutorial and rush to make a Washi! I need to because it is awesome :). Thank you!

  7. Yes, actually getting the elastic thread around the little “thread-guide notchy thing” (in Rae’s picture above, with the arrow pointing to it) is the big thing you have to make sure of if you have a Brother, OR a Babylock machine. If it is making annoying squiggles on the back of the fabric instead of a nice long straight line of elastic, then that is almost definitely the problem. I would take the whole metal plate off at first to see what was going on in there and make sure it was routing correctly. Thanks for a great tutorial Rae, shirring is the best thing ever!

    • As I said in another comment area,My NEW Brother LB6800 would NOT work for shirring, But my old Brother “front loader” is a dream machine for shirring.. I tried EVERY YouTube video I could find PRIOR to remembering I had the old machine in my closet! I had no luck w/ the newer one. I hope you are able to get it work. Good luck <3

  8. Oh sure, you post this the day after the shirr attempt on my washi… Never having shirred before, I ended up with squiggles and then couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t gathering (I didn’t know what it was supposed to look like on the back side). I picked all of the rows out and am just going to do elastic casing because I think I like the look of that better. I have a bernina bernette with a top loading bobbin and I’m sure it was loaded correctly. I just don’t want to wind another bobbin of that thread.

  9. Just what I needed :) I’ve had the bobbin wound for about 6 weeks but have been too intimidated to get started!

  10. I just made a couple of Washi dresses on my drop-in bobbin machine and the shirring came out perfectly – what a super technique. I did not leave the loops at the end of my stitching lines but simply cut the threads and restarted sewing on each line. Can you explain the purpose of leaving the loops vs. cutting the threads? I did stop to think about how the seam might come loose because I did not backstitch, but I rationalized that I was doing French seams so those elastic thread ends weren’t going to be going anywhere. Is there another reason for leaving the loops that I should be thinking about or concerned with? Thanks!

    • Hi Erica,

      So I leave the loops just to avoid the thread getting pulled out accidentally while I’m putting the shirring in; then when I sew the seam, I make sure to backstitch a few times across the elastic threads, just to make them a bit more secure. You may be right that the ends will be secured by the french seams…but it also might be a good idea just to take the extra precaution!

  11. I’d love to hear replies to Erica’s question, because I have a related one. . . I have had no problem sewing the shirring lines in and getting good gathers. I finished each line by pulling the top thread through and tying a knot with the elastic thread. (I found backstitching to be unreliable). But on one of my Washi dresses, a couple of the lines have come loose, even after sewing the side seams. Is it due to cheap elastic thread? Thanks –

  12. Rae, when you do the second and third rows of shirring, do you make an effort to pull the fabric flat each time? Or are you sewing together gathers from the first row?

    • Hi Amy!
      So I do pull the fabric flat between rows; I don’t want each row to be more gathered than the last, I want them all to be equally gathered!

      :)

  13. I totally second the comment about good (Gutterman) thread. I only had access to rubbish low quality thread where I live and had to make my Washis til now with a hack using normal elastic in the end in order to avoid having it feel like 10 year old knicker elastic. But I got my hands on some Gutterman elastic thread on holiday back in the developed world this summer and stood in the shop like a proper sewing spod stretching it, marvelling and exclaiming things that only other initiates understood. Time for another Washi then… Thanks again. Wonderful post as always x

  14. Hi Rae!, can i do this with a regular sewing machine?.. i have never sewn with elastic thread. but i will love to!

  15. Finally!!! I’ve had two of your sunsuits all sewn up for months and had resigned myself to not finishing them because I couldn’t get my new machine to shir. I thought I’d watched every tutorial and tip out there, but couldn’t figure it out. Until now! Your tips and tricks gave me the one thing I was missing. Thank you!!!

  16. Wow, never shirred before so I tried this on my Babylock Melody (drop-in bobbin). You were right, it took some tweaking. But thanks to your instructions and links, I knew where to start! Desired result came when I turned bobbin tension screw 3/4 rotation to the left, and hand-wound the bobbin WITH tension.

    I really appreciate your blog and tutorials, Rae. I haven’t been sewing for many years, but it’s so easy to follow your steps that I get a boost of confidence every time I try something new! You rock!

  17. Gracias esta muy bien explicado, yo lo hago igual, padezco un poco para dejar todas las pasadas con la misma tensión, pero es muy útil para hacer bonitos modelos. BESOS.

  18. Thanks for the great tutorial. I was wondering if there is a way to adjust how much the fabric gathers? If I adjust my stitch length or tension, does it gather more or less? I made a top that gathered too much and is not comfortable, I wondered what I could change so it gathers a bit less…

  19. Thanks Rae, for this really helpful post! I’m not new to elastic thread, but I continue to have problems and there’s always something more to learn. Thanks to Maggie above for the link and letting me know I’m not the only one out there having problems with those Brother machines!

  20. Thank you so much for writing this tutorial! I’ve been trying to figure out how to shir, and this blog is exactly what I needed. I have a top-loading bobbin case, and I didn’t understand why my elastic thread was all squiggly until I read that point you made about making sure it is caught under the thread guide notchy thing. Thanks!

  21. Hi again Rae!
    I was just wondering – I have a problem with the shirring coming out after I serge my inside seams. After I read your tutorial, I made a wonderful peasant-style top for Halloween, but halfway through the night the elastic thread started loosening up on me. Should I not serge my seams when shirring? Do you know of any other way to keep them held in? I tried stitching and backstitching over them at the ends, but that didn’t seem to do it. Since I make and sell clothes in my Etsy, I like to have nice, finished seams on everything.
    Thanks!

    • Hi hi!!

      If you are finding that stitching back and forth over the shirring isn’t cutting it, try tieing a small double knot in the ends of the elastic thread tails at the side seams, and then still do the backstitching. Another option would be to tie the ends to eachother; basically you just need to secure those ends. Hopefully that combination will work!!

  22. Thanks so much, Rae! I am going to share this on our Facebook Group page with someone struggling with shirring – I find it is very well written and a lot of great tips are in these comments, too! All credit will be given directly to you and your wonderfulness!!! Thank you so much for sharing the knowledge – and keeping the love of sewing going strong!

    Pop by and say “hi” anytime! We think you are FAB!!!

    Smiles,
    Krista Cox
    FF&L

  23. Hello Rae: I purchased two scarfs (one fleece the other a wool like material much lighter )and they were gathered down the whole length at 1/3 and then 2/3 in on the width with elastic thread. They are approx. 12. inches by 102 inches. I purchased some fleece to make a few as gifts and tried to do it myself BUT starting as you did for the demo on shirring with the stitch length at 1 then increasing it to the longest stitch lengthto actually sew it, I have which is 5 it did not gather up tight enough. Do you have any suggestions for me so that I can finish tthis project? Thanks Marg

  24. The thread guide notchy thing!!!!! That is what I wasn’t doing!!! you have made me a Happy Girly!!!!!! Yahoo!!! No one has mentioned that for the drop in bobbin machines. Maybe I’ve been sewing EVERYTHING wrong!!! Ha!! Thank You! I’m so excited!!!!

  25. Hi-

    I understand there is a way to shirr WITHOUT putting elastic in the bobbin, but I can’t get any info on the method… I want to use sturdier/thicker elastics- do you know how this is done??

    many thanks

  26. So I just finished my first shirring attempt and it was a success!! Thank you Rae! I was a bit discouraged in the beginning but you were not kidding about steam, one pass with the iron and it tightened right up!!!
    Thank you, my Washi is going to look superb!

  27. Just as I was about to give up on shirring I found your tutorial – THANK YOU ! One question, I have a front load bernina but I always thread my cotton through the little hole on the end of the arm before loading into the machine , it looks like you miss out this step in the pictures ? My shirring see super tight even with hand wound and trying not to stretch it when putting on the bobbin- might try without threading through that little ( and tedious ) hole.

  28. My 6-year-old daughter has requested some mother-daughter matching nightgowns, and I think some shirring is going to happen! Do you have instructions on how to make the Pomegranite Pierrot with shirring? I would like to make this, in a longer version and in a flower jersey fabric, as a nightgown. Thanks!

  29. Thank you for this tutorial. I was trying to find something on how to do a maxi skirt with elastic threading for the waist, but I don’t want to shirr it. I just want it to fit me right without having to shove elastic banding through my stitched hem. Any advice on that? I can’t find a video that doesn’t show several rows of thread.

  30. Thanks for the info when I ask for elastic thread the young lady looked at me like I was nuts. Now I’m going to order the big spool. Thanks for the info I will let you know how it turns out.
    Thanks Joyce

  31. I have a mystery. Last week I made the Washi dress in a lesser quality cotton. Tried shirring using your directions and the addition resources…all went well on the test piece and the dress. Loved it. Told everyone it is the best thing since maple syrup (live in VT)… Now I am making a second Washi. Better quality fabric, but still a quilting cotton. My shirring is not working. I am not getting any puckering as I sew the rows. When I iron it nothing happens. It is like I have lost the magic! (This is very disappointing). I have tired the following one at a time: lengthen stitch from 4 to 4.5, adjusted upper thread tension, rewound bobbin, turned the bobbin around in the bobbin case, retread the tutorials. I have a Bernina front loading bobbin. I am stumped. I have done so many trials I have to go buy more elastic thread. I will order Gutterman online…can’t buy it in VT, well haven’t found it so far with my calling around, but can you give me any ideas of what to try next? Thanks in advance for you time, your cite is great.

  32. I’ve tried for over an hour… searched the web just as long, and couldn’t get it to work. Then I found your tutorial… and this was it: “If you have a top-loading bobbin, it is really REALLY important to make sure that the thread goes through that little thread-guide notchy thing (see arrow in picture below). This is what gives the elastic thread its tension so that it doesn’t make spaghetti squiggles on the back side of your fabric.”
    THANK YOU!!!!! Now I can finally finish my dress!

  33. It was making sure that the thread went through the “little thread-guide notchy thing” that finally made my fabric pucker!

    Thank you!!

  34. I’m working on a brother cs6000i which is relatively new to me. I understand how important the “little thread-guide notch thing” is and the problem I’m having is getting the elastic thread to stay under when I go to draw up the the lower thread. Every time I try, no matter how carefully I have threaded the bobbin and made sure to pass under that thread guide, it gets pulled out when I bring up the lower thread. I’m getting so frustrated! Help! Also, if I can’t get it to work, should I try smocking instead of shirring? Has anyone done that with the wash dress?

  35. Thank you! I am a beginner, and I really want to learn fast so I can make cute stuff for all of my cousins and me! I tried shirring before and it didn’t work… My sewing machine tends to dislike me. But you said to use REGULAR thread for the needle, not elastic thread?
    I think that might have been my problem…..
    I love all your tutorials, and thus one was very helpful. Gonna go do some sewing now!

  36. Hello,
    Just wanted to let you know that I have found this tutorial very helpful and I have featured you on my blog as part of a round up of my favourite sewing resources :)
    Thank you for sharing your sewing knowledge!
    Jeni

  37. Thanks for this refresher, Rae. I’ve been trying to make a peplum top and shirring was perfect for the back because it’s based on your Washi pattern. I hadn’t shirred in a while and this was just the guidance I needed. Turned out great.

  38. Thank you for the fabulous Washi pattern, and this tutorial. I am relatively inexperienced at sewing (2 years), and the shirring was a new technique for me. I am working on my brand new Juki F600, which has a top-loading bobbin, and didn’t know what to expect. I used Gutermann’s elastic thread, and followed all of your instructions. It worked perfectly! At first, I thought perhaps my machine wasn’t making enough gathers, but they appeared as soon as I followed up with steam. I am delighted to have learned something new, and am excited about completing my adorable new dress.

  39. I have a Bernina 1230 that is a front loading bobbin. I thought I had to use the Black Latch bobbin case for any heavier thread than normal. I don’t want to mess my machine up by adjusting the bobbin screw that came with the machine as it has worked perfectly for many years. Do I need to invest in the Black Latch case (they are quite expensive)? Thanks for awaited reply.

  40. I will be attempting to repair shirring that has started to unravel in an older favorite dress. I need rather soft shirring to match the rest of the dress. I have a Husqvarna SE. Any suggestions before I start????

  41. Oh my godddddddddddd. This tutorial was absolutely amazing and perfect and STRAIGHT to the point. I just tried this out on my Bernina and I had no issues with this, and lemme tell you, I was nervous as heck to try this. “Shirring” fabric seemed so… intimidating. Your instructions were impeccable, and idiot-proof! Lol thank you for this tutorial!

  42. I have a question about shirring in the middle of the fabric (i.e. not going to the seams, but doing a small gather in the back). Is there a way to keep the ends tidy? Do you backstitch every row, tie the stitches together in the back . . .???
    Thanks!

  43. I live in the UK and have tried everywhere to purchase Guterman shirring elastic on a large cone. I can only find small spools 20mtrs length.
    Can you help please.

  44. Great tutorial, Thank you ! I have a store bought shirt that I want to make a duplicate of (without taking apart the shirt). Is there a formula for cutting where I am going to shirr — like half again as long or wide ? The shirring is just all the way around the top (neckline).

    • Hi Sharon,
      There is no rule of thumb for this, unfortunately. It depends on the thickness and drape of the fabric, and how stretchy your thread is, so there’s really no way to know unless you just give it a try. Good luck!

  45. Hi Rae!

    Thanks so much for this! I have a question – I’m wanting to make a tiered corduroy skirt out of stretchy corduroy (it’s quite fine cord) and wonder if shirring will work with it? It’s for my pregnancy :-)

    Thanks again!

  46. I don’t know if this has been previously asked in the comments above, but do you have any instructions or recommendations for shirring something lined? I want to make a sundress for my daughter out of some very thin material that will need a liner. Should I try to shirr them together? Just add a skirt liner to the bottom? Anyone have experience with this?

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