Gathers are a wonderful way of adding detail and interest to a design and for ‘losing’ extra fabric. They are a form of fabric suppression and sit alongside pleats, tucks and darts in that respect. Suppression is where a piece of fabric is ‘suppressed’, or constrained, into another shape or to fit another piece of fabric. So darts in a bodice will ‘suppress’ the fabric to fit more smoothly over the bust. Pleats and gathers will ‘suppress’ a large piece of fabric to fit a smaller one.
You will find gathers almost anywhere on a garment as they can be used in all sorts of situations. But they are most commonly found where a large piece of fabric needs to be reduced to fit another smaller piece of fabric. Gathering a skirt onto a waistband for example, or gathering a sleeve head into an armhole.
How to sew gathering threads
In order to gather up fabric, long stitches are sewn in parallel rows along the section of fabric that is to be constrained or suppressed. The rows of stitching are not usually secured at either end, but instead longtails of thread are left so they can be held tight when the fabric is eased along the threads gathering the fabric up. These gathering threads can be sewn by hand or with a sewing machine.
Gathering by hand
Thread a needle with a long piece of thread and make a knot at one end. Sew long even stitches along the area to be gathered. When you reach the end leave a long tail of thread. Now sew a second row parallel to the first but about 0.5cm apart. Make sure to tie a knot in the end of the thread for this row too.
Holding the tails of thread firmly, gently push the fabric up the threads so it bunches up.
When the fabric has gathered up the required amount you can fasten off the long threads by winding them around a pin in a figure of 8.
You can then arrange the gathers so they sit evenly next to each other along the gathered section. The gathered fabric and be pinned in place to another piece of fabric and sewn together.
Gathering by machine.
The same principles apply: a long stitch and leaving long tails at the start and finish of your sewing. But you can sew gathering rows using a sewing machine instead of by hand. This does give a more even and consistent looking set of gathers.
Once the rows of stitching have been sewn you can gently release the bobbin thread by hooking it up with a pin.
Double or Triple Rows?
Most of the time a double row will be sufficient to do the job. The first row is sewn about 0.5cm from the raw edge of the fabric. The second is then sewn 0.5cm from the first row. This ensures that both rows of sewing are included inside the 1.5cm seam allowance and just be left in place without removing them afterwards.
Sometimes three rows of stitches are more useful, particularly if you have a very lightweight bouncy fabric and the gathers need to be held more securely in place as they are sewn.
Fabric sewn with two rows of gathering stitches
Fabric sewn with three rows of gathering stitches
In this case you can sew the first two rows as described and then sew the third row 2cm from the raw edge of the fabric.
This does mean that the third row will be outside the seam allowance and will need to be removed after the gathers are stitched in place.
This can leave tiny pinholes in the fabrics but you should just be able to stroke the fabric with your fingernail to realign the threads in the fabrics to remove the holes.
Gathering by Zigzag
If you have fabric that is quite thick or a heavier weight, and using a normal stitch is not going to be strong enough, you can use a cord thread and zigzag stitch to gather up fabric instead.
Lay the cord along the path of the gathers and choose a zigzag stitch that will cover the cord but not give it too much room to move. The stitch length should be a medium length so it’s not too close together like a satin stitch, but close enough to hold the cord in place effectively. I used a setting here of width – 3 length 2.5. But you may need to practice on your own machine to work out the settings that work best for you.
Sew the zigzag stitch over the cord along the area to be gathered. Make sure to secure the zig zag stitches firmly at the start and finish of your sewing.
You can then firmly but gently pull the cord threads and push the fabric along them to create the gathers. Pin in place so you can even out and adjust the gathers before stitching them in place.
Gathers are very simple to create, and make a really effective way to add a ruffle to a garment as we have done in our Celia top. You can also use them to gather up skirts like the Desdemona or as a decorative feature across the back yoke as in the Helena Dress.
So I hope you give gathers a go!