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How To Sew with Shirring Elastic

Jules describes using shirring elastic in one of our Technique Tuesdays. We also have step by step images to follow along with too.

Traditionally, this was done by hand and looked very similar to smocking. However it is now much quicker and easier to sew on a modern sewing machine.

The basic premise of shirring is to use a thin thread type of elastic instead of the bobbin thread. As this thin elastic passes through the bobbin tension mechanism it is stretched slightly when it creates the stitch with the normal top thread. The elastic contracts once the stitch has been created thus drawing up the fabric into gathers.

It is a very gently technique so is best suited for lightweight fabrics such  as cotton lawn, poplin of lightweight linen.

Shirring is most commonly seen used in rows to mimic traditional smocking. However, used in a free motion style it can create a very beautiful effect on a light or sheer fabric.

All machines are different and may require a different setting from other machines to deal with the elastic thread. A test sample should always be carried out to make sure you get the desired results on your garment. No-one likes unpicking shirring!

You will need to have a light amount of tension while winding to make sure the elastic doesn’t become too loose and sit untidily on the bobbin.

How to shirr

1. The thin elastic thread should be hand wound on to the bobbin.

2. Insert the bobbin into your machine making sure that the elastic passes through all of the tension mechanism. Basically following the path the normal thread would take.

3. Bring the elastic up to the top plate as you would do normally, so both top thread and elastic are sitting on the plate tucked under the presser foot.

4. Set your stitch length to longer than normal, some machines may work better with a very long stitch. Start sewing a row and backstitch as usual to secure your sewing. Carry on to the end of the fabric and backstitch again to secure the stitches.

5. Sew the second and subsequent rows making sure they are evenly spaced. It works very well to use the right side of the presser foot as a guide to run along the previous row of sewing.

Always have the fabric flat as you are sewing. Have a hand front and back of the needle to keep the fabric flat as you sew.  

The first row will not shrink up the fabric as much as you might be thinking, however each subsequent row of shirring will contract the fabric a little further. 

6. Once all the lines of shirring have been sewn the amount the fabric has been gathered in by may be enough. But if you want to shrink the fabric a little further, gently steam the shirring with the iron. This will contract the elastic a bit more and firm up the shirring.

Top Tips 

As you are shirring the fabric it is most likely that you the bobbin will run of elastic. To minimise the inconvenience of this, wind three of four bobbins at one time. So all you have to do is just switch bobbins and carry on. Although try not to run out of thread mid row! image

Troubleshooting Checklist

  • Make sure the bobbin isn’t over wound with elastic.
  • Make sure that the elastic hasn’t popped out of part of the bobbin tension mechanism.
  • Don’t sew through layers of fabric it ill be too thick for the elastic to pull up the fabric.
  • Try lengthening the stitch length.
  • Adjust the tension only as a last resort and keep a track of how you have altered it.