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Shirring 101

Shirring 101

I recently learned a sewing technique that I instantly became obsessed with; I’m talking about shirring! Now that I know everything I know about shirring, I want all other sewers to learn the same so that they can love it too. So today, I’m sharing this Guide to Shirring, which will cover everything you need to know to master this technique for yourself. 

Shirring 101

What is Shirring?

Shirring is made up of parallel, elasticized rows of stitches that create a stretchy and gathered line of stitches. This effect is accomplished by loading your bobbin with elastic thread and making small changes to stitch and tension settings. It is commonly found on garment bodices, waistbands, and sleeve hems.

shirringWhat Supplies are Needed to Shirr in Sewing? 

What kept me from learning how to shirr for the longest time was the belief that I needed a particular type of sewing machine to get the job done. But, to my great surprise, shirring can be done on any regular sewing machine! Also, most sewers will already have most of the supplies on hand to make a shirred dress or top. Sewing these rows of stitching isn't as hard as you think!

List of Sewing Supplies Needed:

  1. All-purpose thread (matching your fabric) 
  2. Elastic thread: They make thin elastic thread that is good for shirring.
  3. Fabric (of a lighter weight): Heaver fabrics are more difficult to shirr.
  4. Clear quilting ruler
  5. Marking tool

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

What Types of Fabric Can Be Shirred? 

The general rule of thumb regarding shirring is that the lighter the fabric, the more it will gather and can be shirred. Lightweight fabrics, such as rayon challis, gauze, gingham, seersucker, and chiffon, are great for shirring. If the fabric is too heavy, the elastic thread will not be strong enough to gather it for shirring.

Additionally, shirring is typically done on woven fabrics to create a stretch in a material that would otherwise have little to no stretch. That being said, I have had excellent success shirring with lightweight stretch knits in the past. In my sewing room, anything that isn’t thick and heavy is subject to shirring!

How to Shirr

If you can do a straight stitch, you can shirr. Shirring is accomplished by exchanging the regular thread in your bobbin for elastic thread and changing your machine’s stitch and tension settings. The most complicated part about learning to shirr will be discovering exactly what those settings should be for your specific machine, as it can truly vary from one device to the next. I’ve found the best way to figure this out is by doing a few trial-and-error tests on some scrap fabric. For this reason, I will provide a step-by-step guide explaining how to approach this trial-and-error process when first learning how to shirr.

Steps for Learning How to Shirr

Step 1 – Prep Your Practice Fabric 

Using some scrap (lightweight) fabric, cut a few squares at least 11″ wide.

Using a clear quilters ruler and a marking tool, draw two parallel lines along the sides of the fabric, that are 10″ apart. (Perfect shirring should shrink your fabric by about 45-50% – using 10″ will simply make the math easier when calculating what percentage the fabric has shrunk.) Now, make your stitch guidelines: the stitches will run parallel to each other, across the width of the fabric, each ½” apart.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Step 2 – Wind the Thread Around Your Bobbin

Winding a bobbin with elastic thread must be done by hand, as the machine will stretch it too much while winding, causing the tension to be off. I was taught not to stretch the elastic when winding, later to discover my machine only shirrs when I give the elastic a very slight stretch while I wind.

Like the length and tension settings, how tightly the bobbin should be wound will vary slightly depending on your machine. For a quick way to find out whether your machine prefers a slightly loser or slightly tighter wound bobbin, wind one of each and test them both out.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Insert the bobbin, threading the machine as usual, using all-purpose thread for the top.

Step 3 – Sewing Machine Settings

Make sure the machine is set to a straight stitch and set your stitch length to 3-4 (this may need to be adjusted later).

Before changing any tension settings, we will sew the first test square.

Step 4- Sewing a test square.

Start and end each row by doing about three stitches in place. Some also recommend using a backstitch at the beginning and end of each line (and hiding them within the seam allowance) but backstitching can be problematic with elastic thread. Another option is to leave your elastic thread tails long, pull them to the back, and tie them off after sewing your lines. Sew about 4-5 lines of shirring; now it’s time to inspect the first test run.

If you are extremely lucky, your machine may shirr without changing any tension. If this is the case, your fabric should have shrunk to about 5-5 ½”, both the top and bottom threads will be straight without loops, and the fabric will be able to stretch without any elastic thread breakage.

Unfortunately, most of us will not be that lucky, the next step will show you how to interpret your test scrap to discover whether you will need to tighten or loosen any tensions.

Step 5 – Troubleshooting

Your top elastic thread breaks when shirring is stretched: Loosen your top thread tension at the top of your machine.

Your top elastic thread is loose and looping: Tighten your top thread tension.

Your fabric has not shrunk quite enough: Increase your stitch length and/or wind your bobbin tighter. Try your longest stitch length.

Your fabric has barely shrunk at all, the fabric is not stretching, and/or elastic thread is not straight: Tighten your bobbin tension by turning the screw on your bobbin case to the right. I would advise doing this at about ¼” turn increments. 

Your fabric has shrunk too much: Lower your stitch length and/or wind your bobbin looser. 

Step 6- Re-adjust and Test Again

After evaluating your first test run, change your machine settings following the troubleshooting guide above. Prep and sew another fabric square, repeating steps 1 and 4.

Again, evaluate your shirring. You are looking for your test to have shrunk by about 45-50%, both the top and bottom threads will be straight without loops, and the fabric will be able to stretch without any elastic thread breakage.

You may need to continue with a few more trial and error runs: using Step 5, evaluating, re-adjusting and so on until you have found the settings that your machine needs to shirr.

Once you have done so, your end result should resemble the shirring pictured below. Congratulations!

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Shirring Tips

  • Bobbins: Chances are, you will go through multiple bobbins when shirring a garment
  • Wind a few bobbins at once to eliminate the need to be continuously wind your bobbin thread throughout your project
  • Note any changes you make to your bobbin tension
  • I typically make a note on some painter's tape and stick it right on my machine
  • If you run out of bobbin in the middle of a line, do not worry
  • Noisy Sewing Machine: Do not worry if your machine makes some irregular noises when sewing using elastic thread – this is normal
  • Use of Elastic Thread: Make sure you have the right thread in your machine for this.
  • Distance Between the Lines: Feel free to play around with the distance between the lines, it doesn’t always have to be ½” 
  • Use an Iron: Use a steam iron with to shrink your shirring another 5% if needed
  • Presser Foot: Use your presser foot as a guideline to eliminate the need to mark your fabric. This walking foot or presser foot will help you keep consistent.
  • Fabric: Get the right fabric for shirring like lightweight cotton. Heavier fabrics won't work well.
  • Where to Start? Start where the last stitching ended, pull all elastic thread tails to the back, and knot them together
    • I typically make a note on some painter's tape and stick it right on my machine
  • This will ensure you do not need to do the trial-and-error process again
  • Machine Settings: Once you’ve found the right setting for your machine, record those settings!!! 
    • This will ensure you do not need to do the trial-and-error process again

What fabrics are best for shirring?

Lightweight and breathable fabrics such as cotton, linen, and rayon are best for shirring. These fabrics allow the elastic thread to gather and create the desired shirred effect, while also providing comfort and flexibility in the finished garment.

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