There are certain things in sewing that you just hate doing. Some people hate setting zips (if you do, use the zip method in this tutorial and they will come out perfect every time), some people hate setting sleeves, and some people hate gathering. I was one of the latter.
My very first proper sewing project, made well over half a lifetime ago, was an 8-gore double-circle skirt, with HUGE amounts of fabric gathered into the waistband. I did not mind learning how to do a tiny rolled hem and hemming the meters of fabric, but I did NOT enjoy gathering in the gores at all. A decade of sewing did not improve my dislike of gathering one bit, and I just tried to avoid garments that involved it. I would do anything but gathering: tiny cartridge pleating, tiny knife pleats, little box pleats…
Then I figured out how to do cord gathering, and the skies parted, and angels sang. Cord gathering is AMAZING. It allows you to quickly and easily gather in huge amounts of fabric, perfectly and evenly, with no need to sew multiple lines of thread, no need to start and stop your stitching every two feet or so, so the threads don’t get too long, and no chance of broken threads as you gather. Oh, and the gathers look much, much better than standard gathers.
Have I mentioned that cord gathering is amazing?
So, the next time you need to gather in a huge skirt, sew acres and acres of ruffles, or just do a wee bit of gathering for a little girls frock, here is the 100% effective, 100% painless way to do it.
For this tutorial you will need:
- The fabric you want to gather.
- A thin, strong cord for gathering, such as heavy-duty thread, dental floss, or fishing line.
- Thread, scissors, a sewing machine, etc.
A note on cord choices:
I like to use heavy-duty thread for my gathering, because I prefer the way it feels as I work with it. I also like that it’s (or at least can be) a natural fibre, so there are no synthetics left in my garments if I choose to leave it in. Unlike finishing line, heavy thread will have minimal effect on the overall fall of your garment if left in.
Many people prefer to use fishing line because it’s much harder to catch in your stitching, and easier to pull out when you are finished. I don’t like to use it because I hate the way it feels running through my hands (it gives me the same heebie-jeebies as fingernails on a chalkboard), but that’s a weird personal things. There is also the small possibility that if you do hit the fishing line as you stitch, you’ll cut right though it, and have to start over, whereas you can unpick and rescue your gathers if you stitch through the thread.
Dental floss works well, and is useful because almost everyone has some around the house (hopefully!). It pulls out easily, doesn’t affect the fall of the finished garment, but can be caught in the stitching.
All of the types of cord have advantages and disadvantages, experiment and pick the one you like working with best.
Set your sewing machine to a fairly tight, medium height zig-zag stitch. On most sewing machines your stitch length should be between 1.5-2.2, and your stitch width (height) should be between 1.5-3.
Tie a nice BIG knot in one end of your cord, 10ish cm / 4ish inches from the end of the cord, so you have a little tail to hold on to:
If you are gathering in a large amount of fabric (say, a huge skirt, or a ruffle for a petticoat), divide your fabric into at least four sections, and mark the start/end point of each section. Then, measure out a length of cord as long as you want the finished gathered length of fabric to be, divide your cord into four sections, and mark the start/end points of each section on the cord. Pilot Frixion pens work great for marking the cord and fabric. The marks will help you to gather the fabric to the correct length as you sew.
And now, for the gathering:
You’re going to be zig-zag stitching over the cord, just within the seam allowance of the fabric.
Place the edge of your fabric at the 1cm / 1/2″ seam line (assuming your garment to sew has a standard 1.5cm / 5/8″ seam allowance – you want the gathering to be in the seam allowance), and place the cord so it runs directly between the inner and outer edges of the zig-zag stitch.
Start stitching, backstitching at the beginning, and making sure that your zig-zag stitches fall on either side of the cord, enclosing the cord in stitching. Make sure that you do NOT sew through the cord at any point, as you won’t be able to gather along it if you do.
Here is what it should look like:
As you sew, pull on the cord from the front, to gather in the fabric over the cord as it comes out from behind your foot.
Use the marks on your cord and fabric to make sure you are gathering the correct amount for each section.
Here is what the finished gathers look like:
See how neat and crisp they are! Now all you have to do is attach them to your skirt, waistband, dress etc!
When you attach them, be sure to sew just below the zig-zag stitching, so it doesn’t show through on the right side of the garment. After you have sewn your gathered fabric on to a waistband etc, you can pull out the cord you used for gathering.
Here I have sewn the gathered fabric on to the waistband (I’ve shown the un-gathered section, because it is easier to see). Note how my stitching is below the zig-zag corded stitching, so it doesn’t show on the outer finished garment:
For ruffles on a petticoat, I use lace or beading to cover the raw edges of the fabric:
If you don’t want to have raw edges that need covering, use the fold method of cord gathering (see below for more info).
The zig-zag technique works for almost all applications, and almost all fabrics. It is not, to the best of my knowledge, a historically accurate technique (zig-zag stitching was not available on most machines until the 1950s), but it’s quick, easy, painless, and makes beautiful ruffles.
You can also do cord gathering by folding your fabric over a cord, stitching close to the cord using a zipper foot, and then gathering the fabric along the cord like a drawstring. I’ve described that method of cord gathering in much greater detail in this tutorial. I have seen the second method of cord gathering on at least one garment from the early 1900s, so it is period accurate to that era (though uncommon). It does not, however, work well on heavier fabrics, nor does it work for any type of gathering where you don’t have an edge to fold over.