Shirring is a pretty and functional way to add detail to fabric with elastic thread. It can look intimidating at first, but I promise its easy once you understand how its sewn. Shirring is super quick to sew and could mean you won’t need to use buttons or zips…bonus!
You may see shirring used a lot on children’s clothing for around the waist or on women’s tops, and dresses. Shirring is often used to create comfortable waistbands, blouse hems and around sleeves to create puff detail like on our Camille Top sewing pattern.
Shirring is trending now. You have probably noticed a lot of dresses with shirred bodices and straps or off the shoulder tops that are completely shirred. They are super cute, which is why you should master how to shirr fabric right away!
What is Shirring or Shirred Fabric?
Shirring is a sewing technique used to create stretchy waistbands, top hems, cuffs and even neckbands. Shirring is created by sewing lots of rows of stitching where the bottom thread is replaced with a thin shirring elastic. I like to think of it as stretchy gather stitching! When multiple rows of shirring are sewn the fabric begins to gather up and look crinkled. The fabric can expand because the bottom thread is elasticated creating shirring.
What is the Difference Between Shirring and Smocking?
Smocking is a form of embroidery. It’s made by folding and pleating fabric then hand stitching it in place. You have probably seen smocking on a lot of vintage children’s patterns or women’s dresses.
I have noticed that smocking has started to make an appearance within the sewing and high fashion communities again, which is so exciting to see. Shirring can be confused with smocking as they look similar from a far. Smocking is more intricate whereas shirring is just straight rows of gathering that shrinks the fabric up.
Shirring is the easier, faster and more practical version of smocking.
What You Need to Shirr Fabric
You will need to purchase an elastic thread to start sewing shirring. It is a very thin elastic that is thicker than standard thread but the thinnest type of elastic you can get. I suggest buying a good quality brand like Dritz or Gutermann as the cheaper ones can become stretchy and weak after sewing or washing.
Quality elastic is usually only available in black or white, so choose what will be best for your fabric colour and type. If your project fabric is sheer, you may need to consider dying the white elastic. The elastic is sewn on the wrong side of the fabric so you could test if the elastic is visible or not first.
The upper thread on the sewing machine requires a quality all-purpose thread.
Best Fabrics for Shirring
Shirring works better when sewn on lightweight fabrics that shrink up nicely. Think cotton gauze, rayon, chiffon, silk, light weight linens, polyester, cotton voile and cotton lawn.
These will gather up the best and give a lovely, shirred result. Make sure to test the shirring first as every fabric performs differently.
How to Shirr Fabric with Elastic Thread
Step 1: Wind the Elastic on the Bobbin
The bobbin needs to be filled with the shirring elastic, but this needs to be done by hand. The elastic can’t be wound onto the bobbin too tightly because it will be stretched out and won’t allow the shirring to work properly.
Start by threading the shirring elastic through to small hole on the bobbin.
Slowly hand wind the elastic onto the bobbin until its filled. This doesn’t take too long as the thread is thicker than the standard kind.
Cut the thread off the spool.
Step 2: Thread up the Sewing Machine
Thread the upper thread on the sewing machine as you normally would. Use a good quality thread that matches your fabric colour.
Thread the bobbin with the elastic shirring into the bobbin case as you normally would. You can find a full tutorial on how to thread up your sewing machine here.
Step 3: Set the Machine Settings
Set the machine stitch length to 4 or 5. This is a standard length for sewing gathers. Shirring is sewn on the standard straight stitch setting.
Tip: If you can set your stitch length higher try shirring a few rows on scrap fabric and see how it turns out. A longer stitch length creates a tighter fabric gather.
Step 4: Marking Up
This step isn’t always necessary, but you can pre-mark your shirring lines with chalk. This will help you keep the rows evenly distributed as the fabric begins to gather more.
Tip: I like to sew my shirring foot width apart. This means I line up my machine foot with the last row of stitching sewn.
Step 5: Start Shirring
Begin sewing your first row of stitching by going forward 2-3 stitches. Stop and use the handwheel to back stitch 2-3 times. This secures the threads but won’t cut the elastic. Continue sewing to the end of the row and repeat the back stitching method.
To pull out your work set the machine needle up and hold onto the top and bottom threads. Slowly pull the threads out from the machine and leave a 5cm tail.
Tip: Leaving thread tails will help stop the shirring from unravelling on you while you continue to sew more rows. It’s helpful when you sew two seams together to trap these tails in a side seam for extra securing.
Step 6: How to Continue Sewing Rows of Shirring
You will find that each row of stitching causes the fabric to gather up more. It is important to pull the fabric flat as you sew each new row of shirring. This stops the elastic from getting shorter with each row of stitching.
Tip: Be careful when stretching out the fabric. Gently pull the fabric so the elastic is stretched out but not too tight that you are pulling it through the machine feed. This will cause the needle to break!
Step 7: Pressing
Once the shirring is complete its important to give it a press. Set the iron to the right setting for your fabric and steam over the shirring. This will slightly shrink the elastic which helps pull in the gathering creating a professional tight shirr.
Shirring Trouble Shooting Tips
- Do you Backstitch when Shirring? Yes! I recommend backstitching the start and end of each row of stitching. Do this by hand with the hand wheel rather than using the machine foot pedal. This is to prevent the elastic from being cut.
- How to Tighten the Shirring? Use your iron on a steam setting and give the shirring a press. This will help the elastic shrink a little bit and create a tighter shirr on your garment. You can also try adjusting your sewing machine tension to be tighter. This will require some test sewing to check that the top and bottom thread are working in unison.
- How to Wash Shirred Garments? Hand washing in Lukewarm water is best as the elastic stretch can wear out after a while causing the garment to stretch out over time. Heat can also break the small fibres in the elastic causing it to wear out quicker. Therefore, I suggest using a high-quality elastic thread!
- Why is my Machine Making Weird Noises? If your sewing machine is making weird noises, stop sewing! The first step is to rethread the bobbin and try sewing again. If that doesn’t help read through your machine manual on how to check the tension is correct.
You can use a shirring foot, which helps create gathers more evenly. I use my standard machine foot but this would be easier to see the stitching lines better as you sew.
Projects to Try Shirring On
Now that you have all the tips and tricks on how to shirr fabric you can try out shirring on one of the garment projects below.
Was this Blog helpful for your sewing project? Let us know in the Comments below!