Shirring made simple - 2 types of machines

Have you noticed on any garments the rows and rows of gathered fabric? The whole thing stretches and just when you wonder why and look on the inside of the garment, you don't see the usual thread, but instead a thick elastic thread! Well, that's shirred fabric. Elastic shirred to be specific. (You can also gather fabric using normal thread but that won't stretch...and that's called thread shirring)

The concept is pretty simple: You sew straight stitches with your normal thread as the top thread and elastic thread in the bobbin. Once you adjust the bobbin tension and stitch length accordingly, when you make a straight stitch the elastic thread on the bottom stretches but reverts back to its original length once you finish, thereby creating a gathering. Creating more such gathered rows produces a beautiful effect and enables the garment to fit more snugly, contouring to body shapes and curves.

Would you like to try shirring? Now, depending on the machine you have shirring can be super-duper simple or just super simple. The basic difference in the simpleness depends on whether you have a machine that has a metal case for the bobbin or if you have one where you just drop-in the bobbin under the presser foot. Read on for shirring methods using both types of machines...

I have a Brother sewing machine with a drop-in bobbin (no metal casing for the bobbin). I had tried shirring on my machine and failed numerous times to the point of giving up. Every tutorial I referred to explained shirring using machines that have a bobbin case and made it sound so easy too.  I could not find a successful tutorial for this kind of machine, yet I am sure there are so many out there using these. Recently I traveled to India, where my Janome machine (with a case for the bobbin) lies in wait for me every time I visit. So I decided to give shirring a try and boy! was it easy. It just made me think that I was indeed not doing something on my drop-in bobbin machine to get the same effect. I came back and tried a few adjustments and have successfully shirred using both types of machines. Now I am shir-crazy!

Here are the step-by-step for both types of machines:

Super-Duper easy shirring: Using a machine that has a metal bobbin case

So....this is your bobbin case. See that screw there? First step is to loosen it just a little bit. A quarter turn to the left. Remember the starting position so you can get it back there to do your normal stitching.

Now, wind the bobbin by hand using elastic thread. I forgot to take a picture of the spool of elastic thread. But it looks like just a regular thread spool but with elastic thread instead. Don't be confused looking at the don't need to fit it in anywhere on your machine. You just need the thread. Wind your bobbin by hand with no tension on the elastic, but just just tightly enough. (Don't over wind the bobbin like I did in the picture below. It would not fit into the case. Yeah! So I took out some of it.)

Now load the bobbin like you normally would and get the bobbin thread out.

Set a longer stitch length.

You can prepare the fabric by drawing lines about 1/2" to 1" apart or you can just eye ball it using the presser foot as a guide. Start the straight stitch on the first line as you normally would.

See how it's all gathered up?

Now, before cutting of the threads, pull a few inches of thread from the bobbin and then cut.
Proceed to stitch the next few rows. Make sure you stretch the fabric so that it is not gathered when you stitch the subsequent rows.

See? Now iron on the shirred surface.

The back of the shirred fabric...

While in India, I found 2 different types of elastic threads...both intended for bobbin use. One was slightly thicker than the other. The thinner thread is the one I find in the US.

For the same machine settings and the same length of fabric, the 2 threads gave different elastic tensions on the fabric. The thicker thread shirred it a lot tighter. The fabric was reduced to 1/3rd its original length. The thinner one reduced the fabric to 1/2 its original length.

Keep that in mind while measuring and cutting fabric to be shirred. The fabric length will reduce by half! (or more...if you get your hands on the thicker elastic.)

Don't forget to tighten the bobbin case screw or turn the stitch length back to normal before you do your regular stitching!

Super easy shirring: Using a drop-in bobbin machine

If you have one of these types of machines, shirring is not as straight forward as with the other machine...but its not difficult either.

Did you know that this machine has a bobbin case too, one that you can remove? You just don't handle it as often as you HAVE to on the other machine.

After you remove the bobbin lid and the bobbin, you have to remove the plate that covers the bobbin case. You might have to disengage a latch like the one shown below or something similar to remove the plate.

Grab a hold of the black bobbin case and slowly wiggle it out.

Unlike the other bobbin case, you have to TIGHTEN the case screw. You will see two screws on the case. The one that adjusts the bobbin tension is usually marked by the manufacturer. In most Brother machines, the screw has green paint over it. (you might have to scrape off just a little bit of the paint in order to get your precision screw driver into that ridge.)

Tighten the screw - about 1/2 to 3/4th turn to the right. Again, remember the starting position of the screw, so you can turn it back before you do regular stitches.

Put the case back in and snap the cover plate back in place.

Winding the bobbin is done differently when you have this type of machine. This took a lot of experimenting before I settled on the perfect tension. The best tension was achieved when I held on to the spool of elastic thread and then proceeded with machine winding the bobbin. The key is to press on the foot pedal lightly to wind it slowly while pulling on the spool just a little bit.

Set the stitch length to a longer length. Proceed with the rows of straight stitches as explained above.

Don't forget  to iron on the shirred surface to bring the fabric together.

And make sure to leave at least 2-3 inches of elastic threads on the loose ends...

Remember to loosen the bobbin case screw and lower the stitch length before proceeding with your regular stitching.

Use the shirred fabric as an accent panel on a dress or make a top out of it. My shir-crazy happiness achieved its peak when I finished this shirred and ruffled rainbow dress for Big Sisters birthday.

Happy shirring!


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