Gathering an Edge Using Machine Stitches

A lot of you already know how to gather, so this post is for the beginners out there. I was about to gather the skirt for the Picnic Dress and thought – wait a moment, this is a great technique to add to the Sewtionary!

So here’s how to gather using machine stitches. There are other gathering methods but this is my usual way to gather, plus it’s the method described on most pattern instruction sheets.

First, determine where you need to gather. Sometimes it will be between two notches, or two small circles, other times you will be gathering the entire length of a piece! Make sure you know where you’re starting and where you’re stopping before you begin.

Next, sew one row of long machine stitches – usually stitch size 4 is used for gathering. Sew this first row just inside your seamline, so if your seam allowances are 5/8″ make your stitch line 1/2″ from the edge.

Sew a second row of stitching 1/4″ from the edge. An easy way to make the second row of stitching is to line up your presser foot edge along the first row of stitching and sew!

Now, separate the top two threads from the bottom two threads. Instructions always say to pull the bobbin threads to gather – does anyone know why?

Tie the two bobbin threads together in a knot. Why? Two reasons. One, it will help you easily find the right threads to pull and keep them separate from the top threads.

Two, it will also help you pull up each row of gathering evenly! If you pull one thread more than the other, your gathering will be uneven. Which is not the worst thing, but it’s much easier if it’s gathered evenly on both lines of stitching!

This next step would be better explained if I had three hands, as the left hand is taking the photo! Hold the bottom threads in your right hand, and use your left hand to slide the fabric along the basting threads. Pull with your right hand, and slide the fabric down the bottom threads. You’re going to end up with a very long tail of threads in your right hand!

Keep pulling the gathers until they match the opposite edge. You’re likely attaching this gathered piece to something else – a waistband, a dress bodice, or perhaps a straight seamed piece. In my case I’m gathering a very full skirt, so I have a lot of gathering to do!

Pin your gathers to the non-gathered edge (in my case, the dress bodice) and adjust them to fit. You can redistribute the fullness of the gathers, if it’s more gathered in one place. Just use your fingers to smooth the fullness into place.

I hope this was useful! Do you have any gathering tips and tricks to share with the beginners out there? Let us know in the comments!

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20 Responses to Gathering an Edge Using Machine Stitches

  1. Cathy October 29, 2010 at 6:27 am #

    I sometimes switch my bobbin thread to a heavy coat thread for gathering. I find having the heavy thread makes it easy to pull and not break the thread.

  2. Amy October 29, 2010 at 6:59 am #

    I just wanted to say that I find these tutorials super useful and am definitely planning on revisiting them when I have more time to sew!

    At the moment I sit at my desk staring wistfully at my large fabric stash, imagining what life would be like if I din’t have to study all the time…

    Thanks so much for these though!

  3. Jenna October 29, 2010 at 8:17 am #

    I’ve found that pulling the bobbin threads makes for a lot easier gathering. It seems the top threads are much more prone to break.
    I also put a pin at the end of the stitching & wrap the threads around it in a figure-8 to insure that they don’t get pulled out. :)

  4. Lauren Kelly October 29, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    Thanks for the instruction – it’s exactly how I’m learning in my sewing class! Love the fabric – can you tell us what it is and where you got it?

  5. CGCouture October 29, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    I like to backstitch on one end so that I don’t inadvertently pull the bobbin thread too far. Also, I was shown to pull both needle and bobbin thread out a little longer than the length you are sewing, backstitch at the beginning point, and zig-zag over the threads. Once you’ve reached the end of the zig-zag, pull those threads you sewed over and make your gathers. It’s a lot less tedious than pulling the two rows of stitches. :-)

  6. Tasia October 29, 2010 at 9:04 am #

    Good tips – thanks for sharing!
    @Cathy: That’s a great idea, do you wind a bobbin in thick thread specifically for gathering? I don’t usually buy anything other than regular all-purpose thread but I hate when the threads break! Sounds like it would be worth it. I’ve had the threads snap and then have to rip out all of the gathers and start again – no fun!

    @Amy: Hi Amy, I’m so happy to hear you enjoy my tutorials! I know, I feel like we all wish we had more time to sew. We’re good at planning and dreaming and buying fabric but never have enough time to make all of the projects in our head!

    @Jenna: Great suggestion about the figure-eight threads wrapped around a pin. I’ll sometimes tie the knot at both ends, leaving one knot to secure the thread and use the other end to pull.. but your tip means you can release the threads if you need to, better than a knot. thanks for sharing!

    @Lauren Kelly: It’s real vintage fabric from the fifties! I bought it on Etsy back in April, here’s the link to the original post.
    I love buying fabric on Etsy because it feels so special and one-of-a-kind! Although, it does make it harder to cut into…

    @CGCouture: That would be great for smaller lengths of gathering I bet! It sounds like it would be hard to gather yards and yards using that method.. I’m going to try it next time, thanks!

  7. Caroline October 29, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    @Cathy Your idea is great, and it kind of answers Tasia’s question, too. Bobbin & top threads are supposed to be tension-balanced so that they intertwine in the middle of the fabric thickness, but we all know that’s not usually the case. Bobbin tension is usually slightly higher and so the bobbin thread is tighter with less “dipping” into the fabric thickness with each stitch. So, it’s easier to pull. @Cathy making that thread thicker not only will increase the tension even more, but I like the idea of making it even less likely to break!

  8. Tasia October 29, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    @Caroline: Ahhh that makes sense! I’ve always remembered to pull the bobbin threads but never knew why. I do find them easier to pull so the tension answer seems logical.. Thanks for the insight!

  9. julia October 29, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing all your knowledge. And so easy to understand for a beginner. I am in year 2 of learning how to sew and I am definitely planning on sewing a little more for myself in 2011. So far, I am still “practising” on kids clothes. I love love love hearing about those little tips like knotting the threads together. I will definitely try that next time.

  10. Anotheryarn October 29, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    I found it difficult to evenly gather long distances (such as a skirt for myself) and so I’ve taken to breaking up my gathering stitches into four even sections. This make each section much easier for me to manage. I hope this makes sense.

  11. Nikole October 29, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    If you think about how a stitch is formed the thread on top is the one that goes down to form the loop around the bobbin thread – which is just sitting there on top of the fabric and not going through to the other side. So it’s actually easier to pull the bobbin thread than the one running through the needle and going through both sides of the fabric

  12. Cathy October 29, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    I initally bought the coat thread to fix a button on a coat years ago that repeatedly broke thread. I honestly can’t remember why I decided to try the first time for gathering, maybe frustration from having thread snap?

    I only have the one spool of black thread and I always keep a bobbin of it around. Colour doesn’t matter for gathering as this will be in the seam allowance anyhow and not visible. Of anything, a mismatched colour is kind of nice so it’s easy to see which thread to pull. In June I used this trick on a bathing suit I made. Kwik Sew 3779 has gathering down the front and side panels (very flattering, btw), my review was here:

    Happy gathering everyone!

  13. Kim October 30, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    I always loosen the tension on the top thread (a lot) before gathering. That way the bobbin thread is basically straight and easier to pull, while the top thread loops around it and holds it in place. The only problem is when I forget to fix the tension after!

  14. Jane October 30, 2010 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Tasia, just discovered your lovely and very useful blog via Tilly – rest assured I’ll be slowly making my way through all your tips! x

  15. Zena October 30, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    Why pull the bobbin thread? As Kim said, it has to do with loosening the tension on the top. It’s a lot easier to adjust the top tension; the bobbin tension (at least on my machine) generally stays the same all the time because it’s set with a screw on the bobbin case. I’ve also heard that if you’re going to use heavy thread on one side, do it on the top. This probably also has something to do with the difficulty of adjusting bottom tension.

    I do my gathers slightly differently.
    1. Sew the basting stitches.
    2. Pin the two pieces of fabric together. If you’re gathering the entire piece, pin at the seam allowances (i.e. 5/8″ from the edge of the fabric). If only part of your piece is gathered, be sure to have a pin right at the start and end point of the gathers, then pin everything that isn’t going to be gathered.
    3. Next, evenly distribute the fullness where the gathers will be. First, fold in half by bringing together the pins at the start and end of the gathers, with the piece to be gathered to the outside. Then pinch the centre point of each piece. Finally, bring the two pinches together and pin. Repeat until the pins are 1-2″ apart.
    4. Now draw up your gathering thread.
    5. Iron the gathers.

    I find that this makes it a lot easier to ensure that the fullness is distributed evenly.

    There are some photos on my blog of the fold-pinch-pin process, as this is the same method I use for pleating. (I actually got into pleating because I found it a lot easier than gathering.)

  16. Katherine October 31, 2010 at 5:04 am #

    I have wirtten a post on a few other methods that can be used to gather, if you are interested.

  17. kathy October 16, 2013 at 5:14 am #

    Why pul the bobbin thread? The top thread goes THROUGH the fabric–nearly impossible to gather with. The bobbin thread does not go through the fabric–it goes through the little loops created by the top thread on the bottom side. Makes it easy to pull and the bobbin thread just glides along those loops.

  18. Marissa Hernandez April 28, 2015 at 10:46 pm #

    Oh my you saved my life, I learned more from this post than I’ve learned in my fashion class! I had lost my interest in fashion construction when my previous instructor retired and the new one came along, but tonight I got so much done in an hour; I’m excited to construct clothing again! Now I will be visiting your page to lean more. Thank you :)


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