Shirring is one of the most enjoyable sewing techniques I've learned over the years. There is something incredibly satisfying about looking at those rows cinching up behind the presser foot and knowing it's going to look awesome when it's finished!
If you are one of the lucky few, your sewing machine will have a magical ability to look at that elastic thread and say "no problem, I've got this" and you are away and shirring without any trouble... but most of us are not so lucky and there is a bit of tweaking needed in order to get that elastic thread to behave itself.
What is Shirring?
Shirring is the use of thin elastic thread in your lower bobbin, and you use it to create narrow rows of stitching across the width of a section of fabric. It's most commonly used on bodices to give the fabric plenty of stretch for getting on and off, and to be comfortably fitted through the torso when being worn. It can also be used at hems to create a "bubble" effect on sleeves or pants/shorts, and can even be used to create an elasticized waistband on skirts or loose fitting pants.
I'm new to all of this; how do I start?
Shirring is something you definitely need to practice on some scrap fabric before attempting it on a garment. You'll need to figure out what is going to work for your particular machine... but don't worry, once you've worked out the details, you'll be all set for future shirring endeavors!
First, you'll need your supplies:
The first thing you need to do is get your bobbin loaded up with the elastic thread. You need to do this by hand. It goes really quickly because elastic thread is much thicker than regular thread. Wind the elastic thread on the bottom with just a teensy bit of tension. You don't want it floating loose, and you don't want to pull it snug either (at least, not until we know how your machine likes it!). Just wind it on there comfortably until the bobbin is full.
Now have a look at your upper tension and stitch length. If you've never shirred before, feel free to just leave your settings at what they usually are. That will give you a baseline for whether or not your machine prefers to be set higher or lower. Personally, I've found my shirring works best when I set the stitch length to about "5", which is slightly above the mid-length, and increase my top tension a little bit, to about "7". (My normal settings are "4" and "5".) You may find after testing that you will need to lower your upper tension instead; it just depends on the machine.
The Test Run
If you really want shirring to work for you, you need to do a test run to see how your machine handles the elastic thread. Proper shirring results in shrinking an area of fabric 45%-50%. (You want to aim for the 45% because of a little trick with steam that I'll tell you about later on). With that goal in mind, I'm going to show you how to test your shirring to see what adjustments you might need to make.
Step 5 - Now, using a ruler or tape measure, check the distance between the original lines that you drew on the fabric, making sure that the elastic is completely relaxed. This will tell you how much your shirring is pulling the fabric in! You want to see it at about 5.5" (or 14cm)... that would mean your shirring is shrinking the fabric exactly 45%!
Turn your shirring test run over to have a look at the back. You want to see the elastic thread straight and neat against the fabric (no areas where bits of elastic look like they "missed" or twist out of place), and the thread from the top should snugly hold the elastic in place. There shouldn't be any parts of the top thread that is loose either, the elastic shouldn't be able to slide around inside the loops from the top thread when you stretch it, and neither should the top thread break.
What if it didn't work or something doesn't look right?
Don't worry! If something seems off or if you didn't get close to that 45%, it probably just means you need to play around with your tensions a bit. If you still have more fabric left from the piece you did your trial run on, trim off the section that you have shirred so far so you can use the remainder of the piece without that shirring affecting your new results. If you used it all, find another piece of scrap for a new trial run.
The Drop-In Bobbin
My machine is a Singer with a top-loading drop in bobbin. I need tighter tension on my bobbin case when I'm shirring, so I actually have a separate bobbin case for shirring elastic than for regular elastic, because that way I can keep the shirring one at the tension I find works best and my regular thread bobbin case at the normal factory-set tension I use for all other sewing. Drop-in bobbin cases are not expensive, so if you think you'll be doing a lot of shirring, definitely consider getting a second one to dedicate to shirring!
If you don't have or want a second case though, don't worry... just make sure you write down exactly how many turns to make on the tension screw to adjust the tension back and forth between shirring and regular stitching.
The first thing you need to do, is remove the plate that covers your bobbin casing. This is what mine looks like (Photo 1: plate on with arrows marking the screws that remove it; Photo 2: plate off):
To tighten the tension, you're going to simply turn that screw clockwise. BEFORE YOU DO, you'll want to keep track of how much you are tightening it in case you need to set it back again for future sewing with regular thread, and also in case you need to do a couple more test runs before you have it exactly right. Write it down if you need to because you don't want to forget what you've done!
For my machine, I only need to make one full turn to have perfect tension for shirring. You can start with that as well as it will give you a good idea of whether or not you're on the right track. Turn the screw clockwise one FULL turn, then put the bobbin case back in your machine, and put the cover plate back on. Put your bobbin loaded with elastic thread into the bobbin case an normal. DON'T FORGET to put the elastic thread through the little notch in the case... this is what holds the tension!
Now, do another Test Run.
If you've managed to hit that 45% this time, you now know exactly what your lower tension needs to be for shirring compared to regular sewing! If it's too tight now, open it back up, loosen that screw a half-turn and test again. If it's still not tight enough, tighten it some more (keeping track of what you do). Eventually, you'll find the perfect mix of tension and you'll be all set to shirr to your hearts content (and you shouldn't have to do this testing again unless you change the weight of your fabric or the type of elastic thread you are using)!
What if it's STILL not working?!?!
First, don't give up yet! There is one thing that you have to try before you give in to the urge to throw your sewing machine out the window... try a different brand of elastic thread.
I'm going to use photos to soothe your doubts.
Shown here are three different brands of elastic thread. Gutterman, Dritz, and Unique. I've tried all three, and the Unique brand is the one my machine likes. In spite of all the tricks I know, I simply can't get the other two brands to work as well. Your machine may be similar to mine, or prefer another.
The Gutterman brand is the softest. The Dritz is the thinnest. The Unique is the thickest and stretchiest.
So, if after all the tension adjusting still isn't getting you down to 45%-50%, see if you can get another brand of elastic to try. If the one you have seems thin, try a thicker one. If your machine is struggling or if you problem is that it is actually too tight, try a thinner or softer brand.
A Few More Tips & Tricks...
I hope that this tutorial has been helpful! Shirring is worth figuring out, even if it seems a headache if you happen to have one of those difficult-to-please machines. I love the simple feminine look of shirring and how it's comfortable and easy to get on and off. Once you figure it out, it's definitely addictive!
Now that you've got the hang of it, give it a try on Pollywoggles' Felicity Joy or Daphne Marie!
Thank you so much for stopping by my little corner of the digital world. When I'm not designing (or, more likely, attempting to keep up with housework or schooling my three rug rats!) you'll probably find me with my nose in a book, escaping for a few precious moments into a world of fiction or learning with single-minded focus about my latest interest. Here, I'd like to share with you some of the things that I'm currently working on and a bit about all the ways I like to keep my creative juices flowing!
Just for Fun...