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Gathering Stitches-Expanding the Definition

We presumed everyone who sews knows what gathering stitches are and how they are used in garment making.  Then we met our 8-12 year old testers for the Tabby Jacket and realized some explanation was in order.  “Gathering Stitches” is included in the Fit for Art Glossary of Common Sewing Terms, a new addition to our Helpful Hints pages. For new sewers, kid or adult, here is an expansion of the definition for your reading pleasure.

Where are Gathers Used?

Gathering stitches on the sleeve cap and at the cuff edge.

Gathering stitches are added to flat garment fabric sections that have been cut to the shape of the pattern but need to be made smaller or eased into their desired style location.  The most common place where we see gathering stitches is at the top of a sleeve that needs to be eased into an armhole.  We also see gathering stitches used to shape the bottom of a sleeve or pant leg to match an applied cuff,  at the top of a full cuff to be attached to a tapered sleeve, or at the top of a waistband to match the waistband of a full skirt or gathered pants.

Usually the construction directions of a pattern that requires gathering stitches will prompt you to add them while the cut fabric is still flat.

Close up of gathering stitches between the notches of the sleeve cap.

Gathering stitches work best if there are at least two parallel rows of long stitches with thread tales hanging freely.  Two or more rows of stitches, manages the ease or fullness that is being tamed when the thread tails are pulled to achieve the desired shape. In couture sewing, sometimes 3 rows of gathering stitches give the smoothest results.  The third row can be within the seam allowance or outside the seam line and then removed after the seam is stitched.

In Fit for Art patterns we prompt you to add gathering stitches at the top of the sleeve cap in the Tabula Rasa Jacket, the Tabby Jacket, and the Carpe Diem Dress and Tunic.  In these patterns a 5/8” seam allowance is already added to the pattern and the two rows of long stitches sit inside the seam allowance.  Begin by stitching one row of machine basting stitches ¼” away from the cut edge of the sleeve cap between the two notches.  Then add a second row ½” away from the cut edge.

A carpe diem with gathering stitches in the sleeve cap and the sleeve where it joins the cuff.

Make Successful Gathers

Change the stitch-length to achieve the desired effect.  I stitch my regular seams and staystitching at 2.7 but set the length to at least 4 for gathering stitches.

Each row of stitches needs to have 2” or longer thread tails at each end of the stitching line.  When using an older sewing machine, this is easy.  Just do not backstitch and trim the threads so there is at least 2” of thread extending from the stitching line.

If you are using a machine that requires you to push a button to raise or lower the presser foot and also to cut the threads, change your habits for gathering stitches.  When you finish the row of long stitches, press the button to raise the needle, then push the button to raise the presser foot.  Pull the fabric away from the presser foot leaving the tails attached.  When you reach the desired tail length, cut the threads

Gathers in the sleeve cap of our basic sleeves are not really gathered with the gathering stitches but simply eased.  Hold the sleeve stable in one hand and pull the threads from one side gently so the seam allowance is reduced but no rigid tucks form in the sleeve.  You will be able to watch the sleeve shape into the necessary curve to slide easily into the armhole.  

Add Design Details with Gathers

In Fit for Art’s Sleeve & Cuff Variations for the Tabula Rasa Jacket, gathers are also used to create drama for the bell cuff and to insert the full sleeve into a tight cuff. These design applications for gathering stitches are found in many garments.

Stitches pulled into actual gathers for a cuff application

Be inspired by the current trend for tiered dresses to add a tier or two to the hem of the Carpe Diem.  Choose the depth of the ruffle for your desired look then add seam allowances and hem finishes to determine the width of the ruffle strips to be cut. To calculate the length of the ruffle strip to cut, measure the circumference of the tunic and double that for a full ruffle made with light weight fabric.  For a less full ruffle, reduce the cut length (perhaps 1.5 times the actual tunic measurement) and for a very full flouncy ruffle, add to the cut length! Watch social media this week for a project of Carrie’s that will be finished at the hem of the Carpe Diem with a little ruffle. (Interested in more about ruffles, maybe Carrie’s project can become a blog post too!)

Words of Wisdom

Begin with the thread tails in one hand and the other hand on the fabric to guide the gathers.

As you begin to create garments with gathering stitches, remember:

  • Stitch the rows carefully and be sure to leave thread tails.
  • Rows of stitching that cross each other or wobble about make less than perfect ruffles for your DIY creation.
  • Gather from either end or both ends of the prepared piece. Hold the threads in one hand and pull anchoring the fabric with the other hand.
  • Always pull threads on the same side (choose right or wrong side of the fabric). When you pull threads from the other side, you lock the gathers as in place.
  • Rearrange the gathers to distribute evenly or for design purposes.
  • Stitch gathers into a seam from the side of the gathers for the best control.

Happy Sewing, RAE

1 thought on “Gathering Stitches-Expanding the Definition

  1. My very first sewing project in 4-H was an apron that was gathered to the tie/waistband. So I learned to gather right off the bat!

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