Shirring 101

Shirring is a way of making a garment more fitted, and it’s a beautiful way to add uniqueness to a project. Before sewing machines, people used to do this intricately by hand and you still can. In this case it’s called “smocking”. Today I will show you how to add shirring to a project, but shirring can really be done on any lightweight fabric in your project. Shirring involves using elastic thread in the bobbin of your sewing machine to create a stretchy, gathered line of stitches. Keep in mind, the lighter the fabric, the greater the shirred effect. Heavier fabrics will not shirr well.

Let’s get started!


  • lightweight fabric project
  • several spools of elastic thread

For fabric choices, try: cotton lawn, double gauze, or any lightweight fabric that isn’t overly slippery. Here is where you can find beautiful lightweight fabric at double gauze and poplin

My project is essentially a tube of cotton poplin that I hemmed at 1/4″ on the top and 3/4″ on the bottom. I’m making a simple girls tank top, size 6.

1. Hand wind your bobbin

Every sewist will debate on exactly how to wind the bobbin with elastic thread. In reality, it just depends on your machine! My machine will only shirr properly if I hand wind the bobbin with a slight tension on the thread. The way I do this is to usually toss the elastic spool onto the floor beneath where I am sitting, and then hand wind the bobbin without purposefully pulling on the elastic thread. This gives me just enough tension to shirr with my machine, which is a top loading bobbin Janome that I got secondhand.

As you can see, I am not letting the thread have any real slack, I’m just barely holding it taught. This is what works for my Janome, you will need to experiment with your machine on scrap fabric to see what works! Also, it’s wise to purchase 2-4 spools of the elastic thread, especially if you are shirring a large section of your project. I can typically expect to sew 3 lines of shirring with one spool.

2. Insert bobbin and leave a tail

Here is my bobbin, all ready to go. Take care to only fill the bobbin about 3/4 of the way full, your machine may have trouble with a very full bobbin.

3. Experiment with stitch length

My machine shirrs best on a stitch length of about 3, but your machine may work best with a longer or shorter stitch. This is where experimenting becomes important before you try to shirr on your finished project. Most likely shirring will look best with a longer-than-normal stitch, because it will create nice gathers, allowing the elastic thread to stretch between stitches.

4. Begin shirring

Now you’re ready to sew! Decide where you want to begin shirring and simply sew as you normally would for this first line of shirring. I decided to shirr along the beginning of each checked square in my gingham fabric.

I am using just a zigzag foot. Some machines may shirr better with a walking foot, but mine doesn’t require this.

When I end this loop of stitching, I just begin again at my predetermined distance away from the first line.

Finished project

Here is what my finished project looks like. I wasn’t looking to shirr the entire chest, but I certainly could have done so.

Key things for shirring success:

  1. lightweight fabric that works for your machine
  2. proper bobbin tension by hand winding elastic thread
  3. longer stitch length (varies by machine type)
  4. evenly spaced rows

Shirring is really that easy, and it’s a fun way to make a garment more fitted in one area, especially at the chest or waist.

Happy sewing!

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