Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing


I recently learned a sewing technique that I instantly became obsessed with; I’m talking about shirring! Now that I know everything I know about shirring, I want all other sewers to learn the same so that they can love it too. So today, I’m sharing this Guide to Shirring, which will cover everything you need to know to master this technique for yourself. 

Shirring 101

What is Shirring?

Shirring is made up of rows of parallel, elasticized stitches that create a stretchy and gathered line of stitches. This effect is accomplished by loading your bobbin with elastic thread and making a few small changes to stitch and tension settings. Shirring is commonly found on garment bodices, waistbands, and sleeve hems.


What Supplies are Needed to Shirr in Sewing? 

What kept me from learning how to shirr for the longest time was the belief that I needed a particular type of sewing machine to get the job done. But, to my great surprise, shirring can be done on any regular sewing machine! Not only that, but most sewers will already have most of the supplies on hand.

List of Sewing Supplies Needed:

  1. All-purpose thread (matching your fabric) 
  2. Elastic thread
  3. Fabric (of a lighter weight)
  4. Clear quilting ruler
  5. Marking tool

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

What Types of Fabric Can be Shirred? 

The general rule of thumb regarding shirring is that the lighter the fabric, the more it will gather and can be shirred. Lightweight fabrics, such as rayon challis, gauze, gingham, seersucker, and chiffon, are great for shirring. If the fabric is too heavy, the elastic thread will not be strong enough to gather it for shirring.

Additionally, shirring is typically done on woven fabrics to create a stretch in a material that would otherwise have little to no stretch. That being said, I have had excellent success shirring with lightweight stretch knits in the past. In my sewing room, anything that isn’t thick and heavy is subject to shirring!

How to Shirr

I believe that if you can do a straight stitch, you can shirr. Shirring is accomplished by exchanging the thread in your bobbin for elastic thread and making changes to your machine’s stitch and tension settings. The most complicated part about learning to shirr will be discovering exactly what those settings should be for your specific machine, as it can truly vary from one device to the next. I’ve found the best way to figure this out is by doing a few trial-and-error tests on some scrap fabric. For this reason, I will provide a step-by-step guide explaining how to approach this trial-and-error process when first learning how to shirr.

Steps for Learning How to Shirr

Step 1 – Prep Your Practice Fabric 

Using some scrap (lightweight) fabric, cut a few squares at least 11″ wide.

Using a clear quilters ruler and a marking tool, draw two parallel lines, along the sides of the fabric, that are 10″ apart. (Perfect shirring should shrink your fabric by about 45-50% – using 10″ will simply make the math easier when calculating what percentage the fabric has shrunk.) Now, make your stitch guidelines: the stitches will run parallel to each other, across the width of the fabric, each ½” apart.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Step 2 – Wind the Thread Around Your Bobbin

Winding a bobbin with elastic thread must be done by hand, as the machine will stretch it too much while winding, causing the tension to be off. I was taught not to stretch the elastic when winding, later to discover my machine only shirrs when I give the elastic a very slight stretch while I wind.

Like the length and tension settings, how tightly the bobbin should be wound will vary slightly depending on your machine. For a quick way to find out whether your machine prefers a slightly loser or slightly tighter wound bobbin, wind one of each and test them both out.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Insert the bobbin, threading the machine as usual, using all-purpose thread for the top.

Step 3 – Sewing Machine Settings

Make sure the machine is set to a straight stitch and set your stitch length to 3-4 (this may need to be adjusted later).

Before changing any tension settings, we will sew the first test square.

Step 4- Sewing a test square.

Start and end each row by doing about three stitches in place, as backstitching can be problematic with elastic thread. Another option is to leave your elastic thread tails long and pull them to the back and tie them off after sewing your lines. Sew about 4-5 lines of shirring, now it’s time to inspect the first test run.

If you are extremely lucky, it is possible your machine will shirr without changing any tension. If this is the case, your fabric should have shrunk to about 5-5 ½”, both the top and bottom threads will be straight without loops, and the fabric will be able to stretch without any elastic thread breakage.

Unfortunately, most of us will not be that lucky, the next step will show you how to interpret your test scrap to discover whether you will need to tighten or loosen any tensions.

Step 5 – Troubleshooting

Your top elastic thread breaks when shirring is stretched: loosen your top thread tension.

Your top elastic thread is loose and looping: tighten your top thread tension.

Your fabric has not shrunk quite enough: increase your stitch length and/or wind your bobbin tighter.

Your fabric has barely shrunk at all, fabric is not stretching, and/or elastic thread is not straight: tighten your bobbin tension by turning the screw on your bobbin case to the right. I would advise doing this at about ¼” turn increments at a time. 

Your fabric has shrunk too much: lower your stitch length and/or wind your bobbin looser. 

Step 6- Re-adjust and test again

After evaluating your first test run, change your machine settings following the troubleshooting guide above. Prep and sew another fabric square, repeating steps 1 and 4.

Again, evaluate your shirring. You are looking for your test to have shrunk by about 45-50%, both the top and bottom threads will be straight without loops, and the fabric will be able to stretch without any elastic thread breakage.

You may need to continue with a few more trial and error runs: using Step 5, evaluating, re-adjusting and so on until you have found the settings that your machine needs to shirr.

Once you have done so, your end result should resemble the shirring pictured below. Congratulations!

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Shirring Tips

  • Chances are, you will go through multiple bobbins when shirring a garment
    •  Wind a few bobbins at once to eliminate the need to be continuously winding bobbins throughout your project
  • If you run out of bobbin in the middle of a line, do not worry
    • Start where the last stitching ended, pull all elastic thread tails to the back and knot them together
  • Do not worry if your machine makes some irregular noises when sewing using elastic thread – this is normal
  • Feel free to play around with the distance between the lines, it doesn’t always have to be ½” 
  • Use an iron with steam to shrink your shirring another 5% if needed
  • Use your presser foot as a guideline to eliminate the need to mark your fabric
  • Note any changes you make to your bobbin tension
    • I typically make a note on some painters tape and stick it right on my machine
  • Once you’ve found the right setting for your machine, record those settings!!! 
    • This will ensure you do not need to do the trial and error process again

Shirring Sewing Project

Alright, now that you know the basics of shirring we’ll show you an easy project with some simple shirring. Here’s a project that another one of our blog contributors, Karrie did for us some time ago. Her shirring 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.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Shirring Instructions

Shirring Project Step 1: Hand wind your bobbin

As we spoke about above, you have to hand wind your bobbin. As you can see, I am not letting the elastic 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.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Shirring Project Step 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.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Shirring Project Step 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.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Shirring Project Step 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.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

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

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Finished Shirring 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.

Guide to Shirring When Sewing Clothing

Alright, I hope you enjoyed this shirring tutorial. To share what you make or get sewing help come visit our Peek-a-Boo Pattern Shop Facebook Group.

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