"How to Shirr — Two Ways"

Shirring (pronounced like Cher) is when you have rows of gathering. Although shirring can be done with ordinary thread so that it isn’t stretchy, most of the time when people say shirring they mean with elastic thread called Shirring Elastic. It’s thicker than regular thread and although it is usually sold in just black or white, it is available in many different colours (we sell it in our shop).

A lot of people on the Internet seem to have difficulty with shirring. The instructions just don’t seem to work for them. At first they didn’t work very well for me either (they do now and I’m not sure why). So I changed them a bit and now I have two ways to shirr.

Before you start
You have to wind the shirring elastic onto your bobbin by hand. It mustn’t be slack or stretched too much. Just wind it comfortably and do so evenly so that it looks nice and neat on the bobbin.

A Note About Sewing Machine Types and Shirring
Front-loading sewing machines have higher bobbin tension than top-loading ones so if the shirring doesn’t work on your top-loading sewing sewing machine, you may like to tighten it just a bit — about an eighth or a quarter turn clockwise. If you are nervous about altering your bobbin tension, you might like to invest in an extra bobbin case. If you would rather do neither of these, try the second method of shirring below.

How to Shirr — the Traditional Way
Backstitch at the beginning of your line of shirring to secure. Set your stitch length to its longest (more or less 5). Put your upper thread tension to the highest number which is usually 9. Sew the line of shirring and backstitch at the end. Repeat for as many rows as you would like. If it doesn’t appear to have gathered very much, don’t worry. Use a burst of steam from your iron and watch your shirring clench!

How to Shirr — the Other Way
Backstitch at the beginning of your line of shirring to secure. Set your stitch length to its longest. REDUCE the upper thread tension by one digit compared to the usual tension for a seam. E.g. if your fabric usually takes a 4 to sew a successful seam of two layers of fabric, reduce it to 3 and shirr on the one layer of fabric. Backstitch at the end to secure. Use a burst of steam with your iron and watch your shirring tighten!

This way works because there is less hug on the shirring elastic, allowing it to recover more closely it’s original size. Note: When you shirr the second way, you mustn’t reduce the upper tension too much or you will get thread loops at the back of the fabric.

Why steam it? And what if I don’t have a steam iron?
It makes your fabric more gathered and stretchier. If you don’t have a steam iron (and you can get a travel one for under £15) you can put a damp (not wet) cloth such as a tea towel or dish cloth below your iron and hold your hot iron over it.

Which kinds of fabrics can be shirred?
Shirring works best with floppy fabrics. I don’t think denim would shirr very well. I made two samples each of two fabrics: stretch moleskin, and viscose plaid. (They’re not very tidy; I made them from scraps.) The first is a stretch woven and the latter is a loose weave fabric.  The samples on the right are the ones made using the traditional method of shirring, and the ones on the left were made in the second way. The latter are quite stretchy and stretch out to be nearly flat. The others (the traditional ones) don’t stretch out to their original size.

You can make very pretty things with shirring and it so often seems to be in fashion. Maybe you could use it in some new way and start a trend! Be sure to put it on BurdaStyle so we can all see it!

Until next time, happy sewing!

Sabrina Wharton-Brown

P.S. Please comment below on what you think of my blog. I want to know how I’m doing and how I can be more helpful! Thank you. : )


7 thoughts on “"How to Shirr — Two Ways"

  1. Thank you so much for the advice on using steam to make the shirring gather! I've done all the tension adjustments etc and still had such a poor result it wasn't worth doing, and the man at Brother obviously hadn't got a clue and said if it wasn't in the manual then it won't do it!
    I have two small daughters and have just started to get interested in sewing and specifically bought the machine to make summer dresses and other simple things, and shirring was something I was very keen to try as a quick and easy way of tailoring! Also, I'm in the middle of making Angel costumes and want to shir around the waists, so I was extremely frustrated by the poor gather I made, before using steam (out of the kettle on my sample piece)and watched it all gather up like magic! Hurrah! Many thanks indeed. One happy bunny here 🙂


  2. I am soon to be a grandma and I'll be referring back to your blog, come time to make summer dresses for my new grandaughter. My DIL is also learning to sew, so I will share your blog with her as well. You have nice instruction, simple to follow and nice tips! Thanks for all of your knowledge!!!



  3. Thank you for this it is interesting and simple to follow, I have not started yet and in the process of purchasing elastic thread please can you advise on the thickness of the elastic pleasex


  4. how do i know if my machine is front loading or not? what's bobbin tension? and how do i adjust it? and what's a backstitch, like is it the zig-zaggy line on the knob?
    thanks in advance.


  5. A front loading machine will have you put the bobbin into the front but a top loading machine will have it go in flat in front of the needle where it will be hidden by the fabric when you sew. This page shows you in pictures:


    The bobbin tension is adjusted with a tiny screw on the bobbin case. It's best not to do this until you're quite experienced in sewing and in adjusting your machine's basic settings.

    A back-stitch is a straight stitch that is sewn in the opposite direction to usual (i.e. backwards). There us usually a lever or a button on the front of the sewing machine, either above the sewing area, or to the right-hand side. You just hold it in/down to make the machine sew in reverse, like reversing a car.

    The zig-zag line on the knob is to allow you to change your stitch width and make a zigzag stitch instead of a straight stitch. The zigzag stitch is extremely useful for sewing elastic and neatening edges without an overlocker/serger. Some people also sew stretch fabrics with it.


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