Sewing Vloggers

Monday, November 15, 2021

Shirring and some pattern work

I loved the Picasso-esque look of this fabric but now that it is getting made up it is starting to get a bit creepy. I still like it and it will be a convo starter for sure. 

My current project,  Butterick 5861, calls for several rows of shirring on the back bodice at the waistline. The blouse is very full with 50 inches being the bodice width there. I've never been a fan of shirring for myself. I remember shirred dresses, exactly like you see popular today, being in style in my early teens and making one. It came out fine. It made my already large young bosom look even bigger, help I didn't need.  I hated the attention it brought, which I was getting already,  but I wanted a dress like the other girls. I think I wore it once or twice and that was it. I just was not comfortable in it at all. 

Today I see the shirred yardage being sold in stores and  it doesn't take much to figure out that those elastic threads aren't going to hold up too well once they are cut into pattern pieces. I have seen some  complaints on the web, no surprise. I guess you can tell I am not a fan. I do like the gathered effect however. I gave it some thought and played around and came up with a method that satisfied my needs and concerns to use it on my current project. 

First, let's get the politics out of the way.  THIS IS NOT SMOCKING so please don't call it that. Shirring is done on the sewing machine with elastic threads, cords or skinny elastic like I did here. Smocking is done by hand and takes a great deal of skill and art. The pleats are done with a hand pleater or little transferred dots. They are pulled together by hand to fit a specific size pattern. They are perfectly lined up like soldiers and once they are the smocker may "back smock" the entire piece. This does not show from the front but sets the pleats into a certain configuration to please the smocker's aesthetic. Once that is done our smocker will further control the pleats with a carefully chosen hand embroidered design. It's not easy getting those designs to look wonderful on those perfectly placed pleats. 

Smockers spend years honing their craft. I have simplified what is a very detailed process. There are tons of tricks and techniques to SMOCKing. Today I am talking about  SHIRRING.  Could I have smocked the area on my blouse? Yes, if it had 3 to one fullness in that area, which it did not. 

This is the backside of my shirring.  The bodice back has two vertical waist darts. The elastic, 1/8th wide, goes from dart to dart.  I made straight lines with a Frixion pen. I made my darts first. Mistake! I should have made them last so I could have caught the elastic in the dart seam stitching. The pattern tells  you to do that. I thought  it be easier to stitch my way. Oh, well. It was all OK. I figured out I needed half the amount of the length flat for the elastic pieces.  So from dart to dart it was 8 inches. I  cut my lengths 5 inches but they would actually be sewn to 4 inch length, half. This gave me a half inch to play with  at each end. I would trim that off when the elastic was all stitched on.  

A half inch in from the start of the elastic I laid it down next to  my stitching line. I did a couple of 1.0 stitches back and forth to secure then lifted the needle. Make sure your threads are pulled taut when you start or you will have little nests on the right side when you are done. I changed my stitch to the triple zig zag which you can see better in the second pic. Click on it to put in a separate screen and see larger. I used a 3.5 stitch width and a .7 stitch length.  This is one of those moments when you wish for a third hand. You need to keep that line you drew flat and the elastic flat on it and stretched so that the opposite end of the elastic meets  the dart line/end of drawn line. You will stretch and stop stitching one half inch short of the end of your elastic. The goal is equal stretch all along the way.  Keeping this taut by using both hands in back and in front of the presser foot is the best strategy. It's not hard but it gets more difficult as you accumulate more rows and their puckering interferes, ie , see my uneven row.  This is however, as we say in smocking,  unable to be discerned on a galloping horse so don't fret over it.  The shirring looks fine from the outside. To finish off your line of stitching on the elastic, revert back to te 1.0 straight stitch and go back and forth for a couple of stitches a half inch before the end of the elastic and you should be good to go. When you are all done, snip your  elastic ends down to a 1/4 inch.  You could fray check them but I didn't. Don't press this but you can steam it if you want. Just hold the iron over it. It may not even need that. 

I think well done shirring looks great and it a tricky technique to master but a good one to have. It is definitely the rage right now.  Practice with some 1/8th inch elastic and the triple zigzag first and see how that works for you. I like it and I feel it is stronger than the regular elastic thread technique. 


Pattern Prep

As I started working on this project I thought maybe it would be a good idea to show a bit of how I prepped things to get started. All sewing projects require pattern work and then some. This fabric, despite its flow-y slippery-ness has been a delight to work with. It all begins with pre-treating. It has been pre-washed in cool water/delicate and line dried, the way I will treat the finished garment. I then ran it through my steam press and hung till ready to cut. So....

#1.  Pre-treat your fabrics the way you will treat them when you will wear them. Certain fabrics will require extra washing like denims and flannels to get rid of all the shrinking. 

Next comes the pattern work.  

#2. Cut out your pattern first. Don't ever cut it out with the fabric. 

One of the first things I do is true the pattern pieces. I go around the pattern and look for areas that need this help. After a while you will know where to look. What am I doing? Easiest to explain with an example. Have you ever made something and turned up the hem and it is smaller than the space you need to sew it to, like the hem edge needs to be sewn to the sleeve and the sleeve is bigger than the hem edge? Look at the example above. You can see the sleeve shape coming down at a slant. This sleeve has a 5/8th inch hem. FOLD UP THAT HEM ON THAT LINE. You will see how the edge of the pattern is short of the seam allowance. Add a bit of fusible interfacing so it will match the sleeve seam allowance when it is folded up and cut it to match. You can see  how I did that above. Love my tiny pointer! 

I made a sample. You can see the hem folded back so when that seam is sewn and you go to hem it won't fit. This is a minor discrepancy here but the deeper the hem the worse it can be as well as the more slanted the seam. 

Here you can see the fusible added on and the difference it will make. Think of the difference this would make on a sleeveless garment. Go around your pattern and look for options to true. Watch for hems, sleeveless armscyes, collar areas, etc. It will save you frustration. 

#3, True your seams. 

Another step you can take is to walk your seams where fit may be critical for you. You can do this by standing your measuring tape on edge or using a flexible ruler. If you are using a Big Four pattern or any pattern you are unfamiliar with, measure your armscye and your sleeve cap length. What  is the difference and how does that work with the design? If it is a fitted, tailored sleeve and inch, inch and a half should be all you need so if there is a lot more, take it out. You can do that by taking a tuck across the sleeve cap above the notch on grain. It will look crooked, no problem. Check your biceps and flat pattern measure your basic areas on the pattern the first time you use it. Do not trust any pattern company. How does that compare to your measurements and desired ease? NOW, and only now, decide which size you will use and then make any fitting adjustments. Failure to do this and then complaining about ease is on you. 

#4. Walk seams and Flat Pattern Measure to check ease and decide size. 

#5. Do the needed fit adjustments on the pattern. I recently learned to use removeable Scotch tape. It comes in a blue package.  Never iron scotch tape. 

#6. PLEASE, please, press your pattern paper before pinning to your fabric. No steam, ever, low heat. As Nike says, Just Do It. It makes  a difference. Respect your process. 

Now you can cut. 

This particular fabric that I used in my latest project is a viscose linen look, lightweight. It has a beautiful drape and is slippery and flow-y. I took each piece to the ironing board and sprayed it with starch around every seam edge. I did this twice; spray, iron, dry, spray, iron, dry, next piece. It made a huge, HUGE difference in handling the fabric. It really helped control the fabric from raveling and just sewed up so much more easily in the machine and serger. Big difference. I just did all the edges.  I found I did not have to serge the edges which was good as I did French Seams all over this project. This was very ravelly fabric and the starch stopped the raveling. 

#7. Pretreat your fabric pattern pieces with any further treatments that may make them easier to sew, serged edges, starching, fusing all the interfacing pieces, whatever helps. 


Hopes this helps those of you who don't have "Pattern Work " practices. A few months back Sarah Veblen had a wonderful article in Threads magazine regarding just this subject that you may want to check out. Doing the "pre check" as my husband calls it, can go a long way toward a positive sewing experience and it is the sort of thing new members of the sewing family won't pick  up from just opening a pattern. Any questions or additional hints just add in the comments. Happy Sewing......Bunny


  1. This was a very helpful post. I loved your comment 'respect your process'. I have a question about how you sprayed the seam edges. Did you use something to mask the rest of the garment, or doesn't it matter if part the piece gets some overspray of the starch as well?

    1. In this case some overspray was not a problem. I do keep strips of oak tag next to my iron so will use that to mask the starch if I want to keep it just in the seam area. I usually spray about a healthy inch or so. It's better to do do two light sprays than one soaker. Also, always do a test spray or two. Things can spot, like silks, so you really need to test.

    2. I also find that when you put the iron to the starch, don't move it right away. It's sticks and messes things up. Let it sit there for some seconds and then lift instead of moving. This works better pressing not ironing, if you know what I mean.

    3. Yes. I know what you mean. Thankyou.

  2. These are very good tips. My jaw drops when I see some sewers putting a wrinkled pattern piece on their fabric. Jean

    1. What's even worse is wrinkle paper on wrinkly fabric! Be still my heart!

  3. I really enjoy your posts. They are very interesting and helpful. I used the video you recommended showing how to put in a neckband in a jersey top and it is definitely the best neck band I've done, so thank you :-)

    1. You are welcome, Nic. That video really helped me out, too.

  4. Nice to see you posting more often, Bunny.
    Your "flight pre-check" tips are excellent reminders even for us olds.

    1. Thanks. I have more time now and am feeling a bit better. The garden is put to bed and I am enjoying my sewing time.


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