Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shir it Up! (Or: How to Add Elastic Shirred Areas to Your Garments)

Shir It Up!

Adding stretchy areas to woven garments with elastic shirring thread is a great way to create a fitted, yet comfortable silhouette

I'm sorry to report that my shirring experiments (begun Sunday) are not going swimmingly. As I understand it--from reading gazillions of message board posts and online tutorials and the instructions for the few patterns I have that involve shirring--there are two main methods of applying elastic shirring thread (pictured below):

  1. Sewing with a zig-zag stitch (with all-purpose poly thread in both needle and bobbin) over the elastic thread as if it were cording. This works, but it's a bit tricky and slow—it's hard to keep such a thin little piece of elastic set up in a straight line.
  2. Handwinding the elastic shirring thread (I used Stretchrite) into the bobbin, and achieving some magic marriage of tension and stitch length that would cause the fabric to bunch up and shir as you sewed.

I've been working at number two and failing. I've had no problem getting evenly spaced lines of shirring exactly 1/2" apart (using a quilting guide, plus it is gingham fabric after all)... but it just doesn't magically shir, even when I steam it! I feel like I have tried every possible stitch length and upper tension setting (my Viking doesn't have separate bobbin tension to my knowledge) there is!

I've tried winding the elastic on the bobbin loosely and more tightly. Nothing. So I've resorted to just treating the elastic thread as if I were gathering--I stitch with the longest stitch length on a medium tension setting and then I pull the elastic threads from each end until it gathers up the right amount.

Except the waistband pieces I am shirring are 40" wide and so I have to reload the bobbin with elastic thread every two rows. So it's slow, slow going. Maybe I won't make the shirred waistband piece 10" deep after all... maybe just 5"?

Update from 2013: I finally figured it out! I was winding the elastic thread into the bobbin BACKWARDS. Now I can shir perfectly straight lines like MAGIC. Try it!


  1. I am of no help because every single time I've ever set about to shir something I have the same problems. Except I've not tried #1, just read about it today.

    I guess you're supposed to wind the bobbin with a little tension so the thread is a little tight, and then tighten up your thread tension? That way the top thread is pulling down through the botton more than vice versa, and then it's supposed to magically pull itself. Hah! It's never happened for me. It's on My List of Crap I Can't Do.

  2. Wow, I find that really weird that your shirring with the elastic in the bobbin isn't working. Mine comes out perfectly every single time (well, not my line-eveness, but definitely the gathering part). What type of elastic thread are you using in the bobbin? I was going to suggest that it might be wound in there too tight (and therefore not the stretch was gone) but you say you already tried that. All I can think is that the thread is somehow faulty? It should start shirring up when you stitch your second row and get really, uh, shirry when you steam. I have to stretch my fabric to sew the rows evenly.

    Sorry, didn't mean to rant on about shirring elastic, but it's such a super-easy way to gather stuff up that I think it would be a shame if yours isn't working right!

  3. Ok, so some more crazy ranting on the shirring thing... if you can pull the thread like regular gathering, you definitely have a problem with your thread. It should be SUPER stretchy and would be really hard to pull up like gathering. I wonder if you got a bad lot of shirring thread.

  4. beangirl, what settings are you using? my thread IS very stretchy, but I think I'm able to gather with it because the tension isn't particularly tight and the stitch length is set to basting length. I'm using Stretch-Rite thread: here's a picture that I bought in the Garment District...

  5. Ok, well that's exactly the same thread I have (as far as I can tell, I threw away my packaging the last time I bought it). This is just soooo baffling. Stuff like this drives me nutso.

    The frustrating thing is that I don't really use any particular settings at all. I wind the bobbin with a little tension on the elastic, like not fully stretched by any means, but not super-loose either. "Snug" would be a good description.

    I don't change the bobbin tension (I use a computerized Brother now and I don't even know HOW to change the bobbin tension on it).

    I will maybe (just maybe, if I remember) change the upper tension to slightly looser, mostly so that the thread pulls to the back and the elastic doesn't accidentally show on the front. It doesn't seem to have much bearing on the actual gathering effect.

    I set my stitch length to a little longer than normal, maybe up from a 2.5 to a 3 or 3.5. I use a standard needle (well, I use whatever needle is appropriate for the fabric I'm stitiching, knit or woven-- I don't change the needle from the reset of the project). I'm wondering if your stitch length is too long.

    I start my row on the edge of the gathered area and just stitch a (mostly) straight line. Usually by the time I get to the end of that row and turn the corner to go across to the next row, it's started puffing up and I have to stretch the rest of the fabric from then on to get my rows even close to straight.

    hmmmm. That has made me think. How are you doing your rows? Are you going straight across and then making a sharp right angle, stitich down a ways, making another sharp right and stitich back across? (Wow, that is so much harder to describe in writing than with a picture). What I'm wondering is if you're ending each row. That would definitely reduce the gathering effect (although I've done single rows with this method too).

    Diagnosing stitching problems is so hard without seeing what's happening. I have the exact same problem with binder feet. I know so many people who swear by their binder feet. I have about eight. I can't get any of them to work. Ever.

  6. Just an FYI on how to adjust the bobbin tension... I'm not sure what machine you have, other than it's a Viking, but I have a Viking D1. I learned in my embroidery class how to adjust the bobbin tension manually, because my machine only allows me to adjust the needle tension on it's computer. If you take out the bobbin case, you'll see one or two little screws on it. If you tighten those (turn to the right... righty tighty etc etc) you tighten the bobbin tension. You will need tiny screwdrivers. I'm so glad I learned that, though - it saved my embroidery and I'm finding it useful for more and more things these days!

    I've never done shirring but I did sew a row of elastic thread in the waist area of a dress once to help gather it. It shrunk/gathered with steam but not as much as I'd hoped, which made me scared to try shirring. Maybe I just needed to adjust bobbin tension...

  7. I'm still puzzled, beangirl. My machine is computerized too--it's a Viking Platinum 730. I tried everything from a stitch length of 3 to 6, and an upper tension of 2-8. Nothing! That's why I switched to the longest stitch length in the end--so I could just gather with the elastic thread.

    Because the fabric wasn't "auto-shirring", I didn't turn around at the end of each row of elastic shirring--I just sewed each row individually, then grabbed the elastic threads for each row to adjust the gathering to the width I want.

    Even though the gathering works (SLOWLY), it's a pain because it uses way more elastic thread than if the shirring elastic was grabbing the fabric as I went.

  8. This is just so... weird. I am at a loss to think of anything else. Honest, mine works just fine every time with really no effort or anything. (Ooo, not that I'm trying to rub it in or something, it just puzzles me.) I can't think of any other variables. I sure hope someone else comes up with something. I'm giong to mull this over ('cuz like I said, this kind of thing just drives me nuts until I can figure out what's wrong).

  9. I know this post is months old, but I've been reading through your archives and just had the same shirring issues.
    If you have a drop in bobbin on your Viking (I'm assuming here since mine is a much more bare bones model and I have a drop in bobbin) wind your elastic thread on your bobbin on your machine like any other thread. It totally works.

    My machine used to work with hand winding, but then I got it fixed and serviced and was unable to shir. Someone, somewhere on the world wide web mentioned this for drop in bobbins and saved my maternity wardrobe too.


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