Shirring, defined as two or more rows of gathers used to decorate parts of garments, usually the sleeves, bodice and yoke.
Smocking, defined as a decorative embroidery or shirring made by gathering cloth in regularly spaced round tucks.
These were from Webster’s Dictionary online other sites add the use of elastic in defining smocking versus shirring. Why do you care when it seems that smocking IS shirring and the words seem to be interchangable? Well I don’t know… I’ve googled both to help me complete this tutorial but the lady in my Janome group who’s technique I ultimately used called it “shirring” not smocking. Really she made a point of this so apparently it matters to some people…
Now that we’ve cleared that up and you’ve decided the dress is pretty cute and you’d like to give it a go you probably want to know how I did it and what patterned I used, but I’m not going to tell you! Seriously! Before you get excited about this technique, before you hunt down a pattern, spend $30 plus dollars on fabric and thread you have to do something first.
Get yourself a scrap piece of fabric, a fairly big rectangle will do nicely, that is the same type and weight of fabric that you would like to use in a dress or shirt. Now get some elastic thread, it’s better if you can just borrow some at this point as we want to invest as little as possible in this technique right now.
Loosely wind the elastic thread in your bobbin. You want as little tension as possible while still evenly winding the elastic thread on your bobbin, you will have to do this by hand. Place your wound bobbin into your machine and pull the elastic thread just as you would when sewing with regular thread. You want to place your fabric into your machine with the right side up. The regular thread in the top of your machine is what will show and the elastic thread will be on the underside of the fabric. Lengthen your stitch to 4-5 and leave your upper tension the same. Stitch a single line backstitching at the beginning and end to secure the thread.
Now go here and compare your first line of stitching with Heather Ross’. You should see definite puckering within a single line of stitches. If you don’t you can try to lengthen your stitches (assuming you didn’t max it out the first go round), you can try to loosen or tighten the elastic thread on the bobbin by rewinding it by hand, you can try to crank the tension up or down on the upper tension. If none of these work stop reading, pick a different technique and a different pattern for a cute summer dress.
Why would I steer you away from such a cute dress? The ability to shirr/smock rests on your machine so if you try this and it doesn’t work don’t blame yourself! The bobbin tension on your machine must be loose enough to stitch the elastic thread and still enable it to pull in on itself. You could manually adjust the tension on your bobbin but keep in mind that there is no set standard for how much you need to loosen it and since your bobbin tension is usually set with a small screw you may not be able to reset it when you are done smocking.
Now if your machine will shirr/smock you can find the pattern and instructions for this dress on Heather Ross’ blog here. The download is free but it will cost you about $5.00 to have the pattern printed off full size. If you want you could print it off on your home printer and simply tape the pieces together.
Cut your fabric. I bought three yards of fabric and ultimately used over 2 1/2 for the dress, pockets and straps.
Before I attached the pockets I pinned the dress to myself to make sure they would be in a comfortable place and I would actually use them.
(I already own a tripod so I should probably get a little remote control and I wouldn’t have to take pictures of myself in the mirror…)
Then sew it all together and you get what looks like a slightly shaped potato sack.
Then you want to make sure you press open your seams and serge or zig zag over the raw edges so they don’t fray. Heather doesn’t mention this step and anyone that has made a couple garments would think of it on their own but for us newbies it bears repeating.
You also want to fold over the top edge 1/4 in twice and top stitch. Once you’ve sheared it would be a real pain to do this so get it over with now.
Now comes the fun or frustrating part depending on your machine. My machine does not shirr, I tried everything I mentioned before and then some and it refused to work. I didn’t want to mess with the tension on my bobbin so I was forced to improvise.
If you can’t just shirr as described above, here is what you can do but we warned it is time and effort intensive, perhaps a bit too much for a simple sundress. If you do a straight stitch with the elastic in the bobbin and thread up top you are continually stitching the two together so it’s harder to manually pull on the thread to create the gathers, it’s impossible to do if you’ve already backstitched back and forth over the elastic. What I ultimately did was to use my cording foot to create a tube of thread if you will in which the elastic thread was wrapped. Regular thread goes in the top and bobbin in this case. The elastic thread goes through the center slot of the cording foot on top of the fabric and in this case the wrong side of the fabric is up (just as it is when sewing almost anything else) because this is the side we will attached the elastic to. Starting 1/4 in from the top seam sew your first line of stitching, making sure to back stitch at the beginning and end up each line to secure the thread. Don’t worry this won’t affect the elastic thread. You want to leave a couple inches of elastic thread at the beginning and end of each row so you have something to pull on. I stitched from side seam to side seam on the front of the dress and then on the back. I suppose you could sew a single line around the entire bodice but then you would have to hand gather around the entire circumference keeping all the gathers even and without breaking your elastic thread. So how about we don’t do it that way? I made 8 inches of rows but you can do or more or less depending on the look you are going for. Once you have sewn all your rows the center seams are going to be a mess of thread and elastic (three tails for each row)
Now the “fun” part, you need to manually pull on each end of the elastic thread to gather the fabric. Be careful that you don’t pull to hard or the elastic thread will break. If this happens you can create all the gathers from the other end being careful not to pull the elastic all the way through and out. Also be careful not to gather the fabric too much or won’t be able to get into the dress!
Once you have gathered all of the rows (54 in my case, 27 on each side) you will need to create a line of tiny stitches to maintain the tension. Set your machine to one of the shortest stitch lengths and sew a line down the length of gathers (you can see Heather doing this at on the link at the top). This keeps everything place. For threads that have snapped and slipped further into the dress you may have to do an individual line of stitches to secure them. Don’t worry you won’t really notice these stitches with all the gathering going on. Only after doing this can you snip all of the tails of elastic and thread off. Whew that was painful!
It’s finally time to hem your dress. Usually I chop length off like no one’s business but I really like the length of this dress so I created a one inch hem and top stitched around. If you don’t want straps you are done at this point. I’ve had problems with store bought shirred tops slowly creeping down so I spend my day constantly checking and pulling it up so straps were a must for me. A bra however is not, you get quite a bit of support from all those gathers!
Overall it’s a really cute dress, and how awesome is that fabric! But ultimately all the effort it took me to get to this point was not worth the final result. So if your machine doesn’t shirr with elastic thread in the bobbin I really wouldn’t bother.