The Great Ruffle-Off! Which Gathering Method Is Best?

If you saw the launch of the Ruby Ruffles Skirt pattern last week, you know we've been doing a lot of ruffling at Tie Dye Diva lately! There are many ways to gather a ruffle and everyone seems to have a favorite. For many years, I used the quick, single-pass 'zigzag over a thread' method. Later, I moved on to two threads, both within the seam allowance. Currently, I love a good old-fashioned two-thread gather, with one inside the seam allowance (and this is the one recommended in the Ruby Ruffles pattern).

So, want to see how your favorite method stacks up, or perhaps find a new one to love? We present to you - a tutorial and comparison of seven ways to ruffle, in The Great Ruffle Off!

For each method, I cut woven cotton strips for ruffles each 20" x 2, and gathered them each to 10" (2:1 ratio). To show how the ruffles look on a finished garment, I then sewed each gathered ruffle to 10" strips of woven cotton using a 1/2" seam allowance, pressed the seam allowance to the ungathered side and topstitched.

The pretty fabrics I used here are from the Modern Lace collection by Amanda Murphy for Blend Fabrics, provided to me free of charge so I could bring you this great experiment! See the whole collection at Blend Fabrics' website.

The first three methods are so closely related, I've grouped them. They all involve sewing loose basting threads and gathering along that thread.

Method 1. Two thread gather, one inside seam allowance.

How to do it: Set thread tension set at loosest, stitch length set longest. Sew one row of stitches at 3/8" and one at 5/8". Gently pull only bobbin threads to gather.

Pros: Nice, even, springy gathers.
Cons: Two rows means having to sew down the length of the fabric twice, and the gathering thread outside the seam allowance has to be removed when you're done.

Method 2. One-thread gather.

How to do it: Same as Method 1, but sew only 1 row of thread within seam allowance.

Pros: quick, one-pass.
Cons: Slightly uneven and flatter gather. Requires more skill and time to gather evenly. If the thread breaks, you are out of luck.

Method 3. Two-thread gather both inside seam allowance.

How to to do it: Same as Method 1, but sew both gathering rows within the seam allowance.

Pros: Fairly even gathers, no threads to remove.
Cons: Have to sew two rows, slightly less even and flatter results than Method 1.

Method 4. Zigzag over a thread.

How to do it: Set machine to longest, medium-height zigzag and normal tension. At the beginning edge, lay a thread down about 1/4" from the edge of the fabric - extended the thread past the edge so there is something to hold on to. I usually put the spool in my lap and let it unwind from there. Zigzag stitch over the thread without catching the thread in the zigzags. Pull the thread from both ends to gather.

Pros: Quickly done in one pass. All threads are in seam allowance so nothing to remove. A good method to use when gathering multiple layers at once, because two-thread tends not to work in that situation.
Cons: Not much control over the gather, as it tends to keep sliding around on the thread. Requires more skill to get an even gather. If you don't manage to stay in the seam allowance, you have a lot of zigzag to unpick. Risks the single thread breaking (some use dental floss or carpet thread), or being caught up in the zigzag stitch.

Method 5. Clear elastic.

How to do it: Cut a piece of elastic 2" longer than the length your finished ruffle will be (so, in this case, 2" plus 10" = 12"). Mark 1" from each end so you have a 1" beginning and ending tail to hold on to. Divide the remaining 10" into quarter-points and mark. Divide your ruffle strip into quarter points as well, and pin together, matching quarter points. Set your machine for a zigzag stitch. Stretch the elastic taut as you sew over it, removing pins as you sew. Clip excess elastic.

Pros: Very even gather, nice and stretchy so ideal for gathering a woven to a knit. Acts as a built-in stabilizer for the seam.
Cons: Expensive. Set up takes a while, sewing requires some skill. The stretchiness that remains due to the elastic would be odd for some seams, like the ruffled hem of a dress.

Method 6. Ruffler foot attachment for sewing machine. 

How to do it: Attach ruffler foot, follow manufacturer instructions for your particular foot. Getting the exact ratio is a trial-and-error process, but once you have figured it out for your technique and fabric, you can record the settings for quicker use in the future. My pal Carla at Scientific Seamstress has a great free tutorial on knowing and loving your ruffler foot, which you can download from You Can Make this:

Pros: Actual ruffling process is quick, one pass, and very even, also springy and not flat.
Cons: Getting the settings exactly right takes some time, otherwise ruffles can wind up longer or shorter than the piece you are attaching them to.

Method 7. Tension method.

How to do it: Adjust thread tension to highest and stitch length to longest. And just sew, the fabric will gather as you stitch.

Pros: no setup, very quick. Good to use if you are able to ruffle a very long piece, longer than you need, and cut off excess.
Cons: Some machines do this and some don't. Difficult to control gather ratio. My 20" piece ended up with a very full, but only 7" long ruffle. I tried to gently hand-adjust so the ruffle would be less full and 10" long, but because I had already clipped threads ended up unravelling my ruffle and you can see this flat space at the right side of the photo. With enough practice, adjusting exact tension and stitch length, you could probably get a better 2:1 ratio.

In summary, I was surprised (and perhaps even a little disappointed!) at how similar all the results were! I think part of this is because I was only gathering 20", so there was not a lot of room for unevenness, as there would be on the entire hem of a dress or in the five rows of ruffles on Ruby Ruffles Skirt. Also, I did my best with each method, and where some methods required more time to get the gathers even, I took the extra time.  I still love Method 1 best, and think it and the ruffler foot produce the most beautiful gathers. I can't think of a situation where I'd use the one-thread gather, I am too risk-averse for that, and I wouldn't use the tension method anywhere I was trying to fit a ruffle to a given size.

So in my opinion, the winner and still champion of the Great Ruffle-Off .... two-thread gather, with 1 inside the seam allowance (with ruffler attachment a close second)! Happy ruffling!

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