Basics Tutorial: Shirring on a Brother Sewing Machine with Drop-In Bobbin

When I first learned how to shirr on my sewing machine, I had a hard time finding a good tute using a Brother on account of the drop-in bobbin style so I want to share what I find works wonderfully for me (after a lot of trial and error!).  This may sound complicated but I promise, after you get the hang of it, you’ll love elastic thread and shirring!

If your pattern doesn’t tell you how much fabric length to use, the usual shirring ratio is 2:1.  So, let’s say I’m shirring a dress for my daughter.  If her chest circumference is 20″, I want to my fabric piece to be 40″ across (plus an inch or two for seam allowance).

First thing first.  The elastic thread only goes in the bobbin.  This might go without saying but when I first started to sew, I failed to read the instructions on the elastic thread package and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to get such thick thread in the needle…that’s because you don’t!  Normal thread on top, elastic thread in the bobbin.

This is the elastic thread I prefer.  It’s by Stretch Rite and looks like this:

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I use my machine to wind the bobbin with the elastic thread, only I hold the thread in my hand and give very light tension as I wind with the pedal.  I wind 3-4 bobbins with elastic thread each time I do a shirring project.  You’ll go through several bobbins per project so it’s convenient to have a few ready to go.If you run out of bobbin thread mid-line you can stop and start with a new bobbin on the same line in the spot where you ran out of bobbin thread, just tie the elastic threads together so they don’t pull out after you finish that line.
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Now, before you load your bobbin into your machine, we’ll need to adjust the tension on the bobbin case.  To do this open your lid above the bobbin case and wiggle to pull it out.  On the front you’ll see a little screw.  You need to tighten it by turning a full turn to the right.  (Just don’t forget to change it back when you want to sew with regular bobbin thread again!).  Mine has a little green paint dot on it so I use that to judge my turning.  Put the bobbin case back in and replace the cover piece.  Load bobbin as you normally would.  Test the tension by pulling gently.  You want it to move but you want to have to pull a bit to get it to unwind.
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Replace the little clear plastic bobbin area lid.   Thread your machine as normal but set your stitch length to 4.  I use normal tension.
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Now hold your thread as your turn the wheel so that the machine is starting to do a stitch by hand.  This will pull up your bobbin thread.  You may need to use a little pin or something to help you pull up the bobbin thread.  Now it will look like this:
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We’re ready to shirr!  Some people mark lines with a washable pin on their fabric but I’m too lazy for that.  I typically just make each row of shirring the width of the presser foot (or eyeball if I do rows of close shirring).
Usually, you won’t backstitch at the start/end of each row, which means you’ll have lots of thread “tails” hanging until you sew up your seams but you’ll cut off all the excess after.  You want to leave a few inches of thread on each side of your row to ensure the threads don’t pull out.
Start sewing rows.  The shirring will become more evident the more rows you do.You need to stretch the previous rows out as you sew consecutive rows.

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If all of your settings/tension are correct, the back of your project should look like this with the elastic thread in a nice straight line.  If it’s wonky, you might have your bobbin thread tension too tight or too loose.

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Once you’ve completed the desired number of rows, sew up your seams.  Now the fun part.  Heat up your iron with steam.  Press the rows with normal thread side up and watch it shrink up!  (I used a scrap piece of an old shirt to demonstrate shirring so that’s what you see in these pics).

The front side, finished:

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And the back side:
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The shirring steps in sum:

  • Wind several bobbins with elastic thread.
  • Tighten your bobbin tension by turning the front screw on the bobbin case 1 turn to the right.
  • Use normal tension and 4.0 stitch length on the top thread.
  • Shirr in rows leaving several inches of “tail” with each row.
  • Sew your seams and trim threads.
  • Shrink your shirred rows with a hot iron with steam.
And don’t forget to turn your bobbin case screw back one turn to the left when you sew with regular thread again!!  (I say this, but I forget to do it all the time…until I start to sew and my bobbin thread is way too tight.)

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Comments

  1. This is great. I have a Brother and have not had success with shirring. Thanks for sharing this tutorial.
    Ruth

  2. Thanks, Ruth! Hope this method works for you as well as it does for me! :)

  3. THANK YOU finally a tutorial I get that works for my machine, I’ve been meaning to try shirring on my machine but kept hearing about changing the bobbin tension which I didn’t want to do. You’re a star, going to try this straight away.

  4. Thanks! I started shirring with my Brother last year by winding the elastic around bobbin really tightly by hand. This will be lots easier! Thanks for the tute and the explanatory pics!

  5. thanks! I have the same exact machine!!!

  6. You gave me a great idea of recycling my husbands old shirts into little girls dresses with the shirring. Of course I’ll have to embelish them too!

  7. Do you use a special presser foot on your machine for this?

  8. I realize this may sound a little dramatic – but you have saved my life via this copacetic, most splendiferous tutorial on how to NOT defenestrate my new sewing machine (AKA shirring with elastic thread on brother machines). There are not enough 50 cent words to convey just how awesomeness you are for having figured this out – and then generously taking the time to write an exemplary, elucidating, and easy-peasy-to-follow tutorial for everyone who needs it… and how! I’ve been a silent follower of your blog now for a few months; it is worthy of some really positive superlatives on all levels… but saving my life/sanity/window/machine/the guy walking his chihuahua three stories below – well, I had to throw in my spare change. Thanks for all the good stuff – keep it up!

    • Best. comment. ever. :) Thanks, Taryn. You totally made my day!!

    • Thank you so much for this excellent tutorial. I wasted a lot of elastic thread and time with other tutorials and then I found yours. You are a terrific teacher – I was able to shirr after just a couple of tries with your specific and concise directions. Now I do not have to go to my brother dealer for help. You also have a way with your words that is very reassuring and unintimidating. I felt like I could do it after reading your post even before I tried. Please keep posting tutorials – you are talented at sharing your skills!

    • This comment has been removed by the author.

    • That’s so sweet! I’m so glad it helped you and it’s working! After I finally got the hang of it, I use shirring all the time. Your comment totally made my day today. :) Thank you!

  9. Mine still won’t work. I have NO clue what I am doing wrong :/ I am having a really hard time getting the screw to tighten, maybe that is my problem? I hate when it does not work how I want it too! Do you have any ideas of what I might be doing wrong?!

    • Hmm…I would try just adjusting the screw until it tightens and then test the “pull” of the elastic thread. I use a tiny screwdriver that’s meant for working on glasses I think. My bobbin screw tightens and loosens easily. So you will load the bobbin as you normally would. Test the tension by pulling gently. You want it to move but you want to have to pull a bit to get it to unwind. I keep scrap fabric nearby and always do a quick test run on that before I start the “real” shirring. Sometimes I have to keep adjusting the fabric tension to get a perfect shirr. Hope this might help. Good luck!! :)

    • Hmm, I don’t know. I just had my husband tighten the screw and it is still just treating it like normal thread. I am about to just give up on this little dream of shirring.

  10. I am so excited to find this because I have the same exact machine as you do so I know it will work! Thank you!

  11. Thank you for this tutorial! I have a brother like yours and it worked wonderfully. I find that I didn’t have to adjust the thread tension in the bobbin and it still worked great! I used your tutorial to sew a night gown for my daughter out of some gingham I had laying around. Maybe working with a light weight fabric like gingham doesn’t affect the tension like a regular quilting weight cotton fabric would.

  12. This tutorial is great! I had no idea the bobbin even came out of the bottom, I’m a very beginner sewer (seamstress?). Anywho… I had one question, please. When you say to turn the screw a full turn to the right. That means that the screw should be in the exact same position when I’m done, only tighter, yes? As in, the paint ‘break’ around the screw should line up exactly the way it did before?

  13. Thanks for the tute!! It totally worked for me and I’m loving the results so will no doubt be shirring everything in sight. Thanks :)

  14. Finally got the shirring done and when I steam ironed, it didn’t shrink up enough :-)
    What could I be doing wrong??

    Jenny

  15. Karen Staley says:

    Thank you so Much for posting your shirring instructions. I was about to start and decided last minute to search for help. I would have messed up badly! You’re really a lifesaver. I have wanted to tackle this project for So long. I have several lightweight skirts with the waist’s elastic stitching done this way. They are all stretched out from when I was overweight but the skirts are still lovely. I feel confident I can re-do them to tighten the waists just enough, and am going to sit down right now for 1st try. :) Karen

  16. Hi, I found this page via Pinterest and I wanted to thank you for these very useful guidelines. I was also wondering about threading the elastic into the machine needle :)

  17. I have tried this tutorial with great hope as all other tips for shirring on my brother SE 400 have failed me. This was didn’t get it either. Is it just not possible to shirr on the brother se 400? Anything else I can try?

  18. Thanks a million for this!! I just spent a whole day getting really distressed about shirring a party dress for my daughter. I am still working out whether I’ll unpick the entire bodice or just shirr over the top of my failed attempt, but I can step forward once again with confidence, just because of you and this tutorial!
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