Sewing with elastic thread – make a shirred dress

Sewing with elastic thread is fun, so don’t be scared to try it. If you are about to make your first attempts to shirr fabric, I believe you are in the right place. In this post, I am going to go through the steps to follow as well as some of the most common issues you might run into while sewing with elastic thread and how to thread it in your machine.

On top of that, you are going to learn how to make an easy summer shirred dress in any size with no pattern an relatively little sewing resources. If you prefer, scroll down for the video.

how to make a shirred dress

What you are going to need to make the shirred dress

  • a piece of woven fabric

You are going to need a piece of woven fabric that is as long as you want the dress to be and as wide as 2 times the chest circumference. I am going to show how to measure the exact dimensions in a minute. You can also use knitted fabric for this project, but in that case, sewing the elastic thread lines might be just a bit more challenging.

If you are adding the straps and want to make them adjustable, you are also going to need two sets of sliders and rings with the appropriate width to match the straps.

Measurements to take for the shirred dress pattern

To make this shirred dress or a shirred top, you need to take just two measurements: the chest circumference and the overall length. Then, using these measurements, cut a rectangle.

To determine the width of the rectangle, we are going to use the chest circumference. Subtract two inches or 5 cm from that circumference and then double it. 

The elastic thread is going to gather the fabric approximately by half and that’s why we double it. We subtract 2 inches or 5 cm because we want the dress tighter than the exact chest measurement so that it wraps around the body and stays in place.

summer shirred dress free pattern

I also want the dress just above the knee so I measure from the armpit line down to above the knee. Then, I add a total of 1 ½ inch or 4 cm for hem allowance which I am going to divide between the top and the bottom.

I end up with a rectangle that is 48’’ wide and 26’’ long. In cm that would be 120 by 65 cm. 

Once I have the fabric cut, I am going to start

Sewing the elastic thread lines (shirring the fabric)

The elastic thread is put on the bobbin. If you happen to have a sewing machine with a drop-in bobbin, you can try to wind the bobbin on the machine exactly as you would do with a regular thread.

 I use a front load bobbin machine and if I’ve noticed that I get better results when I wind the bobbin by hand (image 1). By all means, try to wind the bobbin on the machine first. If it the elastic thread winds too tight and stretches on the bobbin or the seams you make don’t look right, wind it by hand. Be prepared that it is a time consuming task and you are most probably going to need more than just one bobbin of elastic thread along the way.

Put the bobbin in and use a regular thread in the needle (image 2). Pull the elastic thread out manually as you would do with a regular thread (image 3) and you are ready to sew.


One last thing I want to share in case you have a front load bobbin machine. If the elastic thread wouldn’t run smoothly when you sew, unwind the little screw on the bobbin case just a bit (like a quarter rotation).

This way,  the thread feeds smoothly through the bobbin case opening. Don’t forget to take it back to its original position once you are done with the elastic thread. Otherwise this adjustment can really mess your seams later.

Start sewing the elastic thread lines from the top. Leave 3/8 of an inch or one cm from the edge of the fabric for the elastic and hemming later. The elastic thread is already gathering the fabric nicely the seam looks nice (image 4). Sew all the way to the other side of the fabric.

sewing with elastic thread

 Sew the second line. I like to use the sewing foot as a guide where my next seam needs to be. This way I don’t have to mark the lines prior to sewing. It doesn’t have to be precise, because when the fabric gets gathered you won’t be able to tell anyway, but try to make the lines as straight as possible.

In order to leave bigger distance between the lines you should mark their position prior to sewing. If you use your presser foot as a guide, you are going to need approximately 15 lines of elastic thread for a girl’s dress or top and 20 to 30 lines for a woman’s dress depending on the bust size.


To sew each next line of elastic thread, pull the fabric so that it takes its original shape. This way it would be easier for you to sew and make the seams straight (image 5). 

I am going to make 15 lines which is approximately 8 inches or 20 cm of shirred fabric.

When I run out of elastic thread, I start again, making sure that the seams overlap a bit. Then, I take both ends of elastic thread and make a knot on the wrong side in order to be sure that the thread won’t get pulled off (image 6).

Now that I have all 15 lines of elastic thread sewn, I am going to measure and check if the fabric gathered enough (image 7). And the top part measures exactly 24’’ or 60 cm as we predicted ((the chest – 2 inches) by 2). This means that the dress is going to fit the chest nicely.

summer dress free pattern

Sewing the rest of the shirred dress

Make the center back seam

So we are going to move on and make the center back seam from the top all the way down to the bottom (image 8). I am going to use the serger. You can use a straight stitch or zig zag, all of these will do since this is woven fabric and we don’t need to make stretching seams.

One additional step I like to take is to pull the ends of the elastic thread and make a knot on each line so that it doesn’t get pulled out later and spoil the gathering (image 9).

shirred dress pattern

Hem the top and the bottom of the dress

The next step would be to hem the top and the bottom of the dress. Add some narrow elastic to the top so that it provides extra support, especially if you are not going to add straps.

Measure the elastic stretched over the chest and as tight as I want it to be. Sew both ends of the elastic overlapped (image 10). Then secure it in place at the center back seam with a couple of forward and backward stitches.

Once the elastic is attached to the fabric, pull them both so that half of the dress and half of the elastic align (image 11). You can put a pin here if you like. Pull the fabric and the elastic once again holding at the middle in order to align them at the quarter as well (image 12).

Start sewing, stretching the elastic to match the fabric. Continue with the second quarter, then the third and finish with the rest. This way you make sure to distribute the elastic evenly among the fabric.

how to shirr fabric

Once the elastic is attached all the way around, fold it once and topstitch to hem the top part of the dress (image13).

This is how the top of the dress is going to look at this stage (image 14). The elastic and the elastic thread got a bit stretched along the way. Use the iron steam to gather the fabric even more. Hem at the bottom as well.

 If you are not planning to add straps, your shirred dress is ready. 

Scroll down to the end to see the finished dress as well as the video instructions.

Add adjustable straps to the dress

Make the straps

I want to add straps so I have a couple of steps more before I finish. Usually, I would make the spaghetti straps out of the main fabric. This time I am using some left over fabric and I don’t have enough length to make the straps, so I am using the elastic. I also want to make the straps adjustable.

I use sliders that are the same size as the straps (image 15). Thread the elastic through the slider on one side and then on the other (image 16). 

Sew the free end of the elastic to the other side of the slider (image 17). Sew as close as you can. This way the strap could be adjusted all the way down later.

The length of the straps may vary according to the size. If I want the strap to be 10 inches long, I am going to leave additional 5 inches for the overlap. 10 inches is a bit too long for a child so I’m going to cut the straps at 8 and leave 4 inches for the overlap.

shirred dress with adjustable straps

Insert the ring into the free end of the strap. Fold it and thread it through the slider once again starting from the top and then all the way through the other side (image 19). The adjustable strap is almost ready. One last thing to do is cut 2 inches or 5 cm of the elastic to add to the other side of the ring so that you can sew it to the dress (image 20). If you like, you may sew under the ring to keep everything in place.

If you want to add straps that are not adjustable, just skip the steps above and jump right into sewing the straps to the dress.

Sew the straps to the dress

Measure the straps for position and be careful to put them evenly on both sides (image 21).

how to sew with elastic thread

Sew the end of the stripe to the inside of the dress (image 22). Sew the free end of the strap to the front and the part with the ring to the back. 

And here is the final result.

make a shirred dress

Here is the video tutorial on how to shirr fabric:

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More sewing tutorials:

  1. How to sew an elastic waistband
  2. How to make a fabric bow in any size
  3. How to sew buttons and buttonholes
  4. DIY Organza String Bags
  5. How to sew a pillowcase


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