Saturday, 22 May 2010

Shirring for the cackhanded: helpful tips

Some things in life are difficult to explain, but are very easy to do. For example, falling in love. If you tried to explain love, you would have to use words like pheremones and synapses, which would be unpleasant: but, in practice, if you mix strong alcohol with mutual admiration of some obscure band/ foodstuff/ children’s television programme, generally before you know it there you are sharing a bathroom and wondering why your loved one squeezes the toothpaste in such an odd way. And some things are extremely easy to explain and very difficult to do in practice. Do you know what one of those is? Sewing with shirring elastic.
This is my summer dress, for me. I sewed this inspired by a shirred dress in Sew Hip magazine, which gave simple instructions. Essentially, when you shirr you are making a big tube and then pulling it in with elastic to make a smaller, slightly squashy-looking tube. There are no darts, there is no shaping. That should be easy, right? Well, the instructions certainly made it sound easy. You handwind the bobbin with your elastic thread, and then you just sew round and round your tube in a kind of a spiral (using the presser foot as a guide to space the rows) until you have done enough to fit over your bust, and then you clip your threads, put your dress on, and skip away, possibly to some kind of cool festival or a picnic in the park. Result happiness. However. Trying to follow these instructions felt a little bit like nailing a jelly to the ceiling, which is also easy to explain (take one jelly. Stand on chair. Hold jelly against ceiling. Knock nail through jelly with a big hammer – you might need a friend to help you steady the jelly at this point. Voila! Jelly nailed to ceiling! Enjoy!).

Basically, if you try to shirr your dress by sewing round a big spiral, unless you are making a dress for a very small baby (and I suspect this might be the case even then), you will run out of elastic. Elastic thread is thicker than sewing thread: you will have to rewind your bobbin at least once, possibly more. This is fine – rewinding the bobbin is no trouble (it doesn’t have to be tidy – I can make my sewing machine knot up just by looking at it, but my haphazard bobbin winding didn’t cause any problems.) However! You cannot backsew to secure elastic thread: it doesn’t work: I have tried. So, if you are starting again in the middle of your spiral, it is likely to come undone, especially because you have to pull and stretch the elastic as you are sewing to get a bit of flat fabric to sew through. My dress looks pretty on the outside: inside it is Frankenstein’s monster with elastic pulled and knotted and handsewn to secure. Also, it is not easy to use the presser foot as a guide for seams. You have to pull and tug at your fabric to stretch it to sew: sometimes frankly it is not clear what direction you are sewing in, never mind if you are correctly placing the new line of stitching half an inch from the old one.

So this is how I have decided to do it and it seems to be working much better (if a shirred top appears in my etsy shop you’ll know it was ok, if not I’m going to quietly skulk off and never mention it again.) 1/ Sew lines of shirring, not a spiral, and trap the ends in a seam (I will be using a french seam, doubly secure and also I am using sheer-ish fabric.) I’m doing this with a seam on the back, but you could probably use one of the side seams too. Don’t start with a new bobbin half-way through seams – check you’ve got enough to finish before you start. 2/ Mark with washable fabric pen lines where you want to sew – I’m spacing mine half an inch apart. I’m reasonably confident the washable fabric pen is actually washable, if not I’ll be walking about with a grid marked on my chest. Horizontal lines, so flattering! 3/ Sew with a very short stitch length, and I’ve found I need a tight top tension: if my bobbin tension is adjusted correctly, I haven’t found I need to adjust it any more, which is useful as I’m not sure where I’ve put the screwdriver.

Those are my shirring tips, I hope this is helpful. It is a performance but worth doing as it looks attractive, and as you are tripping about in your diaphanous creations only you will know about the bitter tears and swearing at the sewing machine, everyone else will think you are effortlessly chic in a hippie kind of way.


Gigglybug said...

I love your dress!!! Thanks for the tips, I will be trying this :)

Susie said...

Thank you! Hope it works out for you - it does look nice when it's done, but God doing it is boring! :-)