Monday, March 22, 2010

French Seams with gathers

Here is the follow up to the straight French seams. This seam is handling gathered fabric such as used in setting in a puff sleeve, ruffle or skirt. The main principles are the same. Use a 3/8" seam allowance. It is a two part seam with the first pass being stitched with wrong sides together, second pass right sides together. The first pass uses a zig-zag stitch with a 2.1 width and .9 length. Second pass a straight stitch run right along the edge that is formed by the first pass. To see these basic principles in pictures go here. And as always, in any post, click on the pictures to enlarge them.

The set up on the fabric is the same, right sides of the fabric marked with an R. The 3/8" and 1/4" seam allowances are marked with a water soluble blue marking pen and a C Thru ruler.

To gather my fabric, I run three rows of gathering stitches. Since this is a fine batiste, I don't use the "basting stitch" button on my machine, I use a stitch length of 3. This is much smaller stitch than some are used to using. This is a fine fabric, this will give small fine gathers instead of honkering gathers. If I was gathering velvet I would use a longer stitch. Everything in proportion.

I use three rows of gathering stitches for more control. You will have nicer, more even gathers this way. I stitched these rows at a scant 3/8", a scant 1/4" and 1/8" in my seam allowances. If I am lucky I won't run over the gathering stitches too badly when I sew the seam and I will be able to remove them later.

Here I have pulled up my gathers so that my fabric fits the shorter piece. See how nice and straight my gathers are? Three rows of gathering stitches does that. Again, my fabric is wrong sides together.

My first pass (green thread) using my zig zag stitch. No this is not an Irish flag, I am using different color threads so you can see which stitch is which.

Set your stitches by pressing the seam as it was sewn. I am only pressing the seam allowance. I don't want to press the gathers down. Why re iron the wrinkles out of the fabric when I am done?

Take a deep breath, its time to trim that seam allowance. This is from the back. It is easier to see my zig-zag stitches on the flat side. No they aren't green because I was too lazy to change the bobbin as well as the top. Shoot me!

Trim right up to those zig zag stitches.

Trimmed seam from the gathered side.

Turn your pieces right sides together and press. Being careful to make sure your seam is at the top of this fold and I pressed it with the nose of my iron to save myself those set in wrinkles.

This is an extra step I don't do when I make a flat French seam. I hand baste (the red thread) the seam instead of pinning it. Why? More control! It takes all of 30 seconds and I can make sure that my gathers are straight and out of the way. Nothing ticks me off more, than to turn it right side out and see all of the "caught" gathers. Grr. So try this, it works great.

This is where my bamboo skewer is priceless. It is hard to see that first pass of the seam through those gathers. So I really depend on the gulley made by the skewer this time. Again refer to the first post about French seams to see this more clearly.

Another trick to help control this second seam, or any seam, is I use my left hand to act as a tiny "hoop" by applying opposing pressure on the fabric to hold it taught. I am not pulling  as much as keeping it straight with that steady opposing pressure. Imagine as you are pressing the fabric flat to the machine bed that you are also spreading your thumb and forefinger gently apart. I hope that makes sense. Hard to show the action in a still picture.

While doing this action I use my right hand to use my bamboo skewer. Take my word for it, I couldn't hold the camera, the fabric AND the skewer. There is a limit to even my talents! :)

Second pass of the French seam. Snugged right up next to that first zig zag that in now encased in the seam on the 3/8" seam allowance.

This is how it looks from the flat side. Remove the hand basting and the gathering threads. Sometimes we have a tendency to want to leave the gathering threads in there. Especially if we have used a matching thread, thinking it won't show. No it won't, but removing them will give you a softer seam. You don't need all of that extra thread inside the seam allowance.

Again press the seam as it was sewn, then open the seam, press to one side from the wrong side and then from the right side. 

Finished seam to gathered fabric. Doesn't that look great? Now this is more gathered than a sleeve head would be simply because I cut two scraps with one being twice as long as the other.

French seams with gathered fabric are not limited to just fine batiste either. This is a sleeve set into a garment with a French seam that has been made from line pique. The yoke is also lined. So that is three layers of pique fabric in that French seam to gathered fabric.

This is another shot of the same sleeve using the pique. The gathers are there.

And right side out. So get to French seaming with confidence. Hope this has helped.


  1. Thanks for sharing the tutorials. Terrific tip to use 3 rows of gathering threads and zig-zag for first pass.

  2. Sigh-- When I read your tutorials, I think I can do anything! You know exactly what we need to know and put it so well. The pictures are a great help. It encourages me to slow down and take greater care - and to just enjoy each process. Thanks so much.

  3. Both your tutorials on French Seams are fantastic! Thank you for taking the time to photograph and explain everything so clearly.

  4. Fantastic tutorial! Thank you for proving that little puff sleeves can be inserted with a tiny French seam. Many don't believe that! Also glad to hear I am not the only one who removes those gathering threads even if they are not visible.
    I can't believe you haven't figured out how to take photos and sew at the same time! LOL!

  5. It is a rare occasion that i don't use a French seam for a sleeve insertion -- fantastic tutorial, Martha! (I baste prior to both steps of the French seam -- especially for a little sleeve.)

  6. Wow! That is a beautiful french seam - not a real easy task when you are working with gathers, but your tutorial made it look like a breeze! Thanks for sharing this fantastic tutorial!

  7. Martha, this is an excellent lesson on gathering and French Seams. It makes all the difference in the world when you use three gathering threads and keep the stitch length shorter!!

  8. Great tutorial! I was terrified the first time I set puffed sleeves into a daygown using a french seam. Thankfully, it was during a Jeannie B. class and she makes everything easy!

  9. Like I've said before, I am learning so much from you! Thanks.

  10. Great Walk-thru. Very clear. Love it! Thank you so much.

  11. Wonderful tute, Martha. Thanks you so so much. You make it look so doable and easy.

  12. These two tutorials are great! I can't wait to try them out. I think it will make my French seams much neater. Will this technique work on inserting a sleeve in the round? Or is it best suited for flat sleeve insertion? I'm interested to know what your thoughts on round vs. flat sleeve insertion are. (Does that make sense?) I'm always eager to learn/try something new when it comes to sewing!

  13. Thanks for the great tutorial, Martha! When I visit your site, I always get to attend a wonderful sewing class with a masterful teacher! I can't wait to try your tips the next time I do my french seams.

  14. I appreciate the tutorial. I like using French seams, I have never used a zig zag. 3 rows of gathering threads, I will try that next time.

  15. Martha, my heart was beating quickly as I read both of your French Seam tutorials. But I will take a huge breath and bite the bullit to give both a try. Your instructions are wonderful. So clear and concise.Thank you so much for taking the time to share your talents.
    Linda A

  16. What a helpful tutorial. It's like you were in the room with us only better. How nice to have the pictures to reference.

  17. This is great! I've been sewing for years and am into little girl dresses. I've been searching ways to make the seams look more professional and came across this! Thanks so much!

  18. I just gave your tutorial on french seams with gathering a test run and I am very impressed! I can't wait to get back to sewing little dresses for my grandbabie! It's a blast!

  19. Thanks for the wonderful french-seam related tutorials! I already love french seams, but am excited about all I have learned in your instructions, which makes them even more versatile, in my mind.
    On gentle curves, I find (in trials) I can do the first trim very narrow. Perhaps I should stick to a straight stitch for that first pass in such a case?

  20. Thank you for this great tutorial. This looks like a perfect way to soften those armhole seams.

  21. Thank you so much for this tutorial, I need to french seam an armhole and this is going to help so much. Your pictures and descriptions are so clear.

  22. This is the best tutorial I've seen on a very specific topic. Thank you so much for this detailed post. You've explained why you're doing what you're doing, which I think is the mark of a great educator. One spot where you didn't do that is the zigzag. I'll do it, but it would be nice to know why the zigzag vs a straight stitch? Any ideas?

    1. Lesse, thanks for stopping by my very neglected spot on the web. The reason for using the zig zag stitch on the first pass of the French seam is two fold for me. One, it helps control or eliminate "whiskers" from peeking out of the finished seam. Two, it forms a firm edge to be able to run the blade of the edge stitch foot against when stitching the second pass. This allows for a tiny French seam with no wobbles in the finished product. I hope that helps.

  23. Thanks so much for posting this. Just the information I was after and so well presented.

  24. Hello, thanks a lot for this tutorial! I will try it for my summer dress this weekend.

    Question: I usually do French seams with straight stitches, instead of zig-zag. I see that you do your French seams with zig-zag, not just for this gather, but also for the normal French seams. Is there a reason for using zig-zag instead of straight stitches? Is zig-zag better for the gathers, somehow?

    many thanks,

  25. oh, sorry, you have replied above, so please ignore my question. I now feel silly... thank you!


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