How to Make Elastic Tops for Sundresses?

April 16, 2008

SundressesHow do you make the elastic like top on sun dresses instead of buying the sun dress material that is already made?

Lynn from CT



By Jean from Mississippi (Guest Post)
April 17, 20080 found this helpful
Best Answer

Use several rows of small elastic (1/4 inch), spaced about an inch apart.
Measure the person you are sewing for and cut each piece of elastic that same measurement.
Pin the elastic at each end of the fabric and also in the very center. If you're working with very long pieces, it helps to pin it again halfway between the center and the end.
Stretch the elastic smooth between the pins as you sew.
When you let go of the fabric, it will gather up - just like the ones you buy.
Good luck with your project.

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April 17, 20080 found this helpful
Best Answer

It is called 'shirring'. I attempted it once. I think next time I would buy the pre-shirred fabric. LOL. My sewing skills are just basic. Make sure to use new fresh good quality elastic if you are going to put the time in to do it.


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By londa (Guest Post)
April 17, 20080 found this helpful
Best Answer

When you sew the elastic on, a zig-zag stich works the best.


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Bronze Post Medal for All Time! 213 Posts
April 18, 20080 found this helpful
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To make the EXACT same type of elastic-smocked fabric you can buy at Walmart & fabric stores that's mainly sold for making skirts & tops, THE SECRET IS BOBBIN ELASTIC! At least that's what they used to call it... It's a super-thin elastic that comes on a thin spool & it looks like thick sewing thread (it's available in black & white) You wind it on to a bobbin like you would thread & just sew straight lines back & forth across your fabric at about half inch intervals. I like the way you don't need button holes or a zipper when you use bobbin elastic & your dress or skirt still fits beautifully!


The main secret is to loosen your bobbin's tension... I've been making bobbin elastic smocking since the 1970's and I know all the tricks of it's use... (If you don't have the right tension, it CAN be frustrating!) My favorite trick is to use an older sewing machine... I have a brand new Brother & another older Kenmore, but these both have what Singer patented as "Drop In Bobbins" or top loading bobbins... I find that what works best for sewing bobbin elastic is a machine with Underneath bobbins with the sort of bobbin case that comes out, then you put your bobbin inside & put the bobbin case with the bobbin back in to the sewing machine... The reason I like this type of (usually older) machine is because the tension is on the removable bobbin case & is easy to find & adjust with just a simple turn of the wrist. I have 2 bobbin cases for this machine & I keep one set at a "regular" sewing tension... & the extra one's tension set up JUST for using bobbin elastic. The "take-out bobbin case" has been loosened for bobbin-elastic-smocking... (YOU loosen the tension on these "Take-out" type of bobbin cases by simply taking a small screw driver (or butter knife) & screwing the small screw on the bobbin case to the left 1 or 2 turns...The reason you USUALLY need to loosen your machine's bobbin tension is, if you don't the bobbin elastic won't have the right amount of stretch & because the bobbin elastic is thicker than regular thread, it needs to have a loosed tension to sew properly, but once you get the hang of it, it'll be easy & you'll always know what you're doing!


Yes, you can use bobbin elastic in ANY sewing machine, Drop-in bobbin or underneath style, take-out bobbin cases. I just prefer to NOT mess with my tension in my "drop-in-bobbin" machines... That's the main reason I kept this older (underneath style bobbin) machine, just for the ease of sewing bobbin elastic into my clothes because summer clothes with stretch-smocking are so comfortable! ... I remember sewing & wearing these very same (stretch-smocking) dresses in the 1960's... I guess everything comes back around & is new again! ... If you like to garage sale or thrift shop, & you see an older machine with a take-out under-bobbin case, I'd recommend buying it if it runs well & is under $25... Besides it's nice to have an extra machine you can teach your kids or grandkids to sew on & not worry about it!


I LOVE sewing with bobbin elastic, it does take a bit of time, but the results are WELL worth it... & all you need to do is put a matching color of thread in to the top of your machine & sew back & forth horizontally while you hold the fabric taunt by stretching it as you sew... If this is your first time sewing with "bobbin elastic" then you're best bet would be to choose a fabric with an easy to follow "grid" on it... for example a small plaid or seersucker with checks... You never want to use a thick fabric like regular weight denim, but a light weight denim usually works fine (but not for beginners). My top-favorite fabric for sewing bobbin elastic smocking into is "Crinkle Gauze" ...and other thin fabrics & 100% cotton prints & calico's work wonderfully too... If you'don't use a fabric with a "built in grid" then it would be best if you'd mark the fabric with a ruler & a disappearing pen or a sewing pen that can washed out with water... Chalk isn't good for this kind of project. You may think you don't need a grid... well then, go right ahead if you don't mind crooked lines. I've found that the width of my presser foot is way to thin to use as a ruler for smocking.


If you are sewing bobbin elastic smocking in to a very thin fabric you may need to either adjust your bobbin tension or just hold the bobbin elastic a little tighter while it's winding on to the bobbin... because the thinner the fabric, the more tension should be on the bobbin-elastic. (read the back of the package the elastic came in)

Here's how I do it... First, lengthen your stitch lengtht... I always start out with about double the width of fabric I need, or I may just sew the bobbin elastic back & forth across the whole 45 inches (from selvage to selvage)... Sometimes, I make a dress with the back smocked with bobbin elastic but not the front. Instead I may use a front-tie bodice, a halter or something else... You FIRST hem the top of your fabric with a tiny quarter inch hem (because you'll never be able to stretch your elastic-fabric to hem it after you're sewn the elastic in!) Now just start sewing horizontally across the fabric in one long straight line... When you get to the end (or at the other selvage) then stop but do NOT cut your thread or bobbin elastic, just pull up a bit of slack so it won't pucker when you jump down to the next line, then move your needle to the next row down under the first (but don't go back to the starting position) just turn your fabric to sew back in the other direction & start sewing, back towards the beginning (You start your second row under the top row & about a half to 3/4 of an inch down from it... If you break your elastic or run out of it, just leave about a 3 inch "tail" & start sewing again about half an inch before the break, then when you are totally finished sewing in the elastic smocking, go back & tie the ends of each piece together on the top & on the bottom...

Don't worry about being perfect. You'll most likely not see any mistakes! First of all, most "problem" areas will end up on an inside bump & be hidden & if you end up with kind of crooked sewing lines, you really don't notice these when the project is done... I have 2 favorite bobbin elastic projects: One was a dress I made for my daughter when she was 3, & because I put in a big hem, the dress stretched to fit her because of the elastic-smocking for at least 3 or 4 years, but my top favorite bobin-elastic project is summer a dress I made for my mom... I like it because you don't need to wear a bra with it. The elastic actually holds up your "hooters" all by itself... Here's the trick... 2 layers of elastic-fabric in the front... this is how I made it... I used 60 inch wide 100% cotton navy & white striped "crinkle-gauze" fabric... I sewed back & forth across the whole 60 inch width (The elastic makes the fabric's width "shrink" to about half it's original size. Kind of like when you sheer a curtain on the rod) As I said, I sewed bobin-elastic smocking across the whole 60 inch width... I kept sewing lines of bobin-elastic untill the smocking was about 8 or 9 inches thick or wide (wide enough to cover over & under your "hooters" with elastic).

This is how the dress is sewn together: You basically wrap it in a "swirl" (kind of like a jelly roll) You start with one hemmed selvage under your left armpit then wrap the dress across your chest & over your "hooters", then continue wrapping it under your right arm, then across your back & back around to your left side where you first started (this makes it sort of a "wrap-around) and lastly you finish by continuing to wrap the dress across the front of your chest (again) & over your "hooters" ...finishing off under your Right armpit.... As I stated earlier, What makes this hold your hooters up without a bra is the way the dress wraps across your chest TWICE... this makes the elastic tight enough to actually hold them up... With no sweat under 'em in the summer! Lastly, I sewed 2 matching straps on to each side of the front. These straps can either be tied behind your neck or tucked in to the inside of the top to wear it strapless...

This dress is VERY comfortable in the summer, first of all it's 100% (breathable) cotton & crinkle-gauze won't wrinkle because it's already wrinkled (great to pack on vacation!) & you need no bra! ...AHHHA, relief!... When I washed it, I just washed it in cold water, then while it was wet I twisted the fabric back & forth to put more vertical wrinkles in the gauze... (like you would a broomstick skirt). Then let it dry that way... (kind of scrunched up)... To get maximum comfort, you'll need to make this dress out of gauze or another very light weight cotton fabric... Another nice think about this dress, is since gauze fabric is usually so thin & see through, you don't have to worry about seeing through the fabric because the front is doubled up (with 2 layers of fabric)...

I''ve tried to be as concise as I could in writing this, but feel free to write me with questions if you need me to explain in more detail how to use the bobbin elastic... Oh yeah, I forgot, the bobbin elastic is found on the wall by the notions & sewing needles at Walmart... & Walmart only carries white bobbin elastic. Joann's usually also carries the black too, but I've asked them before where the bobbin elastic is & they haven't a clue, both because it's sometimes called by another name... & because many people think it's for stringing beads on... Just ask for elastic on a spool & don't buy the stuff in the beading isle, look for it in the notions area. Lastly, there are different qualities of bobbin elastic. It depends on the manufactures, some is stretchier than others... Also, do yourself a favor, to a test swatch on your fabric first, & if it looks strange, then loosen the bobbin tension... Each fabric behaves differently with this elastic-smocking technique...but basically, thinner fabric works better than thick... & cotton fabric works best.

---> Heres a picture of what I call "Bobbin Elastic" & what Joann Fabrics calls "Elastic Sewing Thread"... Don't be surprised if they don't have a clue what your talking about if you ask for it in the store... Here's a URL where you can order it online from Joann's for under $1.50 for 30 yards. Buy 2, you might need extra. They sell both the white & the black online:

*** Here's a URL with additional directions of how to do bobin-elastic smocking. They also have a picture of the black bobbin-elastic at the URL below. Nice directions & diagrams too!

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