Ruffle Shorts – Serger Basics

In my last sewing post, I showed you how to draft a pattern from something you already have.  Now, I’m going to make something with the pattern I drafted!  When I saw these adorable ruffle shorts on Pinterest, I just knew I had to make some for my niece!  I also haven’t broken out my serger for a while, so this was the perfect excuse to use it.


This is why I don’t always pull my serger out – space is limited on my little sewing desk! I end up sitting in front of the drawers and using the pedal to the right (the black one is for the serger, the white one is the sewing machine, and the gray one is my old sewing machine – I really need to put that one away!)

Do I need to remind you that I’m a chicken?  The serger was a machine that struck fear into my heart for many, many years.  My mom and grandma both had one, but I pretty much never used them.  It was always too dangerous when I was little, and then I was just afraid when I grew up.  Then, I started doing projects that would have been much easier and better constructed on a serger, so I decided to check them out…. after seeing what they look like inside, I got scared again:



But, finally, my mom convinced me that it’s a really amazing machine to have, and last year for my birthday (and Christmas, because they are pricey!), my mom and grandma bought me this serger (also called an overlock machine).  If you are thinking about getting one, I highly recommend it!!!  It has been one of the best sewing purchases ever!  Also, I was lucky that they bought mine at Husqvarna – you know, the ladies that sell the machines inside Joann craft stores.  Well, when you buy a machine with them, they offer a complimentary how-to class as part of the purchase.  I had tried to use the DVD and instruction book that came with the machine to no avail, but when I went to the class, my frustrations disappeared!  I spent an incredible 2 hours with the instructor, during which she refused my numerous offers to come live with me so we could sew projects together all the time.  She made me thread and re-thread the machine about 20 times for different stitches, and really built my confidence.  She also convinced me that unless a needle falls out or I run over a pin, I CAN’T BREAK THE SERGER.  That was a big deal for me.

So, now that I have overcome my fear of the serger, I’d like to share some of my experience and tips with you so that you, too, can build your confidence on this complicated but brilliant machine.

To start off with, like a regular sewing machine, sergers can do many types of stitches.  Also, just like sewing machines, tension for each thread is key – but instead of just 2 threads, you’re working with up to 5 at a time (although my serger only takes 4).  I found the best thing when I am using a new kind of stitch is to make a “cheat sheet” for myself.

Sergers today are big on color coding.  You can see in the picture above that they use blue, green, red, yellow, and sometimes navy blue to track which thread is which.  So I bought one spool of each of those colors for myself (you can use sewing machine spools, but you will run through it SUPER fast, so I just went for the serger spools).  Then, I threaded the machine with the color spools that matched the machine thread guides for the desired stitch, got all the tensions perfect (using a scrap piece of cotton), and made a nice stitch along my “cheat sheet” cotton.


I just used some cotton I had lying around. You see the different colored threads? They correspond to the color coding on the machine.

OK, so why the heck did I waste my time to do this?  First of all, it was good practice – I only took a picture of 4 stitches above, but I have about 15 of these things to use as reference for all the stitches on my machine.  But most importantly, when I change stitches and fabrics and thicknesses, it’s very easy to figure out which thread tension I need to adjust when things just don’t look right.  I can look at my piece, see which thread isn’t stitching right, and look at my sample to see which color tension disc I need to adjust.  Tension on the serger is a lot more finicky than the sewing machine, and will make a big difference in the strength, durability, and look of your finished piece.  It’s not impossible to figure it out without these samples, but when all your thread is the same color, it can get a little tricky!  I’ve found my little color-coded samples save me a lot of time, frustration, and unnecessary tension-tweaking.

So, to start on the ruffle shorts, you’re going to need to buy 1/2 yd of a cotton knit – I found an adorable purple reversible polka dot and stripe fabric an Joann’s.  From your fabric, cut

  • 2 pieces of your shorts pattern (facing opposite directions, one will be the right side, one will be the left), with the stretch of the fabric going left to right
  • 4 ruffle pieces – these should be twice the length of the bottom hem of your shorts, and 1.5″ high (in my case, the length of the bottom of the shorts was 9″, so I cut 4 18″x1.5″ pieces)
  • 1 waistband piece – you’ll want to make it 5″ tall, and the width will be your kiddo’s waist measurement minus 3 inches (so mine was 18″-3″ = 15″ wide by 5″ tall – again, make the long part on the stretch of the fabric so they’ll be easy to get on and off)

2 shorts pattern pieces (if you fold and cut, they’ll be facing the right way), 1 waistband piece, and 4 ruffle pieces

The next step is optional, since knit doesn’t unravel like cotton, but it’s a fun way to try out a different stitch on your serger.  I used the 3-thread narrow edge stitch (also called a rolled edge) for the bottom part of each ruffle.  This stitch will curl the very edge (we’re talking 1 mm or less) of your fabric in as it stitches very short stitches to create a finished edge.  If you want to make napkins for someone, this is a great way to make a clean, pretty edge on them.  As I always suggest with the sewing machine, be sure to test your stitch out on a sample that’s the same material and thickness as you’ll use on your finished product!


Here is my test length. You can see that its a little curled under, and there are no loose threads so my tension is good.

Also, if you’re using a double-sided material, be sure to stitch with the same side up for all of your ruffles (I will be using them striped side out, so I stitched the edges striped side up).  Also, don’t worry about those thread tails, they’ll get stitched into a seam and cut off later.

Once you have all 4 ruffle pieces edged on one side, it’s time to gather them.  Use your sewing machine for this – set your stitch length as long as possible, and your top thread tension as high as it will go.  Then run your 4 strips through your machine (one at a time) about 1/2″ from the top.  It will start to gather on the machine, but it probably won’t be enough, so you’ll need to pull the bobbin thread gently until the ruffle length matches the shorts hem length (in my case, 9″).  I found that leaving long thread tails ensured that I didn’t accidentally pull them into the fabric as I ruffled more, then I tied the threads at each end to keep it in place for the next step.  DO NOT backstitch, as this will keep your ruffles from ruffling.

Next, pin one ruffle to the right side of each shorts piece at the bottom, about 3/4″ from the bottom.  Pin along the ruffling stitch, as that is where you are going to sew, and check the back to make sure your stitching will be on the main shorts piece.  Stitch along the ruffle stitch for both pieces, then repeat with the 2nd ruffle on each, pinning the ruffles about 1/4″ to 1/2″ higher than the first and stitching along the ruffling stitch for a tiered look.


Pin the first ruffle on and sew, then repeat for the 2nd a little higher to make a tiered effect.

Now it’s time to construct your shorts.  Once again, I will stress using a scrap piece of fabric to test out your stitch!  This time, I’ll use the 4-thread overlock stitch on the serger.  On my test piece of fabric, I first want to make sure that I don’t see any loose threads.  Then, I open up the seam I just stitched and look on the right side – I don’t want to see any thread when the seam is stretched open.  If you can see the thread, use your handy “cheat sheet” to figure out which tension needs to be turned up.


I got lucky on the first try – no threads visible on the right side of the seam!

To construct your shorts, place your shorts pieces right sides together, and serge from the crotch point to the top on the front and back of the shorts.  Then, keeping right sides together, open up those seams and place them together.  Sew the curve from the ruffle on one side to the ruffle on the other side to form the leg holes.  Don’t worry about the tails for now, just leave at least an inch hanging from the end.

The last step is to attach your waistband.  Fold the waistband piece in half right sides together along the height and stitch the ends together so you end up with a loop (in my case, the loop will be about 14″ around and 5″ tall – I lost an inch to the seam allowance).  Then, fold the loop in half, right sides out, so it’s 2.5″ tall.  Place the waistband loop open side up around the top of the shorts (see photo below).  Pin the seam for the waistband aligned with the seam at the back of the shorts.  Pin the middle of the front at the seam at the front of the shorts.  At this point, you’ll notice that the waistband is smaller than the shorts – this is so it will work like an elastic to hold them up.  Find the halfway point between your pins on the front and back for both the shorts and the waistband, and pin both sides together.  Now, stitch the waistband to the shorts with a 1/2″ seam allowance.  You’ll have to stretch the shorts a little by pulling the front and the back – just try to keep the pressure even so it doesn’t pucker the finished product.


See how all the open sides are facing up? Just pin the 4 points, and zigzag or serge along that top edge to create a stretchy seam.

Again, just leave at least 1″ of tail.  Grab a hand-sewing needle and some thread, fold the tail back over the stitching, and whip-stitch a few stitches to secure the tail and keep it from coming unraveled.  You’ll want to repeat this at the bottom inner seam by each of the ruffles as well.


The tail is folded back onto itself, and you can see one of the loops I sewed that I’m about to tighten to hold it in place. Do this a few times, then trim the excess tail off.

And that’s it!  The serger, if you used one, created super strong and stretchy seams that removes any extra bulk in the garment.  If you don’t have a serger, you can still use a sewing machine to make these shorts – use a straight stitch for everything except attaching the waistband – you’ll want to use a zigzag for that, so it will be stretchy and the seam won’t break when the shorts are going on and off.  Also, be sure to backstitch at the beginning and end of each seam so the stitching won’t come unraveled.


Don’t let the smile fool you – Monster was not happy. He was being bribed with treats!

One last thing, anytime you use your serger – when the blade cuts off extra fabric, it creates a lot of lint and dust in your machine.  Be sure to use a can of air to blast all that nasty stuff out of the serger mechanism – you don’t want it gunking up the parts!  And keep your machine serviced… it’s expensive to replace or repair, and annual service can keep it in good working order for not a lot of money.


Be gone, dust bunnies!

I hope this post has given you the confidence to think about trying out a serger.  I really love mine – it’s a work horse, and I know I’m just scratching the surface of what it can do.  Don’t be afraid of its complexity, and take advantage of any classes you can if you get one for yourself!


2 thoughts on “Ruffle Shorts – Serger Basics

  1. Pingback: Sun Hat | Project Mama

  2. Pingback: Personalized Birthday Present | Project Mama

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