Controlling Tulle

So here’s the trouble with tutus… They are made of many, many layers of tulle*. And tulle, these days, is made of hate. I don’t want to sound all judgey-pants, but it’s true. Your average fabric store tulle is made of nylon, a fiber which suffers from a constant string of cheap, tragic affairs with single electrons. By the time you have 6 layers of nylon tulle mounted on the basque (that’s the shaped waist-band bit), you’ve actually sewn yourself a fluffy little Van de Graaff generator. A tutu-in-progress is amazing – you can actually watch threads fly from the floor towards the tutu where they permanently bond with with tulle. Effective for cleaning, perhaps, but not so good for the tutu which should ideally not look like some sort of worm-farm.  Just in case you, dear reader, ever find yourself herding tulle through a sewing machine, here are a few tricks I’ve picked up from a couple years of sewing dance concerts at the shop…

The first thing, and the only just realized in the shop, is that thread matters.  This is a science thing. (It is funny that two people who nearly majored in sciences took years to apply science to the process, but, you know, someone tells you how to do stuff and then what’s the point in thinking, right?)  Nylon likes electrons. I’m not sure if polyester has extras, or if poly is just a bad friend that encourages nylon to go home with strange electrons, but you really don’t want to get nylon and poly getting together.

Unfortunately, your average all-purpose sewing thread is a cotton-poly blend. It’s mas annoying to try to gather something when the gathering thread has developed the static electricity version of suction.  (This is actually more of a problem on an industrial machine than on a homesew. I’m thinking it has something to do with the beefy electro-magnet in the servo motor.) My boss read that the internet recommended all cotton thread to get past this problem.

Well, people, I’m here to tell you that while this does solve the static issue, it breaks. The thread, I mean. Cotton thread is more delicate than I’d like. The polyester in cotton-poly thread is there for strength and resilience.  Also, all cotton thread has a much greater “slip” than all-purpose thread, so you’ll have to adjust the tension on your machine.  (I found that putting the bobbin in so it feeds straight, instead of doubling back worked pretty reliably on several machines.)  The cotton thread still snaps, don’t get me wrong, but not because of the tension.

Turns out that cotton covered polyester thread is the magic answer here. It’s hiding out with the quilting threads.

cotton covered polyester thread

Cotton covered polyester thread seems to fix the static issues pretty well without being all snappy-breaky-why-thread-why-do-you-hate-me?!?!?! the way 100% cotton thread can be.

It still has the tension problem, because of the very smooth surface of the thread. On the plus side, it does gather like a champ. And there’s a lot of gathering in a tutu.

That’s enough of the physics lesson. Now on to the physical issues with tutus…

There is a lot of tulle in a tutu.  I don’t think I can emphasize this enough. Each layer of a tutu puts at least 108″ of tulle onto the basque in a romantic tutu – double that for a pancake. The last batch of romantics we made in the shop were for Les Sylphides. They were each 8 layers of tulle, mounted on a 4″ wide basque. That is a lot of heavily gathered tulle that has to sit very close together. This is how tutus work – you chuck way too much tulle into way too little space, and you get a big fluffly thing. Awesome. Doing this without going insane is the harder part.

I’ve heard tales of careful marking and pinning. You probably know, by now, that I’m not really all about that. ;) Yes, it is the Right Way To Do It™, but it is not the only way to do it. It’s also not actually the easiest way to do it, in my experience, not the way that will keep the gosh darned layer of tulle under control so you’re not sewing all wibbly-wobbly.

Here’s how I keep it under control:

gathering thread under tension

I keep a firm hold on my gathering thread when I’m sewing the layers down. This means I can “steer” the layer around the curve of the basque easily.

placement of left hand while sewing

My left hand goes firmly down on top of the tulle, right next to where the machine foot will be. This means that there are no little poofy gathery bits sticking up for the foot to get stuck in.

I cannot show you both hands at the same time, because the camera. Something must be holding it. Generally that’s a hand. ;)

The two biggest time/sanity sinks in the tutu sewing process (or any other large-gathered-layer-application prodess) tend to be 1) keeping the gathered layer from getting all squirrely between pins and 2) keeping the toes of the machine foot from getting stuck in the gathers. Keeping the gathering thread under tension solves the first one. A little smashy-flatty action with your left hand solves the second.

You may notice that there is nary a pin in sight here.  My method is is also a speed thing. This was tutu 18 of the 19 we needed for Les Sylphides. We had two weeks for the tutus. That might be ok in a shop staffed by full time employees who all machine-sew quick-like-bunny. It was not ok.  This is about par for the course – tutus attack in mass, and always when something else is going on.  (I mean, yes, sure, we all knew they were going to happen, but…. You know how it goes. Or maybe you don’t, in which case, I envy you.)


*The opening statement implies that there is but one trouble with tutus. There are actually many, but I only have constructive suggestions on some. Ahem. Ah, the ballet. It’s so delicate and graceful until you watch a seamstress hulk-smash a tutu trying to get it to go through the machine…

9 thoughts on “Controlling Tulle

  1. Kilty Spoke says:

    Love your writing style. Oh, and thanks for the hints on harnessing the power of the tutu.

    4 years ago | Reply

  2. Sherryl Determann says:

    I saw a tip for the second “time/sanity sink in the tutu sewing process”…”keeping the toes of the machine foot from getting stuck in the gathers”. Use scotch tape! Stick a piece to the underside of the toes on the presser foot & voilà, no gathers getting caught in the toes :)

    4 years ago | Reply

  3. pamelawaterman says:

    I’ve sewn quite a few miles of tulle for costumes, but now that I’m on my second wedding gown, this gathering task is giving me pause. Thank you SO much for sharing the smashing-ruler hint – brilliant.

    3 years ago | Reply

  4. pamelawaterman says:

    Thank for you for the thread advice. The regular thread is giving me more trouble than usual, and since I’m off to the fabric store today, I’ll absolutely try the cotton-covered-poly quilting thread.

    3 years ago | Reply

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