Fabric Manipulation Techniques

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

A stunning white quilt with bold raised images. A tightly pleated skirt. What do these things have in common? They involve methods of fabric manipulation. In this lesson, explore some common fabric manipulation techniques.

What is Fabric Manipulation?

Have you ever sewn an item of clothing or created something out of fabric? There are many ways to play with fabric and manipulate or control it so that it becomes more dimensional. Throughout history, people have developed different ways of altering fabric to provide contrasts, to create a sense of fullness, and create surface effects. Some of these methods are very old, but contemporary fabric artists continue to use them and adapt them in new ways.

Let's explore a few of them.

Fabric Manipulation Techniques


Smocking is an Anglo-Saxon word with origins tracing to decorations used on early peasant clothing. This method of fabric manipulation uses stitching to gather fabric, creating areas of tension and release in a sculptural effect. Think of it as raised areas on the fabric that might look like tubes, squares, or pinwheels. Artists may use complicated grids and patterns on the fabric to tell them where to place stitches and pull the fabric together. Smocking requires a fabric to be not too stiff or thick. Silks, linens, and cottons work well.

Example of smocked fabric
smocked fabric


Trapunto originated in fourteenth-century Sicily. The term trapunto comes from the Italian word for 'to quilt.' Trapunto, sometimes called stuffed work, is a method of quilting that uses at least two layers of cloth and padding. First, a design is outlined in stitching. Then shapes inside those stitches are stuffed with extra batting to give them more dimension. Sometimes trapunto also involves a stippling stitch, in which tiny random stitches are placed tightly together in areas bordering the raised sections. These little stitches make the background seem flatter and heighten the 3-D effect of the shapes stuffed with batting.

Shirring and Ruching

Shirring is a method of gathering cloth along two or more parallel stitched lines to create a sense of wavy dimension. It can be done with regular or elastic thread in patterns that might include zigzags or waffle patterns. A related method is ruching, in which layers of fabric are gathered on parallel sides and then sewn to a layer underneath. You sometimes see this fabric technique on the tiers in the sides of prom and party dresses.

Example of shirring on a skirt. Notice how the fabric is gathered along horizontal parallel lines
shirred fabric


Finally, there's pleating, which involves folding fabric back on itself, sometimes very tightly, to give a dimensional effect. The pleats can be pressed with an iron to create sharp edges or left unpressed to allow them to curve more naturally for a softer effect.

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