Thursday, October 01, 2009

New Sewists Thursdays - Topstitching

It's Thursday so let's get straight to it..

Cissie asks:
"As an experienced sewist, but new to sewing for myself, I need to take "Topstitching 101". Any tips on how to get a more professional look with topstitching? Threads, needles, feet, etc?"

I like to topstitch.  It gives me an opportunity to highlight a part of my garment as well as use some of my decorative stitches.  It is also a wonderful but easy embellishment that can be added to a garment.

But for the very beginner's let's first define topstitching:

"As a decorative finish, on the outside, topstitching is similar in function to edgestitching only more noticeable" is how The Vogue/Butterick Step-by-Step Guide to Sewing Techniques defines it.  Then they give some instructions on how to do it: 
"Straight stitch 1/4" (6mm) from edge, seam or previous stitching.  Use presser foot as guide, or stitch where indicated in instructions."

The Dressmakers Technique Bible defines it as:
"Topstitching refers to visible stitches on the outside of a garment which can be functional but are normally just decorative.  Topstitching on the very edge is called "edge stitching" whereas "topstitching" is sewn approximately 1/4" (6mm) inside and parallel to the edge."

The how to instructions are more detailed:
1.  Choose suitable thread.
2.  Lengthen the straight stitch to approximately 8-10 stitches per inch.
3.  Stitch as necessary keeping the work straight to avoid "wiggles" - love this!  :)

A couple of tips:
*Use this on lapels and edges of a jacket and on pockets
*Use the edge of othe standard presser foot as a visual guide or attach a stitch guide foot to the machine to help keep the stitching straight.

As an aside...this is a really helpful little book and I would encourage you to add it to your sewing library!  But back to the matter at hand!

There are topstitching needles available.  They have larger eyes (openings) and the ability to hold two or more heavier pieces of thead at one time.  Do I have some in my collection, yes!  Do I remember to use them, no!  *LOL*

Second - topstitching thread.  This can be purchased probably at the craft store masquarading as a fabric store.  Topstitching Thread is a stronger, thicker thead that gives a bolder finish.  Again have I used it...yes!  Have I used it lately...ummmm, no!

Personally I believe the key to good topstitching is to maintain a straight line throughout the area of the garment being topstitched.  It really looks amateurish if you have "wiggles" (I'm so loving that word).  Now The Dressmaker's Technique Bible gives you several recommendations for obtaining a straight stitch.  But me, I use regular old scotch tape.  Yeap, that's it.  I'm usually topstitching a finished seam and when I do that I lay the scotch tape evenly down the center of the seam and use that as a guide. 

Now this next point is really important when using the scotch tape method...YOU MUST STITCH BOTH SIDES OF THE SEAM IN ONLY ONE DIRECTION!  If by chance you stitch top to bottom of the garment for one seam, then flip the garment and stitch bottom to will get a wrinkling effect that no amount of pressing will remove.  On this I speak from experience!  So always stitch from top to bottom or from bottom to top on both sides of the seam.

An example of topstitching on the back center seam of a jacket
as well as edgestitching on the collar.

I also have been known to topstitch an edge or a lapel of a jacket.  When topstitching in those areas I always use the edge of my sewing machine foot as a guide...although if you have an edge stitch foot with your machine that would be great to use also.

topstitching on a jacket lapel

I love the line from the book that talks about topstitching thread having a bolder finish...and this is true!  However, since I am such a color stickler, you can't always match the topstitching thread with the regular thread you are using.  In those cases, I started using the decorative stitches on my sewing machine...starting with a triple knit stitch and graduating to a saddle stitch.  I don't know if these are standard on any other machine besides my Janome but it gives me that bolder finish I'm looking for!  Now I pretty much use one of those stitches and my regular Gutterman thread to topstitch...I know constantly making those rules fit my own world view!

But seriously, sometimes you can get some of the best results by taking a chance...being a little adventurous and doing something a little differently.

So to sum up:

1.  Topstitching is used to emphasis an area in your garment.
2.  It HAS to be sewn straight.
3.  You can use topstitching needles to perform this task but you don't necessarily need to!
4.  Topstitching thread is available to get a "bolder finish"
5.  Use your sewing machine foot to aid you with straight sewing...or your edge stitching foot.
6.  Don't forget to try my scotch tape method
7.  A decorative stitch can give you that bolder finish you want when topstitching an area.

Any questions, comments, suggestions...the floor is now open!

...and as an aside...I didn't get much finished on the jacket!  But it's suppose to rain all day on Saturday here on the East Coast and I'm in the frame of mind to shut myself in and sew!  I will keep you updated!!!


  1. Very thorough, Carolyn. I would only add that I love my 1/4 inch foot (sometimes called a quilt piecing foot) for topstitching. It is 1/4" on both sides. That makes it easy to stitch exactly the same width on both sides of a seam while stitching in the same direction, as you mentioned. Mine is a Viking foot, but I imagine all the companies have a similar foot.

  2. Great explanation! I have tried some different decorative stitches when topstitching... and it has helped to make my clothes... my own detail! Have fun sewing... it's been raining here all day... and the weather has been down in the 40's when it was 90 this past weekend!

  3. Ok - I learned something - to use tape! great idea.

    The only thing I could add is you always want to do topstitching on the right side of the fabric. Sometimes I see people trying to do it on the wrong side.
    I have my students use the zipper foot when doing edge stitching to get them closer to the edge of the fabric. It always looks better the closer you get to the edge. And the zipper foot is easy to follow.

  4. Thanks so much, Carolyn. Great tips! I'll practice!

  5. I generally use my walking foot--helps the even feeding of the fabric.

  6. What a great idea about using the tape. I never thought of that. I, too, have learned from experience that one should sew both sides of the seam in one direction.

  7. Just a couple more comments. It really helps to use your teflon foot, which glides smoothly over the fabric. As to the needle, you'll have better luck if you start with a new one; the smoothness will also make a difference. And my last tip, is you do beautiful topstitching the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: "Practice, woman, Practice!"

  8. Excellent summary! One thing I'd like to add - if your machine has a free-arm, use the extension table that comes with it. It's much easier to stitch a straight line when you're not fighting the weight of the fabric pulling to the side/back/front, or having to constantly stop to adjust the fabric to the side, etc. My sewing got much straighter when I started to use the extension table, and using the free arm setup only when it's needed.


  9. One suggestion: sample, sample, sample before stitching on the real project. This is important to getting the right combination of needle/thread/tension before working on the project. This also is a good time to test thread types and color combinations to see if they're really going to work before committing to putting it on the entire project.

  10. If you don't have top stitching thread, you can use two spools of the same color. Thread your machine as if using a twin needle but use a single eyed needle. Both threads go through one needle. It gives a heavier look than just using a single thread.

  11. Thank you Carolyn for another informative tip.

    I've also used the Gutterman Upholstery Thread, grey reel, which has nearly as many colours as the standard thread and works well.

  12. Wow! So many great instructions and tips. I've nothing to add, I'm just a beginner sewist trying to soaking it all in. :)
    Thanks for your wonderful blog, Carolyn!!

  13. Topstitching is done beautifully, however, I may be wrong, but I think that the lapel is top stitched incorrectly. the topstitching on the lapel (I believe) is supposed to pivot (just as does in the photo) but line up with the upper collar edge, not the upper collar topstitching.

  14. I have just started to spend more time learning to perfect my topstitching. I find that the triple stitch on my Bernina machine really helps do the trick, despite the extra thread it uses.


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