Topstitching is one element that really takes your sewing project to the next level. The hallmark of well-sewn clothes that will take a beating is straight, neat stitches that reinforce high-stress areas and direct attention to style lines and details. While the stakes can be high (think contrast topstitching on jeans) there are a few tips and tricks that can basically guarantee you perfect topstitching every time. Let's dig into it!
What is Topstitching?
Topstitching is any stitching on your garment that is meant to be visible. It may be purely decorative (to highlight design details ) or it may be functional (to add strength and stability to seams), or it may be some combination of the two. Generally topstitching is sewn as a straight stitch, but you can also use the decorative stitches on your machine to add detail and dimension to your projects. Look at the style lines of your pattern when adding decorative topstitching. What parts of the garment would you like to highlight?
When making heavy-duty garments like jeans and workwear the topstitching is mostly functional. It helps to reinforce seams on areas of high stress and ensures the piece can withstand washing and heavy use. Flat fell seams are an enclosed seam finish that includes topstitching to finish them - you can read here to learn more.
Follow the pattern's instructions for topstitching suggestions but as you gain confidence and understanding you can always add your own! A simple silhouette can often be elevated with contrast stitching along seam lines, and experimenting with tone-on-tone vs contrast thread can make a drastic difference in the final effect.
Marking Your Topstitching and Using Guides
If your pattern includes guides for topstitching, trace the guide onto your fabric using a removable pen or chalk and simply sew along the line! If you're new to topstitching or if the topstitching is in a very visible area, this is the most foolproof way to ensure perfection. We often include guides for areas like a fly front to make this step easier for you.
If you want to skip the step of drawing in your lines you can use a guide on your machine, whether that's a sewing machine foot or the needle plate on your machine bed. Before you get started, identify what the distance is, for example, 1/8" away from a seam line, or 1/4" away from a stitch line. Then practice on your machine until you figure out the ideal settings.
Some ways you can use machine guides to get even stitches:
- For sewing narrow distances (ie. 1/8" away from a seam line), center the seam line on your needle and shift your needle to the desired amount - just make sure your needle plate can accommodate a shifted needle.
- For wider distances, use your machine feet as a guide instead. A 1/4" foot is super helpful for 1/4" wide lines of topstitching, but most wider feet also have guidelines marked on them, so you can use those guides to align with your seamline or stitch line.
- For very wide distances, 1/2" or more, refer to the marks on the needle plate, or use masking tape to mark wider distances on the bed of your machine. You can also use the long thin metal shank included with most walking feet for an even wider guide.
Topstitching Thread Tips
- Choose the right weight for your project. If you are using heavier-weight fabrics like canvas or denim, use a heavier thread designed for topstitching. With lighter-weight fabrics, you can stick with an all-purpose polyester thread.
- Choose the thread colour and weight based on how much you want it to contrast and how confident you are! Select a regular to lightweight thread in the same colour as the fabric or one shade darker for a subtle contrast. Choose a heavier thread in a contrasting colour for topstitching that stands out.
- Select the thread fibre content based on the fabric. Polyester thread provides stretch and strength when sewing knits and wovens. You can use cotton topstitching thread for certain applications but keep in mind it won't last as long if going through frequent washings.
- An easy hack: Two regular-weight threads may be threaded through the needle eye for more obvious stitching. This may require a larger-eye needle, such as a topstitching needle. You will also need another spool to hold the second thread.
- If you are sewing with topstitching thread, only use regular thread in your bobbin (in a coordinating colour). It helps get better tension, reduces bulk and avoids snarled threads. The exception to this rule is if you're sewing with an industrial machine, which is designed to work with heavy-duty thread in the bobbin as well.
- Try to use regular thread for bar tacks! It can be challenging depending on your machine to get beautiful bar tacks with topstitching thread, so try a contrast or coordinating thread in a finer weight for these stitches.
- If you want to add extra dimension, try cording! Zigzag over narrow cotton cording with a fine thread to achieve a super professional look. Buttonholes on jackets or jeans especially benefit from this treatment.
Needles for Topstitching
Always use a fresh needle for topstitching to get the best results!
- Topstitching needles have a longer eye to accommodate thicker threads.
- Embroidery needles have a wider eye to accommodate decorative threads and may be used on woven fabrics and most knits.
- Twin/double needles create two parallel rows of straight stitching on the fabric’s right side and the zigzag stitch underneath gives this stitch mechanical stretch. This needle is designed for hemming knits and creates a super polished look.
- Stretch/jersey ballpoint needles are designed to slip between knit loops and can be bought at different weights depending on the thickness of your knit. We like these universal ones for most projects.
- Denim needles are designed to penetrate very thick woven materials. We use these Organ needles in a size 16/100 when topstitching jeans.
- Universal needles, the most commonly used, are adequate for many applications. As long as you can fit the thread through, it will work on most fabrics.
Machine Feet for Topstitching
- Use an edge-stitching or stitch in the ditch foot if you have one, which is a presser foot with a vertical guide blade. The guide aligns with the edge of the seam - move the needle to one side to give you perfectly even stitch lines at a consistent distance from the seam.
- Presser feet with fixed or adjustable vertical guides help with accuracy.
- A 1/4 inch patchwork foot has a guide on the right. Since 1/4" is a common distance between lines of topstitching on pockets and jeans this might be a good investment! If you are sewing your topstitching on a separate machine (a nice option if you have it) this would be a good foot to have on that setup.
- A walking foot is a good choice when sewing knits or very bulky fabrics with lots of layers like quilting.
Stitch Length and Tension Tips
Check and adjust the tension before you start sewing. The right thread tension is necessary for sewing clean durable stitches. Heavier thread often requires higher needle tension. Practice on a scrap until you get nice, even lines of stitching, and remember to switch to a regular thread in the bobbin if you're struggling with tension.
Longer stitch lengths make it easier to achieve nice even stitches but can be trickier around corners. A stitch length of 2.5-3 is a good all-around length. Increase that to 3.5-4 when sewing thicker threads and fabrics, but keep in mind, that longer stitches can be tricky going around corners.
Perfect Topstitching Tips
- Start topstitching areas of the garment that are not too visible as you will get better with practice.
- Avoid backstitching at the beginning and end unless the instructions call for it - most start/stops of topstitching will be caught in a seam anyway. If you must start or stop topstitching in a visible area, keep backstitching to a minimum, hide the beginning with a bar tack, or pull the threads to the back and tie them off to conceal them completely.
- Leave a long thread tail and hand sew it back into the seam or tie it off and trim.
- Try and sew all topstitching seams in one pass for a clean look - it doesn't look great to start and stop in a visible area. If you must, pull your threads to the back where you stopped sewing and tie a knot. Start sewing *precisely* next to this stitch (no backstitching) and once the stitch line is done, go back and tie the threads from where you started for a nearly seamless-looking line.
- Sew all parallel lines of topstitching at one time to keep the lines smooth and avoid puckering or rippling.
- Whether using a guide on your foot or on the machine bed, look at the fabric at the guide rather than the needle, or as I like to tell my sewing students: look where you're going, not where you've been.
- Try and sew slow and steady. Take it easy on the gas! Feel free to use the wheel as you take off and land (as it were) and go super slow as you approach corners.
- Keep the needle down to hold everything in place when pivoting your sewing.
- Add tear-away stabilizer to any areas that are shifting around. Tools like glue sticks and temporary adhesives are handy for more delicate fabrics that don't want to lay flat.
Tips for Topstitching Heavy-Duty Fabrics
- Always test on a scrap of fabric topstitching through as many layers as you will be stitching your seams.
- Take it slow, especially when sewing through multiple layers, and manually turn the hand wheel for additional control.
- Use a hump jumper to level the presser foot as you sew a bulky seam and avoid skipped stitches.
- When sewing jeans, things can get thick! If you're experiencing jams, try gently hammering those areas where 4 or 5 layers are meeting up. Stick the layers between a towel to avoid anything marking the fabric.
- Practice, practice, practice!
- Here are 33 back pockets designs to practice with for your next pair of jeans! And here is a post on where to put those pockets once you've designed them!
Do you have any topstitching tips? Tell us in the comments!