Topstitching 101 ~ The What And How Of A Topstitch

by Destri on March 1, 2012

How To Topstitch
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Hey friends!  I am working on a complete sizing guide and various options for the Fat Quarter Pillowcase Dress (just you wait – so cute!) and I remembered something I have been wanting to post about – Topstitching.  “What is a topstitch?” is a frequent question that either pops up in comments or in my inbox, and as the pillowcase dress has an abundance of topstiching, I thought I could have a post to refer people to.  Not just a how-to, but a complete guide on when to add a topstitch, and how to make it look great too.  So here it is :).  Catch me after the jump!

Topstitching 101

What Is A Topstitch?

First, let’s talk about what a topstitch is.  A topstitch is a stitch that is sewn parallel to a seam or along a hem on the right side of the fabric.  It is usually decorative, but in many cases the stitch is functional as well. Without a doubt, topstitching (when done well) will take a garment from a “homemade” look to a high quality handmade look – I hesitate to use the word store bought as I think when done right handmade looks much better than anything you can buy.

I should note that sometimes a tutorial or pattern will refer to a topstitch as an edgestitch.  They are pretty much the same, but here is a little guide:

-Generally an edgestitch is when you literally sew an 1/8th to 1/16th of an inch (right on the edge), from an edge. Usually sewn on the edge of a garment hem, interfacing on a neckline, or around the perimeter of a sleeve or waistline.  This gives a garment a nice crisp edge with a tailored look. When a pattern calls for an edgestitch, they want you to sew right on the egde.

- A topstitch is any stitch that you sew on top of the fabric.  This can be right along the edge too – and in most cases is.  The distance varies between 1/4 of an inch to 1/16th of an inch from the edge, or wherever the pattern calls for a topstitch.  A lot of patterns and tutorials will use the term topstitch over edgestitch.

How To Sew A Perfect Topstitch

You can just use the standard foot that came with your machine that is suitable for a straight or zigzag stitch- it is the foot I always use.  However there are foots that can make it easier to get a perfect stitch.  For instance, a 1/4 inch seam foot (sometimes referred to as a patchwork foot) will keep the edge of a seam against a guide making a perfectly straight stitch.  But don’t feel like you have to have a special foot, you just want some kind of visual guide to watch.

The trick is to not watch the needle.  In this case I used the bend of the inside of the foot as my guide.  So as I sew, I keep my eye on that spot, making sure the edge of the fabric stays along there. For a 1/4 inch I just use the outer edge of my foot as the guide.

Keaton Coat Patten by Luvin The Mommyhood

If you are sewing an edgestitch around the perimeter of a lined garment, like you would on Shannon’s fabulous Keaton Coat Pattern (it’s free!), you can make a guide with a piece of masking tape.  Just line up the edge where you would need it under the foot and then put the needle down.  Pull the edge of the garment down on the machine and place some masking tape right along that edge. As you sew, you just make sure you stay lined up with that edge.

Another way to get a perfect stitch is to adjust the placement of the needle, rather than the fabric.  I cannot do this on my machine as that is the setting for a button hole, but if your machine has the capability it works great.  It makes it so that the fabric edge is still led by the feed dog as well, making it easier to get a straighter stitch. Just move your needle all the way to the right and then sew with a visual guide.

Here are a few more tips to getting a great looking topstitch:

  • Use a slightly longer stitch length
  • Use a topstitch thread if you want the stitch to really pop- it is slightly thicker. Use regular weight thread in the bobbin
  • Use thread that matches the fabric until you are comfortable with getting a straight stitch
  • Make sure to press seams, and fabric edges before topstitching – if you wait until after it ain’t pretty :)
  • Press the topstitch with steam when finished to set and remove any puckering

Some Examples Of Topstitching

Any time you are adding ruffles to something like a Ruffle Pillowcase, or on the bottom of a skirt – make sure to press the seam away from the ruffles and then topstitch in place to the fabric.  This will not only secure the seam, but give the ruffles a nice look.

Anytime you are sewing panels it’s a good idea to add a topstitch. Just press the seams to one side and then…

and then sew along the edge to hold that seam in place. If you are using a heavier fabric, you may want to sew at 1/4 to 1/8th of an inch from the seam. Another time to do this is on the seams of pants, especially for kids to reinforce the seams and make them stronger.

In some cases you may want to add a second row of topstitching. Just make sure that when you sew the second row, you sew in the opposite direction you did in the first. This will prevent any wavy or stretched fabric.

So there you have it!  I will add this to the Sewing Directory so it is there for future reference.

Now, any tips for topstitching you have to add?

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris March 1, 2012 at 4:25 pm

If you feel brave, doing a topstitch with a double needle looks spectacular.

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Destri March 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Chris, that is too funny…after I wrote this post I thought to myself that I should have checked your sewing 101 series, there was surely something to do with topstitching! Do you have a double needle tutorial? I’ll link it to the post, that is a great point.
And yes, I’m feeling rather brave, would love to try!

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Colleen March 2, 2012 at 7:07 am

I just love your blog!! Thank you so much for addressing things easily for those of us who are slow new learners in the sewing world!! Thank you for being my guide! :)

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Destri March 10, 2012 at 6:43 am

Aw thanks Colleen! I was a slow learner too, but it’s all about the curve right?!
You are so welcome, thanks so much for reading :)

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Monica March 2, 2012 at 11:53 am

I thought I had top stitching ddown pretty well, but you taufht me something! I didn’t know to go the opposite was when doing a double top stitch. Thanks for posting! I stopped by from easy as pie!

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Destri March 10, 2012 at 6:44 am

You’re welcome, thanks for popping over! You know I just learned that trick not too long ago too, wished I had picked it up years ago :)

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Lizzie March 2, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Thank you for the tips. I agree that top stitching gives all of your projects a polished finish. “Don’t watch the needle” is the best advice ever! I’ve only been sewing for a couple of years, and once I figured this out, all of my projects turned out for the better. It’s hard to sew in a straight line when you’re focused on the needle. I usually use the inside, or outside, of the pressed foot as a spot to focus on, depending on the width of my seem.

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Destri March 10, 2012 at 6:45 am

Right? It was life changing when I finally picked that one up! Thanks Lizzy.

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luvinthemommyhood March 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Awwww, thanks for linking my Keaton Coat Pattern! You rock! I am a die hard topstitch/edgestitch fan and never make anything without it! Love that you put this post together!

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Destri March 10, 2012 at 6:46 am

Of course :) I love it, and you always have great taste in fabric! Thanks Shannon.

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zarah March 22, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Hi There,
Just curios, what brand/model sewing machine you use?

Thanks!

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Destri March 23, 2012 at 8:10 am

Hi Zarah,

I use a base model (as in cheapest they have) Kenmore sewing machine my husband bought at sears for me one year at Christmas. I have to say I have loved it! I am growing out of it now, but it has been able to do just about anything I needed it to do. I have never had any tension problems, even though I play with it quite a bit, and I can get a really straight stitch with it. I also love how it sews on the curve. I have used many different types of machines, and I love my little Kenmore :)
If I get a chance to upgrade, I think I will get a Bernina, they are fabulous machines. They are very pricey, but If you go to a dealer you can get a used refurbished machine for a great price.
Are you in the market?

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zarah March 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm

HI Destri,

Yes I am! Thank you for your time responding to my question though. I haven’t heard of Bernina but I’ll make sure to check it out. I really like your sewing patterns and looking forward to making the hanging basket. Brilliant idea? Did you get that from anywhere? Do you recommend a website for free patterns?

Thank you so much!

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Destri March 29, 2012 at 5:01 am

I actually got the concept for the hanging fabric baskets from the very first bag I made! I have made all sorts of things using the same concept including the laptop bag.
As for free patterns, allfreesewing.com has a great directory. Also if you go to designer websites, they often have a few free patterns. Another place is Burda.com
If all else fails, google it! You can find just about anything.
Hope this helps, and have fun :)

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Marie April 13, 2012 at 5:48 am

I love your print button which enables me to easily save your patterns & tutorials . It is the most sophisticated website in this area that I have come across. I can spend less time on saving data and more time searching for and reading articles which interest me. Thanks!

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Amanda May 7, 2012 at 11:05 pm

This is wonderful! I just have to say, your blog is fabulous. I have made exactly five things, one of which was in middle school, and two which look pretty awful, and then I stumbled across your blog from a google search and I LOVE when you say to do something and I can click on it (whilst I am thinking “Say what…?” in my head) and voila! You explain it perfectly! I am not one to begin with boring useless beginner projects so your posts are amazing to me. :) I’ve been practicing all night! Thanks so much! Starting on the pillowcase dress tomorrow for my daughter. :)

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Destri May 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Aw, thanks so much Amanda! I’ve had a heck of a day with technical issues on the website and reading your sweet comment was just what I needed :). Look forward to hearing how the dress goes, be sure to let me know!

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Nancy May 17, 2012 at 9:52 am

I have no idea how I came across your website, but i absolutely love it! Can’t wait to make dresses for my granddaughter. you are very helpful. have great ideas!
Nancy Jo

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Destri May 19, 2012 at 10:42 am

Thanks so much Nancy, made my day. I would love to see pictures!

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Andrea May 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Hi! I’m always looking to improve my top-stitching. Do you have any advice on how to neaten it up when you accidentally sew a crooked part and need to undo those stitches? Or when your bobbin thread runs out right in the middle of topstitching a long seam (argh)? Back-stitching looks so messy on a top-stitched line, but I don’t know how else to do it and have the stitches remain secure.

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Destri May 29, 2012 at 6:19 am

Hi Andrea,

Sorry for the late reply! Now for the crooked, I just like to unpick to the part that is straight and then start a new stitch there. You are right you do have to back stitch some, but if you’re really careful you can get right on the line and then rotate the wheel by hand to get just a couple stitches. Another option is to sew it normal with no back stitching and dab a little fabric glue over the threads on the back.
As for the bobbin – grrr, I hate it when that happens! I have really just tried to make sure if I am starting a project with a lot of accent stitching that I have a full bobbin.

Hope this helps!

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Tina May 25, 2012 at 8:10 pm

You are such a treasure trove of useful information! I’m very much a beginner sewer and these types of posts are so unbelievably helpful. (I also signed up for your newsletter – great feature!) Thank you and happy sewing from a new fan!

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Vivien September 20, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Google Topstitch and found your post. I LOVE IT. Never really thought I could get straight line stitch but would try it out with your advise on presser foot. Can you email your website too. I would love to browse on it. Thanks so much

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Cass September 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Thank you for a lovely and easy to understand tutorial!

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Destri September 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm

You’re welcome!

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Jennifer April 24, 2013 at 1:47 am

Hi! Thank you for this tutorial! I found your blog on Pinterest! I have a question for you: **How do you secure the thread,so that it does not unravel, after finishing the top stitch?*** For inside threads that don’t show, I usually tie off. But I want to use a prettier technique than that for topstitching I’m teaching myself to sew and the book that comes with it does a great job at explaining things, but I cannot find anything in it about securing thread.
Thank you!!

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Destri August 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Jennifer, so sorry I am just seeing this comment! The best way to finish is with a stay stitch (the needle sews in the same place for a couple seconds, some machines don’t have the option) or a back stitch – which is just to back the stitch over where you just sewed a few stitches and then back again. You can’t see it at all!

Hope this helps!

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Kirsty April 27, 2013 at 3:48 am

Fab post! really cleared things up for me :)

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Allison June 29, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Thank you so much for this post! I’m getting a sewing machine soon, and I was wondering – how do you make your sewing machine do a top stitch? Do all sewing machines come with the setting? I don’t know a whole lot about sewing so I’m pretty clueless about this :D

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Destri August 8, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Hi Allison,

some machines have a specific stitch, but it’s really the technique you use that makes it a tops stitch. It’s a stitch sewn on top of the fabric with the intention of it showing. I just like to use a slightly longer stitch length with my straight stitch setting.

Hope this helps and have fun!

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Barb September 29, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Hi,
I recently learned how to make the pillowcases for charity. I think this would work quite nicely too. Sew the panels together with the front of the print both facing out. Then turn the panels face to face or front to front. . When you are done it is a French seam and then you can just sew a couple of rows of stitching on the top and make the pretty overstitching that shows. It comes out really nice. I just learned it because of making those pillowcases. Love all these free things. Just paid $10 for a pattern for a child’s dress at a quilt shop, after I got home it was just a bunch of measurements so you could cut one yourself.

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Destri October 1, 2013 at 8:59 am

Hi Barb,

You’re right I love french seams! I love them for sheer fabrics especially. So glad to have you here!

Destri

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Nikki C. October 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Thanks for this! I am just now getting into sewing after wanting to start for, oh, my whole life, and I feel like there is so much to learn. You’ve just made my day a bit easier. :)

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Maureen January 1, 2014 at 8:58 am

Found you when searching for something on topstitching. I had decided not to do it on the jacket I’m making, I was worried I would mess it up. However, I did some practice, girded my loins and did it. It looks great, not perfect but what is ever perfect?

So thanks very much I am so grateful for your very clear instructions.

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Mari March 12, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Thank you, for the tips. I am a beginner sewer and this site helped me out tremendously. Again thank you and God Bless. You are a blessing to me.

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