Tips & Tricks for Topstitching Like a Pro
Topstitching can take a garment or any sewing project to the next level, and when executed neatly those topstitches can become a stunning detail. But uneven topstitching just makes a garment look worse.
Some people are intimidated by this technique. Mastering topstitching is a matter of practice and these few key tricks will help.
Topstitching is basically any stitching that is seen on your project.
It's a decorative stitch, but it also helps to stabilize the fabric and adds another level of security to your project. It can also be part of the construction– on bias tape, a hem, or a patch pocket for example. If you wonder what topstitching on a garment looks like, grab any denim item in your closet and look at the key feature of jeans: topstitching. Topstitching is the thread that runs along the seams, pockets, and edges. In jeans, topstitching stands out by using a contrasting thread color.
Straight up topstitching ( = a straight stitch sewn parallel to the seam line through the top fabric and the seam allowance underneath)
First you sew your seam. Make the seam wide enough grab the seam allowance with the topstitches.
Turn your fabric right side out and you press the seam.
If you want topstitches on one side, you press the seam allowance to the opposite side.
Put your project back on the right side and sew parallel to the seam at ¼”. If you sew at ⅛”, we call it an edge stitch.
If you are topstitching on both sides, you press the seam open. Put your project back on the right side and sew parallel to the seam at ¼”. If you sew at ⅛”, we call it an edge stitch.
- Always stop with your needle down
Make sure your needle is down when you stop. If you have a fancy machine, you press that button that ensures your needle to be in the down position when you stop. If you want to start again your needle is in the right spot to continue stitching your straight line.
- Don’t backstitch to secure your thread
As it is a decorative stitch, not a construction stitch, there is no need to backstitch. It will add unnecessary bulk. Just pull the last top thread to the back of the project and tie it in a knot with the lower thread.
Another technique to secure your threads is to shorten your stitch length as much as possible, and tack the stitches in place at the beginning and end of the seam.
If you must stop in a continuous line, or if you made a mistake, unpick the area and pull the tails to the wrong side. Blend the new stitches by overlapping just one or two stitches before and after the unpicked area as you sew. Place your needle in between 2 stitches when you start. Next, pull those new thread tails to the wrong side and tie them in a knot with the old thread tails. Snip off the excess.
- Choose your thread wisely
If you are not confident or if this is your first time topstitching, avoid contrasting thread. Opt for a more subtle color until you master the art of topstitching. In this picture I used read thread for the left hem. You can hardly see it!
The weight of your fabric impacts the thread too. If you are sewing with a medium weight fabric, all-purpose thread will do the trick. Heavier fabrics like denim or canvas may require more substantial topstitching thread.
Look at those stitches with a topstitching thread on the left seam in this picture.
If you change your thread, don’t forget to check the thread tension setting on your machine. Be sure to change the needle to a topstitch needle for the heavier thread, as this needle has a bigger hole. For all-purpose thread, a microtex needle is a good choice.
- Use longer stitches
Lengthen your stitch. Shorter stitches can hide themselves in the fibers of the fabric. For a decorative stitch, that is not ideal. My go-to length for general stitches is 2.5 to 3 but for topstitching, I usually use 3 to 3.5. for heavy-weight fabrics, you can even go up to a 4.
It is actually easier to sew in a straight line when your stitch length is longer. Because these stitches aren’t what is holding the project together, your project doesn’t lose strength.
For this thin cotton, a 2.5 is ok– 2 is too small and 3.5 too big.
- Use the right tools
With good equipment, some tasks suddenly become very easy. Do you find it difficult holding that parallel line at ¼”?
In this table I’ve listed some nifty tools for specific topstitching jobs.
|Sewing Jobs||The Right Tool|
Straight Edge stitches (1/16” to ⅛”)
Stitch in the ditch foot, with your needle set in the left position
Straight Parallel stitches ¼”
Quilting foot without or with guide
Straight Parallel stitches - other distances
Ruler foot, adjustable guide foot, magnetic seam guide, border guide foot
Zigzag or other decorative stitches
Zigzag foot, appliqué foot
Freestyle, free motion, curves, drawing
An erasable marker to draw your design and a darning foot to have complete freedom of movement
- Level out your presser foot
Ever tried to sew over a bulky seam, but the presser foot just won't move?Then the thread gets all tangled up? That's probably because the foot is stuck trying to move uphill.
To get the foot unstuck, try putting some folded scrap fabric under the foot, behind the piece you're sewing. You can also buy a “button shank plate” to level your foot and some machines even have a little button that can level your foot, the presser foot locking pin.
This way, the presser foot won't be tilted up at an angle, so it can sew forward much more smoothly. This helps to prevent uneven stitch lengths.
The standard foot on my Brother has this button, and I never knew what this little button did!
When the front of the foot lifts higher than the back, lift the foot, gently push on the front of the foot to make it level, then push the button into lock position. While holding the button, lower the presser foot. The foot will stay level. Start sewing again. The button will automatically release when the foot sews flat again.
And one last piece of advice … Practice, practice, practice… :-)
Not only to test your stitch setting, but also to improve your skills. And even if you are a topstitching pro, make sure to test on a scrap of fabric to warm up before diving into the real deal.
Any questions or remarks, leave a comment below or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t forget to have fun and spread some sewing love!
Interested in our nifty tools?
Check out the Ultimate Presser Foot Set
Check out the Sew Straight Set
Your tutorial’s are so educational and easy to follow. I am a beginner in quilting and need lots of help with sewing too. I ordered your 32piece presser feet attachments and love using them with the sewing lessons.
Thank you for your great web site, I have learnt so much from the information being so accessible for everyone especially for me here in Australia. I have been sewing for many years and still find that there is always something new to learn (even though I’m 85 hrs). I am a member of the Australia Sewing Guild, our group meets once a month, I will tell my group about your web site because I am sure it will also be a great help to them. Many thanks you once again. Regards Iris McCathie – Queensland Australia
I have sewn for years and years but your e-mails/videos/instructions have been helpful to me and I always look forward to the next e-mail. Thank you.
Thanks so much for this! I sure am glad I discovered MadamSew
I, too, have a Brother machine with the little button on the “J” presser foot. Now I know what it’s used for!! Thanks! I’ve been top stitching many years & not usually intimidated by it. But, I’m always open to learning a better or easier way. I appreciate the chart &