By definition, topstitching is a seam that appears on the right side of a project, usually running ⅛" or more from, and parallel to, another seam. It can be done in a coordinating thread color for decoration or a matching thread color for stabilization. A cousin of topstitching is edgestitching, which is defined as a row of stitching on the very edge of a garment, normally ⅛” or less from the edge. It provides a crisp edge for facings, collars, pockets or any situation where you want a tight, professional finish along a seamed edge. Edgestitching is usually done in thread to match the fabric but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Whether for embellishment or assembly, stitching that is visible from the right side is an important detail and its precision can make or break the final outcome of your project. We've collected our favorite tools and techniques to help you achieve tip top topstitching and enviable edgestitching.
A little sewing controversy
Don’t you love sewing controversy? It makes us sound as if we might qualify for our own reality TV show. The term topstitching has traditionally defined the line of stitching that attaches one element to another, such as a pocket to a shirt. However, these days, sewers more often default to width rather than construction when describing their right-side–of-the-project stitching, using topstitching when describing a stitch distance of more than ⅛” from the edge and edgestitching for ⅛” or closer. This is our standard choice here at Sew4Home.
Project Shown above: Multi-Pocket Canvas Tote
As with all our techniques here at Sew4Home, we're going to emphasize the need for patience and practice to become a topstitching and edgestitching pro. Take the time to learn how to keep your stitching even and neat, and you'll be rewarded with beautiful results.
Needles and thread
There's no hard and fast rule regarding the needle or thread you must use for topstitching and edgestitching. It depends more on the results you are going for.
There are specific topstitching needles, which have a larger eye and so can better accommodate the heavier thread sometimes chosen when you want your topstitching or edgestitching to really stand out. But in general, it's often better to select the needle best suited to your fabric.
The difference in thread weights can be hard to see with the naked eye. Below are two spools of an ivory thread. On the right is an all-purpose thread, on the left is a heavy thread.
Want your topstitching or edgestitching to stand out as an embellishment accent? Use a heavy thread in a contrasting color.
Project shown above: Travel Tote with Wrap Pockets
Prefer your tstitching to simply be a construction detail that provides stability and a neat finish? Chose an all-purpose thread in a color to blend with your fabric.
Project shown above: Crossbody Bucket Carryall
Stitch type and length
In addition to the thread you choose, the final look of your topstitching or edgestitching will depend on the stitch your select. We almost always recommend lengthening your stitch (3mm or greater is a standard rule of thumb). It's a cleaner look because the longer stitches are less likely to sink into the fabric.
In the photo below it's easy to see the difference in style between the top and bottom samples. The top sample shows a 2.2mm stitch and a 3mm stitch in all-purpose thread. The bottom sample shows a 2.2mm stitch and a 3mm stitch in a 12wt heavy thread.
NOTE: If you are new to sewing, we have an introductory article on setting stitch length.
Depending on your machine, there may be other stitches from which to choose for topstitching. Our Janome machines have a triple stitch, which gives an especially "beefy" result, especially with a heavy thread. The sample below shows the triple stitch done with a 4mm stitch length in a 12wt thread.
A twin needle can give you double emphasis with two perfectly spaced lines of stitching. The sample below shows 4mm double needle stitching in a 3mm stitch length with all-purpose thread.
NOTE: If you are new to working with a double needle, we have an expanded tutorial on the topic.
Because topstitching and edgestitching are meant to be visible from the right side of the project, you can use a wide variety of thread colors in order to blend in or stand out as a decorative element. Decorative stitches are a lovely choice for a unique embellished finish.
Some of our Janome studio machines also include a lovely "hand-picked" or "Sashiko" style stitch that is lovely along a finished edge. If you also work on a Janome machine, check the Quilting section of your decorative stitches selection for this option.
Hey... how come my stitches aren't perfectly straight?!
We have one additional note about stitch formation in regards to fabrics with coarse weaves: topstitching and edgestitching seams want to follow the weave of your fabric. This means if you have a fabric with a particularly coarse weave, such as a canvas or linen, the stitches may appear to jog ever so slightly from the dead-center alignment. This isn't the fault of your machine or even your skill; it's just a function of stitching on certain kinds of fabric. When your seam is complete, you can use your fingernail or the sharp, flat side of a pair of tweezers to gently push individual stitches back into line. This is definitely a picky piece of advice, but might stop you from thinking you're crazy when you can't get your stitches to cooperate and line up as straight and true as the repetitve marks of a drawn dashed line.
Specialty feet to make your job easier
Using a presser foot with a guide can make your job easier and your results lovelier. The Janome feet listed below are some of our favorites. If you have a Janome machine, one or more of these feet may come standard with your model. If they are not included, they should be available from your authorized Janome Dealer as an option. If you don't sew with a Janome (oh dear!), your machine is likely to have feet similar to what we are describing.
As noted above, you'll want to practice with all your available feet to see which one you like best for each project. In addition, be sure to adjust the stitch length and the thread weight as you practice. Test-test-test until you are sure your stitching will be spot-on for your final project.
Almost always a standard foot, the Overedge foot features an edge guide. In addition, the metal rungs the thread normally wraps around when the foot is used with an overcast stitch act as levelers when using the foot for topstitching and edgestitching. We prefer to also adjust our needle to the left for increased accuracy.
Quarter Inch Seam foot
This is another very common foot to be included in a standard presser foot package. The Quarter Inch Seam foot has a side flange set to create a perfect ¼" distance from the center needle drop.
We like to use the Quarter Inch Seam foot for topstitching along an exposed zipper.
Edge Guide foot
The Edge Guide foot is a Janome foot we totally love. It's our current favorite for topstitching, edgestitching, and any other situations where we want a super straight seam and need to be able to manually adjust the position to exactly where we want it.
Sliding guide foot
Another option for an adjustable guide is the Janome Sliding Guide foot. It has a perfectly balanced outboard guide you can smoothly slide to the right then lock into place, from ⅜" to 1⅛" from the center needle drop (10mm - 30mm).
Ditch Quilting foot
The handy Ditch Quilting foot is also one that is often part of a standard foot compliment. It has a long guide down the center of the foot that helps you stay right on top of an existing seam or drawn guide line.
Clear View Quilting Foot and Guide Set
If you're looking for a foot to use for topstitching, edgestitching and several other jobs, this three-in-one foot is great. It comes with two removable guides: the Quarter Inch Guide and the Ditch Stitch Guide, and it has lots of great measurement markings (in bright red) to help you perfectly line up a seam.
Satin Stitch foot
Shown abov is a Satin Stitch foot, a very common foot that features a see-though base and a handy guide arrow. It's great for precise edgestitching along trims like ribbon. A little extra tip: always sew in the same direction along each side of a ribbon to prevent distortion.
Blind Hem foot
A Blind Hem foot can also work quite well for edgestitching. In the sample below, we turned up a 2" hem then added ribbon trim to the right side. The needle was moved to the left position so the Blind Hem foot could guide the line of stitching along the edge of the ribbon.
By edgestitching along the ribbon through all the layers, we attached the ribbon and secured the hem at the same time, using the Blind Hem foot.
Now that we've tantalized you with all these great specialty feet, we need to at least mention that you can simply use your standard presser foot. Just go slowly and carefully, using the edge of the foot itself or a needle plate marking as your guideline.
Because topstitching and edgestitching are often used to secure or define an angled edge, you are likely to need to turn a corner or two.
The technique is essentially the same as for all corners. If you are new to sewing, take a look at our full article on Stitching and Cutting Corners Correctly.
With a single line of topstitching or edgestitching, stop at the corner with your needle the the down position, and pivot.
With twin needle stitching, it looks nice to sew all the way to the end. Then, remove the project from the machine and pull the top threads to the back. Knot all three threads (two top threads and the bobbin thread) to secure. Reposition the fabric under the needle to create a crosshatch at the corner, and continue stitching.
When starting topstitching or edgestitching at a hem line or anywhere there is a thick, narrow edge, it is very helpful to use a "hump jumper" under the back of the presser foot to level the foot for a smooth start to your stitching. Janome machines often include a hump jumper as a standard accessory. They can also be purchased separately. You could even use a folded up square of fabric as a leveler, however, the solid surface of a hump jumper creates better traction.
Starting and stopping
The two best options to lock your topstitching or edgestitching at the beginning and end are an Autolock stitch or a hand-knot. Avoid backstitching to lock your seam as it looks too obvious and bulky.
If your machine has an Autolock feature, as many of our Janome studio machines do, simply touch this button at the beginning and end of the seam to create a small, neat knot.
To hand knot, simply leave the thread tails long (about 3-4" is a good length), and when the seam is complete, go back to both the starting and ending points to secure the tails. Use a needle to pull the top thread tail though to the back and tie the tails together in a double knot. Trim the tails close to the knot.
The samples below show you the end of a topstitching seam with Autolock (top) and hand-knot (bottom) from both the front and the back. The Autolock example shows the auto-cut function that trims the thread tails. The hand-knot example shows the long thread tails prior to trimming.
If your thread breaks or you need to connect two lines of topstitching or edgestitching, you can use a lock stitch (machine or hand) to make a smooth connection. At the break or stopping point, use an Autolock stitch or pull the threads through to the back and knot. To start up again, drop your needle into the existing seam just one or two stitches from the end of the break. Autolock again or leave a long tail (3-4") you can pull through to the back and knot. Continue stitching to the edge of the fabric, or if joining into another seam, stop as you started.
Although the Autolock is easier and faster, it does leave a bit of bulk because it's creating a knot. If you are working with a thread color that blends into your fabric, it should be fine. However, if you are working with a contrasting thread, we recommend taking the time to pull your thread tails to the back and hand knot. It will create the cleanest continuous line. The sample below shows an Autolock fix in the middle of a seam with a constrasting thread. It's pretty easy to spot the knot, so this is an instance where we would recommend the hand-knotting technique.
A sub-set of edgestitching is understitching, which is a line of edgestitching that secures a seam allowance to a facing or lining. This allows the seam to roll toward the inside of the garment or project. The stitching is always done in matching thread and does not show on the outside of the project. The photo below of a little girl’s linen party dress shows the understitching that is holding the facing in place as well as the edgestitching detail along the collar and armholes. For a complete understanding of understitching, check out our full tutorial.