By definition, topstitching is a seam that appears on the right side of a project, usually running ¼" from another seam or along a folded edge. It can be done in a coordinating thread color for decoration or a matching thread color for stabilization. A cousin of topstitching is edgestitching. The technique is the same, but edgestitching is generally ⅛" or less from another seam or an edge. 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.
As with all our techniques here at Sew4Home, we're going to emphasize the need for patience and practice to become a topstitching pro. Take the time to learn how to keep your stitching even and neat, and you'll be rewarded with beautiful results.
Our thanks to Janome America Education Coordinator, Nancy Fiedler for providing this helpful review and all the samples.
Needles and thread
There's no hard and fast rule regarding the needle or thread you must use for topstitching. 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 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 to stand out as an embellishment accent? Use a heavy thread in a contrasting color.
Prefer your topstitching 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.
Stitch type and length
In addition to the thread you choose, the final look of your topstitching will depend on the stitch your select. We almost always recommend lengthening your stitch (3mm or greater is 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 to choose from 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 your topstitching 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.
One additional note about stitch formation in regards to fabrics with coarse weaves: topstitching wants 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 your 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. 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.
Edge Guide foot
The Edge Guide foot is a newer Janome foot that we 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.
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 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.
Now that we've tantalized you with all these great feet, we need to at least mention 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 is 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, 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 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 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 of our Janome studio machines do, simply touch this button at the beginning and end of the topstitching 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 square knot.
The sample below shows 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 your need to connect two lines of topstitching, use the tips above 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. 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. Go over the seam you are matching by just one or two stitches and Autolock or stop with long thread tails and pull through to the back.
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 you 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 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.
Our thanks again to Janome America Education Coordinator, Nancy Fiedler for her help with this tutorial. To stay up-to-date on all the news from Janome, visit their website and/or follow the creativity on their blog, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.