Topstitching is an essential part of sewing and is incorporated into nearly every project in one way or another. It’s important to take the time to get to know each of the different styles and the function that each approach serves. Topstitching is usually for decorative purposes but can also be used as an essential stitch for construction and durability as well. If you’re just getting to know your way around a sewing machine give this segment a read to find out about the different ways and means for topstitching!
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Where We Topstitch
Topstitching can be used to smooth out wavy seams in necklines, provide extra strength to a seam, to attach something such as a pocket, or to simply provide a professional decorative finish.
This is done on all sorts of projects from sewing knit apparel all the way to upholstering a couch! Below is a list of some places that you might utilize one or more of the topstitching methods we will talk about here:
- Necklines – Can be optional or an essential part of construction
- Sleeve Hems – Topstitching is used to give the ends of the sleeves a polished look or to prevent fraying from occurring.
- Bottom Hems – Same as above
- Pockets – Topstitching can be used here to attach the pocket to a garment or as a decorative touch along the edge.
- Sleeve Cuffs – This is for woven, non-stretch garments.
- Seams – Sometimes it looks nice to give a garment a topstitch along the seams of colorblocking, yokes or the outer seams of jeans. This can also be done along with every seam in a garment to help with sensory issues a person may have.
- Blanket Bindings – Bindings, in general, utilize a topstitch to create a finished edge.
- Other Decorative Reasons
How We Topstitch
Sewing Machine – Single Needle Stitch
One of the most basic stitches used for topstitching is a single needle, straight stitch. This is typically used for tacking seams down, attaching pockets, turning and topstitching on things like cuffs or button tabs; but can also be used for hemming sleeves and garments (although that isn’t my favorite method).
When using a straight stitch for topstitching the stitch length needs to be long. A good length is usually about a 4 on the dial. For really thick fabrics you may go all the way up to a 5. It is especially important when topstitching something like a knit neckband or sleeve hems to use a really long stitch. This will allow the seam to retain some of its stretch capacity.
If a short stitch length is used here, you may not be able to get the garment over your head, your fabric may stretch out and you risk popping stitches while wearing your garment. One drawback to using a single needle topstitch is that it can cause bottom shirt hems to fold up on certain fabrics.
Single needle topstitching is also essential for pockets. This can be kangaroo pockets on sweatshirts, pockets on the back of jeans, welt pockets or simple slat front turn and topstitch pockets. Even if it isn’t my favorite for the majority of stitching that I do, a sewing machine single needle topstitch will ALWAYS be an essential tool to have in your bag. You will always need it.
[pictured: Two single needle straight stitches sewn side by side. Single needle required to pivot corners as shown]
Editor’s Note: Want to try topstitching? Put it to use on our Anna Button Up Skirt!
Sewing Machine – Double Needle (Stretch Twin Needle)
A double needle is another way of using a basic sewing machine to create a more professional finish. Double needles leave a two-thread stitch on the right side and a zigzag on the wrong side of the fabric. Because of the zig-zagged bobbin thread on the wrong side, this stitch can leave even more stretch in your topstitch.
These can be purchased online and usually cost under $10. Affordability says these can be a great tool for beginners. However, there are some difficulties that you may encounter with a double needle. You may find it hard to find just the right tension setting on your machine resulting in the fabric tunneling between your stitch. A word of advice from me is to double up your fabric.
If your pattern calls for a single fold hem, be sure to modify it to be a double fold. If you are topstitching the neckline seam down, make sure not to let one of the needles stitch over a stand-alone layer of fabric. Stitch directly over the seam. More fabric equals less tunneling. Once you give it some practice, you’ll have it down in no time at all. Also, press your seams with an iron before stitching. This will help immensely and will result in a much cleaner finish.
How do they work? Double needles share one shaft. To use one you will insert the shaft into your machine the same way a single needle is installed. You will thread BOTH spools of thread through your machine together. I have heard several people swear by using stretch thread in their bobbin to prevent tunneling with a double needle. Some machines also have a double needle button/setting to press in order to get the best results. Read your manual for your specific machine set up and check out Jessica’s in-depth post on using twin needles to find out more.
[pictured: A double needle topstitch used to creating a neckline faux binding finish. Note the zig zag bobbin thread on the back is black so it’s difficult to see. See pink striped shirt hem up top for another double needle use.]
Coverstitch Machine – Single, Double or Triple Needle
This is by far my favorite machine to use for hemming and general topstitching. Most machines have the capability of 3 needles, although I have never actually used all three at once. A coverstitch machine will leave straight stitching on the right side with a chain stitch on the wrong side of the fabric.
The stitch that is made using a coverstitch allows for far more stretch capability than either top stitches used on a traditional sewing machine. This is ideal when you are topstitching or hemming sleeves, inseams and necklines on knit garments. This chain stitch on the wrong side of the fabric also leaves behind a nice finish along the raw edge of your fabric. However, there are limitations to using a coverstitch machine. The first being that you cannot pivot around corners if you have more than one needle in. It can also be a little finicky about the type of threads being used in the needles. Every machine is different but my Brother coverstitch really likes to use traditional sewing machine thread for the needles and serger thread for the looper.
[pictured: A 2 needle coverstitch used to secure a neckline facing in place. Note the finished edge on the insde with the interior chain stitch.]
Some simple tips for using a coverstitch machine:
- Be sure to overlap your stitching at the beginning and ends as there is no backstitch for locking. To take it a step farther, you can pull the top threads through to the wrong side of the fabric and tie a knot with the thread ends to prevent unraveling of your stitch.
- When coverstitching on knit it is VERY important to loosen up the presser foot pressure A LOT by unscrewing the metal knob (usually located on the top of the machine). Failing to loosen the presser foot will result in stretched out or wavy fabric.
- Be sure to adjust your tension on the needles correctly to each fabric type and to bring the lower looper tension down to almost zero in order to prevent tunneling from occurring. Once you have your settings correctly adjusted, it’s smooth sailing from there.
- PRESSING – Always use a steaming iron to press your hems or the seams that you plan to topstitch. This will ensure the fabric lays perfectly while you feed it through your machine. Don’t skip this step no matter how much you may want to. I promise you, it’s not worth skipping. You may end up taking 5x longer to rip out all of your stitches to redo them once your fabric shifts. Some beginners find it very helpful to use a wash away hem tape or wonder tape to hold things in place while they topstitch. I do only recommend the WASH AWAY kind as the rest will leave you with a stiff garment.
- STITCH LENGTH – Pay a lot of attention to picking the appropriate LONG stitch length for your project. Use some scraps and test before sewing on your actual project. This too will help alleviate late night stitch ripping.
- NEEDLES – It’s important to note that for each application there may be different threads or needle combinations needed. Topstitching will never result in a professional finish if you are not using the correct needle types or sizes for your project. If you are sewing knit, use ballpoint or knit/jersey needles. If you are sewing leather, use leather needles. If you are sewing a non-stretch woven, use a universal or woven needle. Once you have the right type of needle select the right size needle. The lighter the fabric, the smaller the needle should be. The heavier/thicker the fabric, the bigger your needle should be. If the incorrect needle is being used you can run into threads breaking, needles breaking, skipped stitches and thread jams. All the things sewing nightmares are made of.
- THREAD – As I mentioned earlier, some machines are really picky about the thread you feed through them. If you run into an issue with your thread breaking and skipped stitches, try swapping out the brand of thread. If your coverstitch machine is having a difficult time with serger thread in the needles, swap it out for some traditional sewing machine spools or thread. For most applications, you can use the traditional polyester thread. For topstitching heavier fabrics like denim, it can be easier and provide more durability to use topstitching thread in your upper needle(s). You can still use traditional thread in your bobbin or looper. Topstitching thread is a little bit thicker than traditional thread and it is recommended to use a 90/14 size needle when using it.
Please leave any additional questions you may have in the comments! We are always adding to our list of tips and tricks.