Twenty Top Tips for Topstitching

20 top tips for topstitching
I promised to write this post AGES ago, and here it finally is – my top tips for topstitching, gained through many hours of frustration, swearing, and unpicking tangled threads from my Bernina.

The basics:

  1. Use topstitching thread in your top spool, normal thread in your bobbin.
  2. You must use a topstitching needle (or a jeans needle). If you don’t do this, terrible things will happen. Never, never, never use a normal needle for topstitching with heavy thread, unless you actively enjoy frustration.
  3. Set your stitch length to be slightly longer than normal, I usually click mine up three lengths on my Bernina.
  4. Take a scrap of your fashion fabric and fold it in half. This is now your practice scrap. Keep it close. Before you topstitch a tricky seam, sew a practice length on your scrap. Much better to get this scrap all gnarled up than your beautiful project.
  5. If your thread gets puckered on top, lower the tension number to loosen it. If it’s too tight, set the tension a bit higher.
  6. Choose a consistent position for topstitching, and stick to it. I often line the edge of my foot up against the seam line as it’s the easy option, but if you have a fancy straight stitch or edge stitch foot you can use that.
  7. To prevent your machine from eating the fabric, pull the bobbin and top thread together at the start of every seam. There’s an excellent description of how to do this here.
  8. Topstitching stretch fabric can be ugly. If you’re sewing decorative lines on single thicknesses of fabric (like jeans pockets), iron some interfacing on the back, or they will stretch out to infinity.

blue jeans topstitching

Using a double needle – ninja level topstitching

  1. Double needle topstitching is tricky. You will need to test it every time you use it. This is where your scrap fabric comes in.
  2. Buy a special twin needle – you can get a 4mm one here in the UK. I  wouldn’t recommend trying to mimic this by sewing two lines of thread, it’s incredibly hard to match them up perfectly.
  3. Every machine is different for twin topstitching, so check your manual. I thread the 2 threads exactly as I would with 1. I put the thread from the usual spool into the left needle, and the thread from the new spool into the right needle.
  4. You can only sew very gentle curves with a double needle, and you can’t turn and pivot. For jeans, the main issue will be the decorative topstitching around the fly. Draw in a smooth curve and practice it first on your test scrap.

General tips to minimise frustration

  1. Don’t be afraid to use the handwheel! Especially at the beginning and end of seams with lots of different layers, like the waistband.
  2. When your needle gets stuck, it can be temporary or it can be a sign of doom.  To find out, gently rotate the handwheel back and forth. Sometimes you can coax it out – often by rotating it backwards. Sometimes you need to stop, unpick an enormous hamster’s nest of tangled threads, and start all over again (sorry).
  3. Topstitching will never feel as easy as normal sewing. Expect some reluctance from your machine.  Learn to distinguish between the slow and reluctant feeling your machine makes when going over bulky seams, and the ‘help help I am stuck in the needle plate’ signal you get when things have gone very wrong.
  4. You might need to re-jig the pattern instructions to make topstitching seams easier. Here’s the order I sew jeans in.
  5. Arrange your pieces so you can do a period of normal sewing, then topstitch lots of seams at once. Otherwise you will go insane changing threads and needles and re-jigging tension.
  6. You should sew all your topstitching lines in one fell swoop. Stopping and starting in the middle never looks good. It’s very hard to match up the line of thread perfectly, especially with a double needle.
  7. Check the fit before you topstitch any seams. Unpicking that shiz is not fun.
  8. Buy a lot more topstitching thread than you think you need, especially if you are sewing jeans or doing double topstitching. 3 spools is the minimum for a classic 5-pocket jean style.

I’m not an expert by any means – this is just what worked for me. Let me know what I’ve missed out!

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42 thoughts on “Twenty Top Tips for Topstitching

  1. wrong doll May 12, 2015 / 4:42 PM

    This is great – I am just about to start work on a Madeleine Skirt from Victory Patterns and you’ve answered all the questions I had about top stitching!

  2. Miss Demeanour October 28, 2013 / 12:13 AM

    You my dear are the jean queen *courtesies* xxx

  3. Kelly October 25, 2013 / 3:15 PM

    Thank you for this!! Very helpful tips.

  4. Margaret October 25, 2013 / 1:17 PM

    Thank you for sharing your “jeans sewing order”.I’m a veteran stitcher, but there are still MANY things to learn from others to make it all go a little better. Your Topstitching guide is really great!

  5. Craft (Alchemy) October 25, 2013 / 10:15 AM

    I’ve only ever topstitched (edgestitched? I’m not entirely clear on the difference) garments on lighter, more forgiving fabrics and have been okay with normal weight thread and a normal needle … but I’m suddenly enlightened as to why my only foray into sewing multiple layers of heavy fabric (straps for my chainmail bag and thus by necessity heavy-duty) involved huge spiderwebs of lost thread and two broken needles …

    I shall be sure to get hold of some topstitching or jeans needles if I ever need to do it again!

  6. Alessa October 25, 2013 / 10:14 AM

    Those tips sound very useful! Thanks! I have a couple of denim skirts in my to-sew list, so I’m sure they’ll come in handy!

  7. jennifer October 24, 2013 / 11:03 PM

    Nice collection of tips. I’ll say I think two rows of topstitching looks much nicer than double needle. It’s the same concept you used for edge stitching, line the edge of the foot up with the stitching from the first pass. It’s not perfect but looks quite nice with practice and because it’s two distinct rows, it’s stronger. With twin needle if any of three threads wears out, it will all come undone and the bobbin thread which zigs between the two rows is fairly stressed. I do really think an edge stitching foot improves dramatically, too. With adjustable needle position and an edge stitch foot you can get a little closer to the seam line and follow a contour beautifully.

    • yesilikethat October 25, 2013 / 8:40 AM

      Good point about the double topstitching being less strong, I hadn’t thought of that. I have to admit I still prefer it because it’s quicker, and the stress of having to exactly match up the double lines of topstitching is too much for me! 🙂 But if you have an edge stitch foot and are a topstitching ace it would be stronger. If only Bernina machine feet were less expensive… (for example, 100 quid for a walking foot, yikes)

    • Jennifer October 25, 2013 / 4:18 PM

      My Bernina 1008 takes the older feet so I can find them used, thankfully, the list prices are ridiculous. When I first got the machine, I felt compelled to by a walking foot but I have to say I really haven’t ended up using it. So I’d say don’t save up for that unless you’re having a specific issue you know it will solve and ideally test drive it at a dealer. But the regular #10 edge stitch foot I couldn’t live without I’m sure it’s on the machine as frequently as any other foot. Here it is in action: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jne4sl/10156006936/

  8. Marie October 24, 2013 / 10:56 PM

    Fantastic tips Kathryn, thanks so much for sharing!!!

  9. Ana October 24, 2013 / 9:21 PM

    Those are some great tips, thanks for that!
    I’m making a trench coat/mac right now and I’m not sure how to do the top stitching where it is visible from both sides if I can’t put the top stitching thread in the bobbin. Any ideas?

    • yesilikethat October 24, 2013 / 9:44 PM

      Is it in an area where you’ll see the back and front of the fabric? You can use topstitching thread in the bobbin but you’ll need to adjust the case so the hole is bigger, which will require a screwdriver. I’ve never done it as I’m not confident about messing around with the bobbin. Could you just use a normal thread in a matching colour in the bobbin? One alternative would be to use a normal thread in top and bottom and sew a triple stitch, if you have on your machine – uses loads of thread and unpickable but looks nice.

  10. Kerry October 24, 2013 / 4:19 PM

    This is so, so useful. I’m planning to do some topstitching in the future and have been reading up about it in a few of my dressmaking books. However I suspected that the top stitch thread didn’t need to go in the bobbin but my books didn’t even mention it. I also thought I didn’t need a special needle. Maybe I will invest in one after all!

    • yesilikethat October 24, 2013 / 8:58 PM

      I think it’s definitely worth it (unless you are using normal thread of course). I was having so many issues the first time I tried to topstitch and using a topstitching needle solved most of them. The hole just isn’t big enough in a normal needle.

  11. gingermakes October 24, 2013 / 1:27 PM

    Ooh, thanks for sharing these! This is super helpful!

  12. Helen October 24, 2013 / 1:03 PM

    Fab post!
    I had untold stress on a denim dress recently – didn’t use a proper needle etc. Just about to start a denim shirt and now have correct needle and hoping for less stress after reading your tips. 30mt of top stitching thread disappears pretty fast when you keep c*cking up!

    • yesilikethat October 24, 2013 / 8:57 PM

      Dude, tell me about it. I reckon you could get away with 2 spools of thread for jeans if you didn’t make any mistakes but that has never happened to me, something always goes all gnarly….

  13. Stephanie October 24, 2013 / 11:50 AM

    I’m going to save this for the moment I gain the confidence to sew jeans. 🙂 Excellent post.

  14. Amy T October 24, 2013 / 11:47 AM

    I’m totally saving this for when I start my jeans nearer Christmas. Thank you so much. I’m learning a lot from you on the crazy world of jean making!

    • yesilikethat October 24, 2013 / 8:56 PM

      Ooh excited to see your jeans!

  15. Kieran October 24, 2013 / 10:05 AM

    Three spools?! Holy Mackerel! I have yet to attempt a pair of jeans, but I’m reeeally tempted. I might try some shorts this summer (in NZ) to sort of get a handle on the fitting without using so much fabric. Maybe.

    • yesilikethat October 24, 2013 / 10:11 AM

      I know, I couldn’t believe how much it used either! It’s that double topstitching, it really eats up the thread. Shorts for fitting are a great idea.

  16. sewbusylizzy October 24, 2013 / 9:51 AM

    Wow! Brilliant. You have got me obsessed with making jeans so I really appreciate this post 🙂

    • yesilikethat October 24, 2013 / 9:58 AM

      Hooray, I have spread the virus! Loving your shorts adventures so far x

    • sewbusylizzy October 24, 2013 / 10:02 AM

      I got some cotton sateen to try some fitted trousers next. Could be a disaster but the fabric was cheap, good quality and awesome print. Figure it will be a fun experiment without wrestling with heavy fabric & just road testing the fit.
      I’m loving the shorts. My next shorts will be Pattern Runway’s Sweet Shorts, although I think Maritime Shorts are my ‘thing’.

    • yesilikethat October 24, 2013 / 10:04 AM

      It sounds awesome! I have some sateen from Minerva for one of my upcoming projects. I wish there were more days of the year we could wear shorts here… don’t think my legs will see sunlight again until May 2014

    • sewbusylizzy October 24, 2013 / 10:11 AM

      Sateen is lovely to sew with… I’ve got some of that triple crepe…

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