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!

Burda 7863 version 2 – brown jeans of glory

I made some more jeans! Hooray!

Once again, I’ve totally struggled to get any decent photos of these. I couldn’t wait any longer to show them off though. Hope you can get the general idea.

brown jeans 1

Burda jeans

They’re made of brown fabric from Mandors in Glasgow. According to the label it was used by Burberry to make jodhpurs, and it really is ridiculously stretchy. It’s almost like a cross between a jersey and a woven, with great recovery.

Top-stitching on fabric as stretchy as this was what you might call an interesting experience.

pattern pieces

My pattern pieces look so terrible. I must get them traced off. I am embarrassed to admit I used brown parcel tape in desperation when I lost my scotch tape. Do you trace off your pattern pieces? I didn’t even realise that was a thing people did until this year. Shameful.

I made a few alterations from last time, including scooping out the back curve a smidgen, shortening the crotch by 2cm both front and back, and attempting a tiny bow leg alteration at the knee.

brown jeans 3

brown jeans 2

You can see I’ve still got a few folds under the bum but generally I think the fit is a lot better. Not sure what those drag lines are on the back thigh but I’ve decided not to worry about it.

trousers and hair

I used a new find, a double jeans needle, to do most of the topstitching. These jeans were total THREAD HOGS. I used up two and a half spools! Of course I managed to sew over the metal zipper halfway through construction and broke my lovely and expensive new needle, but it was fun while it lasted.

Like last time, I sewed them in a different order to the pattern envelope – first the inside legs (and topstitched), then the fly, then the outside legs (and topstitched down to thigh level), then the back seam.

I copied the pockets from my RTW Uniqlo jeans again and I’m super happy with them.

brown jeans back

I wasn’t sure if these jeans would get worn or not. It’s all because of my school uniform which was brown and ‘camel’ (ie. sickly yellow). If you made it to A-levels, you could wear any clothes you liked, as long as they were brown, white, or cream. I’m sure you can imagine how uplifting we all looked sitting in the sixth form common room. Truly a rainbow of beige.

Anyway those two years put me off brown for life. I think the last time I wore trousers of this hue I was 16 and off to see Blur at Bournemouth International Centre dressed in my best corduroy flares.

But times have changed! Damon Albarn is not nearly as fresh-faced, I can buy a pint without any fake ID, and I no longer have to worry about revising for my maths GCSE.

So I think these jeans have broken the curse. It helps that they’re unbelievably comfortable. I’ve already planned the next version in bright blue stretch twill. And this time I’m thinking RIVETS. Oh yes.

Crescent Skirt No. 1

My first Crescent skirt! I say first, because there’s definitely more to come. I LOVE this pattern from Sewaholic.

Crescent Skirt in blue cotton voile

It’s so fun to put together, and I learned a lot from following Tasia’s extremely comprehensive Sew-a-long, including an amazing zip insertion method which I will now use for everything I sew, forever. I am an expert at the process, having carefully sewed in the zip completely the wrong way round the first time. I didn’t notice until I was showing the beautiful ‘finished’ product to my boyfriend and had a sudden flash of realisation – the zipper pull belongs on the outside of the skirt. Oops. At least ripping it out and re-sewing has put it firmly in my head.

Crescent skirt close-up

It’s made from a thin poly/cotton blend which is really a shirt weight, so I lined it with a white cotton poplin. You add a lot of structure to the skirt when sewing (interfacing, topstitching and twill tape) which combined with the lining, makes it feel lightweight but not flimsy. The waistband looks a bit wrinkly in this photo, but I had worn it all day, and think I just need to give it a bit of a press.

I top-stitched the waistband seams and the hem (which I made nearly 4 inches) with a light grey topstitching thread. It looks strangely yellow in this photo but it’s much more silvery in real life.

I pulled a super-human effort to get this skirt finished last weekend before visitors came to stay in my sewing room (some refer to it as our spare room). I really tried to finish everything off nicely, inspired by the sew-along: french seams, twill tape, making the gathers super-even, the lot.  I’m so proud of it and glad I didn’t take any short-cuts. I cut out the size 10 and I didn’t have to do any alterations, it fits perfectly, hooray.

As the sun decided to shine on London today I put it on to go fabric shopping with my sister. It’s also the second day of Self-Stitched-September! Yesterday I totally forgot it was September already, but luckily I was wearing my African print Sorbetto. Not sure if I’m going to make it to the end of the month but will give it a damn good try.

I’m going on holiday in about a week, so hopefully Virginia and North Carolina will be sunny enough for me to give this skirt a little bit of an airing before it gets put away for the winter (but I’m definitely making a winter version before then!).