How to sew perfect topstitching

September 13, 2018 14 Comments

How to sew perfect topstitching

September 13, 2018 14 Comments

Topstitching can be kinda tricky to perfect, especially since the stitching is so visible. So this is definitely an area where it is easy to become a bit obsessive. But there are actually quite a few tricks to master this technique and once you apply these, there is really no reason why your topstitching won’t look beautiful (unless your machine is kinda lousy or needs service, more about that below).  So let’s get to it!

8 steps to successful topstitching


1. Have a good sewing machine

Boring, but true! I have only ever owned vintage sewing machines, and both my current Bernina 1230 and my former Viking/Husqvarna 2000 do beautiful stitching. So if you can’t afford a good new model, look into getting a quality vintage machine. Also, if your stitching looks off, it might be that you need to clean the machine or take it for a service. I’m a big believer in having a pro taking care of my machine every few years or so, and every time I get my machine back I’m blown away how much better the stitching looks!

2. Use heavier or double thread in the needle

The point of topstitching is usually to also create a decorative effect. Hence why should use a thicker thread in the spool. My favourite threads are jeans and buttonhole thread. But you can also use two threads if your machine has an extra pin. See the photo below for a comparison.

My favourite denim thread is Gûtermann’s Extra Strong (M782) colour 968. It’s also available as a 30 metre buttonhole thread (affiliate links) but I think the 100 meters one is more value for the money. The 412 colour is nice too, it’s a little bit more bright and rich.

3. Use the right presser foot

Often you will topstitch close to a seam or an edge. This is where a presser foot with a center/edge guide comes in handy. I think most brands have a version of this presser foot. Bernina has two actually, the one I have also work as a blind hem stitch foot.

Some machines also have a dedicated topstitching foot for sewing in heavier fabrics. On my Bernina 1230 it’s number 8. I think it does a nice job, but I’m not sure it is better than a regular presser foot.

4. Use regular thread in the bobbin

Most topstitching problems are caused by folks trying to use heavy thread in the bobbin of domestic machines. But that is not what your sewing machine is optimized for. Instead, use regular sewing machine thread and take comfort in the fact that usually, the inside will not be visible. If you are hellbent on having a thicker thread in the bobbin, get a second bobbin for that purpose.

Why? Well, you need to loosen the tension on the bobbin, and getting it back to the original setting afterwards can be tricky. If you don’t want to buy a second bobbin, mark the original tension setting on the bobbin before you start messing with this stuff.

You can get the same colours as the heavy topstitching thread from Gûtermans Sew-All thread (regular sewing machine thread) which makes matching even easier (affiliate links).



5. Increase the stitch length

Every machine will have its own sweet spot I think, plus different fabrics call for different settings. but I like to use around 3.5 to 4 on my machine. The rule of thumb is that the stitching should be longer than the default setting for a straight stitch on your machine.

6. Use needles with a larger eye

My favourite needles are the  Schmetz Topstitching needles, that comes in several sizes. They have an extra-large eye and goes through thick seams so nicely. The Jeans/Denim needle from the same brand is really good too for topstitching on thick fabrics and layers (Amazon affiliate links) .

7. Experiment with the needle tension

On my Bernina, increasing the needle tension creates a more balanced stitch. But I’m sure the result might vary, but since the thread is much thicker, on many machines you will need to alter the tension at least slightly.

8. Start with scraps to prevent the needle thread from getting jammed

Noticed that sometimes the machine pulls the needle thread to the reverse side in the beginning, creating a knotted mess? If this is a problem, start the seam on some fabric scraps, then insert your fabric and continue. You can of course backstitch, in the beginning, to keep the thread from unravelling. I’ve found this method to be very effective. Also make sure that the needle thread is pulled back when you start to sew, as this will also prevent it from getting caught in the bobbin thread.

Bonus tip: Watch this video where I share even more tips on how to master topstitching

So those are my best tips on achieving great topstitching. What are your favourite tricks and methods?

Johanna Lundström

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14 Comments

  • Jane September 14, 2018 at 3:41 am

    Great tips, thank you! I’m pleased to hear you recommend normal thread in the bobbin. I recently spent ages attempting to get a good result with topstitching thread in the bobbin as well, because I was making a denim jacket and there are places like the collar and button bands where the stitching is often visible from both sides. But it never went completely smoothly, even after playing with top and bottom tension for ages. In the end I matched a regular thread to the colour of the topstitching, so I have a similar contrast colour on the reverse, just not the thicker thread. It’s good enough and went far more smoothly!

    • Johanna September 16, 2018 at 7:17 pm

      I think we have all tried the heavy thread in the bobbin at some point, and it really is super hard to get it to work on a regular domestic sewing machine! So switching to regular thread is such a relief 🙂

  • Denise September 15, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    I used the Guterman top stitching thread on a denim jacket and found the SCHMETZ top stitching needle worlds better than the denim needle. That thread really needs the deeper front groove in the needle to keep it from being dragged below the fabric with every stitch.

    • Johanna September 16, 2018 at 7:19 pm

      I would have to agree! I think that the denim needles do a good job on regular seams, but when the layers get too thick, the topstitch needle is a better choice for sure

  • COREY HILL September 17, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    Just a quick comment, I love making jeans and I have one sewing machine that I have set up specifically for top stitching. I sometimes use a double thread in the top because you can’t always get the color range in guterman top stitching tread. Otherwise for jeans or jeans style pants where I can use it, i do. For top stitching and edge stitching I use a combination of an edge stitching foot and also a blind hem foot set 3/8 inch from the line of edge stitching. That way it makes it easy to run the blind hem foot down the same edge of the fabric and get the perfect line of stitching with little effort. Cheers – Corey

    • Nancy Karpen November 15, 2018 at 8:46 pm

      I don’t know where you live, but since you’ve used inches, I am going to assume you live in the US. Wawak.com has all of the colors on the Gutterman thread chart in both the heavy Mara 30 and the slightly lighter Mara 70.

  • Carol November 16, 2018 at 4:38 am

    Another option is to use regular thread in both the top and the bobbin, and do your top stitching with a “triple stitch”, or whatever you call the straight, stretch stitch on your machine (that involves going forward and backward a couple of times in one place on each stitch.)

    • Johanna February 5, 2019 at 8:27 pm

      Yes! And I’ve heard that tips before from the Mallory and Zede from Sew Here . they said it was great for stretch jeans, and I will definitely try that in the future! Thank you for suggesting that technique!

  • Linda Berendsen February 5, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    Thank you for all your blogs and video’s they are truly inspiring. I’m also working on my jeans and I do the top and etch stitch with my coverlock. I was wondering why you don’t use it more on your jeans? I’m a beginner so maybe it’s obvious, I’m still learning my coverlock. I also have Janome 2000. 🙂 greetings, Linda

    • Johanna February 5, 2019 at 8:25 pm

      Thank you for your kind words! I do use chainstitch and coverstitch on my jeans for some things, and there will be tutorials for that in my upcoming coverstitch book!

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