How to Top Stitch: It’s Easier Than You Think

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Last updatedLast updated: May 04, 2021

Every skill a person can learn is essentially like learning a language. Learning martial arts involves learning forms, learning mechanics involves learning car parts, and learning sewing means learning the different kinds of stitches you can do to secure the fabric.

Because of this, one can reasonably be concerned that learning sewing is overwhelming. Where do you start? What are the fundamentals? This article answers that question with one of the most common and basic forms of stitching: How to top stitch. Nearly every kind of clothing you can find has a top stitch in it. This is because it is quick, easy, and automatable at a factory. Luckily for those sewing at home, though, it does not require a factory to be performed, unlike many other modern sewing techniques. It is a stitch that is as useful for hemming pants as it is making designer dresses. So, it behooves you to learn it, and this guide will show you how.

What is a top stitch?

How to Top Stitch: It’s Easier Than You ThinkTop stitches are as interesting as they are useful. Technically, they are a highly decorative stitch. They are not, strictly speaking, necessary, as the same fastenings can be done under a garment’s surface. But there is an art to doing a top stitch, as they are visible to the naked eye on the outside of a garment.

Decorative though they may be, top stitches are still incredibly useful. They are meant to decorate, but they can do everything from hold facings to strengthen seems, to flatten fabrics.

Why do you need topstitch?

Top stitching is an important skill to learn because it is the most common way of fixing clothing. When you think about it, it makes sense: Most other kinds of stitches are important for making clothes from the inside out. Top stitching involves fixing clothes from the outside.

All clothing comes with a lifespan, and top stitching is the method by which you extend that lifespan. More than that, though, it opens up a whole new world for you of not just fixing your clothing but customizing it. And once you start modifying your clothing, it can be hard to stop.

How to do a top stitch?

Top stitching requires nothing more than a sewing machine. It can also be done by hand, but if you want to get into a habit of top sewing stitches, a machine is recommended.

Writing out a step-by-step guide on top stitching would only be so helpful. In the past, sewing was taught orally, usually from mother to daughter. After the invention of the printing press, visual aids such as illustrations were quickly implemented to help teach mechanical skills.

Best thread

The best thread for top stitching is actually “top stitching thread,” a type of thread that is specifically designed to be visible. This plays into the skill top stitching cultivates as a tool of expression. You can do top stitching with any kind of thread, but if you want your skill to be recognized, use top stitching thread.

Remember that there are different types of top stitching threads for different fabrics. Leather, for instance, requires much thicker top stitching thread for it to be visible than, say, velvet.

Best sewing machine foot

There are a variety of different sewing machine feet you can choose from, and none of them seem to specialize in top stitching. Part of this is because almost all of them can be used for top stitching. But what kind of foot is the best?

If you can get your hands on an adjustable guide foot, that would be the best. Its versatility will enable you to top stitch virtually anything you can think of. Luckily, the best sewing machines will come with this kind of foot, to begin with, so it isn’t a hard product to search out.

If you are cutting it really close to the edge (figuratively speaking, of course), then an edge stitch foot might help you maintain that pinpoint accuracy you need.

Best needles

Unlike sewing feet, top stitching does require a special needle. Specifically, it requires a needle with a sufficiently large eye to accommodate the thicker thread that you should use while top stitching.

Most brands have a top stitch needle, and if you can’t find one, you can usually get away with using a normal need with normal thread. In fact, many sewing machines come with this kind of needle.

Marking the lines

Marking your lines only needs to happen if you aren’t using a sewing foot. However, many people sew without machines. If you are among this crowd, then there is something unique about top stitching you need to keep in mind.

Because top stitching is done on the outside of clothing, you should mark your lines with an erasable, washable, or disappearing pen. This will allow you to make your marks without accidentally decorating your clothing in a way you did not intend.

Choosing the stitch length

The rule of thumb for top stitching is that longer stitches are better. Most people use lengths of 3.0 to 4.0 to keep things even and uncrowded. In general, thicker thread like what you use for top stitching will look and feel better with more space between the stitches.

Avoiding backstitch

“Don’t backstitch” is the first, second, and third commandments of top stitching, so avoid it as best you can. Instead, pull your threads to the inside of your piece of clothing and tie them in a knot.

Testing the tension

This is crucial to getting good results out of your top stitching project. Have a piece of cloth set aside for testing the tension of your machine (possibly a whole bolt of cloth if you’re looking to top stitch a lot).

Keep the upper and lower bobbin threads as balanced as you can. Otherwise, the look and aesthetic feel of your stitching will look “off” in the best scenario and “terrible” in the worst case.

Just be sure you’re sewing straight with your calibrated tension, or the calibration is pointless.

Don’t forget to press

Pressing the stitches into the fabric is crucial. You want your top stitches to be visible, but you do not want them looking like they were done by a combat medic circa 1899. The flatter the stitches, the cleaner the look.

Final thoughts

Top stitching is a fundamental skill to learn for anyone who wants to get into customizing their own clothes. And even if you are not looking to express yourself through your stitches, the technique still has enough utility to be worth learning.

More people are learning to sew now than ever before, but the biggest fashion brands have yet to fully recognize this. They don’t know that the age of paper-thin women’s wear is coming to an end.

But now, you know, and you know how to bring about the end of that age. No longer will you have to worry about planned obsolescence causing wear and tear to waddle away your wardrobe along with your finances. By the 22nd century, who knows how widespread sewing will become?

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