How to Topstitch Like a Boss (and Fix Mistakes in a Flash)

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Grab your favorite pair of jeans. Are they skinny jeans, high-waisted, baggy, boot-legged or flared? Whatever style you're rocking, here's a bet that it has one obvious feature, besides denim: topstitching.

Topstitching is the thread that runs along seams, pockets and edges. In jeans, you'll normally find it in a contrasting thread color (yellow thread on blue denim, for example) so it stands out. Picture your jeans without it. Not so great, right?

When you're sewing a garment, topstitching is a make-or-break detail. Most clothes have topstitching, even if it's not as visible as it is on your jeans. Topstitching is the difference between garments that look pro and ones that scream "handmade," and not in a good way.

Topstitching can be there just for decoration or it can be an actual part of the construction, like when it's used to hold a patch pocket or bias binding in place. Either way, it should be neat and even, but getting it that way takes a few key moves.

1. Use the Right Needle and Thread

If you're planning to topstitch mainly for style, use a machine needle and thread labeled for this use. Sewing a pair of jeans? You could go with thick gold topstitching thread, a classic for denim garments. The gold color creates a great-looking contrast, and the thickness of the thread adds definition and texture.

In the photo above, you can see the difference between using thick topstitching thread (on the left) and regular all-purpose thread. Choose a topstitch needle with a larger eye, so you can weave the thick thread through it more easily.

2. Use a Longer Stitch Length

When you're topstitching for style, you want every single stitch to look defined. You'll need a longer stitch length. Compare the difference between using the default 2.5 mm stitch length (often labeled as just "length") found on many sewing machines, versus a 3.5 mm stitch length. The longer stitch length is on the right in the denim example above.

3. Use an Edgestitch Foot for Straighter Stitches

You'll usually find edgestitching — another word for topstitching when it's one-sixteenth inch to one-eighth inch from the edge — along collar stands, yokes, plackets, pockets and waistbands. An edgestitch foot, also called a stitch-in-the-ditch foot, has a centered guide that you can align with the edge to help you sew straighter stitches. Keep in mind that this only works if the needle position can move to the left or right of center on your machine.

4. Level Out Your Presser Foot

One way to get even stitches when you're topstitching is to make sure your presser foot stays level. Ever tried to sew over a bulky seam or keep stitching after a pivot point, but the presser foot just won't move? And the thread gets all tangled up? That's probably because the foot is stuck trying to move uphill.

To get the foot unstuck, try putting some scrap fabric under it behind the piece you're sewing. That way the presser foot won't be tilted up at an angle, so it can sew forward much more smoothly. This helps prevent uneven stitch length.

 5. Avoid Backstitching

If the beginning and end of your line of topstitching won't be enclosed in another seam, you'll need to secure your stitches. Normally, you'd do that with backstitching.

But backstitching can look obvious and ruin the polished effect, especially when you're using contrast thread. Instead, try to shorten your stitch length as much as possible, and tack the stitches in place at the beginning and end of the seam. See the difference?

6. Pull Thread Tails to the Wrong Side

The best way to blend stitches is by pulling the thread tails to the wrong side of your garment. That's true whether the stitches are at the beginning or end of the line of topstitching, or in the middle of a seam where you fixed an error.

If you snip the stitches on the right side, you'll have a hard time cutting them perfectly level with the surface of the fabric, and you'll end up with visibly "hairy" stitches. To pull the threads to the wrong side, tug on the bobbin thread tail until a loop from the top thread pulls through. Use a seam ripper or pin to pull the rest of the length of the thread through.

In the photo below, the wrong side of the garment is up. The green thread is the bobbin thread and the dark purple is the top thread that shows up on the right side of the garment:

To fix topstitching errors, unpick the area and pull the tails to the wrong side. Blend the new stitches by overlapping just one or two stitches before and beyond the unpicked area as you sew.

Next, pull those new thread tails to the wrong side and tie them in a knot with the old thread tails. Snip off the excess.

Stand back and check out your new topstitching. It shouldn't be all that noticeable on the right side.

Now, how's this for a pro-quality job? Looks pretty convincing!

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