Tip-Top-Topstitching-Tips | The Button Jar
Tip-Top-Topstitching-Tips | The Button Jar
Sewing my awesome (if I do say so myself) Moss Skirt was quite the crash-course in learning how to achieve a great-looking topstitch on some super-heavy fabric using my domestic machine. Obviously all these tips won’t help everyone, but hopefully there’s something in here to help you get some ace results too. For reference, I sew on a Bernina 530 (and she’s a hot-damned-babe).
There are two main problems you’re looking out for with topstitching: uneven stitch tension and skipped stitches.
Uneven stitch tension when using topstitching thread happens because you’re running two different weights of thread through the machine. It will usually look something like the topstitch thread bubbling to the underside, rather than the two threads being evenly balanced between the top and the bottom of the fabric.
Skipped stitches happen because the topstitch thread hasn’t caught around your bobbin when the needle passed the thread down. This can happen because your needle isn’t sharp enough to easily penetrate the fabric, or just because your fabric is so thick your needle is struggling. Skipped stitches usually look like a double-length (or possibly even triple—if it’s a really bad day—length) stitch. You can see a couple in the outer edges of the back pocket topstitching.
Topstich up top, normal thread on the bottom—bobbom—bottin—bobbin!
Please note, all of my tips use topstitching thread in the needle and a normal coordinating thread on the bobbin. I never heard recommendations to use topstitching thread on the bobbin and have no idea about whether this works.
Topstitching Needles aren’t a gimmick
I was suspicious, but these needles really are worth the purchase. Different from a jeans needle, they’re specifically designed with a sharper point and longer eye to help the thicker topstitching thread glide through the needle and the fabric more easily. So, buying a pack of these needles is a ‘highly recommend’ from me! Also, remember to change your needles regularly. A blunt needle will start causing you issues.
If you can, a Denim Foot is worth it
Feet are expensive, so if you’re not regularly sewing denims and other heavy fabrics, feel free to skip over this one (like a naughty, little skipped stitch, you wee scamp!). The process notes below are all more important than just having a new foot.
For me, Bernina’s number 8 foot has been a game-changer. In the past I’ve tried my normal foot, my edgestitch foot and my walking foot, and have really struggled to get the multiple layers of heavy-weight fabric to glide underneath the foot. The awesome wizardry of Bernina means that they’ve done something that makes this foot solidly worth the purchase. Multiple layers of heavy fabric move easily beneath it, and I am in love. If you are interested, see what heavy-weight fabric foot might be available for your machine.
Test, test and test again
Using a scrap piece of your garment fabric, try out your topstiching on a single layer, a double layer and a triple layer. With each addition of bulk, you’ll probably see that the stitches are behaving very differently, and you will need to pay attention to this as you’re sewing your garment. Following are the key things to look out for.
A nice stitch length to use for topstitching is from 3.5mm to 4mm (your normal stitch length will probably be 2.5mm). This means the thicker thread doesn’t looked cramped in the stitch. Test out what length you prefer on your fabric scrap.
Watch those tension levels
Your stitch tension should be set so you’re not getting bubbles of topstitching thread on the bobbin side, or normal thread on the top side. On my machine, I can sew my single layer with a tension setting of three. With a double layer, I have to bump the tension up to 5 and for a triple layer I’m heading up to 6 or 7. Make notes on your tests about what tension works for your different layers. Depending on whether I’m sewing on a pocket (three layers at least!) or doing something decorative (maybe one or two layers), I’ll tweak my tension to suit.
Add a little pressure
Likewise, I need to alter the amount of pressure my foot has on the fabric, depending on how many layers of fabric I’m sewing. Different from stitch tension, getting the pressure right will help when it comes to skipped stitches. On my machine I’ve found that I have to use more pressure depending on how many layers of fabric—a fairly normal pressure of about 46 for one layer of fabric, 50-55 for two layers and ALL THE PRESSURE AVAILABLE for three or more layers of fabric. One thing worth noting is that with extra pressure your stitch length may shorten up, as the fabric isn’t moving through quite so quickly. So, if it worries you, make sure you adjust your stitch length a little.
And remember to change all those settings back!
Sorry folks, the bad news about this is that—unless you have two machines, you lucky-duck, you!—you will need to revert everything back to different settings when you’re doing your construction sewing (thread, needle, stitch length, stitch tension, foot pressure). Yup, it’s a faff. A muscle-memory does start to kick in for me, and it becomes habit that, when I’m changing my thread back to a normal thread at the top, I also make all the other changes. For ease, I try to have some brief notes written on a piece of washi tape, that does double-time by also holding the needles that I’m using, rather than having to constantly refer to my notebook.
Off you go!
Going a little fast (although not full speed) seems to be something that helps my machine with both consistency of stitch tension and also avoiding skipped stitches. I find that problems seem to get worse at points where I’m slowing down and hesitating. So, buckle up, gird those loins, and sew with a little speedy confidence! And see if that helps with some of those pesky issues.
Pirouette | Pivot | Turn | Spin—but don’t backstitch
My machine loses her shit when I try to backstitch with topstitching thread. To get around this, I instead pivot the fabric: I start my seam off, sew about half an inch, pivot the fabric with the needle down and the foot up, sew back to the beginning, pivot again, and then I’m away! While I’m getting the effect of the backstitch, my machine and I remain on speaking terms. Oh! Also, to prevent thread-nests, hold on to the tail of your threads as you start sewing.
What to do with skipped stitches
So you’ve nailed everything on your test scraps. No skipped stitches. Lovely, balanced tension. You sew a line on your garment and, D’OH! In the middle of an otherwise ace line of topstitching, you’ve got a skipped stitch. Rats!
First, feel free to swear a little. It is annoying as hell.
Second, evaluate the damage: how much integrity to the strength or structure are you likely to lose by leaving it in? You’ll see in the photo of the back pockets (above), I have got a couple of skips, but I decided that on balance they weren’t going to be a major issue just hanging out there, so I’ve left them.
In other points I have gone back through to try to deal with them, and this is the technique I’ve used. I unpick the stitch/es in question, and maybe a few around it. I carefully sew over the top of the existing stitches, away from the gap, pivoted with the needle down (remember the note about backstitch alternative), and resew the gap, repeating the pivot at the other end of the gap. I then feed the topstitching thread to the underside, and secure the threads. Hey, presto! No skipped stitches!
The occasional hand crank is okay—but don’t take my word for it!
The most likely point you’re going to get skipped stitches is when you’re sewing over bulky seams. The only way I’ve found to deal with this is to hand crank over these sections. There’s a bit of debate over whether this could do damage to your machine, so please make your decision based on your own comfort levels and research. I’m happy enough to hand crank a few times over the trouble spots, but this tip may not be for everyone.
So there you have it! My tip-top-topstitching-tips! Do you have any others? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear them. Till next time!