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Threads eLetter

From the pages of Threads Magazine

Tools for Topstitching

For gorgeous stitches, select the best thread, needle, and presser foot for the job

by Jane Conlon

For beautiful topstitching, you need to combine its three fundamental tools -- thread, presser feet, and needles -- and match them to your fabric's characteristics. The following overview of the tools for topstitching will help you through the maze of possible combinations.

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Start with thread
You can either topstitch with the thread you used to sew your garment or choose from a number of wonderful specialty threads on the market. Here's a rundown of threads that love to be visible, like those in the photo.

Silk thread is excellent for topstitching by hand or machine, and is available in a wide range of colors and weights. Buttonhole twist or topstitching thread is thicker than most machine threads and comes in cotton, polyester, and silk. And machine-embroidery thread, smoother and glossier than standard sewing thread, is available in various weights of rayon, cotton, acrylic, and silk. Metallic thread comes in fine, medium, and heavier weights. Fine metallic thread may not be substantial enough for topstitching, so choose a medium-weight metallic like Madeira #15, and pair it with 60-wt. cotton or a strong but lightweight thread (like lingerie thread) in the bobbin. Heavy metallic threads like Kreinik #8 braid are too thick for the needle but can be loaded onto the bobbin and stitched from the wrong side.

Pearl cotton or rayon in lighter weights (#16, #12, and #8) can be used in the needle, while heavier weights (#2 and #5) should be used only in the bobbin. Pearl Crown Rayon is a decorative serger thread from YLI that can be used in the bobbin, and many threads designed for handwork (like crochet cotton or high-twist rayon) also work wonderfully in the bobbin.

Topstitching needles
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Each needle has a special purpose
You can improve your topstitching by taking advantage of the various needles specially designed to make the best possible stitch with different threads and fabrics. Universal needles are, as their name implies, versatile, and can be used for topstitching on both knits and wovens, including textured woolens and velvets. Topstitching needles have a larger eye, longer groove, and sharper point than standard sewing needles. They're designed for heavier threads and woven fabrics, and work best with a standard-weight sewing thread in the bobbin.

Microtex/sharp needles are slim, sharp, and ideal for topstitching microfibers, woven silks, and other dense, tightly woven fabrics. Denim needles have a very sharp point for use on heavy twill fabrics. The diagonal weave of twills causes ordinary needles to slip between the fibers, skewing the line of stitches. The sharp point on denim needles penetrates the fibers, making a uniform stitch. Use them on other types of wovens, too.

Machine-embroidery needles, designed to handle light- to medium-weight embroidery and metallic threads, feed thread through the needle with less resistance, reducing thread breakage and skipped stitches. Metalfil and Metallica needles, with their long eye and groove, improve stitch quality for lightweight metallic threads that tend to fray and break. Made from an alloy, the Lammertz Metalfil needle has an eye that's coated to withstand the heat and friction that builds up with metallic threads.

Double needles -- universal, stretch, denim, Metallica, and machine embroidery -- are two needles mounted on a single shaft, allowing two rows of stitches to be made at once. They come with a range of widths between the needles--make sure the needles aren't spaced too wide for your machine and that there's enough room for both needles to swing back and forth if you're using a zigzag stitch.

Drilling/triple needles can make three rows of topstitching at once.

Presser feet
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Presser feet as guides
The presser feet shown here can be divided into two camps -- those designed for straight stitching only and those designed for zigzag and straight stitching. Straight-stitch-only feet have a smaller hole for the needle, keeping the fabric more stable. Combine these feet with a straight-stitch soleplate for the straightest possible topstitching. Use the center needle position, and set the stitch width at zero.

The patchwork foot is my favorite for a single straight stitch because its exact 1/4-in. distance from foot edge to needle makes it easy to guide the fabric. Additional notches on the toes are helpful when topstitching curves and corners, and its inner and outer notches at 1/8 in. make it a useful edgestitching guide. A jeans foot for heavier fabrics and a standard straight-stitch foot for a variety of fabrics enhance stitch quality without notches.

In the other camp, zigzag presser feet let you change needle positions to the left or right of center, so you can stitch on either side of a seam using the foot's center line as a guide. You can also use double and triple needles, zigzag topstitching, and decorative stitches with them.

Use a standard zigzag, standard embroidery, or open-toe embroidery foot when topstitching with a double or triple needle (be sure to combine the foot with your regular soleplate). The edgestitch foot has a handy center guide that can be positioned against the fabric's edge or in the ditch of a seam, with the needle to the right or left of center. There's no generic counterpart for Bernina's cordonnet foot, which has a long, narrow groove underneath and works wonders with heavyweight topstitching thread.

Though it's harder to use as a stitching guide, I like the even-feed walking foot for topstitching fabrics that shift, slide, stretch, or pucker. The leather roller foot is designed for easy maneuverability on leather, suede, vinyl, and quilted fabrics, and is ideal for topstitching the curves and angles of decorative motifs. Clear plastic appliqué and embroidery feet are also good for decorative topstitching, allowing you to see what you're stitching.

It takes a bit of experimentation to find the best combination of thread, needle, and foot for each topstitching project. But it's definitely worth it when you see your fantastic results!

Jane Conlon sews in Eugene, OR, where she teaches at 27th Street Fabrics (

Photos: Sloan Howard

From Threads #79, pp. 36-37
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