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Topstitching on stretch knit fabrics

Christine Jonson Patterns

by Christine Jonson

After researching for the Claire McCardell story I have a renewed interest in topstitching. Not only do I like the way topstitching looks, I like that it replaces hand hemming. Using topstitching to hold down facings, bring interest to important seams and keep the inside of a garment neat appeals to me. I have years of experience topstitching stretch fabrics with matching thread but now I find that I want to use contrasting thread and thick thread and yarn-like thread to add a new dimension to my garments.

Topstitching has to be perfect. You need to choose the right thread, needles and presser feet if you want a professional look


Silk thread is an excellent choice for topstitching and comes in a zillion colors and weights. My Mom and I always used silk buttonhole twist for topstitching our Ultra Suede garments. Machine embroidery thread, metallic thread and various other pearl cotton and rayon threads are great too. Choosing the right thread for the fabric is the key. Decide the effect that you want to create and choose the thread that will provide it.

Silk twist is recommended for fabrics that will be dry cleaned, such as silks or wools. Polyester twist wrapped in cotton is a nice alternative because it is machine washable and has the smooth, lustrous look of silk. When using regular thread you can achieve a similar look by threading 2 threads through the machine needle. Check the yardage on the spools so you’ll be sure to have enough to finish your project.



Topstitching needles have a larger eye, longer groove and sharper point than standard machine needle. They sew better with heavier threads and are less likely to produce skipped stitches and frayed thread. They work best when using a standard thread in the bobbin.

Sharp needles are best for topstitching tightly woven fabrics such as microfibers, woven silks and other dense fabrics.

Denim needles are very sharp and penetrate twill fabrics leaving a straight topstitch instead of stitches that slip between the fibers.

Double needles allow two rows of topstitching at once. They are available in a variety of styles and widths between the needles. The wider the space is between the needles the more “sportswear” the look. Be sure to change your machine foot plate to allow for the width of the needles.

Having a variety of these needles on hand will make topstitching easier for you. As always, the right tool for the job!


Presser Feet

Presser feet for topstitching come two ways. There are feet for straight stitching only and those designed for zigzag as well as straight stitching. Straight-stitch-only feet have a smaller hole for the needle and keep the fabric more stable. They are used in conjunction with a straight stitch soleplate.

Zigzag presser feet require a wide hole soleplate that allows you to change needle positions. This is handy for double needle, triple needle, zigzag topstitching and decorative stitches. Using the different needle positions allows you to stitch on either side of a seam using the center mark on the foot as your guide. A Teflon foot is great for topstitching suede and leather.

Good Ideas for Professional-looking knit topstitching

  • Increase your stitch length to about 6 to 8 stitches per inch and loosen the top tension slightly.
  • For the look of a broken line of topstitching use a darker thread on the bobbin.
  • Topstitch on the side of the garment that will be visible.
  •  Never backstitch when topstitching.
  • With a notched collar break the stitching at the lapel roll line. To tie off the threads at this point, pull them up to the underside and tie a square knot close to the garment. Then thread a needle with the ends and slip them between the fabric layers. Clip the threads close to the garment and they will disappear!
  • Two rows of stitching, one at the edge and the other ¼” from the edge gives a sporty look.
  • Multiple rows of topstitching adds a dressier look.
  • Buttons should not cover the topstitching line when a garment is buttoned.
  • Be sure that you are happy with all construction stitching and pressing before you begin topstitching.
  • Purchase special topstitching tape that gives specific guidelines or use transparent tape as a guide, just don’t stitch through it!
  • Test your stitches on scraps of fabric that are the same as your garment.
  • Use a walking foot to maintain even stitches when going over various thicknesses.
  • If you are topstitching a stress seam on a stretch fabric (close fitting, neck lines, narrow skirt hems etc.) you will need to use a double needle to allow for stretch and recovery. If not, you are free to use rows of single needle stitching on stretch fabrics.