Top-stitching is exactly as it sounds – a line of stitches, often decorative yet functional, that are visible on the face surface of your bag design. Technically you can use any stitch and thread to topstitch a bag exterior, but if you want professional results and a polished finish, it’s best to learn to topstitch like the pros. The addition of top-stitching to any bag will make it decorative while adding body to the bag structure and firm up the shape to the bag without adding any interfacing. Do keep in mind to keep the stitch-type and its length, consistent and uniform for a harmonious professional finished look. A cluster of unrelated stitches will ruin the appearance of your bag design and denotes poor execution.
You can embellish with topstitching and it can be machine-stitched with a polished topstitching thread or hand-sewn with waxed linen thread. If I do decide on hand-stitching, I often pre-punch holes whenever I use leathers or plastics by ¨walking¨ an unthreaded needle in my sewing machine by hand, using the flywheel instead of the foot-pedal to keep control, along the edge that will receive the top-stitching. Then, I just follow the guided path with my hand-needle. This gives me a smooth, even appearance and makes it easy to sew. You can also use the same method to create a laced-edge effect on your design. Your stitch line should be slightly longer in length than a construction stitch when you are topstitching. After all, if you’re going to put in all that extra labour and time, you want everyone to notice it.
Design-wise, you can use top-stitching to create in part the style of the bag, such as in quilting or trapunto. This type of embellishment uses a padded backing or interlining that can add extra body to the structure of the bag. Also, be aware that, the more machine-stitching you apply to the fabric’s surface, the stiffer the fabric will become. In other words, you don’t even need interfacing to make your bag’s exterior more rigid while at the same time keeping the bag light in weight.
Think like a designer and be creative with the thread colour pathway and use a fun contrasting colour. This can bring a pop of style and pizzazz to your finished product. Add piping or cording for extra impact.
Lastly, I like to do topstitching by way of the saddle-stitch on hard-to-sew cut edge styles and for simple leather bag handles. This simple hand-stitch denotes high-quality workmanship on any bag design and is a very professional-looking embellishment and finish.
Here are some professional tips when topstitching:
- Top stitching thread is heavier gauge (weight) than conventional sewing machine thread; you use this thread in the top load of your machine and use regular sewing thread in the bobbin.
- 90/14 is a special needle sized for top stitching; it has a larger eye to accommodate the thicker thread gauge.
- Sometimes your project might work better with a different thread & needle for topstitching; make certain you choose your needle wisely.
- Take your time and test on a piece of scrap fabric first. Make sure you use the same number of layers in your test swatch as you’ll have in the finished project, and test out a few different threads, needles, and stitch types/lengths before you decide on the real deal. Taking the time to do this step is the difference between homemade and handmade.
- Top-stitch spacing from the edge is extremely important when applying. Consider using a seam guide tool for consistency. Speaking of consistency, to be harmonious in your overall design, your top-stitching should not be a hodgepodge of different stitches nor stitch lengths. Choose one style of top-stitching and use it throughout your design.
- Depending on the thickness of fabric layers, the tension may need adjusting. This is especially important with thicker materials such as canvas/leather. Again, it’s always important to do a test piece first.
- If you are using topstitching thread in the bobbin as well, you might want to get a second bobbincase dedicated solely to the heavier gauge thread. Your sewing machine dealer can help you with that and set the bobbin tension for you.
- If you’re using a thicker fabric or a lot of layers, position some scrap fabric under the back of your presser foot before you begin to sew. This allows the presser foot to remain straight, horizontally, so that it doesn’t have to “climb uphill” to begin sewing the bag.
- Don’t backstitch – at least, not in the traditional way. Instead of stitching back and forth a few times to begin and end your topstitching, first shorten your stitch length to something very short; backstitch just once back and forth, then lengthen your stitches and sew as normal. This creates a more subtle way to anchor your stitches.
- When you’re finished sewing, pull the top threads to the bottom or back of the work and tie them in a knot with the lower threads, then trim away loose ends.
- Stabilize fabrics as needed. Use tear-away stabilizer under the material and then tear it off when you’re finished sewing. Another option is to add a layer of interfacing between the fabric layers.
- Trim seam allowances before topstitching. This reduces the bulk of the fabric under the stitches, making it easier to get a smooth, even finish.
- Lastly, throw away the rule book and experiment with your decorative stitches!