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What Is a Topstitch?

By Maggie Worth
Updated Feb 19, 2024
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A topstitch is a sewing stitch that is placed on the outer surface of the material, usually at a seam. The thread used to create the stitch is then visible against the fabric. It contrasts with an understitch, which is placed on an interior surface that does not show. Topstitches are usually used to create a distinct decorative effect, but do have functional benefits as well. Such stitches appear in a wide array of finished goods, including apparel, linens, purses, bags and shoes.

The most common placement of a topstitch is at a seam or hem. The primary intent is to make the piece appear neat and finished, but the process also reinforces the seam. Topstitching may be done with a thread that closely matches the fabric so that it blends in, creating a subtle, but polished look. This is a common procedure in high-end garments and business attire, such as suits and dress shirts. It is also common in linens, such as sheets, pillowcases and tablecloths.

Used as a decorative element, a topstitch may be executed using a thread that contrasts with the fabric. Such is often the case with denim garments, which often feature the stitch in a white or pale thread that contrasts sharply with dark denims. Denim jeans often feature topstitching at the waistband and pockets and, sometimes, at the outer leg seams and hemlines. Denim jackets may use this technique at the cuffs, pockets, hem, and fasteners. A topstitch with heavy contrast can also be a brand signature.

The length of a topstitch can also vary the finished appearance of a piece. Short topstitches, placed close together, create a very different look than long topstitches with significant gaps between stitches. Some designers alternate short and long stitches in a preset pattern to create a distinctive appearance. Others create multiple parallel lines of topstitching as a signature mark.

A seamstress can create a topstitch by hand or using a sewing machine. Machines are generally quicker and produce more even stitches, but care must be taken not to “catch” the under seam, as this can cause the thread to tangle and the machine to bind. Sewing by hand can be a finicky and time-consuming process, especially when dealing with heavy materials such as denim or delicate fabrics such as silk. This is one reason why hand-sewn boutique or couture garments featuring topstitching are far pricier than their mass-produced equivalents.

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