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Machine Top Sewing With a Zig Zag Stitch
There are many uses for top stitching on fabric using your zig zag sewing machine. In this example, I am creating a Christmas quilt using fused applique pieces. To keep the quilt in top condition with use and with repeated washing, the individual pieces and edges all need to be permanently sewn down to prevent fraying and lifting.
My favorite machine stitching method for this is to use a very simple zig zag stitch. I don’t have a newer model machine and it doesn’t do any fancy stitches, but this zig zag stitch would still be my favorite, even if it did have dozens of fancy stitches. The simple zig zag lets the fabric be the star and frankly, it is super easy to master.
I like how the stitches make the quilt stronger and it is very quick to do.
Best Hints for Top Stitching Success
I have created 7 steps that you need to know to make it turn out the very best.
- Make sure you are using a Top Stitching needle in your machine. I tried several other needles, and they were a disaster! I was beginning to think my machine was broken, or needed a major tune up. I Put in a new Top Stitching needle and voila, it came out perfectly. It has a longer needle hole and an extra sharp point.
I use these needles:
Topstitch Machine Needle-Size 90/14 5/Pkg
- Use a good quality thread in the bobbin that matches the thread you are using on top. Here I am using the thread recommended by the quilt kit that I’m using. It is Sulky 50 weight and I used a matching Sulky 50 weight black in the bobbin and changed colors of the top each time the background fabric changed.
- Make sure your applique pieces are firmly ironed down to your fabric before you attempt sewing. If you don’t use fusible web, then you’ll need to baste stitch each edge down before you begin machine stitching.
- Always do a test run on similar fabrics and test your tensions before you begin.
- Hold your threads in back of your work before you begin stitching.
Note: the anchor stitch feature on my machine is broken, so I just manually stitch in place a few stitches before I start a run of stitches, but if your machine has a stitch anchor feature, I highly recommend using it! It will keep your beginning stitches from unravelling.
- Get in the habit of leaving your needle down into the fabric when you stop. You never know when you’ll get interrupted and have to leave off in the middle of a run. If you don’t leave the needle down to hold your spot, the fabric may shift and you’ll end up with an unsightly gap in your stitches that you’ll have to unpick and redo.
- You can use a polymer thread that is clear (think like fishing line) and made just for machine sewing. I have used it and enjoy the look, however, knotting the ends is problematic and I found that the end stitches gradually came loose from washings, and then I had little plastic pokies! It is intentionally invisible…which created it’s own unique problems: I would find long trails of it in the quilt months later that I had forgotten to clip off.
It would work well for a wall hanging though, that wasn’t washed very often at all.
Here is a short video I made on how I turn a corner:
Here’s the finished corner:
I like my zig zag stitches fairly close together, as I want my quilts to survive many washings in the washing machine without any stray fibers coming through the stitches. If I wanted the stitching to be a show -stopper, I would narrow the distance between the stitches down to buttonhole width. It looks stunning with a thicker thread or a glossy thread. But it takes a lot of time and ends up being part of the art of the finished quilt. Here, I just want to safely anchor my applique and have the stitches be unobtrusive.
Ending The Stitch Runs
I use two different ways to end my stitching. When I just want a serviceable anchor, I will manually backup a couple of stitches and go over the last few stitches again, to give it extra strength. For a non-heirloom quilt, I’m fine with that look.
When I DO want a more heirloom finish, and I want the ending to be invisible, I will stop my stitch a the exact perfect location, leaving a long tail of thread like here:
Then I turn the fabric over to the backside and pull the backside thread up to the side so that a loop of the front thread is visible. I know it’s hard to see my black thread, but the important part is the green thread:
Then insert a straight pin into that loop and draw the right side thread into the back. Tie a secure knot, and add a tiny dot of Fray Check glue.
I like this one:
Collins Fray Check Liquid Seam Sealant
OR, if I’m creating a masterpiece heirloom, and I want an invisible hand finish, I’ll tie a secure knot then thread a needle with both of the front and back threads, push the needle to the right side of the fabric at the exact ending point of the stitches then push the needle back under the stitching to bury all evidence of the knot tails and clip the threads close to the surface. In all honesty, I would only do this if I was going to try and enter my quilt in a contest. I’m just not that into perfection in every tiny detail when I’m making serviceable quilts or wall hangings.
In the sample below, you can see evidence of my forward/backward ending anchors on the raspberry pink stitches. It fits my level of acceptance for a family use quilt and is super fast. The pale pink ones were draughn to the back and knotted then glued for extra measure.
Let us know in the comments below if you would like to see a tutorial on button hole hand stitched applique or needle turn applique!
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