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Welcome back to the Learn to Machine Sew course for beginners, in which I teach the basics of machine sewing, with a technical lesson and a useful tutorial for each technique. It’s been a few months since our last lesson, so if you need to brush up on some basics, check out the course syllabus. Today we’re going to talk about one of the most important techniques in sewing that you will come across over and over again: turning and topstitching. In our last lesson we talked about seam allowance, which is essential to turn and topstitch properly, so I recommend you go over that lesson if necessary.
Up til now, we’ve been sewing on the right side of the fabric (see here for more information on the right/wrong sides of fabric). It is often necessary to sew on the right side, but this can be problematic if we want to hide the stitching and/or fabric edges. Remember that most fabrics fray if you leave their edges exposed, so you need to take measures to avoid this, especially if you’re planning on washing the sewn item (unless, of course, you want the edges to fray for design reasons). (Read more here about the characteristics of different fabrics.) The most common way to deal with these issues is to turn and topstitch. Let me show you how it works and how to get around some difficulties in more complicated cases:
Get out some scrap woven cotton fabric. I cut up an old apron with paint stains on it. Cut out two rectangles of the same size.
Pin them together, right sides facing. (This is an expression used constantly in sewing instructions. It means that the right sides of the fabric pieces are touching on the inside, while the wrong sides are on the outside.) This may seem odd at first, but don’t worry– the right side will face out in the end.
Sew down one long side with a straight stitch. When following a sewing pattern or instructions, you need to use the indicated seam allowance. I prefer to use a 1 cm (3/8″) seam allowance, so that’s what I use in this lesson. Remember to backstitch at the beginning and end of the stitching.
Here’s a little trick for you! If you position your fabric with the needle right at the edge of the fabric, it can get caught up in the feed dogs. What I suggest doing is to position the fabric with the needle slightly further in, just enough to cover the feed dogs completely, as seen in the top photo above. Backstitch to the fabric edge (bottom photo above), and then continue sewing normally.
Sew right up to your pins, then remove them before they go under the presser foot. Some people like to sew right over pins, but I try not to because it can create bumps in the stitching, get stuck or bend the needle.
Now that you have a nice straight line of stitching going across one side (top photo above), flip the fabric around the right way out (bottom photo above). Press (the sewing term for ironing) the fabric flat at the seam. Now, I HATE ironing and avoid it as much as possible. But trust me, your topstitched work will most likely look like crap if you don’t iron, so just DO IT!!
You’ve now “turned” your work, and often that’s all that you’ll need to do. But if you want your seam to stay perfectly flat, you need to topstitch it. To do this, sew down the same long edge of the fabric, this time on the right side, positioning the ironed fold at the right seam allowance marker. To make things more simple for now, use a 1 cm (3/8″) seam allowance again. You will now have one line of visible stitches running parallel to the first line of stitches hidden inside the fabric fold.
Here I’ve used the same stitch length for the original stitching and the topstitching, but frequently a longer stitch length is used for topstitching.
Congratulations! You’ve just turned and topstitched! This is a very important skill to know in sewing. But guess what? You won’t only be sewing isolated straight lines, so let’s get into some more complicated situations and learn how to deal with them.
Let’s start with corners. Cut out a couple of squares of fabric of the same size. As before, pin the pieces together, right sides facing, and sew along three sides.
When you turn and topstitch outer corners, you need to clip the corners. That is generally done with a simple diagonal cut, coming as close as possible to the stitched corner, as seen at left in the photo above. Another option is to make two diagonal cuts, as seen at right in the photo above. This is more common in the case of tighter corners, but you can also do it with 90° corners like these.
Why do you need to do this? Remember that, upon turning the fabric right side out, the seam allowances will end up on the inside. However there is less space inside a corner, so the seam allowance around the corner would end up all bunched up inside the corner. As a result, the corner will not lay as flat and will be excessively bulky.
Turn the piece right side out through the opening in the 4th side. As much as you poke and prod the corners from the inside with your fingers, it can be hard to pop them out completely. Help yourself with a chopstick or any other long, thin object with a blunt tip. (I use the stick of my tube turning tool, which you can see in action here.) After poking the corners out all the way, your corners might look too pointy, but don’t worry, they’ll look normal after pressing!
Let me show you the difference between when you do or don’t clip corners. In this case, the bulk isn’t too bad because the fabric is relatively thin, but if I were to topstitch, it would be hard to get over the excess fabric inside and the stitching would be messy-looking. The thicker your fabric is, the more important it is to clip corners.
Now let’s imagine you’re turning inner corners. Cut out two pieces of fabric with some sort of L-shaped corners. My shape above has both inner and outer corners. Pin them right sides together and sew along the edges, leaving at least one open for turning.
Clip any outer corners as we did before. Cut directly into any L-shaped inner corner. In this case, they are indicated by arrows.
It is very important that the cut goes as frightening close as possible to the stitching. If you do accidentally cut into the stitching, go back and sew just outside the previous stitches, away from the cut.
Why is it so important to cut as close as possible to the seam? In the case of outer corners, the seam allowances get turned into a smaller space. In the case of inner corners, the seam allowances get turned into a larger space. Which seems like it would be better, but it isn’t because the seam allowances need to make the curve around the corner, but they aren’t long enough to do it. As a result, the fabric bunches up in a terrible way if you don’t cut into the corners.
If you don’t cut into the seam allowance of inner corners, the fabric won’t even lay flat once it’s turned.
As a result, it isn’t a nice tight corner, it looks awful, and you can’t topstitch over it. Even if you cut into the corner, but not close enough to the stitching, there will be problems turning it. If you find that your corner won’t lay flat after turning it, turn it back inside out and cut a little bit closer to the seam.
The same principles apply to curves. Cut out two pieces of fabric with a wavy edge (the easiest way to do this is to fold the fabric in half, right sides facing, and then cut out the shape), pin them together, right sides facing, and sew along the curves.
Cut triangular notches into convex curves (the ones that go out) and cut straight towards the stitching of concave curves (the ones that go in).
Let’s look closer. Convex curves are similar to outer corners, but one diagonal cut wouldn’t be enough. You therefore have to cut triangular notches in the seam allowance to reduce the bulk. Note that the more notches you cut, the smoother the curve will be upon turning because the base of each triangle of seam allowance will turn as a flat fold.
In the case of concave curves, you need to make it possible for the seam allowances to stretch around the curve, so you must cut straight into the seam allowance towards the stitching. As with convex curves, the more cuts you make, the smoother the curve will be upon turning.
Here’s the difference between curves that have been clipped and notched and those that haven’t. Notice that the curves are not smooth and that they do not lay flat. These problems are worsened with tighter curves and thicker fabric.
Having a hard time remembering the different ways of clipping/cutting/notching corners and curves ? Here’s a little cheat sheet to help keep them straight! You can download the file by clicking on the image above or through my free download page.
Once you’ve finished clipping and turning your fabric, iron it flat and topstitch with the desired seam allowance. I always adjust and iron corners and curves first, then remaining straight seams, and finally the remaining fabric.
In these examples, I used a 1 cm (3/8″) seam allowance. But sometimes you’ll prefer a smaller seam allowance to be less noticeable.
Here are some tricks to sewing with a smaller seam allowance. One simple way is to align the right edge of the fabric with the right edge of the presser foot.
To make the seam allowance even smaller, also move the needle over to the right.
But the best way to get the smallest and most even seam allowance is to use an adjustable blind hem foot.
Remove your regular sewing machine foot and attach the blind hem foot. Some blind hem feet are one piece and cannot be adjusted. Mine has a little screw that lets you move the guide from side to side. So what I do is position the fabric with the needle as far away as I want it from the fabric edge, lower the needle to keep the fabric in place, and adjust the blind hem foot so that the guide is right against the fabric edge. As you sew, the fabric gets pulled along this guide so that the seam allowance is perfect. It is very hard to sew with very small seam allowances without this type of foot.
Look at the difference between a 1 cm (3/8″) seam allowance and a 2 mm seam allowance. The smaller one is more delicate-looking and less noticable.
Let’s deal with one more situation. What if you want to turn and topstitch all edges of an item, without leaving any openings? Easy peasy! Pin together another two rectangles of fabric, right sides facing. In order to turn sewing, you must have an opening somewhere. How big it must be depends on the item’s size, the type of fabric, the shape and the number of layers. In this case we’ll leave about 5 cm (2″) open. I like to mark where my opening will be with double pins.
Note that it’s always preferable to leave the opening along a straight edge and in the least noticeable area of the item (such as on the bottom), if possible.
Start sewing at the second set of double pins. Sew all around the shape and stop at the first set of double pins. Remember to backstitch at the beginning and end of the stitching!
You can see the space left in the stitching. Clip the corners before turning.
After turning, make sure that the fabric at the opening is folded inward.
Iron the fabric, making sure that the two folds in the opening are lined up. Then topstitch with a small seam allowance. The topstitching seam allowance MUST be smaller than the original stitching seam allowance, or else the opening will not get closed up in the topstitching. In this case I moved my needle to the right and aligned the fabric with the right edge of the presser foot, but it would’ve looked nicer if I’d used the blind hem foot.
This is where the opening used to be. You can see that the fabric does still open a little bit, but the fabric edges are completely enclosed inside, so the rectangle is completely closed.
Phew! That was a lot of information, wasn’t it?! But now that you know how to turn and topstitch, you’re ready to do a whole plethora of sewing projects! And in the next couple of days I’ll have the tutorial for this lesson ready: a simple project using turning and topstitching, in addition to any of the techniques we’ve covered so far in this course! So stay tuned! (edit: here’s the tutorial for this lesson… turned and topstitched potholders!)
Did you enjoy this lesson ? Take a look at the other lessons in this beginner’s sewing course!
Question of the day: Did you find this lesson useful?
I don’t like asking questions like this or going into detail about the behind-the-scenes, but for real, I’d love to know! I spend a lot of time on my posts and even more on my tutorials, but this has probably been my most labor-intensive one yet. Nearly 50 photos included (never mind how many didn’t get included!) which had to be taken, chosen and edited; a downloadable cheat sheet that I created in Illustrator; text, photos, graphics and links translated in two languages… phew!! So if you enjoyed this lesson, please leave me a comment below. Knowing that the time and effort spent on posts is appreciated gives me the motivation to keep on doing it!