If you’re a beginning sewer, you may feel like you’re reading a foreign language when trying to decipher the directions found on patterns, instruction manuals, or online projects. When used in the sewing world, some terms have a different meaning than in other applications.
Hopefully, the following glossary of 60 basic sewing terms will help you learn some of the unique, universal sewing terms. As you gain experience, you can expect to continue adding to your vocabulary for more specialized or intricate projects.
Basic Sewing Terms For Beginners
There are two types of backstitches. When machine sewing, a backstitch is a reverse stitch often used at the end or beginning of a seam to ” knot” the thread. Machines have an easily-accessed button or lever for backstitching.
There is also a hand-sewn backstitch. This stitch has uses in sewing and embroidery and is one of the essential hand stitches to be familiar with.
Basting uses a long, loose stitch to hold fabric pieces together before permanently machine sewing them. Baste stitches can be either hand or machine-made.
Batting is a flat piece of cushioning between the fabric layers of a quilt to add thickness and warmth.
The bias is a diagonal line across the length of a piece of fabric. Bias cuts allow the fabric to stretch along the curves of necklines and armholes.
Binding, or bias tape, is a folded, diagonally cut fabric strip used to cover the edges of fabric. It is chiefly used for outward-facing seams on bags or blankets. Contrasting binding is also used to embellish garments or crafts.
A bolt is a length of fabric, usually wrapped around a cardboard center, to display for sale.
A blanket stitch is a basic embroidery stitch used to bind the edges of blankets or other projects. The stitch is also an option on many sewing machines.
Sewing machines all require a bobbin–a small spool filled with thread then inserted to supply the bottom thread while sewing.
A button band (stand) consists of two separate pieces for inserting buttons and buttonholes. Button bands are used for sewn garments and knitted/crocheted items. A partial button band (just one side) is called a placket.
Casing is formed by folding over a flap of fabric and sewing it down to create an empty tube. Casings are used to insert elastic, a curtain rod, or a drawstring.
Some patterns contain instructions to clip curved seams in order to fit them in place without puckering. Clip by snipping the seam allowance toward the stitching without crossing it.
Cording is made by inserting a cord into a folded, bias-cut strip of fabric. Cording is added as an embellishment to cushions, upholstery, pillows, and some garments.
The crossgrain is an imaginary line running perpendicular (45°) from the selvage edge.
A cutting mat has a self-healing surface, generally some type of plastic with a printed grid. Cutting mats are ideal for using cutting disks and for accurately cutting straight lines. Cutting mats come in a wide variety of sizes, from lap-mats to table-sized.
Cut on fold
This term describes a pattern piece lined up along the folded edge of the fabric and cut out on all sides except along the fold. The piece is then opened up to reveal a large pattern piece.
Darts help shape fitted garments with elongated, triangle-shaped folds.
A double-fold hem is created by folding the desired hem up toward the inside of the garment, then folding under a small amount of the raw edge again on the inside before stitching.
Ease, or easing in, is adjusting two different lengths of fabric together so that they match without obvious creases. Easing is most often used when fitting a curved with a straight pattern piece.
You might sometimes read about a garment having “negative ease.” Negative ease refers to snug, stretchy fabric that moves, or eases, with body movement. Leggings and tank tops have negative ease.
An edge, or topstitch, finishes and adds stability to a seam edge or facing. Edgstitching is sewn 1/16” from the seam or edge on the right side of the fabric. A second decorative stitch can be added ¼” from the first for a decorative effect.
A facing is a narrow, matching piece of fabric used to finish, stabilize, and strengthen raw edges. Facings are used most often around neck and arm openings.
Feed dogs are found beneath the presser foot of a sewing machine and feed the fabric evenly through the needle area. Feed dogs have metal “teeth” for grabbing the material and moving it along.
Filler or wadding
Filler, or wadding, is used to stuff sewing projects such as pillows or stuffed animals. The most common filler in retail stores is polyfill, a loose, synthetic fiber.
A french seam is a vintage way of hiding raw edges without serging or other stitches. The raw edges are hidden within the seam. French seams are often used in formalwear such as prom or wedding dresses.
Pattern instructions may suggest “finger pressing” a seam or fold. This means pressing the fabric in the desired direction with your fingers only, without the use of an iron.
Gathering, or ruching, is used to add fullness to a garment. Gathering is used to create ruffles on garments, pillows, or curtains. Gathers are formed by sewing two parallel lines of loose stitches, then pulling one row of stitches at a time to bunch up the fabric.
When dealing with multiple layers of fabric, grading the seam can help remove some of the bulk. Starting with the last layer, trim each layer progressively narrower.
The grain refers to the direction of the weave of the material. The grain runs either parallel or perpendicular to the selvage edge. Pattern pieces often have a line with arrows at each end. The line needs to follow the grainline of the fabric for proper fit.
The hem is the finished bottom edge of fabric, whether it’s a dress, pants, sleeves, curtains, etc.
Interfacing is a stabilizing web or mesh added between layers of fabric. Interfacing is available in varying weights and can be either sew-in or fusible (iron-on). As its name suggests, interfacing is often added to facings for a stronger, neater finish.
A lining is an inner layer of fabric, cut exactly like the outer layer but of contrasting, usually lighter-weight fabric. Linings are found in formal suit coats or outerwear, though almost any garment could be lined if desired. Large drapes are also often lined to lessen the amount of light allowed in and add insulation.
Pattern symbols are transferred onto the fabric by marking or pinning. Marks can be made with tailor’s chalk, fabric markers, pins, or transfer paper.
Nap is a texture on the surface of fabric. If the nap flows in one direction, all the pattern pieces will need to be cut to flow in the same direction. A nap may be fuzzy, velvety, or a raised pattern on the material.
The accessories other than fabric needed to complete a pattern, such as buttons, zippers, etc. Notions are listed on the back of the pattern, so you can pick them up when you buy your fabric and pattern.
An overlay is an extra layer of fabric laid over the base layer. It may be a shear or contrasting fabric.
Pinking shears cut a zigzag edge to prevent or slow down raveling. Using pinking shears is called pinking.
Small, narrow, close-set pleats used mainly for embellishment.
A pleat is a fold (or pinch) of fabric that is then sewn flat. Knife pleats are folds of the same size that all face the same direction. Box pleats are pleats of the same size facing opposite directions.
A press cloth is a piece of muslin or similar fabric placed over the material you are ironing to protect it. Press cloth is used for fabric that may be marked by the iron or is sensitive to heat. A press cloth may also be helpful when adding iron-on embellishments.
The presser (or pressure) foot is the part of the sewing machine that presses the fabric down on the feed dogs and holds it steady for the needle. There are many specialized presser feet, such as a buttonhole foot, regular or invisible zipper foot, or walking foot.
Any unsewn fabric edge other than the selvage edge is a raw edge.
The fabric’s right side (or facing side) is the side facing outward for all to see.
A running stitch is the easiest of hand stitches. It consists of simply weaving the needle in and out of the fabric in a straight line. Running stitches are used for hand basting and gathering.
Wherever material is joined together is a seam. In sewing, a seam is a line of stitches on the wrong side of the fabric and the line where the fabric is joined on the right side.
The seam allowance is the width of the fabric between the stitching and the edge of the material.
Selvages are the factory-finished edges of any fabric. Selvage edges will not ravel or fray, and they indicate the grain length of the material.
A slip, or ladder, stitch is an almost invisible hand stitch used for hems or other hand stitching.
A stay stitch is a straight stitch sewn along or just outside (toward the edge) of a seam line on a single pattern piece to stabilize material or a curve before sewing two pieces together.
Stitch in the ditch
To tack down a facing or cuff from the outside of the garment, stitches can be added directly in an existing seam line, or “ditch.” Pull the sides slightly apart while stitching to hide the tack when they come back together.
Stitch length is a machine adjustment determining how many stitches per inch (or centimeters). Refer to your owner’s manual for how to properly adjust your stitch length.
The most basic machine stitch. A straight stitch produces a line of stitching for assembling pattern pieces or topstitching.
The stretch factor is the percentage a knit fabric can stretch. For instance, if it can be easily stretched to twice its length, it has a 100% stretch factor. It has a 50% stretch factor if it stretches half its length, etc.
Tacking is usually done by hand, although it can be done with a stitch in the ditch. Tacking is long, loose stitching to hold down a facing or other parts of a garment. Tacking can be temporary or permanent, as needed.
Tailor’s tack is loose stitching used to transfer pattern markings, such as darts or fold lines, to the fabric.
Tailor’s or Dressmaker’s ham
A tailor/dressmaker’s ham is a stiffly stuffed, ham-shaped cushion. By inserting a ham, sleeves or other rounded parts of a garment can be ironed without making an unwanted pressed line.
When a sewing machine is set to the correct tension, stitching on the top of the fabric should not appear on the bottom, and vice versa. The owner’s manual will help explain how to properly adjust tension, which may be needed when changing stitches or fabric thickness.
Understitching is used to anchor linings or facings toward the inside of a garment. Pull the facing out flat. Then press the seam allowance towards the facing. Stitch through the seam allowance and facing together, close to the seam. Press the facing under to finish the process.
Warp is the lengthwise threads of woven fabric. Warp threads run parallel to the selvage edge.
Weft is the crosswise threads of woven fabric. Weft threads run 90° from the warp.
The fabric side that faces the inside of the garment or that is not seen from the front, is the wrong side.
Zigzag stitches are used to finish raw edges, for buttonholes, or to sew stretchy fabric. Zigzag stitches are formed with a back and forth motion of the needle as the fabric is pulled through the machine.