Basic Sewing terms
If you are new to sewing you may be confused by some of the sewing terms you see and hear. This post is meant to cover the most frequently used basic sewing terms. I am not including parts of your sewing machine or notions and tools. You can find those in my Getting to know your sewing machine post and Tools of Trade post.
Applique: Sewing a piece of fabric atop another after folding under a small bit of the fabric to create a clean edge. When done by machine, many use a satin stitch (tight zig zag). By hand, blind stitching is often used.
Back-stitch: Used at the beginning and end of a machine sewn seam to anchor the seam in place; it involves a couple of extra stitches back and forth. (Also known as back tacking.)
Bar tack: A group of closely sewn stitches (back and forth from side to side a la zig zag) that is used to tack a belt loop or similar item in place. This is not a basting stitch and should be repeated several times on the machine to make a very short run of satin stitching. It is also used at the end of a buttonhole for reinforcement. Sometimes used in the point of a V to reinforce.
Basting stitch or baste: Temporary stitching used to hold a sewing project in place and is removed when the permanent sewing is done.
Batting: Fiberfill, cotton, wool, or other material that is flattened and usually on a roll and purchased in precut lengths or by the yard. Uses of batting range from filling for placemats or vests to quilts. The British term for batting is wadding.
Bias: Runs diagonally to the straight grain of the fabric. This is the stretchiest part on the fabric.
Bias Tape: Bias tape or bias binding is a narrow strip of fabric, cut on the bias. The strip’s fibers, being at 45 degrees to the length of the strip, makes it stretchier as well as more fluid and more drape-able compared to a strip that is cut on grain. Many strips can be pieced together into a long “tape.” The tape’s width varies from about 1/2″ to about 3″ depending on applications. Bias tape is used in making piping, binding seams, finishing raw edges, etc. It is often used on the edges of quilts, placemats, and bibs, around armhole and neckline edges instead of a facing, and as a simple strap or tie for casual bags or clothing. Strips of fabric cut on the bias, often turned under and pressed, and used for bindings, facings, or other application where there is a need for stretch or accommodation to curves. Often found finishing the edge of a blanket or quilt.
Blind hem stitch: Sewing stitch that is not meant to be seen on the right side of the fabric, usually accomplished by picking up one thread of the fabric at a time rather than going through the full fabric to make a stitch. The best finish is done by hand, but many sewing machines come with a blind hem attachment and the manual is the best guide for how to use it and produce virtually invisible hems.
Buttonhole: A cut in the fabric that is bound with stitching, just large enough to allow a button to pass through. Buttonholes are mostly made by machine these days, but many people do still prefer to make them by hand, using a special buttonhole stitch.
Casing: Fabric envelope of sorts for en”casing” elastic, a drawstring, or similar material, usually along a waistline, cuff, hem. Elastic waist slacks have a casing into which the elastic is woven. Sweat pants have a turned up casing into through which elastic is encased (if there are not ribbed cuffs). Also the channel at the top of curtains through which the curtain rod is placed.
Clipping Curves: Methods vary from person to person, but to clip a curve keep in mind that an outside curve (shaped like an upside down U) needs to be clipped to within a breath of the seam line. An inside curve (shaped like a right side up U) can be either clipped or you can cut very small notches (V shape) out of the curve itself in order to have it lay flat and not make bunches when the project or garment is done. If you use a serger to finish your seams, clipping is not an issue.
Cutting Line: On a pattern, the outermost dark line is the line upon which you cut. Traditions vary; some people cut through the center of this line, others cut just to the outside of this line.
Drape: Hang of fabric on the body or dress form.
Ease: A way of sewing a length of fabric into a bit of a smaller space without resulting in gathers or puckers. Also – Seam addition that allows a garment to fit the body better.
Edgestitch: A stitch done a scant 1/8″ from the folded or seamed edge.
Facing: Fabric sewn on the raw edge of a garment piece that is turned under and serves as a finish for the edge as well.
Fat Quarter: Prior a quilting term, but often used for wearable art, vests, smaller garments, a fat quarter is 1/4 yard of fabric, about 18″ x 22″ as opposed to a regular 1/4 yard, which is 9″ x 45″. Fat quarters allow quick and colorful stash building.
Finger-Press: Using your fingers and pressure to open a seam that may not be suitable for pressing with an iron or a wooden block.
Fold Line: Many pattern pieces are placed on the fold of a piece of fabric. This is the actual fold of the fabric off the bolt or a fold of your own creation; the goal is to have a pattern piece that is cut out without a center seam.
Fusible webbing, interfacing: Has the characteristic of being able to be ironed on, usually permanently, with or without reinforcement by stitching, due to a heat-activated “glue” on one side. One brand of fusible used for applique application is Heat’n Bond. There are others that work as well.
French Seam: Completely enclosed seam. Used for sheer fabrics or for high couture.
Gather: Gathering allows for making a long piece of fabric to fit with a shorter piece of fabric and also is a method of easing a seam to allow insertion of sleeves and other rounded pattern pieces. When making an apron, there is a waistband that is the size of the person’s waist, plus some extra for tying the apron around the body. The apron itself usually is gathered, fluffy, almost pleated and has more fabric that flows from the waistband. The apron seam was gathered and then sewn to the waistline. To gather the seam, two parallel lines are sewn on the right side of the fabric, a scant 1/4″ apart. Long tails of thread are left for gathering. The bobbin threads (on the wrong side of the fabric) are held on either end of the seam and gently tugged, gathering the fabric evenly on the threads. Do not scrimp and only sew one thread of long length stitches; you will need both. (Gathering and easing are similiar, but not the same.)
Grain: Direction of the fabric that runs parallel to the selvage (a stretchier grain is found running perpendicular to the selvage). Commercial patterns have an arrow on them <—–> indicating direction of the grain to assist in laying out the pattern pieces correctly.
Hem: 1. Fabric that it turned up on the lower edge of a garment or sleeve to provide a finished edge. Often extra fabric is left in the hem with children’s clothing to allow for growth (especially skirts and slacks).
Inseam: Seam inside the leg of pants that runs from the crotch to the hem.
Interfacing: Interfacing is a common term for a variety of materials used on the unseen or “wrong” side of fabrics in sewing.
Lining: Used to finish the inside of a garment, to hide the seam construction, to allow for ease of putting a garment on or taking it off, and to provide decorative effect. A lining is cut of the same pattern pieces as the garment and often is made of “slippery” fabrics. It provides a minimal amount of warmth and usually extends the life of a garment. Linings should be washable if the garment is washable and should be prewashed.
Miter: Mitering a corner makes a smooth, tidy finish to a 90-degree corner, neatly squaring the corners while creating a diagonal seam from the point of the corner to the inside edge. Mitering is used for quilts corners, craft projects, some vests and jackets, and sometimes on collars.
Muslin: A generally inexpensive woven fabric used to make crafts, back quilts, or to make draft or trial garments.
Nap: Nap is the “fuzzy” part of a fabric that is usually directional in nature. Corderoy and velvet are good examples of fabric which has a nap or a pile. If smoothed with the hand in one direction, nap is typically shiny in one direction and not shiny in the other. When cutting out a pattern, care should be taken to keep fabric pieces going in the same direction nap-wise unless one is intentionally mixing naps and piles to produce a different kind of look.
Notch: Usually, the notch is shown on a pattern with a dark diamond. They are commonly cut outward and should be matched on seams when joining for sewing.
Pattern weights: Weights used on paper patterns instead of pinning a pattern to the fabric. I have a YouTube video where I show you how I made my cement pattern weights.
Pinning: You will use pins a lot while sewing. Pinning helps hold fabric in place before you sew it. When you pin you will want to place the pins so that you can sew through them without hitting the pin head or so that you can easily slide them out of the way as you sew towards them.
Pins: Pins are used for temporary basting of fabric. They are used to hold patterns in place while cutting and to hold fabrics together while stitching. It is not recommended to machine sew over pins as they have been known to break your sewing machine needle, jam the machine, or cause other problems. Care should be taken to use a pin that will not leave a large hole and to not leave pins in fabric too long; they could cause stains where they touch the fabric. My favorite ones are the Singer pearlized straight pens. They are just the right length and the pretty balls make them easy to see.
Pivot: To leave the needle in fabric, raise the presserfoot and turn the fabric at a 45 degree angle. Then lower the presserfoot and start sewing. Used to sew square seams.
Press: Using an iron in a press/pick up/move/press/… pattern. Pressing is not moving back and forth on fabric with the iron. Pressing is done “as you go” while creating a garment.
Prewashing: Washing fabric before using it for a garment or project to allow for any color bleeding and shrinkage. It is best to prewash the fabric as it is to be cleaned and dried when it is in its finished form. (Also known as preshrinking.)
Raw edge: The edge of fabric that is not stitched or finished.
Right side: The right side of the fabric is the design side. There are instances of fabric with no right or wrong side visible, and the determination and appropriate markings are then made by the person doing the pattern cutting and sewing.
Running Stitch: A simple stitch made by running the thread over and under the fabric. This stitch is often used for basting or as the basis (marking) for another more decorative stitch.
Satin Stitch: A very tight zig zag stitch that is available on most sewing machines. If it is not automatically available, the stitch length can be set to almost zero (0) to achieve a satin stitch with a plain zig zag machine.
Seam: The result when two pieces of fabric are sewn together along a line.
Seam Allowance: A seam allowance is the area between the edge of fabric and the stitching line on two (or more) pieces of material being stitched together. Seam allowances can range from 1/4 inch wide (6.35 mm) to as much as several inches. Commercial patterns for home sewers have seam allowances ranging from 1/4 inch to 5/8 inch.
Selvedge: Often marked with information from the manufacturer (color code, identifying data, etc.), this is the edge of the fabric which generally does not fray due to manufacturer’s finish. In most cases, this edge should not be included when you cut your fabric, as it may cause puckering of your seam later on.
Staystich: A line of stitching just inside the intended permanent stitching line (seam line) on curved edges that stabilizes and keeps the curve from distorting. The direction of the stay stitching is shown on the pattern. If not, it generally goes from shoulder to center on necklines. There are other indications for stay stitching, but this is one of the more common. If you do clip curves, use stay stitching first to guide the tip of your scissors – don’t cut beyond the stay stitching.
Stitch in the ditch: Stitching in the ditch is sometimes used as a method of understitching and also as a form of simple machine quilting for craft projects. It is a method of stitching in the seam itself (the ditch) in order to hold it down.
Stitch Length: In general, regular sewing is about 11-12 stitches per inch, basting/gathering/bunching/sleeve easing is about 6 stitches per inch (plus or minus 1 or 2 stitches for some applications). There are rare occasions when stitches need to exceed 12 per inch, but they are few. Stitch length for zig-zag is the same as with regular straight stitching; it refers to the number of stitches per inch. The scale varies from machine to machine, so be sure and check your manual. A satin stitch can be created using a zig-zag stitch length of zero.
Straight Stitch: Stitching made with single stitches moving in a line. This is the regular stitch (the lock stitch) that most sewing machines make and may or may not require a special presser foot.
Tacking: A temporary stitch to hold pieces together, usually removed after final stitching. Tacking is also known as a term for starting off a seam with a few stitches back and forth for stabilizing.
Top Stitch: A sometimes decorative, sometimes functional stitch that is usually 1/4″ from the edge of a seam. It is visible because it is done on the top of the item. For instance, once a vest is turned or a facing to a jacket is turned and pressed, one may stitch 1/4″ from the edge on the top of the garment to provide a bit of stabilization. This can be done in same or contrasting thread, depending on the decorative effect one wishes to achieve.
Trim seam allowances: Trim is a general term which includes rick rack, ribbon, laces, fringe, cording, and other decorative items used to embellish a garment. Trim is also used to define the act of trimming excess seam allowances or fabric with scissors.
Understitch: Keeps a facing or lining from rolling onto the right side of a garment. After pressing the seam allowance and facing away from the garment, stitch through both a scant 1/8″ from the seam. Some people grade the seam allowance and facing/lining prior to stitching to eliminate bulk.
Whipstitch: A simple running stitch used to hold two pieces of fabric together. Good for closing seams of leather, crochet/knit item, or the opening of a pillor that has been stuffed.
Wrong side: The wrong side of the fabric is the side upon which there is no decorative design, such as a print. There are instances of fabric with no wrong side visible, and the determination and appropriate markings are then made by the person doing the pattern cutting and sewing. Sometimes, people use the wrong side as the right side to mix things up a bit or to accent the right sided design.
Yoke: Usually found on Oxford shirts or western wear, this is the small panel of fabric that comes from the shoulders and down several inches, often decorative. It may be a part of the front as well, coming from the shoulders to the chest/pocket level of the shirt.
Zig-Zag: A stitch that goes one way (zig) and then the other (zag) and provides a nice finish to a seam to prevent raveling, can be a decorative addition to any garment, and can allow for give with knits. A very short to nonexistent stitch length with zig zag stitching is the same as a satin stitch. Stitch length for zig-zag is the same as with regular straight stitching; it refers to the number of stitches per inch. The scale varies from machine to machine, so be sure and check your manual. A satin stitch can be created using a zig-zag stitch length of zero.
Wow, I didn’t realize how many basic terms there are in a traditional sewing pattern or set of directions. I do plan on updating this as I come across ones that I think will be helpful to include. If you can think of something I need to add or have questions please leave me a comment!
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