When you are first starting to sew, one of the first things you need to know is what the most common sewing terms and definitions mean. Here are some of the sewing terms you are likely to come across in your first sewing projects.
Sewing Terms and Glossary
Many of these sewing terms and sewing words contain links to more detailed tutorials if you would like to learn more about sewing. I have included pictures with the sewing terminology.
- Meaning #1: Backstitch is used at the beginning and end of a machine sewn seam to keep it from unraveling. Just put your machine in a reverse position for a few stitches. (Read how to backstitch seams)
- Meaning #2: Backstitch can also refer to a style of hand stitching used to create strong seams. (Read how to hand sew backstitch)
Bias is the diagonal cross-grain of the fabric at a 45 degree angle. It is where there is the most stretch. Further Reading: Selvage, Grain and Bias
Bias Tape (also known as Bias Binding)
Bias tape is made from long strips of fabric cut on the bias. It is usually used to envelop the raw edge of a hem or seam, particularly in an armhole or neckline. It can be bought ready-cut or made from fabric or scraps to make a self-bias binding. Bias tape is used for bindings, facings, or other applications where there is a need for stretch or accommodation to curves. Bias is often used on the inside of a garment.
Further Reading on Bias Sewing Terms:
Blanket stitch is a hand embroidery stitch used on the edge of felt, wool, and blankets. It is made up of vertical stitches and a line of thread around the edge of the applique or fabric.
You clip after sewing curves by cutting a wedge out of the seam allowance along a seam so it lies flat and smooth when you turn the garment right side out.
A dart is a small pleat or tuck in the fabric to give the garment shape. It is typically used at the bust, armscye, and waist. Darts are marked in chalk then sewn. Further Reading: How to Sew Darts and Types of Darts.
A dressmaker dummy is a mannequin covered in fabric that is used to fit clothing. They may be a fixed size for creating samples of fully adjustable to match your body. Further Reading: Types of Dressmaker Dummies
To ease a pattern piece means to adjust a longer edge of fabric to a slightly shorter one in such a way that the gathers or pleats aren’t obvious. It is most commonly used when attaching sleeves to a bodice. Ease can also refer to the amount a garment is larger than your body. Further Reading: Fabric Drape and Ease
Edge-stitch (or Top Stitch)
To stitch very close to the edge of a folded or seamed edge in order to finish a project, offer stability or close an opening. It can be used for decorative effects and is usually 1/16” or 1mm from the edge. Further Reading: How to Topstitch
Finish (an edge)
Finishing an edge is done by zig-zag stitching, turning under ¼" (6mm), and stitching, serging, or other methods of finishing the edge so it doesn't unravel or cause a bulk problem. Further Reading: Easy Seam Finishes
A French seam is a method of encasing raw edges to create a durable seam that will not fray. It is best suited to straight edges such as those found on pillowslips. French seams are also the ideal edge finish for sheer fabrics. Further Reading: French Seams
Fusible Interfacing (webbing)
Fusible types of interfacing is able to be pressed on without having to use stitching. It is fused with heat-activated glue on one or both sides. Double-sided fusible interfacing is used a lot for appliqué. Further Reading: Types of Interfacing
Gathering is common in sewing vocabulary. It means that you can join a long piece of fabric with a shorter piece. To gather a piece, two parallel lines are sewn on the right side of the fabric, ¼" (6mm) apart. The long tails of the thread are left for gathering, and then the bobbin threads (on the wrong side of the fabric) are gently tugged, gathering the fabric evenly on the threads. Gathering can also be done with a special gathering presser foot.
Further Reading on Gathering Sewing Terms:
- How to Gather Fabric
- Hand Gathering
- Shirring (sewing with elastic thread)
- Gathering with a Serger
- Gathering with Cord
- Gathering with Elastic
- Gathering Tulle
- Gathering Foot
Grading a Seam
Grading a seam simply refers to cutting away some of the layers of the seam allowance to reduce bulk. Further Reading: How to Grade a Seam
The grain of the fabric follows the length of your fabric. When you lay out a pattern on your fabric you line the arrow on the pattern with the grain of the fabric. The grain is always parallel to the selvage. Further Reading: Selvage, Grain and Bias
A hem is usually made by turning up the raw edge twice. It hides the raw edges of a garment.
Further Reading on Hem Sewing Terms: More about sewing hems
- GENERAL HEMS – How to Sew a Hem
- NARROW HEMS – How to sew a narrow hem
- ROLLED HEM FOOT – How to use a rolled hem foot
- WIDE HEMS – How to sew wide hems
- CIRCULAR HEMS – How to sew circular hems
- BLIND HEMS – How to sew a blind hem | blind hem foot
- RUFFLED HEMS – Lettuce hems
- KNIT FABRIC HEMS – How to hem knit fabric
- KNIT HEMS – Twin Needle
- SQUARE HEMS – How to Sew Mitered Corners
Hooks and Eyes
Hooks and eyes are small metal fastenings used to close the openings of clothing. They are hand-sewn on and are often found at the tops of zippers on skirts and dresses. They are a great alternative to a button and buttonhole. Further Reading: Sewing Hook and Eyes
Interfacing is a material that is used between layers of fabric to stabilize and add thickness to a garment. It can be non-fusible, which must be sewn onto the fabric, or fusible, which is pressed to join it to the fabric. Further Reading: Types of Interfacing
Knit fabric stretches and so needs special needles and stitches when sewn.
- Sewing Stretch Fabric without a Serger
- Types of Knit Fabric
- Stretch Factor of Fabrics
- How to Gather Knit Fabric
- Sewing Stretch Fabric Hems
- How to Sew Fold Over Elastic
- How to use a Serger
- How to Sew with a Twin Needle
- Lettuce Hems
This is a hand stitch used to create invisible seams and close gaps. See slip stitch
Nap refers to a fabric with a one-direction pile or pattern. It must be cut in all the same direction and so often takes more fabric consumption. Examples of fabric with nap include corduroy, velvet and faux fur. Further Reading: Sewing with Napped Fabric
Needles are metal, long tools with a hole at one end and a point at the other. They are designed to use in sewing as a method of passing thread through a piece of fabric. Needles can be used for hand sewing or machine sewing. Further Reading: How to Thread a Needle, Hand Sewing Needles, Machine Needle Sizes.
A notch is a usually triangular piece cut outwards on the edge of a pattern piece. Sewing notches are used to match seams and fabric pieces together.
Pinking Shears have a V shape along the cutting edge and are used to cut fabric to prevent it from unraveling. Further Reading: Sewing Cutting
Pintucks are small, narrow pleats used for texture and design in clothing.
Piping is a decorative finish used on homewares such as cushions and on clothing. Bias tape covers a piece of rope to make a hardy and stiff border.
A raw edge is the cut edge of the fabric. The alternative to the raw edge is the selvage which is the edge that has been woven and does not fray. Further Reading: How to Stop Fraying
Right side of the fabric
The right side of the fabric is the top side of the fabric. It is usually printed and softer or smoother. Sometimes there is no difference between the right and wrong side of fabrics.
Ruching is a type of gathering used to create volume and design in clothing. Ruching can be created using elastic or a casing. Further Reading: Ruching
A running stitch is a simple up and down hand stitch than can be used for basting and seams. Further Reading: Running Stitch
A selvage is the edge along the width of fabric that is machine finished. It doesn’t fray and often has the manufacturer’s details on it. Further Reading: Selvage, Grain and Bias
Slip stitch (Ladder Stitch)
To slip stitch is to hand-sew a fabric or garment with stitches that are hidden or not very visible. Further Reading: How to Sew Invisible Stitch
The seam allowance is the area between the raw edge and the stitching line. Further Reading: How to Add Seam Allowances
A serger or overlocker is a sewing machine that cuts the raw edge of the fabric as you sew. It is used to finish seams and neaten the inside of garments.
Sewing is the art of joining pieces of fabric together with a needle and thread using stitches. It can be done either by using a hand technique or sewing machine.
This is the line that you actually sew on. It is usually ¼ inch (6mm), ½ inch (12mm) or ⅝ inch (1.5cm) from the raw edge. The stitching distance from the raw edge is called the seam allowance and will be specified in the pattern by the designer. Further Reading: How to Sew a Straight Seam
The stitch length is usually set at 2.5 for normal sewing and can be adjusted on your machine. If you are basting or gathering, then the stitch length should be set to 4.0.
A seam ripper is a small tool used for removing stitches. It is also called an unpicker in some countries. Further Reading: How to Use a Seam Ripper
A sewing machine is a specialty device used to join pieces of fabric together with thread. It produces durable, even stitches and is the fastest method of sewing. Further Reading: Types of Sewing Machine
Stay stitching is a line of stitching just inside the intended permanent stitching line on a curved edge that stabilizes and keeps the curve from stretching and distorting. Further Reading: How to Stay Stitch
Knit fabrics stretch by different amounts and as such as suitable for different projects. Stretch factor measures the amount of stretch in a knit fabric as a percentage. Further Reading: How to Measure Stretch Factor
Sewing machine tension refers to how easily the thread can pull through the machine to get even stitches on both top and bottom. It is usually adjusted from a knob at the front fo the sewing machine. Further Reading: Sewing Machine Tension
A thimble is a small device that fits over your finger to protect it from needle pricks when hand sewing. They can be made from metal, plastic, ceramic, or even leather. Further Reading: What is a Thimble
Sewing thread is a special yarn used to join pieces of fabric together. It may be made from various fibers but cotton and polyester are the most common. Further Reading: Sewing Thread Types
See edge stitch above. Topstitch is a row of stitching near the edge of an item that is both decorative and increases durability. Further Reading: How to Topstitch
To trim is to cut away the excess fabric. Trim is also any decorative item, ribbon, or lace that is put on a garment or craft item that is being sewn.
Twin Needle (Double Needle)
A twin or double-needle is used for sewing double rows of stitching on the hems of stretch fabric garments. Further Reading: How to Use a Twin Needle
Understitching is used to secure facings so that they don't lift up when worn. It allows facings to sit flat.
Woven fabric is created by weaving fibers together, usually on a loom. It will have horizontal and vertical fibers called warp and weft. It can be made from natural or synthetic fibers and is not stretchy unless another fiber, such as Spandex, is added to it.
The wrong side is the inside or back side of fabric. It is usually rougher or less finished. For printed fabric, the wrong side will look faded or lighter than the right side.
A stitch that goes one way (zig) and then the other (zag) and provides a nice finish to a seam to prevent unraveling. It can be a decorative addition to any garment and can allow for give with knits. In addition, it can be used for appliqué. Further Reading - Zig Zag Stitch
Sewing Terms - In Conclusion
I hope you enjoyed this beginner's guide to sewing terms. There are many other terms you will learn as you gain confidence in sewing. If you are stuck on any, please comment below, and I can add them in.