Sewing Terms and Definitions guide

Sewing Terminology

In sewing just like anything else you do, it is essential to know and understand some of the basic sewing terms and definitions.  Some of the first terms you should be familiar with are measurement terms.

In different sewing patterns you will mostly see will have the seam allowance to be 5/8″ which is also 1.5cm.  The 15 on the metal stitch plate or needle plate this is representing 15mm, which is the same as 5/8″ and 1.5cm.  On occasion, there are different seam allowances that you will be using.  Also, read the instructions for each pattern and see what seam allowance is required.

Sewing measurements mix both the US and metric rulers.

Measurement sewing terms

  • Yard – this refers to a measurement.  One yard equals 36 inches (3 feet).
  • Meter – is one yard plus 3 inches.  A total of 39 inches.
  • Centimeters (cm) – are a metric unit of measurement.
  • Millimeters (mm) – are another metric unit of measurement.  The conversion for 10 millimeters is equal to 1 centimeter.
  • Inches –  the US unit of measurement.

Fabric sewing terms

  • Selvage – Is the edge of the woven fabric that prevents it from unraveling.
  • Bias – When used in sewing terms refers to the diagonal direction of the woven fabric.  Bias has the most amount of stretch because it is at a 45-degree angle to the grain and cross grain.
  • Grainline – Is the lengthwise grain line that runs parallel to the selvage.  Sewing pattern pieces will always have you place it along the grain line.  Thus to make sure the fabric will hang correctly when it is cut and sewn together.
  • Cross grain – Is perpendicular to the grain line/ selvage.
  • Nap – Directionality of how the woven fabric is made. A noticeable fabric with a nap is velvet.
  • Warp – The lengthwise direction the thread is woven that runs parallel to the selvage.  These are the threads that run the length of the fabric.
  • Weft – The crosswise direction the thread is woven that runs perpendicular to the selvage.  These are the threads that run selvage to selvage.
  • Pre-shrink – Washing and drying the fabric before beginning your project.
  • Interfacing – This can be a sewn-in or a fusible type of stabilizer you add to the back of certain pieces of fabric in garment and other sewing construction.  You place interfacing on the inside (wrong side of the fabric) so that it isn’t seen.  It gives the fabric shape, helps to reinforce and give structure.
  • Raw edge / Unfinished edge – The cut edge of the fabric.  Often the fabric will start to fray.

Stitching sewing terms

  • Basting – Temporary stitches that are sewn by hand or machine.  These stitches are meant temporary hold fabric into place while having the final stitching applied.  This type of stitching is to be taken out when the final stitching is done.
  • Reverse / Back stitching – At the beginning or the end of a seam where you go in the reverse direction to anchor the stitching thread to the fabric.  Therefore you are essentially creating a knot in the thread to keep your stitches from unraveling and coming loose.
  • Hem stitch – Is a type of finishing stitch you use to keep the fabric from unraveling or fraying.  It also creates a finish to the edge of the fabric.
  • Straight stitch – Almost all sewing machines will create this basic type of stitch.  It is a single line of stitching when two threads are used to create this stitch.  This includes the bobbin and top spool of thread.
  • Stitch length – In all different types of stitches you will always have a stitch length.  Each type stitch has a standard length.  These can vary by fabric type and thread you are using.
  • Zig-zag stitch – This stitch is like a sideways V all connected running the length of the fabric.  The width of the zig-zag can be adjusted as well as the length.  If you adjust the length to be shorter then you will get a satin type, thicker stitching.  This can be used to roughly finish edges of fabric to keep them from unraveling.  Another great use for this type of stitch is for stretchy material.
  • Stitch width – Is how wide a stitch is.  The higher the number on the stitch width the wider it will be.  This is used in doing a zip-zag stitch as well as many other stitches.

More stitch sewing terms

  • Slip stitch – This is an almost invisible stitch you can use to join two pieces of fabric.  It is also good to use this stitch when a single piece of fabric is folded over to create an edge.   This stitch holds that fold down in place.
  • Stay stitch – Is a running straight stitch that runs close to the edge of the fabric.  It is between the edge and the actual seam.  You use this stitch to help stabilize the edge and keep the fabric from stretching.
  • Double stitch seam – This is a type of reinforced stitch.  It is a straight stitched used to give more strength to the original seam when a second seam in sewn on top of the first.
  • Blind hem – With this type of stitch you need to use a special setting on the machine as well as a special foot.  When you fold the fabric correctly and place it under the sewing machine foot, it will create a hidden/ mostly hidden hemming stitch.  This one definitely takes some practice.
  • Darning – A technique you use to mind holes in fabrics.  It consists of a lot of stitches going in different directions over and over.

Machine sewing terms

  • Presser foot pressure – This is what holds the fabric down on the machine against the feed dogs.
  • Sewing thread tension – This dial is used to loosen or tighten up the amount of pressure that is placed on the thread as it goes through the sewing machine.  Too tight of tension will make the thread pucker the fabric and too loose will create thread loops on the material.
  • Feed dogs / Feed teeth – Sit beneath the pressure foot.  These teeth move in an up and down square-like motion that feeds the fabric through the sewing machine.  Also, they can be dropped down into the sewing machine for darning and free-motion sewing.

More machine terminology

  • Needle position – On a sewing machine this is where the needle will stop when you stop sewing.  Some machines you can set it to automatically stop in the up or completely down position.  This is useful when turning corners while sewing. Therefore it also will help keep your fabric from shifting when you stop to get another hold on the fabric while feeding it through the sewing machine.
  • Stitch plate – This is the metal plate that the feed dogs come up through and that the needle goes down into.  You can have a single hole needle stitch plate and regular one.  The regular one comes with the machine and can handle any of the stitches you select on your sewing machine.  The single hole is for when you are quilting mainly.  It will create a more exact stitch on the fabric because it pushes less fabric into the bobbin compartment when stitching.
  • Bobbin – Small metal or plastic spool that you wind from a large spool of thread that goes into the base of the sewing machine.
  • Bobbin compartment – Depending on what type of sewing machine you have, this compartment will either be a top loading or front loading bobbin.

Pattern sewing terms

  • Body Measurements – Different measurements you will take and use to cut out and sew a pattern.
    • Bustline – Measure around the body at the busts most predominant point.
    • Waistline – Taken around the body at the naval (belly button).
    • Hipline – This measurement is taken around the largest part of the hips.
    • Back waist length – Start by measuring from the top of the shoulders on the neck down to the waist line.  This is also called the trunk length.
    • Inseam – The measurement from the crotchline down the inside of the leg to the ankle.
  • Cutting lines – On a pattern, this is the solid line that you will cut on with the pattern and the fabric together.
  • Notch – Markings on a pattern that is in the shape of a triangle or a diamond usually.  These marks are where different pattern pieces will line up when they are sewn together.
  • Pattern layout – When laying out pattern pieces on a piece of fabric you will have to place them in different orientations and sides according to the pattern instructions.  Each pattern piece for the right and wrong side of the patterns will be shaded a different color.  As well as, the right and wrong side of the fabric.

Additional patterning terms

  • Ease – Is the difference between body measurements and the pattern measurements.  Also, it is the term for when you sew in a sleeve which is slightly longer than the the part it is being sewn onto.
  • Drape – When using a dress form, this is the technique that you use to place fabric onto the form.  This is a type of pattern making by draping the fabric to the form to create the garment instead of using pattern pieces to create it.
  • Facing – With the lining on an armhole, neckline or front placket you will need to finish off this part.  This is called the facing.
  • Muslin – An unbleached cotton fabric.  Also what designers use to describe a test garment sewn with this fabric.  It’s like a mockup of the finished garment.
  • Sloper – Is a master pattern that you use to create a perfect fit.  Much like a muslin but more professional.
  • Lining – Fabric that goes on the inside of the original fabric for a garment.
  • Fusible lining – Is a lining that adheres either by sticking or ironing onto the wrong side of your garment fabric.
  • Underlining – Is a layer of very lightweight fabric that is inside a garment to add reinforcement to seams, add weight or even hide some construction details.

Specialty sewing terms

  • Couture – High-end custom created designer garments that are sewn by hand.  These are usually high priced dresses by known designers.
  • Double-needle – This consists of two machine needles with one single shaft.  When sewing with this needle, it will create two parallel stitches evenly spaced in a row.
  • Wing needle – A specialty needle for use in heirloom sewing.  This needle has two side flanges on it to create a larger hole in the fabric.
  • Heirloom sewing – A type of sewing where hand made and machine made garments and items.  They are usually white or off-white.  These things usually remind you of something your grandmother had when you were growing up.
  • Smocking – This technique is made when using a smocking machine to pleat fabric evenly.  After the pleats have been sewn, hand stitching is applied in patterns and designs.  This is seen often on kids clothing.

Quilting terms

  • 1/4″ piecing foot – A sewing foot that either has a guide or is set up specifically for quilting.  It creates a 1/4″ seam allowance while piecing two pieces of fabric together.
  • Walking foot – This is an intricate foot that has feed dogs/ teeth on it just like the ones on the sewing machine.  This foot works in conjunction with the machines feeding system to feed multiple layers of fabric though the sewing machine while stitching.  This foot keeps the fabrics together and helps stop the fabric from shifting.
  • Batting – A special type of fabric that is put inside of quilter.  Also occasionally is put to use in upholstery applications.
  • Appliqué – Another type of quilting, where you cut out a shape of fabric and either a zig-zag stitch or satin stitch it to another piece of fabric.
  • Mitered – This type of technique you will use when you are placing binding on a quilt.  The use of this binding technique is for when you are going around the corners on a quilt.
  • Stitch in the ditch – In quilting, when you want to sew multiple layers together and for the seam to not be seen.  This stitch is in the middle of the joining seam of the two pieces of fabric.  Hence the stitch in the ditch name for this technique.
  • Free-motion quilting – When quilting three layers of a quilt together, you can use this foot to free sew a pattern onto the top of the quilt.  This will keep the three layers together and create another design on the quilt.

Serger sewing terms

  • Chain stitch – A stitch created by a serger that consists of interlocking loops.  If you pull the end thread of this stitch, it will completely unravel the entire stitching.
  • Upper looper – On a serger, this looper takes the thread and loops it around the top part of the fabric you are serging.
  • Lower looper – Just like the upper looper, this takes the thread and loops it to the underside of the fabric.
  • Rolled edge – Creates a very narrow hem that is sewn on the very edge of the fabric.
  • Flat-felled seam – This is a seam that encases all raw edges and is flat.  This stitch reduces the bulky raw edge of a seam.
  • Wooly nylon thread – A nylon thread that has an elastic stretchy like feel to it.  It creates a nice rolled hem edge.

Embroidery sewing terms

  • Free-motion embroidery – Is when you use a hoop to free sew out designs on the sewing machine with the feed dogs/teeth in the down position.
  • Pre-wound bobbin – A bobbin you can purchase that is already wound with bobbin thread.  The actual plastic bobbin is disposable after it runs out.  Some pre-wound bobbins are just the thread it’s self.  They are wound a special way at the factory to stay intact while sewing.
  • Hoop – This is what you use for machine or hand embroidery.  It helps keep the stabilizer and the fabric together while sewing.
  • Embroidery Arm/ Unit – This attaches to the sewing machine making it an embroidery machine.  Programming is loaded into the machine, so it moves on an X and Y axis stitching out the design.
  • Embroidery snips – These are scissors that have a short/ small cutting blades; they have a curve at the end to help with snipping the connecting stitches from machine embroidery.

Sewing Tool terms:

  • Measuring tape – A plastic tape that you use to measure with.  It is completely pliable.  This is so you can take body measurements or even measure something that is flat.
  • Ham– Is a pressing type of ironing board, but is shaped like an actual ham.  This is for pressing fabrics that are shaped more round, like sleeve seams, etc.
  • Stiletto – The shape of this metal pen like object with a needle-like point at the end.  It is to help guide fabric under the pressure foot, mainly for quilting purposes.
  • Iron – Machine that plugs into the wall to help set seams, get wrinkles out and press fabric.
  • Fabric steamer – Is much like an iron, but it uses steam to help get wrinkles out and is indirect.  Where as ironing is applying direct pressure and heat to the fabric.
  • Cutting mat and ruler – This is a special mat that you use a rotary cutter on with a ruler to make straight cuts of fabric.  This mat won’t get cut up or messed up and will last for many cuts and years.
  • Rotary cutter – Round cutting disc that has a handle for use with a cutting mat and ruler.
  • Pinking shears – Scissors that have a zig-zag pattern to them.  These are for use when cutting fabric that tends fray and unravels.  Using these will keep the fabric from unraveling and fraying.
  • Marking pen/pencil/chalk – Marking utensils you use to temporary mark fabric before and while sewing.  Some are more permanent, while there are others that disappear after washing or being left out in the air after some time.

Just a list

These are a list of some of the sewing terms off the top of my head.  If you have any to add, please put them in the comments below and I will be sure to update the list.  Thanks for reading.