The Sewing Dictionary
A dictionary of sewing terms to help you along your sewing journey.
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) or a buttonhole stitch if your machine has the capability. By hand, blind stitching and hand buttonhole stitches are often used.
Backstitch – 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.
Ballpoint needle – Ballpoint needles are designed to penetrate knit fabrics without nicking or damaging the fabric.
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.
Baste/basting – 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.
Bias – Runs diagonally to the straight grain of the fabric. This is the stretchiest part on the fabric.
Bias tape – 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 to accommodate curves.
Binding – (blanket, quilt, etc.) Encasing the raw edges of a blanket or quilt with another piece of fabric. Binding also refers to the fabric that is folded and used for the encasing of the raw edges.
Blanket stitch – Used to neaten the edge of a buttonhole, blanket, vest edge, or other seam line. A blanket stitch can be done by hand or machine.
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 or several threads before completing a hand stitch or machine stitch. 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.
Bobbin – The piece of your sewing machine that holds the bottom thread (the bobbin thread) and is placed in the bobbin case. It generally is under the area the needle penetrates and it loops with the needle thread to form a locked stitch.
Bodice – The part of a pattern or garment which runs from shoulder to waist.
Bolt – A large roll of fabric which can be on a tubular roll or a rectangular form. Fabric is usually folded right sides together lengthwise on a bolt.
Buckram – Strong, heavy woven fabric used for stiffening baseball cap brims and some drapery applications.
Butting – Bringing two edges together so they touch but do not overlap.
Buttonhole – A bound slit in the fabric to allow the passage of a button for closure. 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 encasing 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).
Clip (curve) – 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.
Cording – A twisted or woven “rope” or “string” that is used primarily in piping and to act as a drawstring in a jacket hood, waistband, or as stabilizer for frog closures. Cording is covered with bias strips of fabric when used for most decorative applications (such as edging a pillow). Other decorative effects can be achieved by zig-zagging over cording on a fabric for a raised design.
Covered button – A button covered with coordinating or same fabric as the garment for which it is being made. Kits are available for this effect or creative and careful application of fabric, fabric glue and shank buttons can be used.
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.
Dart – A V shaped, tapered adjustment to a pattern to allow for more fullness in the bust area or less fullness in other areas (waist)
Duct Tape Double (DTD) – A body form made out of primarily duct tape and other materials that conforms exactly to one’s body because the tape is wound around the body and then removed as a whole.
Ease – A way of sewing a length of fabric into a bit of a smaller space without resulting in gathers or puckers.
Edgestitch – A stitch done a scant 1/8″ from the folded or seamed edge.
Embellish – Adding special stitching, appliques, charms, or other decorations to your sewing project.
Entredeux – French word meaning “between two”. Often it’s a piece of lightweight fabric joined to another piece of lightweight fabric with a delicate bit of lace. Another method is to join two ribbons with a piece of lace.
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.
Feed dog – The “teeth” under the plate on the sewing machine that move fabric as it is sewn.
Finish (an edge) – Turn under 1/4″ and stitch, serge the edge, or other method of finishing the edge so it doesn’t ravel or cause a bulky problem.
Flat felled seam – A seam created by sewing fabric wrong sides together, trimming one of the seam allowances close to the seam, then turning the other seam allowance under and stitching it over the prior trimmed seam allowance. This is often used for reinforcing seams on pajamas or to reduce bulk in a seam.
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, etc.) – 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.
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.
Grading (seams) – Trimming raw edges in graduate widths to reduce bulk. The narrowest seam edge should be closest to the body, as a general rule.
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 – 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).
Hong Kong finish – Enclosing a seam with bias binding.
Hook & eye closure – A type of closure that employs a small hook on one side and a loop made of fabric or metal on the other. The hook and eye is used at the upper back of many dresses and often on lingerie.
Inseam Seam – inside the leg of pants that runs from the crotch to the hem.
Interfacing – Fabric used between layers of fabric to provide stabilization and form. Usually used in collars, cuffs, plackets, some waistbands and pockets, and facings.
Iron – An iron is a tool that is used to straighten or press fabric. The iron can be used with or without steam. It is a very important tool for the sewing room.
Ironing – Ironing is done by moving the iron back and forth over fabric. Ironing is generally not utilized when sewing. See “press”.
Jean jumper – A small piece of plastic made to ease sewing seams on denim by holding the presser foot up ever so slightly. Allows the presser foot to “jump” the seam as if it was level with the rest of the denim. Works well with all thick fabrics.
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 pre-washed.
Machine embroidery – Decorative stitching created by using a regular sewing machine (zig zag, satin stitch, etc.) or a sewing machine specifically designed for machine embroidery. Combination machines are available as well.
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. Corduroy 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. See “pile”.
Needle – Sewing machine needles come in a variety of sizes and types – ball point and sharps are the two major categories. Ball point is used for knits and regular sharp needles are used for non-stretch fabrics. There are also all purpose needles, but it is recommended that you use ball point or regular rather than all purpose. There are wing needles, wedge needles, needles of varying sizes and shapes, as well as twin needles for some fancier stitching.
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.
Notion – A term used for any item used for sewing other than the fabric and the machine.
Overlock – An overcast stitch to prevent raveling of fabric. There are sewing machines made to do overlock stitching. See “serger”.
Overcasting or overstiching – Stitching done over a seam to prevent raveling. This can be done by hand or machine.
Pattern weights – Weights used on paper patterns instead of pinning a pattern to the fabric.
Pile – See “nap”.
Pinking shears – Shears with a V shape along the cutting edge used to cut fabric and have it remain essentially ravel-free.
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). Often, large safety pins are used to baste quilt layers before the final quilting. 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 or rust where they touch the fabric.
Pintuck- Narrow sewn rows of fabric that give a decorative raised look to a garment. Some bloused are made with pin tucking on the bodice for a more tailored look.
Piping – A cord covered with fabric, often used for decorative edging on garments or projects.
Pivot – To leave the needle in fabric, raise the presser foot and turn the fabric at a 45 degree angle. Then lower the presser foot and start sewing. Used to sew square seams.
Placket – A V-shaped opening at the end of a sleeve that is finished with a bias strip before the cuff is attached.
Pleat – A fold in fabric that is either inverted or folded outward, is not sewn except on the top edge (as in a skirt or slacks waistband), and provides decorative or functional fullness.
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.
Presser foot – The part of the sewing machine that holds the fabric in place as it is being sewn and fed through by the feed dogs. Specialty feet such as zig zag, buttonhole, cording, blind hem, and others are often included with a sewing machine upon purchase and are best learned by consulting the sewing machine manual.
Prick stitch – You use prick stitching on fabrics such as velvet where everything shows. Take a small backstitch sewn on the right side of the fabric and do the remaining backstitching on the wrong side.
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.
Rotary cutter – Early versions of the rotary cutter looked like pizza cutters. Today, the handles are often ergonomically designed and padded. The blade, though, remains a rounded razor, sometimes with pinked edging or other designs. These are great for cutting layers of fabric into straight strips. Many people are using them for curved lines and pattern cutting for garments as well.
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 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 – The fabric between the edge of the fabric and the line of stitching, about 5/8″ for most patterns. (Craft patterns often allow 1/4″ seam allowance.)
Selvedge, selvage – 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.
Separating zipper – A zipper that comes completely apart when unzipped. There is a special tab at the bottom of a separating zipper for bringing it together and starting the zip.
Serger – A type of sewing machine that stitches the seam, encases the seam with thread, and cuts off excess fabric at the same time. These are used for construction of garments with knit fabrics mostly, or to finish seams of any fabric.
Shank button – A button with space left between the button and fabric. A shank button is one made with a shank. Other buttons can be “shanked” by wrapping thread under the button to create a shank.
Sizing – Fabric finish that provides crispness without stiffness; a light starch finish.
Snips – Very small cutting tool resembling scissors used to snip threads. Usually used with hand sewing or portable projects.
Spool – The holder of thread. There are wooden spools, plastic spools, cardboard tube spools, and cone spools, as well as others.
Stash – Collection of fabric.
Stay stitch – 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.
Stitch in the ditch – Stitching in the ditch is used as a method of under stitching and also as a form of simple machine quilting for craft projects. It is a method of stitching close to a seam allowance or in the seam itself 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.
Straight stitch – Stitching made with single forward stitches. This is the regular stitch that most sewing machines make and may or may not require a special presser foot.
Tack – 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.
Tailor’s tack – A tailor’s tack is essentially two threads in a needle, drawn through fabric layer/s and then snipped, leaving tails of thread on top and on the bottom of the fabric as a marking for later use. They can be used to mark pattern pieces for darts, buttonholes, etc. Go straight through all layers of pattern and fabric before snipping any threads. Leave a long enough tail of thread that you can find it later. Use a contrasting thread that stands out so you can see it later.
Tension- Tension is one of the least understood concepts of sewing machines. It refers to the pressure being placed on your needle and bobbin thread by your machine. There are two types of tension on your sewing machine – the thread and bobbin tensions. It is best to read your sewing machine manual for specifics. Rarely does one need to adjust bobbin tension. Your sewing machine manual will show you the appropriate settings and offer you examples of what the threads should look like on the right and wrong sides of your stitching.
Thread- A complementary or like thread is chosen for garment or project construction on a machine. The bobbin should be wound of the same type of thread or the exact same thread whenever possible, to prevent knotting, bunching, etc. The first step for most sewing machine trouble shooting is to change the thread and needle. When hand sewing with one thread, cut the end of the thread that is nearest to the spool before tying a knot in the same end. This will prevent raveling and knotting.
Top stitch – A sometimes decorative, sometimes functional stitch that is usually 1/4″ from the edge of a seam. 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.
Tracing paper – A type of paper made especially to be used with a tracing wheel. It has an ink-type substance on one side for marking fabric with the wheel.
Tracing wheel A tracing wheel is used with tracing paper. The paper is placed upon the fabric with the “ink” side down, the pattern markings that need to be transferred placed upon the paper, and then the markings are traced with the wheel. The wheel itself looks a bit like a pizza cutter with spikes. Care needs to be taken not to press too hard and cut the pattern, tracing paper, or the fabric. Tracing ink from the tracing paper does not always wash out and this needs to be taken into consideration as well.
Trim – Trim is any decorative item, ribbon, lace that is put on a garment or craft item that is being sewn. Trim is also used to define the act of trimming excess seam allowances or fabric with scissors.
Tuck – See pin tuck. A method of sewing fabric together resulting in a raised seam, often seen in heirloom sewing, the bodice of a woman’s blouse or a man’s formal shirt.
Underlining – Lining used to add body to a garment.
Understitching – 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.
Universal needle – A slightly rounded tip to use for woven or knit fabrics.
View – Most patterns show different variations on the pattern package. Each variation is called a “view”.
Warp – Threads running the length of a woven fabric, sometimes known as the lengthwise grain (little to no stretch) (see weft and grain)
Wearable art – Decorative, usually quilted, clothing made to be unique, beautiful, and functional.
Weft – Threads running at right angles to the length of a woven fabric, sometimes known as the cross grain (very little to some stretch) (see warp and grain)
Welt – A method of covering the raw edges of a pocket or other opening, can be single or double welt.
Wing needle – Needle with wide, wing shaped, flared sides used to create holes in tightly woven fabrics, such as creating entredeux. Available as single or doubles.
Wrong side – The wrong side of the fabric is the side upon which there is no design. 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.
X, Y, Z
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.