Sewing Glossary Of Terms
Since 2004, I’ve been compiling multiple lists of sewing term definitions. It’s the writer in me. And the sewer. And the list-maker. I have problems! Actually, my biggest problem is that my computer files are all over the place: two laptops, one desktop, two external hard drives, one Dropbox account, Google Drive, etc. AHHH!! The organizer in me (I may have a touch of OCD, too) has known for a while that I need to eventually amalgamate my lists. So… here goes!
Below, I’ll keep a master glossary of sewing terms. If there’s anything I’ve forgotten (I’m committing to this for the long haul!), please let me know in the comments below. I’ll add to this list regularly to keep it up to date so it can act as a go-to for sewing definitions!
***Side note: Selvage vs. selvedge. Which one’s right? I have no idea! I’d guess that “selvedge” is the UK version and “selvage” is the US version. But I’m from Canada and I’ve grown up using “selvage”. I’ve included both below, but please forgive me if I flip-flop between the two in other posts. :)***
Alteration – An adjustment, change, or modification made to a garment or a pattern to improve the overall fit of the finished garment.
Backstitch or Backtack – A type of stitch that is created by sewing a few stitches backward and forward again in order to secure the threads at the start or end of a line of stitching to prevent unraveling.
Basting Stitch – A method of temporarily joining fabric, either by machine or by hand, using a long stitch length and no backstitch for ease of removal. This technique is most commonly used for fitting, zippers, and to secure slippery or difficult fabrics while sewing.
Bias – A diagonal, directional line across the fabric. True bias is a 45-degree angle to the selvage. See ‘Grain’ for more details.
Bias Tape or Bias Binding – Long strips of fabric cut on the bias, often enveloped over the raw edge of a hem or a seam allowance to finish the edge, especially for curved areas like neck and arm holes. Bias tape can be bought pre-made (in a package or on a roll) or made at home from coordinating or matching fabrics.
Blind Hem Stitch – A virtually invisible hemming technique in which small zigzag stitches are made by hand between the hem and the garment. This technique can also be done by machine using the blind stitch setting.
Bobbin – The small plastic or metal spool that holds thread for the underside of the stitch in a sewing machine.
Bodice – The portion of a pattern or a garment that runs from the shoulder to the waist.
Crosswise Grain – See ‘Grain’
Dart – A stitch that shapes a flat piece of fabric to fit body contours. On a pattern, darts consist of dots to align the fabric and stitching lines, and they’re a triangular- or diamond-shaped marking that, when folded and stitched, shapes fabric to the curves of the body. Darts are commonly used at the bust, waist, and hip.
Ease – A method used to make a larger piece of fabric fit into a smaller piece, through an even distribution of the extra fabric, avoiding gathers and tucks. The term ‘ease’ can also refer to the difference between garment measurements and body measurements.
Edge Stitch – A row of straight, regular stitching appearing approximately 1/8” (3 mm) from a seam or from the edge of the fabric or garment, on the right side of the fabric, and through all seam allowances. This technique is commonly used as a decorative stitch on the edges of cuffs and collars. An edge stitch is just like a topstitch, but closer to the seam or fabric edge.
Facing – Fabric that is applied on the inside of a garment (with its right side facing your body) in order to encase a raw edge of fabric or finish and reinforce that opening. Facing is usually paired with interfacing, and it’s often seen on a sleeve, neck, or waist opening.
Feed Dogs – The parallel set of moving metal “teeth” below the needle and presser foot on a sewing machine. This part of the machine helps to grip and move the fabric forward while sewing.
Finger Press – Using pressure from your finger or thumb to create a temporary fabric crease. A finger press can open seam allowances or turn up a hem so that they can be pressed faster or more easily with an iron.
Fuse – The action of bonding two layers of fabric together using a hot iron and a special material, which melts into glue with heat.
Fusible Interfacing – See ‘Interfacing’
Gather – The process of pushing fabric across a baste stitch with your hands, creating soft, even waves (think of ruching). Usually a given amount of fabric is gathered into a smaller area along a stitch line. To gather: baste stitch, hold one thread end (holding the bobbin thread makes gathering easiest), push the fabric across the thread until it gathers.
Grade – The process of trimming multiple seam allowances to different widths in order to reduce bulk. This helps seams lay flat and allows garments to hang properly, especially if facing and/or lining has been used. To grade a pattern means to increase or decrease the size of a pattern while maintaining the original proportion of that pattern.
Grain – The direction in which fabric threads run. There are three types of grain: lengthwise, crosswise, and bias grain. Depending on the grain according to which the fabric is cut, the fabric will hang and behave differently. For example, fabric cut on a bias will be more stretchy and fluid than fabric cut on the lengthwise or crosswise grain.
Woven fabrics consist of lengthwise threads that run parallel to the selvage/selvedge (the lengthwise grain) and intersecting crosswise threads (the crosswise grain) that run perpendicular to the selvage/selvedge of the fabric. Bias Grain runs diagonally across the fabric, with a true bias running at a 45-degree angle to the selvage/selvedge of the fabric.
Ham, Tailor’s/Ironing/Dressmaking – An ironing ham (or dressmaking ham or tailor’s ham) is a firm, rounded pressing tool that’s shaped like an actual ham. When pressing, selectively position the ham under your fabric to prevent creases while ironing curves.
Hem – The finished edge of a garment, like the bottom of a skirt or the end of a sleeve, usually made by evenly folding the raw edge of fabric under and securing it in place with a stitch.
Interfacing – A specific type of fabric sewn or fused between the layers of a garment to give body, volume, and a hint of supportive strength. It is attached to the wrong side of one piece of fabric, often a facing. Interfacing is commonly required in collars, cuffs, and waistbands, and is also useful in achieving structure in handbags and totes. It is available in a selection of weights, from ultra-light to heavy-duty, and it comes as fusible or sew-in in woven and non-woven varieties.
Fusible Interfacing refers to interfacing with heat-activated glue on one side. It is quick, easy, and helps to prevent fraying, but tends to make the fabric crisper and more rigid than the sew-in variety. It also requires high heat to fuse, which may harm delicate fabrics.
Sew-In Interfacing does not have glue on the backside and must be sewn into the garment, usually with a baste stitch. Both of these options come in woven and non-woven varieties.
Non-Woven Interfacing refers to interfacing that is made by pressing fibers together, so that the interfacing appears gauze-like.
Woven Interfacing refers to interfacing that is fabric-like, complete with lengthwise and crosswise grains.
Knitted Fabric – Fabric that has been made from yarn and constructed of consecutive rows of interlocking loops, like jersey.
Lining – An interior layer of lightweight fabric that is sewn into a garment, accessory, or bag that provides body and conceals raw edges and construction details.
Lengthwise Grain – See ‘Grain’
Marking – The process of transferring sewing construction symbols from the paper pattern pieces onto the garment fabric using something like tailor’s chalk, a marking pencil, or tracing paper.
Nap – A one-way direction of texture, such as velvet, on the right side of a fabric. A fabric that has nap has a third dimension: height. Fabrics with nap appear different when held right-side up and upside-down. Sometimes people refer to a directional print as nap. A directional print is a one-way design that has a visible right-side up and upside-down.
Notches – The triangular marks on the cutting line of a pattern. When transferred to fabric, notches are used to dictate where to match the garment pieces when sewing, and they help to distinguish the front of the garment from the back.
Notions – The supplies beyond fabric that are required for completing a pattern or project, such as thread, buttons, or snaps. Commercial patterns usually list notions on the back of the pattern envelope.
Non-Woven Fabric – Fabric that has been made by bonding fibers together mechanically, thermally, or chemically, like felt.
Non-Woven Interfacing – See ‘Interfacing’
On-Grain – When the lengthwise and crosswise threads are perpendicular to one another at perfect right angles, the fabric is considered “on-grain”. Ensuring that fabric is “on-grain” is an important step in the processes of preparing the fabric for cutting.
Overcast / Overedge Zigzag – This seam finish is a zigzag stitch that goes over the raw edge of fabric to prevent unraveling. See zigzag finish for a slight variant of this seam finish.
Pink – A type of seam finish that is achieved by trimming the raw edge of the seam allowance with pinking shears. This type of seam finish is best reserved for bulky fabrics that tend not to fray.
Pinking Shears – A type of scissors with sawtooth blades (as opposed to straight blades) that leaves a zigzag pattern on cut fabric. Pinking shears are commonly used for decorative purposes and to prevent fabric from unraveling.
Pivot – A machine-sewing technique that allows you to change the direction of your line of stitch. To pivot, lower your needle into your fabric and lift up the presser foot. Turn your fabric, then lower the presser foot again before continuing to sew. Pivoting is commonly used to sew around a sharp corner in one continuous stitch.
Point Presser and Pounder – A pressing tool used for pressing seams and corners and for pounding stubborn or thick fabrics flat.
Point Turner and Creaser – A small sewing tool used to help make points, corners, and creases extra crisp.
Press or Pressing – Using a hot iron with or without steam on fabric. Pressing is most commonly used to smooth out wrinkles, to create defined folds in fabric, or to set a seam and ensure it has a crisp finish.
Presser Foot – A changeable sewing machine accessory, which stabilizes the fabric as you sew. There are many different kinds of presser feet available to accommodate different kinds of stitches, fabrics, and tasks. Some common feet include the zigzag foot and the zipper foot.
Pressing Cloth – A thin piece of cotton fabric (sometimes similar in weight to a pillowcase) that is put between the fabric and iron in the pressing process. A pressing cloth can help prevent delicate fabrics from scorching, and, when dampened, it can help you achieve crisper seams.
Raw Edge – The unfinished edge of fabric or the cut edge of a garment piece that may fray or unravel if left unfinished.
Regular Stitch – A stitch that uses the standard stitch length (usually 2.5, but this depends on your machine), has a backstitch at both ends, and a standard 5/8” (1.5 cm) seam allowance.
Right Side – What the manufacturer intends to be the correct side of a piece of fabric, or the side of fabric intended to be seen in the finished product.
Seam – The line where separate pieces of fabric are joined together with a row of stitching.
Seam Allowance – The area of fabric between the seam and the cut edge. The standard seam allowance is 5/8” (1.5 cm).
Seam Finish – A technique used to prevent the raw edge of a seam allowance from unraveling. There are many different types of seam finishes, and common methods include overcasting, pinking, serging, and zigzagging.
Seam Pounding – Using a smooth, blunt object to pound down bulk in a seam. Seam pounding is normally used to make bulky seams easier to stitch down either by hand or with a sewing machine.
Seam Ripper – A tool used for opening seams or unpicking stitches.
Selvage or Selvedge – The narrow, tightly woven border of the fabric, which is finished by the manufacturer and does not fray. The selvage/selvedge runs along both lengthwise edges of the fabric.
Serge – A type of seam finish done with a specific type of machine: a serger (sometimes referred to as an overlock machine). A serged seam finish is typically found in professional garments. A serge encloses the raw edge of a seam allowance with a 3- to 5-thread casing. There are blades on the serger that trim the seam allowance to a neat, consistent edge while serging. Serging is also referred to as ‘overlocking.’
Sew-In Interfacing – See ‘Interfacing’
Sewing Gauge – A small, metal ruler used to measure short distances. A sewing gauge features a sliding bar, which acts as a marker or placeholder for repeated measurements.
Sleeve Board – A very small ironing board specifically for pressing narrow areas such as sleeves.
Sleeve Roll – A small, firm, cylindrical pressing tool that slides easily inside a sleeve. Sleeve rolls are a more portable version of the sleeve board, and are also used for pressing narrow areas of garments.
Spool – A plastic or wooden cylinder or cone that holds sewing thread.
Staystitch – A line of stitches with a short stitch length done inside a seam allowance. A staystitch is sewn through a single thickness of fabric before garment construction to stabilize curved or slanted edges and to prevent them from stretching out (since they’re cut on a bias). Staystitching is backstitched at both ends, and done at 4/8” (1.3 cm) from the fabric edge.
Stitch-In-The-Ditch – A regular stitch made on the right side of a garment within the groove of an existing seam. A stitch-in-the-ditch catches fabric on the other side, usually a facing. This stitch is commonly used when sewing a waistband.
Stitch Length – A measurement of the amount of fabric that is fed under the presser foot with each stitch. When the stitch length is decreased, less fabric will be fed under the presser foot, and when the stitch length is increased, more fabric will be fed under the presser foot. Stitch length is adjusted according to the stitch you’re doing and the type of fabric being sewn. Standard stitch length is around 2.5 (depending on your machine).
Stitch Width – A measurement of the size of a stitch in the side-to-side direction. The stitch width can be adjusted to expand or compress the width of a decorative stitch or a zigzag stitch.
Tack – A temporary stitch used to hold fabric pieces together, usually removed after final stitching. A common type of tack is a tailor’s tack, which is a specific thread-marking technique.
Tailor’s Chalk – A chalk pencil or chip used to mark fabric. Tailor’s chalk is a marking tool just like a marking pencil, and it sometimes comes as loose chalk in a dispenser.
Tension – The amount of pull on the needle or bobbin thread. Upper thread tension is usually adjustable by a numbered dial on the sewing machine in order to accommodate different weights of fabrics, threads and stitches. Bobbin thread tension is usually adjusted at the bobbin case.
Test Seam – Stitching on a scrap of fabric to test the thread type, stitch type, stitch length, and tension used for a project.
Topstitch – A line of stitching, either decorative or functional, on the right side of the fabric, usually 3/8” (1 cm) from the fabric edge. A topstitch is just like an edge stitch, but farther away from the seam or fabric edge.
Tracing Paper – A type of paper with chalk or wax on one side, used in conjunction with a tracing wheel to transfer markings from a pattern onto fabric.
Tracing Wheel – A small, pizza-cutter-like tool used in conjunction with tracing paper to transfer markings from a pattern onto fabric.
Woven Fabrics – Fabric that has been made by weaving threads together in the lengthwise and crosswise direction, like cotton and linen. See “Grain” for more information.
Woven Interfacing – See ‘Interfacing’
Wrong Side – The backside of the fabric, or, the side of fabric that is not intended to be seen in the finished product.
Zigzag Finish – A type of seam finish. A zigzag stitch is sewn down the centre of a seam allowance, and then the excess seam allowance is trimmed down, which prevents the raw edge from unraveling.
Zigzag Stitch – A side-to-side stitch in the form of the letter Z, commonly used for finishing a seam, making buttonholes, and sewing stretch fabrics.
Zigzag Foot – A common type of presser foot that accommodates for the side-to-side motion of the needle during the zigzag stitch.
Zipper Foot – A common type of presser foot used when sewing in a zipper. A zipper foot allows the sewing machine needle to get close to the zipper teeth, something a regular presser foot can’t do.