Sewing Glossary

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.

Basting – Temporary stitching used to hold a sewing project in place and is removed when the permanent sewing is done. The stitch length on the machine would be the largest (5mm).

Blind Hem Stitch aka Invisible Stitch – This stitch is not meant to be seen on the right side of the fabric. It is 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 domestic sewing machines come with a blind hem attachment which allows you to achieve the same finish. The dedicated machine for this technique is called a felling/blind hem machine.

Bobbin – The piece of your sewing machine that holds the bottom thread (the bobbin thread) and is placed in the bobbin case. It is placed under the area the needle penetrates and loops with the needle thread to form a locked stitch.

Bobbin Case – The part of the sewing machine that holds the bobbin. In some machines, it’s under the needle plate.

Buttonhole – A cut in the fabric that is bound with stitching large enough to allow a button to pass through. Buttonholes are mostly made by machine these days, but tailors still make them by hand using a special buttonhole stitch.

Buttonhole Cutter – Similar to an awl with the exception that it has a flat, somewhat sharp end to cut the fabric between the buttonhole itself.

Cut Line – On a pattern, the outermost dark line is the line upon which you cut.

Dart – A V-shaped or diamond shaped, tapered adjustment (usually a fold on the inside of the piece) to a pattern to allow for more fullness in the bust area or less fullness in other areas (waist).

Edgestitch – A finishing stitch done as close to the edge as possible. Generally used as a decorative stitch.

Feed Dog – The “teeth” under the plate on the sewing machine that pulls the fabric as it is sewn.

Finish (an edge) – Turn under 1/4″ and stitch, serge the edge, zig-zag, or other method of finishing the edge so it doesn’t ravel or cause a bulky problem.

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.

Grain – Is the 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).

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.

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.

Notch –  Notches are small marks made on a pattern to ensure that one pattern piece will match up to the pattern next to it. They can be used to show what the value of the seam allowance is, and can also be used as markers along a seam to make sure that the two pieces of fabric will come together correctly when sewn.

On a cardboard pattern, they will look like small indents around the outside edge of the seam allowance. You can buy special pattern notching tools that will clip this small indent into the edge of your cardboard pattern.

Notches are transferred from pattern onto cut fabric by making a small incision. This is done by making very small nicks in the fabric, only about 2-3mm.

Overlock – An overcast stitch to prevent raveling of fabric. Generally done with an overlocker also known as a serger.

Pivot – To leave the needle in the 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.

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.

Ravel/Ravelling – Making or allowing the edge of a fabric to get a fringed look by having threads come loose either on their own via wearing and washing or by stitching a tight seam a distance from the raw edge and pulling threads.

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 remains a rounded razor, sometimes with pinked edging or other designs. These are great for curved lines, knits, and pattern cutting out garments.

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.

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 1 cm or 5/8″ for most patterns.

Seam Ripper – Your best friend in the sewing room. It is a tool with a small hook on one end that can slip under a stitch and get close enough to it to cut the stitch. I personally have learned as much about sewing with my seam ripper as I have with making stitches by hand or machine.

Selvedge, Selvege, 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. Usually seen in jackets, sweatshirts, and wearable art.

Serger aka Overlocker – 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, especially those which might ravel.

Snips – A very small cutting tool somewhat resembling scissors used to snip threads. Not meant for cutting fabric or paper.

Spool – The holder of thread. There are wooden spools, plastic spools, cardboard tube spools, and cone spools, as well as others.

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. If you do clip curves, use stay stitching first to guide the tip of your scissors – don’t cut beyond the stay stitching.

Sink Stitch aka Ditch Stitch – 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 fo

Tape or Tape Measure – A long, flexible measuring tape. One of the most used tools in your box of motions.

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 ravelling and knotting.

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.

Warp – Threads running the length of a woven fabric. Also known as the lengthwise grain (little to no stretch). About 90° from the weft and 45° from the bias. (see weft and grain)

Weft – Threads running at 90° angles to the length of woven fabrics (or the width). Also known as the cross grain. It has little to no stretch and is usually 45° from the bias. (see warp and grain)

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 pillow 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.

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.