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Sewing Terms 101 (…a beginner’s sewing glossary)

I know many of you are just learning to sew…..or maybe you have sewn for a while but aren’t as familiar with sewing terms.  I have been meaning to do this for a while — but I have finally put together a list of common sewing terms and techniques that you can read and review while putting a sewing project together.  And then I’ll also include it with all of my sewing posts, as an easy reference.  Then, I can skip some of the definitions within my sewing posts (because I forget half the time)….and those who need it, can just click over and reference this post.

So, for those who need to learn a few new sewing terms—

Or, for those who need a refresher—

Okay, let’s jump in…

 

Sewing Terms: Selvage

According to Wikipedia, “The selvage (US English) or selvedge (British English) is the term for the self-finished edges of fabric.  The selvages keep the fabric from unraveling or fraying.”
Also, the fabric designer and/or the fabric company are often printed right along the selvage…..making it easy to remember what type of fabric you purchased. In most fabric stores, you will find fabric folded in half lengthwise and then wound around a bolt.  And then you’ll see rows and rows of bolts of fabric.  When the fabric store cuts fabric for you, they will cut you off a piece that is perpendicular to the selvage.  So you will always have a selvage along both sides of your piece of fabric.

 

 

Sewing Terms: Fabric Grain

Grain refers to the orientation of the fiber pieces that are woven or knit together to create fabric.  Materials such as leather or fleece do not have a grain because they are not woven together.  If you look really closely at the fabric below, there are little fibers that run parallel and perpendicular to the selvage.  This is the grain of the fabric.  You can use these grain lines in the fabric as a guide, to create straight lines that are either perpendicular or parallel to the selvage.  In fact, sometimes the print on the fabric (like stripes) may be a little off, so don’t always rely on the print do give you an exact line along the grain of the fabric.  Always looks a little closer at the actual grain, to get the best results with your sewing projects!  (The fabric image below is a woven fabric….but knit fabrics also have a grain.  More on that below.)

 

Sewing Terms: Fabric “Bias”

The bias of the fabric is the diagonal line between the horizontal and vertical grain lines explained above.  And by diagonal, I mean a 45 degree slice between those lines.

So, if you look at a piece of fabric flat in front of you and the selvage is laying right along the bottom, that would mean that your horizontal grain lines are also running perfectly straight across from left to right.  This would also mean that your vertical lines are running perfectly up and down, creating a nice 90 degree angle to your selvage.  The BIAS LINE would run at an exact 45 degree angle from the selvage.

However, if you don’t want to get a protractor out, the best way I have found to find the bias, is to use your selvage as a guide and cut your fabric at a 90 degree angle (I use the corner of a table or counter as a guide).  Then, fold the cut edge down to the selvage edge and line up those edges.  This fold will create your 45 degree angle line.  (More about cutting along the BIAS and creating BIAS TAPE here.)

 

Sewing Terms: Woven Fabric

When a fabric is woven, its fibers are interlaced in a crisscross pattern, horizontally and vertically.  Think of weaving strips of paper together in grade school, when you’d interlace the paper to create one big woven swath of paper.  Woven fabric is the same way.  Because of this weaving method, woven fabric tends to hold its shape better and doesn’t really stretch.  This can be helpful when trying to keep things precise while sewing and perfectly even and straight.  So, CUTTING ALONG THE GRAIN of the fabric, means cutting parallel to the woven fibers of the fabric.

However, when cut along the grain, the fibers release and start to unravel, causing fraying along the edges over time. One way to slow down the fraying of woven fabric, is to cut along the bias (like explained above).  This stops each row of woven threads and tends to slow down the fraying process.  Also, when woven fabric is pulled along the bias, it has a slight stretch to it, causing it to hang a little differently and manipulate a little better around curves (which is why bias tape is so useful).

 

Sewing Terms: Knit Fabric

When a fabric is knit, there is one continuous thread being looped together back and forth.  Upon close inspection, the pattern almost looks like braiding.  Because of that loopy, braided technique, the fabric has a lot more give and stretch.  Knit fabric is a great friend to the crafter because once cut, its edges don’t fray like woven fabrics do, since it’s only one continuous thread rather than many separate threads. 

Depending on the type of knit fabric, the edges may curl a bit once they’re cut, but if the curled edge doesn’t affect the look of the project much, it doesn’t really matter.  Remember, it’s the method, not the type of fiber, that distinguishes whether a fabric is woven or knit.  Cotton, rayon, wool, polyester, and silk can all be woven OR knit.

 

Identifying Woven vs. Knit Fabric

Grab your fabric and stretch it side to side and from top to bottom, in the same direction as the grain.  If it stretches in one of those directions (or both), it is probably a knit.  If it doesn’t stretch with the grain and only stretches slightly on the bias, it’s most likely a woven.  The only time a woven fabric will stretch with the grain, is if elastic fibers are woven into the fabric.

 

Sewing Terms: Synthetic Fabric (nylon, polyester, rayon)

Synthetic fabric is made from man-made materials.  Most are quite sensitive to heat and are more prone to melting while ironing and steaming.  Sometimes a synthetic fabric will give you the look and flow you’re seeking, but just be aware of how it responds to sewing/ironing when selecting fabrics that are synthetic.

 

Sewing Terms: Pre-Washing Fabric

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Is pre-washing your fabric necessary? Or a waste of time?  Well, it depends on your fabric and what time of project you’ll be making (like if it will be washed again after it’s made, like clothing or a quilt).  My quick answer is yes, pre-wash all of your fabric so that if it’s going to shrink and shift, it’s better if it happens before you start cutting your fabric.  For my longer answer, and more details on this topic, head over to the Pre-Washing Fabric post.

 

Sewing Terms: “Right” vs. “Wrong” Side of Fabric

Most fabrics have designated sides that are meant to be “seen” and “not seen”.  Each side will likely have a different color or texture, or both.  If your fabric has a design printed onto it, you will notice that the “right” side is more vibrant.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the sides and if that’s the case, it won’t like matter which side you choose as the “right’ side.

 

Sewing Terms: Place “Right” Sides Together

While reading sewing patterns, you’ll often see the words, “sew the two pieces together with RIGHT sides together”.  This means to place the sides of the fabric that you want to be seen (the printed/smooth/preferred sides) and then sew as instructed. 

Then, when the fabric is turned right side out, the seam will be hidden.

 

Sewing Terms: Place “Wrong” Sides Together

Sometimes a pattern instruction will say to place the WRONG sides of the fabric together.  There is a reason for this and that reason will generally make sense as you go.  But this just means to place the unwanted sides together….and then continue on with the instructions.

 

Sewing Terms: Stitches and Seams

A stitch is a loop of thread that is created by a needle pulling it through fabric.  A seam is a line of stitches that can either hold two pieces of fabric together or can be used as a decorative line of stitches. (For more practice, check out my Practice your Sewing Stitches tutorial HERE.)

The size of each stitch within your seam can be adjusted by different knobs on your sewing machine.  Seams can be created in many designs but the most common is a straight line or a zig-zag.    (More about practicing your seams and stitches here.)

 

Sewing Terms: Back-Stitch

Back-stitching is sewing backward over your stitches to keep the ends of your thread from unraveling.  Generally, you will sew forward a few stitches, then back-stitch a few stitches, and then continue on forward sewing. You don’t want to back-stitch back and forth too much or you’ll create a big lump of thread and will likely pucker your fabric.  So, I generally sew forward 3-4 stitches, back-stitch the same amount, and then continue sewing forward.

 

Sewing Terms: Basting Stitch

A basting stitch is a set of long stitches (as in turn your stitch length up to the longest possible) that are usually used to hold something together temporarily.  For example, sometimes you’ll baste two pieces of fabric together to keep them in place while you sew those 2 pieces to another piece of fabric.  Or sometimes you’ll baste an applique onto your fabric to keep it in place while you then sew the edges down permanently.  I probably baste the most often when I am creating gathers or ruffles.  You can baste by hand or set your machine to its longest stitch and do a machine baste.  (I hardly ever baste by hand.)  I also use the basting stitch quite often as a decorative stitch or as a border around different shapes on my projects.

Sewing Terms: Top-Stitch

Sewing a top-stitch is when you sew along the top (or the “right” side) of the fabric.  Generally, it parallels a seam or the edge of your fabric, to give the item a more tailored or professional look.  I like to increase my stitch length just a bit when sewing a top stitch and this is because the needle hops over more of the fabric and doesn’t stretch out the fabric as much, but also allows for more thread to show with each stitch.  (Sometimes you will hear the word edge-stitch.  This is basically the same thing….but really close to the edge of the fabric, like a hem.)

 

 

Sewing Terms: Seam Allowance

A seam allowance is the distance between the edge of the fabric and the sewn line.  When sewing any project, a pattern designer always includes some sort of seam allowance into the pattern pieces, so that the finished project will turn out with the intended measurements.  A very common seam allowance is 5/8 inch and this notch is usually the most visible sewing line on the sewing machine.  (However, my machine below displays every measurement the same.)

***The same measurements are to the left of the needle as well.

However, smaller projects usually call for smaller seam allowances.  And I actually prefer using smaller seam allowances because it’s less to trim off later.  But, different people prefer different things, and that’s okay! But whatever the seam allowance, check your machine for your seam allowance guide or mark a line that you can line up the edge of your fabric with, and sew an even seam allowance along your fabric.

 

Sewing Terms: Hem

The hem is the edge of the fabric that has been folded under and sewn to keep the raw edge hidden and from unraveling.  There are different techniques to hem fabric but the most common way is to fold the edge under once, another time, and then sew in place.  The amount you fold the fabric under for your hem, depends on the author of the pattern you’re using, or personal preference.

 

Sewing Terms: Clip Corners and Curves

When sewing an item together, you’ll often see the instructions say to sew “right” sides together…and then turn right side out and iron flat.  However, before turning right side out, you need to minimize the bulk around curves and corners, so that after you turn it right side out, it will lay flat and have crisp edges and lines.  You will need to clip straight lines into curves that look like a valley, cut notches into curves that look like a mountain, and then cut corners straight off…..in order to help with turning fabric right side out.  (More about clipping corners and curves here.)

  
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Sewing Terms: Gathering Fabric

Gathering is a sewing technique used to shorten the length of your fabric piece so that you can then attach it to a shorter piece of fabric.  There are several techniques to gather fabric and I discuss the simpler cheater method and the more proper way over on my Making and Attaching Gathered Fabric tutorial HERE.

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Sewing Terms: Cutting “Straight” and “Squaring Up” Your Fabric

Okay, this may seem like a no-brainer…..but believe me, fabric can be a real BEAST to cut straight sometimes.  And if your lines aren’t straight (or at least mostly straight), your simple project can turn into a real headache that you’ll end up tossing in the trash if your edges aren’t meeting up correctly.  Oh, and those corners…yep, a lot of times it’s crucial they’re at a 90 degree angle.  So check out this tutorial on How To Cut Fabric Perfectly Straight…and Square It Up.

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Sewing Terms: Hand Stitching

This is pretty self explanatory…hand stitching is done with your hand.  And a needle and thread.  Whenever possible, I use my sewing machine but sometimes, there are things that need to be sewn with a needle and thread.  And when that happens, it’s important to know how to do that.  There are several techniques and methods you can use….but the ones I use most often are shared on my Hand Stitching tutorial.

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Sewing Terms: Interfacing

Interfacing is a textile attached to the “wrong” side of the fabric, to help stiffen up the fabric, when it’s otherwise too flimsy.  More about interfacing, fusible adhesive, and fusible webbing HERE.

 

Sewing Terms: Turn a Tube Right-Side-Out

Turning a tube of fabric right side out, is just what it sounds like—turning your fabric after you’ve sewn it together, so that the correct side (or “right side”) is facing outward.   It may seem simple for some, but if you’ve never done it, this can seem frustrating.  But turning something “right side out” is something you do a lot while sewing.  But those skinny tubes can be a real pain.  So check out my post on how to turn a tube right side out, with only a safety pin.

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Sewing FAQs: Terms, Supplies, and Accessories to know about

What is sewing bias? How do you find bias on fabric?

The bias of the fabric is the diagonal 45-degree line between the horizontal and vertical grain lines. So, if you look at a piece of fabric flat in front of you and the selvage is laying right along the bottom, that would mean that your horizontal grain lines are also running perfectly straight across from left to right. This would also mean that your vertical lines are running perfectly up and down, creating a nice 90 degree angle to your selvage. The BIAS LINE would run at an exact 45 degree angle from the selvage.

What is grain fabric?

The grain of the fabric are the little fibers that run parallel and perpendicular to the selvage. Grain refers to the orientation of the fiber pieces that are woven or knit together to create fabric. Materials such as leather or fleece do not have a grain because they are not woven together. You can use these grain lines in the fabric as a guide, to create straight lines that are either perpendicular or parallel to the selvage

What is a selvage in sewing?

In sewing, selvage refers to the self-finished edges of fabric, keeping it from unraveling or fraying. Names of fabric designers and companies are often printed right along the selvage, making it easy to remember what type of fabric you purchased.

When the fabric store cuts fabric for you, they will cut you off a piece that is perpendicular to the selvage. So you will always have a selvage along both sides of your piece of fabric.

How can you tell if a fabric is woven?

When a fabric is woven, its fibers are interlaced in a crisscross pattern, horizontally and vertically. Think of weaving strips of paper together in grade school, when you’d interlace the paper to create one big woven swath of paper. Woven fabric is the same way. Because of this weaving method, woven fabric tends to hold its shape better and doesn’t really stretch. This can be helpful when trying to keep things precise while sewing and perfectly even and straight. So, cutting along the grain of the fabric, means cutting parallel to the woven fibers of the fabric.

What is considered a knit fabric? What is knit fabric used for?

When a fabric is knit, there is one continuous thread being looped together back and forth. Upon close inspection, the pattern almost looks like braiding. Because of that loopy, braided technique, the fabric has a lot more give and stretch. Knit fabric is great because once cut, its edges don’t fray like woven fabrics do, since it’s only one continuous thread rather than many separate threads.

What is the difference between knit and woven fabric?

Grab your fabric and stretch it side to side and from top to bottom, in the same direction as the grain. If it stretches in one of those directions (or both), it is probably a knit. If it doesn’t stretch with the grain and only stretches slightly on the bias, it’s most likely a woven. The only time a woven fabric will stretch with the grain, is if elastic fibers are woven into the fabric.

What are synthetic fibers (examples)?

Synthetic fabrics like nylon, polyester, and rayon are made from man-made materials. Synthetic fibers are sensitive to heat and are more prone to melting while ironing and steaming. While synthetic fabric gives you the look and flow you want, be mindful of how it responds to sewing and ironing.

Should you pre-wash fabric before sewing?

The short answer is yes, you should pre-wash all of your fabric so that if it’s going to shrink and shift, it’s better if it happens before you start cutting your fabric. Ultimately, it depends on your fabric and whether it will be washed again after it’s made, like clothing or a quilt. Read the full answer on pre-washing fabric.

How do you tell the right side from the wrong side of fabric?

Most fabrics have designated sides that are meant to be “seen” and “not seen”. Each side will likely have a different color or texture, or both. If your fabric has a design printed onto it, you will notice that the “right” side is more vibrant.

To sew the two pieces with RIGHT sides together, place the sides of the fabric that you want to be seen (the printed/smooth/preferred sides), and then sew as instructed. When the fabric is turned right side out, the seam will be hidden.

To place the WRONG sides of the fabric together, place the unwanted sides together, and sew as instructed.

What are stitches and seams?

A stitch is a loop of thread that is created by a needle pulling it through fabric. A seam is a line of stitches that can either hold two pieces of fabric together or can be used as a decorative line of stitches.

What is, and how do you do, a back stitch?

Back-stitching is sewing backward over your stitches to keep the ends of your thread from unraveling. Generally, you will sew forward a few stitches, then back-stitch a few stitches, and then continue on forward sewing. You don’t want to back-stitch back and forth too much or you’ll create a big lump of thread and will likely pucker your fabric.

What is a basting stitch? When do you use it?

A basting stitch is a set of long stitches that are usually used to hold something together temporarily. For example, sometimes you’ll baste two pieces of fabric together to keep them in place while you sew those 2 pieces to another piece of fabric. Or sometimes you’ll baste an applique onto your fabric to keep it in place while you then sew the edges down permanently. You might baste the most when creating gathers or ruffles. You can baste by hand or set your machine to its longest stitch and do a machine baste. Basting stitch can often be used as a decorative stitch, or as a border around different shapes.

How do you do a top stitch?

Sewing a top-stitch is when you sew along the top (or the “right” side) of the fabric. Generally, it parallels a seam or the edge of your fabric, to give the item a more tailored or professional look.

What is the standard seam allowance?

A seam allowance is the distance between the edge of the fabric and the sewn line. When sewing any project, a pattern designer always includes some sort of seam allowance into the pattern pieces, so that the finished project will turn out with the intended measurements. A very common seam allowance is 5/8 inch and this notch is usually the most visible sewing line on the sewing machine.

What is hem in clothing?

The hem is the edge of the fabric that has been folded under and sewn to keep the raw edge hidden and from unraveling. There are different techniques to hem fabric but the most common way is to fold the edge under once, another time, and then sew in place. The amount you fold the fabric under for your hem, depends on the author of the pattern you’re using, or personal preference.

What does it mean to clip curves in sewing?

You will need to clip straight lines into curves that look like a valley, cut notches into curves that look like a mountain, and then cut corners straight off…..in order to help with turning fabric right side out.

How do you gather fabric?

Gathering is a sewing technique used to shorten the length of your fabric piece so that you can then attach it to a shorter piece of fabric. Learn how to properly make and attach gathered fabric.

And, that’s it for now.

These are some of the most common terms used here on my site and many other sewing patterns and tutorials.  If you think of any others that you’d like a better description of, just let me know!

Now, go on and pull out that machine…..and get sewing!!

-Ashley

 

Ashley Johnston
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Ashley Johnston

Owner at Make It & Love It
Ashley Johnston is a professional DIY costume maker, sewist, crafter, and owner of Make It & Love It. She is a mom of 5 and a wife to a very patient (with the craft clutter) husband. In case you’re wondering, she always chooses crafting/sewing/designing over mopping/dusting/wiping base boards……but bathrooms/laundry/full bellies are always attended to. Whew!
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Comments

  1. Linh says:

    Love your explanations! Thanks for doing this. I am starting to learn to sew and this definitely cleared up some things I was just guessing from reading other instructions on making stuff.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you SO much for creating this guide! This is incredibly helpful and very thorough – the visual guides are awesome!

  3. Adelaide says:

    Thank you very much for this lesson. In South Africa we also baste chicken, Hahahahahaha

  4. Jenn says:

    This is the best information I have found yet! Thank you for the visuals.

  5. albert says:

    this did not show ever thing i needed

  6. lyn herring says:

    can you sew over the zipper teeth on a zipper.

  7. Jenny says:

    Hi Thank you you have really helped me!

  8. Cara says:

    Thank you!! I hardly ever comment on websites but I nee

    1. Cara says:

      *I need to thank you for this article :) thank you :) but darn my phone for posting a minute ago, before I was done typing lol

  9. Ruchi says:

    It’s another great article, I love stitching and have done some experimental projects and waste lot of fabric because of no proper knowledge , I’m not from English language country so my English is poor, but I can understand your article and it is very helpful for me, now I get so many ideas here which is difficult to search on web.

    Thanks a lot :)

  10. jenny says:

    thank you so much for all these explanations, that was really gracious of you. i’m not so much in the dark anymore ;–)

  11. Amy Sheppard says:

    While reading this information I was continually thinking of my mother. She taught me all of these terms, what they mean and how to apply them to my sewing projects. I am now teaching my granddaughter how to sew and am happy to use your words to describe all of this information to her. You put it in much better language than I could. Thank you again.

  12. Maja says:

    very useful! thanks!

  13. Sue Os says:

    I would like to add a couple of terms for those of us ‘across the pond’. I am making a pinafore (shift) dress at the moment using a vintage American pattern, and some of the words on the pattern totally flummoxed (confused) me! We use the word ‘tack’ for ‘baste’ (baste is something you do to a chicken when roasting!) and my pattern told me to ‘grade’ the seams. Hmmm….worked out that it means trim the seams at different lengths so that they sit flatter when finished. I’m sure there are more and I’ll let you know when I find them! Great articles, thanks!

    1. Ashley says:

      Haha……we baste turkeys here too! But we use baste for sewing more than tack, so thank you for pointing that out! Ooooh, and grading seams. That’s a good one to add, thank you so much!!!

      -Ashley

  14. Natalie in OKC says:

    This is wonderful! I sometimes teach sewing to young girls at my church, and this will be a great help in explaining the unfamiliar terms to them. Thank you so much!

    1. Ashley says:

      Oh perfect, I hope this will be helpful for them! :)

  15. Nataliya (SisterCraft) says:

    Ashley, thank you for this terms course! It’s also a great way to know all the sewing “names and words” in English)) like a language course for not-a-native-speaker))

    1. Nataliya (SisterCraft) says:

      Just an idea – to make a pdf booklet for downloading out of your posts:) I think everyone would be happy to get one from you!))

  16. Heather says:

    Love it!! And I’m pretty proud of myself- I knew all but one!

    1. Ashley says:

      Hooray!!! That’s awesome!

  17. Winter says:

    Such a thoughtful post! You’re very generous with your crafty knowledge!

    1. Ashley says:

      You’re so welcome Winter!

  18. Tharanar says:

    a very good crash course on everything I’ve learned over the years. :)

    1. Ashley says:

      Thanks so much…..I hope it’s helpful!

  19. lejimada says:

    It is best article for a long time… I am not from english speaking country and it helps me very much… Thanks :)

    1. Ashley says:

      Oh good, I’m glad this is helpful for you! :)

      -Ashley

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Hi, I’m Ashley—the DIY-enthusiast behind this crazy blog!

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