Sewing glossary: beginner’s guide to sewing terms

New to sewing or dressmaking and trying to make sense of your first pattern? We've put together this handy glossary of sewing terms to help you learn the lingo.

Sewing glossary

Applique

Stitching a small piece of fabric on top of another, usually for decoration. This can be done by hand often using blanket stitch or by machine using a zig zag stitch.

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Backstitch

Also called reverse stitch this is done at the beginning and end of a seam to prevent it from coming undone. It’s also used to describe an embroidery stitch where the stitches are worked backwards so they touch each other to form a solid line of stitching.

Bias

This is the stretchiest part on the fabric which runs diagonally to the selvedge or straight grain of the fabric.

Binding

A method to encase the raw edges of the fabric using a narrower strip of fabric. Ready-made bias binding can be used for this or fabric strips cut on the bias.

Bobbin

A plastic or metal cylinder which holds the bottom thread of a sewing machine. Thread is wound on the bobbin and this lower thread loops with the upper needle thread to form the stitches

Bodice

Then part of a garment which reaches from the shoulder to the waist. It can be attached to the skirt piece to form a dress.

Casing

A channel usually made from an edge of fabric which is folded over and stitched down. It can be used to hold a drawstring or elastic to gather clothing such as a waistband or at the top of a bag to close it.

Clip

Small snips made into the fabric edge. These can be used to help a seam lie flat or remove bulk from the fabric. They are ideal for rounded edges or for easing tight curves. Small snips are used for outside curves or little wedges, called notches are clipped out for inner curves.

Cutting line

On a pattern, this is the line you cut along. This is either the the outer, usually solid,  line or the patterned line relevant to your size.

Darts

Stitched folds used to shape a garment by taking away fullness from a seam line. They are usually wedge or triangle shaped and often used at the bust, waistline, hips and back. They allow the garment to fit smoothly over a rounded area of the body. Darts are marked on the fabric from the pattern then stitched from the broad end towards the point, tapering narrowly. Darts with points at both ends should be stitched in two separate sections starting in the centre each time and tapering to the point.

Drape

A term used to describe the way a fabric hangs under its own weight. Different fabric have different drape qualities as some are more fluid than others.

Ease

The addition of extra fabric in a pattern to allow the finished garment to fit the body well without being too tight but draping well.

Edgestitch

A row of stitching on the very edge of a garment, usually 2-3mm (1618in) from the folded or seamed edge. Used to hold the fabric edge neatly in place.

Eyelet

Also called grommets, these are made from metal, plastic, or rubber and inserted into a hole in the fabric. Used to reinforce the hole, and are inserted using  a special tool which is often sold with the eyelets.

Facing

These stabilise and create a neat finish on the edge of the garment such as the neckline or armholes. The facing is cut separately and often stiffened using interfacing. It is then sewn right sides together with the garment edge, then turned to the inside and pressed for a neat finish.

Fat quarter

Used to describe a cut piece of fabric often used for patchwork. Half a yard of fabric is cut from the length of the fabric then this is cut in half again. This usually measures 18x22in (46x55cm) if cut from a standard 44in (112cm) width fabric.

Finger pressing

Using your fingers and pressure to open a seam flat either for speed or for a seam that may not be suitable for pressing with an iron.

Finishing/neatening raw edges

This is to stop the fabric edges, particularly of a seam from fraying. It can be done by machine zig zag, using an overlocker or trimming the edge with pinking shears. It’s easier to finish raw edges before you stitch the seam.

Fold line

Many pattern pieces are placed on the fold of a piece of fabric to ensure you cut a symmetrical piece. Follow the cutting layout to see whether to fold the fabric right sides or wrong sides together then place the edge of the pattern pieces marked ‘cut on the fold’ right up to the fold of the fabric then pin and cut out.

Free motion

Usually used for machine embroidery or quilting this describes machine sewing worked with the feed dogs down, allowing you to move the fabric freehand for more fluid sewing.

Fusible

Also referred to as iron-on and used to describe interfacing or webbing. The fusible, rougher side has the glue applied and should be placed directly onto the fabric. The heat of the iron melts the glue allowing to stick in place once cool.

French seam

A completely enclosed strong seam which is stitched on both sides of the fabric to enclose all of the raw edges for a neat finish.

Gather

Gathering one piece of fabric allows it to fit a shorter piece of fabric. A line of hand or machine stitching is worked along the fabric then the stitches are pulled to gather it. Once pinned it can then be permanently stitched in place. Often used for inserting wider sleeves into armholes or for a dress skirt to fit to a bodice.

Grain/grainline

The direction of the fabric which runs parallel to the selvedge. Patterns have the grainlines printed on them, usually represented as an arrow and you should make sure this arrow is parallel to the fabric selvedge before pinning in place. This makes sure the cut pieces all face the correct direction which is particularly important for patterned, textured or napped fabrics.

Hem

The finished, usually turned under and stitched lower edge of a garment. It creates a neat edge and prevents fraying. Patterns usually include extra fabric for the hem which is specified in the pattern instructions.

Interfacing

This is usually a non-woven fabric, available in different thicknesses or weights, which is applied to fabric to stiffen it or stabilise it to prevent it from stretching out of shape. It can also be woven or knitted depending on the usage and is either iron on (fusible) or sewn in (non-fusible).

Nap

Fabrics like velvet, corduroy and fur have hairs or loops which aren’t quite vertical but lie in a particular direction, this is called the nap or pile. The hairs lie smooth and flat with the nap when your hand over them. When cutting out pattern pieces make sure the grainline arrow always runs in the direction of the nap so they all look the same as the nap is shinier in one direction

Notions

Small tools or accessories used in sewing other than the fabric and the machine  such as zips, fasteners, lace and buttons.

Overlocking

An overcast stitch used to prevent the fabric from fraying. Overlockers are machine which not only work this overlock stitch but also trim the seams allowance at the same time. Known as sergers in the U.S.

Pattern/cutting layout

Directions in the pattern instructions which show exactly how to fold the fabric and lay the pattern pieces on it for pinning and cutting.

Piping

A cord encased in a strip of folded over fabric which is used as a decorative edge often for cushions or upholstery. Narrow piping can be used in seams in dressmaking.

Press

Pressing as you stitch gives a garment a professional finish and pressing should be done as each seam or area is completed so the next stage lies well. Use a temperature to suit your fabric. Pressing is to place the hot iron on the fabric and hold or ’press’ into place. Ironing is moving the iron backwards and forwards to remove creases.

Quilting

A method of sewing two layers of fabric by hand or machine with a layer of wadding in between. Used to hold the layers together and also for decoration.

Raw edge

The cut edge of fabric that is not stitched or finished in any way.

Right side (RS)

The side of the fabric with the design on it, also called the ‘public’side. For a plain fabric, the right side is usually a little brighter or shiner. side. If you can’t deicded which is which then label it so you always use the same side as the right side.

Seam allowance

The fabric between the raw or cut edge of the fabric and the seam is called the seam allowance. Patterns state the seam allowance to be used which is mostly commonly 1.5cm (58in) for dressmaking but can vary. Allow use the correct seam allowance for a perfect finish. These are marked on the sewing machine to help keep the fabric straight whilst stitching.

Selvedge

The finished woven edge of fabric which often has the fabric name printed along one selvedge. The grain runs parallel to this and the bias diagonally. Called selvage in the US.

Slip stitch

Often used in hems or for closing a turning gap this is design to be invisible from both sides. Small, neat almost invisible stitches are worked into the fold of the fabric with a fabric thread caught on the other side.

Staystitching

A line of regular machine stitching usually worked 3mm (18in) inside the seam line used to stabilise curved edges in particular, to stop them stretching out of shape. This is worked before the permanent stitching then curves can be clipped up to the staystitching if required

Tack/Tacking

A line of temporary stitching used to hold fabric pieces together before machine sewing. These are removed once the permanent stitching is complete. Known as basting in the U.S.

Tension

This refers to the pressure being placed on the needle and bobbin thread by the sewing machine. The thread tension and the bobbin tension needs to be set correctly following the sewing machine manual for neat and even stitches. Higher specification models will set the correct tension for you.

Toile

A test garment, often made from muslin or calico to check the fit or test a pattern before the real fabric is used. Known as a muslin in the U.S.

Topstitching

A line of stitching worked in the same way as edgestitching but usually 5mm (1.4in) from the folded or seam edge. Used to neaten the fabric edge, to hold the seam in place and as decorative finish.

Understitching

A line of machine stitching worked through the facing and seam allowance 3mm (18in) from the seam, to keep the facing rolling to the outside of the garment.

The stitching line will not be not visible on the outside.

Wrong side (WS)

The side of the fabric without the design on it. For a plain fabric, the wrong side is usually a little duller or faded. side.

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Zigzag stitching

A sewing machine stitch, which is mainly used for neatening raw edges and also ideal for stretch fabrics as the stitch is slightly elastic. The length and width of it can be altered on the machine and is a decorative stitch which is often used in applique. A satin stitch can be worked using a stitch length of zero.