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June 20, 2019 8 min read

As you follow sewing instructions, do you ever wonder what some words mean? Words like baste, bias, dart, feed dogs, grade, grain, nap, and stiletto mean something totally different in the world of sewing.

We made this glossary to clarify confusing jargon you encounter while sewing. It’s a list of commonly used sewing terms that we’ll update from time to time. Not only will it help you follow a sewing pattern, it just might inspire you to sew.

The Sewfinity Sewing Glossary

APPLIQUE

Sewing a piece of fabric onto another piece of fabric, for decoration.

BACKSTITCH

Sewing a few stitches in reverse at the beginning or end of a seam. These backwards stitches reinforce the seam so it doesn’t come apart.

BALLPOINT NEEDLE

Sewing machine needle with a rounded point. The ballpoint passes between fibers instead of piercing them, which is ideal for knit fabrics. Also known as jersey needle.

BASTE

Keeping fabric layers together temporarily until they can be sewn together. Basting can be done with pins, glue, or long stitches. Also known as tacking.

BASTING STITCH

Straight stitch with a very long stitch length. Ideal for holding fabrics together temporarily or for gathering fabric.

BATTING

Soft material that is used as a middle layer to provide warmth/structure to a project, often made from cotton, wool, polyester, or bamboo. Used as the middle layer of a quilt. Also known as wadding.

BIAS

Diagonal line that intersects the lengthwise and crosswise grains. The true bias is a 45-degree angle diagonal line. This is the most stretchy part of the fabric, working well for sewing curves.

BIAS TAPE

Strip of fabric cut on the bias. It’s not really “tape”, as in being sticky. Also known as bias binding, and can have long edges folded in.

BINDING

Strip of fabric sewn to the edge of something to cover the raw edges.

BOBBIN

Circular container that holds the thread that makes up the bottom portion of a machine stitch. It’s a cylinder on which thread is wound.

BOUND SEAM

Seam with enclosed raw edges with the use of binding strips.

CASING

Fabric tunnel for something to pass through, such as elastic for a waistband or a rod for a curtain.

CATCHSTITCH

Hand-sewn X-shaped stitch over fabric raw edges.

CROSSWISE GRAIN

The weft threads that run perpendicular to the selvage in woven fabric. Slightly more stretchy than the lengthwise grain. Also known as cross grain.

DARN

To repair damaged areas of fabric with weave-like running stitches.

DART

Triangular fold in the fabric sewn into a wedge, giving shape to the project. Commonly used in fitted garments.

EDGESTITCH

Sewing really close to the edge of something from the right side of the project, usually 1/16” to 1/8” away from a fold, seam intersection, or stitching line. Gives reinforcement or decorative finish, or both. Most often a straight stitch with a slightly longer stitch length. Similar to topstitching, but with closer distance to the edge.

ENCASED SEAM

Seam with enclosed raw edges within the seam itself.

FAT EIGHTH

Piece of fabric measuring 9“ x 22”. A fat eighth yields more variety of cut shapes than an eighth-yard of fabric (4.5“ x 44”), and is therefore more versatile for patchwork and quilting. A fat eighth will be sometimes be indicated as 9“ x 21”, which is the approximate size after removing the selvage. It’s cut by cutting a half yard of quilting cotton (18“ x 44”) in half and in half again the other direction.

FAT QUARTER

Piece of fabric measuring 18“ x 22”. A fat quarter yields more variety of cut shapes than a quarter-yard of fabric (9“ x 44”), and is therefore more versatile for patchwork and quilting. A fat quarter will be sometimes be indicated as 18“ x 21”, which is the approximate size after removing the selvage. It’s cut by cutting a half yard of quilting cotton (18“ x 44”) in half again.

FEED DOGS

Spiky teeth that rise up at each stitch motion to move the fabric under the presser foot of a sewing machine.

FLAT-FELL SEAM

Encased seam that has two rows of stitching on the each side. It’s made by stitching twice: sewing wrong sides together, trim one seam allowance, fold the untrimmed seam allowance under so that the fold almost meets the seam, fold the seam allowance again to enclose, and edgestitch close to the fold.

FRENCH SEAM

Encased seam that has a narrow folded fabric flap on the wrong side. It’s made by stitching twice: sewing wrong sides together, trim the seam allowance, then sewing the right sides together.

GATHER

Shortening a longer fabric to fit a shorter fabric, by bunching up the longer fabric’s edges to create fullness.

GRADE

Adjusting the seam’s raw edges so that each layer is a different width. This layered seam is less bulky than if the raw edges are aligned.

INTERFACING

Inner layer of material to provide structure to a sewing project.

INTERLINING

Second layer of lining that provides structure and warmth. Contained between exterior and lining layers, usually joined to the lining pieces.

JEANS NEEDLE

Sewing machine needle with a very sharp point and thick shaft. Excellent for heavy wovens like denim and canvas. Also known as denim needle.

LENGTHWISE GRAIN

The warp threads that run parallel to the selvage in woven fabric. The strongest and least stretchy part of the fabric. Also known as straight grain or grainline.

LINING

Additional layer of fabric on the inside of a project. Provides a smooth interior.

MICROTEX NEEDLE

Sewing machine needle with a very sharp point. The extra sharp tip and narrow shaft easily pierce through fibers, which is ideal for finely woven fabrics. Excellent for high thread count fabrics, super-fine microfibers, and precision sewing such as patchwork. Also known as sharp needle.

MOCK FRENCH SEAM

Encased seam that has a narrow folded fabric flap on the wrong side. It’s made by stitching twice: sewing right sides together, trim and fold in each seam allowance, then edgestitch the folded edges of the seam allowance together.

NAP

Directional texture in fabric, such as velvet and corduroy.

OVERCAST STITCH

Stitching over a seam’s raw edges, giving a seam finish, but not forming the seam itself. In hand sewing, it can be a diagonal stitch over the fabric raw edges. In machine sewing, it can be a zigzag or any other stitch that covers the edge of the fabric. Also known as overedge stitch.

OVERLOCK STITCH

Stitching over a seam’s raw edges, giving a seam finish and forming the seam itself.

PINKING SHEARS

Fabric scissors with blades that cut a zigzag, instead of a straight line. This finishes the fabric edge to prevent raveling.

PRESSER FOOT

Detachable part of your sewing machine that holds the fabric in place while sewing. There are all kinds of presser feet designed for a variety of specialized functions.

QUARTER-INCH FOOT

Presser foot designed with exact edges to allow a perfect 1/4-inch seam allowance.

QUILT

Three layers of material sewn together: quilt top, middle, and quilt back. Or, the act of stitching together the three layers.

RAVEL

When threads of a fabric’s raw edge come loose and the fabric starts to fall apart.

RAW EDGE

Cut edge of fabric.

RIGHT SIDE

Side of fabric that will show on the finished project.

RUNNING STITCH

Short, even stitch. Similar to a basting stitch, except shorter.

SEAM

Where fabrics are sewn together. The seam line is the line of stitches.

SEAM ALLOWANCE

Space between the fabric raw edge and the seam line.

SEAM FINISH

Treating the raw edges of fabric to give a neat appearance and to make the sewn project last longer. The goals of finished seams are to prevent raveling and looking (and feeling) good on both sides of the project.

SEAM GUIDE

Accessory for your sewing machine that helps make straight and even seams in an exact width.

SEAM RIPPER

Tool for removing stitches.

SELF-BOUND SEAM

Encased seam that has a narrow folded fabric flap on the wrong side. It’s made by stitching twice: sewing right sides together, trim one seam allowance, fold the untrimmed seam allowance twice to enclose the other, and edgestitch close to the fold.

SELVAGE

Tightly-woven edge of fabric. This sturdy finished edge runs along both lengthwise edges of woven fabric, and is produced during manufacturing to prevent raveling. Also known as selvedge.

SERGER

Specialized sewing machine that uses two to five threads to form an overlock stitch while simultaneously trimming the seams. Also known as overlock machine.

SEWING

Act of making stitches with needle and thread.

SEWING GAUGE

Small ruler with a sliding marker. Ideal for measuring and marking seams and hems.

SHEARS

Fabric scissors that have one handle larger than the other.

STAYSTITCH

Directional stitching that prevents the fabric shape from being distorted or stretched out, such as a neckline.

STILETTO

Pointed tool with a handle that aids in sewing precision. The sharp point holds fabric layers in place close to the needle of the sewing machine, allowing full control of layers just before they’re sewn - especially helpful for sewing binding, joining small pieces of fabric, or matching seams.

STITCH

Stroke of thread passed through material, either by hand or by machine. There are many types of functional and decorative stitches in a variety of lengths and widths.

STRAIGHT STITCH

Straight line of stitching.

STRAIGHT STITCH FOOT

Presser foot designed with extra support to help reduce puckering. Ideal for single-needle straight stitches.

STRAP SEAM

Bound seam that has a binding strip on the wrong side. It’s made by stitching three times: sew right sides together, trim seam allowance and press it open, fold under both long edges of bias binding, place on top to cover raw edges of the pressed-open seam allowance, and edgestitch both long sides of bias binding. The binding can also be placed on the right side, for a decoration. Twill tape may also be used.

STRETCH STITCH

Stitch formed with a forward and backward motion, resulting in many stitches being formed in the same place. As a result, the stitch stretches with the fabric, which is ideal for sewing with knit and stretchy fabrics.

THIMBLE

Protective covering for your finger that pushes the needle through the fabric while hand sewing.

TOPSTITCH

Sewing really close to the edge of something from the right side of the project, usually 1/8” to 1/4” away from a fold, seam intersection, or stitching line. Gives reinforcement or decorative finish, or both. Most often a straight stitch with a slightly longer stitch length. Similar to edgestitching, but with farther distance from the edge.

TURNING TOOL

Device for turning fabric tubes/tunnels right side out.

UNDERLINING

Type of lining that makes transparent fabrics less see-through, such as lace. Provides strength to a project. Cut and joined to each fabric pattern piece and treated as one piece.

UNDERSTITCH

Straight stitch very close to the edge of a seam from the right side of the project, sewing on the lining (or facing) side. This attaches the lining to the seam allowances underneath, preventing it from rolling toward the outside of the project.

UNIVERSAL NEEDLE

Sewing machine needle with a very slightly rounded point. The somewhat sharp point makes it an all-purpose needle for sewing woven or knit fabrics. Think of it as a microtex-ballpoint hybrid.

WALKING FOOT

Presser foot designed to move the upper fabric layer at the same rate as the bottom layer, ideal for sewing balanced stitches in thick multiple layers in projects like quilting and bag-making.

WIDTH OF FABRIC (WOF)

Measurement of the fabric selvage-to-selvage.

WOVEN FABRIC

Weave of two sets of threads at right angles: the warp threads run parallel to the selvage along the lengthwise grain, and the weft threads run perpendicular to the selvage along the crosswise grain.

WRONG SIDE

Side of fabric that is on the inside and and hidden in the finished project.

YARD

Piece of fabric measuring 36 inches by the width of fabric (WOF).

ZIGZAG FOOT

Presser foot designed with a wide opening so the needle can move left and right. Ideal for zigzag stitches, but can also be used for many other stitches, including straight stitches. Also known as all-purpose foot.

ZIGZAG STITCH

Stitch made of alternating and intersecting diagonal lines. Ideal for a stretch stitch, seam finishing, and applique.

ZIPPER FOOT

Presser foot designed with an open edge that allows the needle to stitch very close to something, such as zipper teeth, piping, and cording.


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