If you’re new to the world of sewing and garment making, first of all - welcome! You’ve entered into a magical world of creativity and individuality, and I’m so glad you’re here. When you discover a new hobby, sometimes the terminology and additional hobby-focused information can be a little overwhelming at first. We’ve all been there, trust me. But never fear, because I am here to help!
As well as hosting Beginner and Intermediate Sewing online courses, I also run workshops and evening courses. Feel free to view our course page if you’re interested in finding out more information on the type of tuition I can offer you. I’m experienced in teaching beginners everything they need to know about sewing, and often find that terminology queries arise on my social media channels, and the Kernow Sewcial Facebook Group.
Getting started with sewing is an exciting and rewarding experience, so let’s go through the A-Z of basic terminology you’re likely to come across as a beginner sewist.
Note: This glossary has been written for beginners!
This blog post is aimed at complete beginners who want to start creating projects straight away. A more comprehensive list of sewing terms will be available in the future - sign up to the Start To Stitch newsletter if you’d like to be among the first to receive it.
Sewing a piece of fabric on top of another layer of fabric, so that they seamlessly look as one. The layer that you’re applying on top is sometimes folded slightly at the edges to create a clean look, or a satin stitch is used to completely cover the raw edge of the piece being appliqued.
Back-tack / back-stitch:
This stitch is used at the beginning and end of a sewing machine seam to anchor the thread in place. It refers to adding a couple of extra stitches backwards and forwards and can also be referred to as back tracking. Back-stitching can also refer to a type of embroidery stitch.
Baste or basting-stitch (also known as tacking):
Temporary stitching used to hold fabric in place; this is removed when your permanent sewing is done. Can be done by hand or sewing machine.
Diagonal cross-grain of the fabric at 45 degrees; the area of fabric that has the most stretch.
Narrow strips of fabric that are cut on the bias of the fabric at 45 degrees; the area of fabric that has the most stretch. This makes a tape that can be used to bind or face curved areas of your make.
A plastic or metal spool that you wind thread around. It goes into the bottom of your sewing machine to feed a line of thread beneath the needle and must be inserted and wound up properly.
A long, flat, needle-like tool with a blunt end that is used to thread elastic, ribbon and other materials through casing. We sell some lovely, handmade wooden bodkins in our Start To Stitch shop.
A small cut in the fabric that’s bound with small stitching. The hole is just big enough to allow a button to pass through it.
A folded over edge in a garment, usually around the waist. Used to enclose a way of adjusting the fit of the garment, such as using a draw string.
Precut 5″ squares pieces of fabric used for patchwork and other sewing projects.
Repair a hole in clothing without using a patch.
A hem that’s folded once to enclose the raw edge of the fabric, then folded again for the hem allowance.
Creating a sewing pattern based on body measurements.
A way of sewing a length of fabric into a bit of a smaller space without resulting in gathers or puckers.
Also – the amount of space in a garment to enable it to fit the body better.
Edging:Trims or decorative needlework that is used on the edge of the fabric.
A decorative item added to a craft project for aesthetic reasons; includes beads, buttons, patches etc.
Small holes are cut out in the fabric, then finished with an embellishment of thread around the opening.
The method of fastening two separate bits of fabric together, such as zippers or buttons.
A piece of fabric that is stitched to an opening such as a neckline, armhole or hem, on the inside of the garment. It stabilises this area and ensures a smooth fit and finish.
As the name suggests, a fat quarter is a quarter of a metre of fabric but instead of being a strip cut on a linear length, it is a square (and because its a US measurement for quilting measures 18×22. It’s often used for patchwork and other crafting projects. Here’s a YouTube explanation that delves into what a fat quarter is and how it’s measured.
Metal teeth like ridges that help to push the fabric along as you sew.
This refers to the fold in the centerfold or along the grain of your fabric. Many pattern pieces are placed on the fold line for cutting out.
The part of a sewing machine that controls the speed at which the needle enters the fabric, and therefore the speed at which you sew. It is controlled by your foot and usually attaches to the sewing machine via a cable.
A seam often used on delicate and sheer fabrics that helps to hide any raw edges in a neat double fold. Seam allowances are enclosed in this type of fold.
Running a thread along the fabric and then bunching the fabric up along the thread to create a ruffle a frill or the top of a puffed sleeve or gathered skirt at a waistband
Grain / Grain line :
The true grain runs parallel to the selvedge, and is visible in a woven fabric by looking closely at the threads - the warp threads denote the true grain. Pattern pieces are generally laid along the grain line, and this direction is shown on them by a double headed arrow
The cross grain can also be used in place of the true grain on some stable woven fabrics - this is found at 90 degrees to the selvedge and can be spotting by following the weft threads from side to side of the woven cloth.
Because some cloth is woven slightly wonky - it is always best as a beginner to focus on the true grain only to ensure your makes hang well and are as easy as possible to sew.
Finishing the last details of your garment or sewing project by hand, as opposed to using a sewing machine.
Hand wheel (also known as balance wheel):
Use the hand wheel on the edge of your sewing machine to adjust the height of your needle.
The edge of the garment or fabric project that is folded over and sown under in order to keep the raw edges from fraying and unravelling.
Interfacing is used to stabilise areas of a garment such as necklines, facings and zip insertions. It is a material used as a secondary layer of fabric in order and adds more stability and thickness to a garment. It can be stitched in, or ironed on ( fusible )
A hand stitch used to close a seam invisibly. Use commonly to close gaps after you have pulled an item through to the right side.
Layout or lay:
The optimal layout refers to laying the patterns on your fabric in a way that ensures you do not create too much waste fabric, remain on grain, and ensure that the decorative pattern or nap of your fabric is in the same direction on all of your cut pieces.
An inner layer of fabric underneath a top layer, often used in garment making to reduce friction ( to make things hang better ) and to hide all the inner workings of the make.
A dominant design element, usually ironed, embroidered or stitched on.
This term is used when dealing with fabrics that have a pile, such as velvet and corduroy. It’s important to cut these fabrics with the pile running in the same directions as the fabric’s hue changes depending on the way it is rubbed.
Small indents, usually diamonds or triangles, that are printed on the cutting line of a pattern, on the seam allowance. This indicates where the seams should meet, or another pattern piece should fit.
All the other items that you use while creating sewing projects - things along the lines of buttons, hooks, and elastic.
A specialised sewing machine that trims and neatens the edge of fabrics.
A weight that’s used to keep paper patterns in place, rather than using pins. Commonly used in combination with a rotary cutter and cutting mat
A decorative finish where a piece of cord is encased in a piece of bias binding and stitched into a seam so that on the wrapped cord is visible. Usually used on homesown items such as cushions, and also on garments.
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.
Pleats are folds in fabric that add to fullness, and reduce a long width of fabric into a shorted length to attach to a waistband or sleeve head for example. There are different varieties of pleats, and these depend on the style and fitting of the garment you’re making.
Holds the fabric in place as you sew with your sewing machine.
The unfinished edge of fabric, after cutting before you have overlocked, or hemmed.
The right side of the fabric is usually the design side. There are instances of fabric with no right or wrong side visible, or you may choose to use the reverse of your fabric to face out on your garment and so the determination and appropriate markings are then made by the person doing the pattern cutting and sewing.
A tool used for cutting fabric quickly and easily. It can cut through several layers of fabric at once. It is a circular wheel / blade attached to handle which you roll along your fabric to slice through - you will always need a cutting mat to prevent damage to your table!
The amount of fabric which is between the edge and the seam. In older patterns this is ⅝ of an inch. More modern patterns tend to leave 1cm unless extra is required for fitting or french seams.
Where two pieces of fabric have been sown together.
A tool used to rip seams from the fabric and undo stitches previously made.
The finished edge on either side of your cut cloth
Keeps the spool of thread in place so the thread can be fed through your sewing machine.
Sewing a line of straight stitch along the curved areas of a cut pattern piece before assembling into a seam, in order to stabilise and prevent distortion.
The length of your machined stitches. In general, regular sewing is made with stitches that are about 3-4 mm and basting/gathering/bunching/sleeve easing stitches are about 5mm.
The width of your machined stitches. A regular straight stitch has no stitch width because the needle is in a stationary position and does not move from side to side.
When you make a zig-zag stitch, the needle moves left to right as well as up and down, and the width is the distance in mm of needle drops left to right. A good zig-zag stitch for stretch top stitching is 2.5mm length and 2.5mm width.
The stitch setting on your machine that looks like a straight line. The needle creates this by puncturing the fabric up and down on the same spot as the fabric is pushed through the machine by the feed dogs.
A sharp tool on the edge of your sewing machine for cutting excess thread.
Material, such as cotton or wool, that is used for filling items.
The threads that travel along the width of your fabric from selvedge to selvedge
The threads that travel along the length of your fabric, running parallel with the selvedge
The opposite side of the fabric to the side you have chosen to face out
The stitch setting on your machine that looks like a zig-zag line. The needle creates this by puncturing the fabric up as well as moving from left to right as the fabric is pushed through the machine by the feed dogs.
A zip is constructed from two tapes, usually attached at the bottom, each with a row of tiny ‘teeth’ that interlock when the tapes are pulled through a ‘pull’
Invisible zips are designed so that the seam covers up the teeth mechanism and the zipper can be concealed.
Open-ended zips still have the 2 parallel rows of teeth, however the ends are not joined. Instead they meet in a small box and pin mechanism, allowing you to separate two parts entirely - this is often found in jackets and coats.
And... don't forget if you have any questions at all - just pop into my FREE Facebook group Kernow Sewcial for tips tricks advice and an incredible and lovely community to support you!
Sewing. pattern cutting, teaching, tea and Jelly Babies!