A guide to sewing terminolgy
When you start to sew you can come across a lot of confusing terminology. Our glossary below will help you make sense of the common sewing terms.
A – Applique – From the French verb ‘appliquer’ which means to apply/put on this term is used to describe a sewing technique of applying a fabric design/shape on top of another layer of fabric and then fixed into place, either by sewing or using a fusible agent.
B – Ballpoint needles – are sewing machine needles specially designed for sewing with knit fabrics. They have rounded tips, specially designed to slip in between fabric fibres and to prevent piercing them, which would damage knits.
Baste – (verb) – to hold a garment/item together temporarily using large running stitches in order to check fit and stop fabric slipping before permanent stitching. You can also baste quilts.
Bearding – A quilting term for when the wadding comes through onto the top of the quilt.
Bias Binding – Narrow strips of fabric used to neaten edges of hems and quilts. Can be handmade or bought ready to use.
Binding – a narrow strip of material which is sewn around the edge of a quilt, bag or item of clothing. The fabric for the binding can be cut on the straight grain or on the bias.
Bitsy bag – This bag hang from your sewing table by means of an attached pin cushion. The bag is used to put all your bits of threads and little bits of fabric. Saves them going onto the floor. Also you have a pincushion very handy for your pins.
Blind Hemming – This is when you turn up the edge of a garment and stitch so they are hidden from the surface/outside of the garment.
Boning – Boning is stiff metal or plastic strips that are used for support. It is normally used in strapless dresses or corsets, but boning can also be used for such things as stabilizing a square neckline, shaping a waist area, and even helping form a sleeve.
Broderie Perse – This is a form of appliqué, where designs or motifs (a bird or a flower, for example) are cut from a piece of printed fabric and then sewn onto another piece of fabric. It can be useful for ‘rescuing’ elements of a patterned fabric that is damaged, or for highlighting parts of a pattern that may be lost if the patterned fabric is too ‘busy’.
Bumblebunching – The tangled loops of stitching on the bobbin side of the fabric that result from improper tension when machine sewing.
Buttonholes – A sewn hole in the fabric made deliberately to allow buttons to pass through to fasten the item securely closed. Can be worked by hand or machine (with or without specialist foot).
C – Charm Square – Ready cut 5″ squares pieces of fabric used for patchwork.
Crazy quilting – The art of using every last scrap of leftover fabric in a productive manner, totally disregard any “rules of patchworking and simply stitch and enjoy
Cross Stitch – A popular needlework stitch that uses 2 stitches that cross over to produce an X in shape.
Cutting mat – Used in conjunction with a rotary cutter this self healing board is used for cutting fabic on, because it can self heal it is not left damaged or marked by the rotary cutter. They are often marked with measuring grids to help you cut your fabric to size.
D – Darn (or darning) – Usually refers to the repair of a small hole, often in knitwear. The warp and weft of the fabric are recreated by making large horizontal stitches across the back of the hole, then weaving the thread over and under these stitches in a vertical direction. (See Warp, Weft, Invisible Mend)
Dissolvable Fabric – A range of versatile water soluble fabrics, perfect for freeform machine embroidery. They completely dissolve on contact with water leaving only the stitch and other embellishments in place.
Dressmaking Pins – Designed to hold fabric and interface or two pieces of fabric in place, prior to sewing.
Dropping the feed dog– the feed dogs help hold the fabric in place and keep the stitches even. Free machine embroidery (as made popular by Poppy Treffry) is achieved by dropping the feed dogs, allowing the fabric to be moved freely in any direction. The machine will no longer regulate the stitch length for you, so you need to move the fabric carefully in order to achieve the length of stitches you require. It is best if the material is held firmly in an embroidery hoop when using this technique.
Duck cloth – from the Dutch word doek meaning cloth. A very useful, high quality, utility fabric, similar in feel and weight to canvas, available in different weights.
a guide to sewing terminology
E – Echo Quilting – The outline of a shape repeated in quilting lines often used for appliqued tops.
Embellishment – An embellishment is a decorative item added to improve the aesthetic appearance of a craft project. This can include beading, ornamental stitching, buttons, patches and so forth.
Embroidery hoop – Is a frame used to keep fabric taut and help maintain an even tension while stitching. Frames may be two wooden rings adjusted by a screw fitting on the outer ring or a metal springform hoop which fits into an outer plastic ring; these are particularly recommended for machine embroidery.
F – Fat Quarter – a quarter of a metre of fabric, measuring 18×22″. Mainly used for patchwork but great for other craft projects.
Feed-dogs – They are the little jagged feet that sit under your presser foot. If you can lift and lower these on your machine you will be able to use your machine for free hand embroidery.
Felting –The craft of compressing and condensing raw strands of wool to make felt items. Specialised needles can be used to creat 3D felted objects or brushes can be used to create flat felt fabrics.
Flexible Curve – a length of flexible metal covered with a square rubber sleeve that can be drawn round. This item is used in pattern drafting for neckline curves, armhole shapings, adding curves to any seams to allow them to follow the body’s natural contours.
Foot Pedal – The part of a sewing machine that controls the speed at which the needle enters the fabric. It is controlled by the foot of the machinist and usually attaches to the machine via a lead.
Free machine stitching – this means to drop the feed dogs or apply a darning plate then attach a darning foot. Doing this allow you to freely move your project in any direction creating your own free hand design.
French seam – with wrong sides together stitch your seam, turn wrong sides out (i.e. right sides together), press (optional) and restitch the seam, using a slightly larger seam allowance. This results in a neat seam with no raw edges to finish.
Frogging – The art of unpicking. Name attributed to the croaking sounds of frogs croaking ie rip-it, rip-it.
Fusible Fleece – An iron on interfacing made from soft, lightweight synthetic material. One side has an adhesive surface that when ironed bonds to other materials. Used to give volume and structure to projects such as bag making. It can be washed and tumbled dried.
Fussy Cut – this term is used to describe a method of cutting shapes out of printed fabric which puts a motif or design in a particular place on your shape. For example, if you are working on a patchwork quilt made up of squares and you want a rose in the centre of each square you could use a clear plastic template to fussy cut your square, making sure that the rose is at the centre of the square before you mark and cut your fabric.
G – Grade – to trim back the seam allowances to reduce bulk when turning (used most often when sewing facings).
Grain – a woven fabric has a lengthwise and crosswise grain which have no stretch, therefore it leads to a stable fabric. Ensuring pattern pieces are laid out on the correct grain line will lead to a garment that hangs correctly, as your pattern intended. Some pattern pieces are intended to be cut on the bias grain, diagonally, and they will drape, stretch, drop and will allow for manipulation around curves, i.e., necks and armholes.
H – Hem – term used to describe the finishing of the lower edge of a garment. The hem can be a single or double fold of the fabric secured by hand or machine stitches.
Hooks & Eyes – Hooks & eyes are small but comparatively strong fasteners though they are most often applied at single points of a garment opening, such as waistband or neckline, they can also be used to fasten an entire opening.
I – Interfacing – is an additional layer applied to the inside of garments, in certain areas only, to add firmness, shape, structure, and support to areas such as collars, cuffs, waistbands and pockets; and to stabilise areas such as shoulder seams or necklines, which might otherwise hang limply.
Interlining – a lovely soft, slightly brushed fabric used to add structure, weight and insulation to handmade curtains. It is attached between the top fabric and the curtain lining during making up, and is available in a variety of thicknesses and fibres. ‘Dommette’ is usually woven from cotton and is suitable for light to medium weight fabrics. ‘Bump’ is much thicker, also woven from cotton and used with heavier fabrics. A non-woven interlining made from man-made fibres is also available.
Interlocking Stitch – used in soft furnishings to hold all the layers of an interlined curtain together. Interlining is interlocked to the wrong side of the top fabric down the length of the curtain, across every third or quarter of each width of fabric used. The lining is then interlocked to the interlining in a similar fashion. The tiny stitches form a knot with a long loop of thread between each one.
Invisible Zip – These zips still have the 2 parallel rows of teeth but they are located at the back, behind the zip tape. If you choose an invisible zip that matches your fabrics colour then when inserted correctly only the slider will be visible and this is usually in the same colour, so will not stand out. This type of zip is usually found on formal garments, especially dresses.
I-Spy quilt – made from fussy cut fabrics (see fussy cut)often novelty prints for children to ‘spy’ in the quilt.
J – Jelly Roll – created by Moda, Jelly Rolls are a pack of precuts which are 2.5″ x 44″. They can also be called Roll Ups.
K – Knife Pleat – A single pleat turned in one direction.
Knitted fabric – Is a stretchy fabric that is not made by weaving yarn but by using stocking stitch on fine yarn and is often used with elastic fabric to produce swimwear and t shirt fabric.
L – Ladder stitch – used to close large openings or join two pattern pieces invisibly. Very useful for knitwear and rigid pieces of work.
Layer cake – a pack of pre-cut 10 inch squares used for patchwork, which can be cut again to create different shapes.
Lock stitch – This is the most usual and common type of stitching performed by sewing machines. A lock stitch is where two threads, one from the bobbin and one from the main thread are kept on their own side of the material, but literally ‘locked’ together each time the needle enters the fabric. The lockstitch is a secure stitch, that wont come undone once the material is removed from the machine. The alternative to a lockstitch is a ‘chain stitch’. Most children’s toy machine’s perform this stitch. It is not a secure stitch as it needs to be sewn in and tied once removed from the machine to prevent it from unravelling.
Long-Arm quilting – Machine and frame used together to allow sandwiching of layers and free-motion quilting eg: for larger quilts.
Long Stitch – An embroidery/tapestry stitch which can cover from 1 to 12 threads in one stitch. Can be horizontal or vertical and be done with any number of threads or yarn.
M – Mannequin – Or tailors dummy a synthetic human body that you can use to create patterns on by draping fabric onto it rather than cutting a pattern first.
Muslin – a loose weaved and light weight fabric that has a linen type weave.
N – Nap – applies to fabrics that have a pile, such as velvet, velour, corduroy. It is important to ensure that these fabrics are cut out with the pile running in the same direction as fabric is lighter if you run your hand in one direction and darker if rubbed in the opposite direction.
Notches – Diamond shaped marks that stick out beyond the edge of the pattern, to help you to line up all the pattern pieces when you sew the garment. They come in pairs to be matched up.
Notions – all those little things that mean so much when embarking on a sewing project. Think zips, thread, elastic, interfacing, buttons, hooks and eyes, ribbon and binding. Sometimes overlooked when purchasing the fabric, but all very essential for the end result to be perfect.
O – Open-Ended Zip – These zips still have the 2 parallel rows of teeth, however the ends are not joined and finish in a small box & pin mechanism to join the 2 sides at the base. These types of zips are most commonly used in jackets and coats.
Overlocker (Serger) – a specialised sewing machine that trims and neatens the edge of fabric. Some models can also be used to make a decorative flatlock stitch used on hems and decorative seams.
When to use an overlocker
P – Pattern Master – A Pattern Master is a specially shaped ruler used to aid pattern cutting. It is made of clear plastic and displays several markings and measurements required in creating or altering patterns. The Pattern Master works like an advanced Graders Set Square, but has a curved edge to further assist pattern cutters in their drawing.
Piecing – When two pieces of fabric are sewn together usually using a 1/4″ seam allowance.
Pinking shears – Scissors that cut a zigzag edge thereby reducing the risk of fraying.
Pin Cushion – a place to put pins and needles, available with wrist straps to make them accessible. Other pin cushions have materials to aid sharpening of pins and needle on use.
Pleats – Pleats are folds in fabric that provide controlled fullness. Pleating may occur as a single pleat, as a cluster, or around an entire garment section.
Q – Quarter Inch Machine Foot – A special sewing machine foot, supplied either with the machine or bought as an optional extra, great for sewing exact 1/4 inch seams, has a metal guide for fabric placement, perfect results for quilting projects.
QST – Abbreviation of quarter-square triangles.
Quick Unpick – a small tool that has a sharp pointed end, that when slid between stitches, will cut and unpick them. Makes for speedy work.
Quilting – The stitching which holds together the 3 layers of a quilt. This can be done by hand or by machine.
Quilt Label – A label to record the name of the maker, year, and recipient/s of quilt for future information
R – Raw Edge – This is the piece of material when cut, before hemming. If the raw edge is not ‘hemmed’ the edge may fray.
Ripping – An essential skill for a beginner quilter – the act of unpicking (or ripping) seams which are not precisely 1/4 inch, derived from muttering ‘Got to rip it all out AGAIN” under one’s breath!
Rotary cutter – A really useful tool for cutting material quickly and easily. It can cut throug several layers of fabric at once and is best used in combination with a quilting ruler or other straight edged implement.
Run and fell seam – With wrong sides together, stitch a straight seam, 5/8″ from edge. Trim one seam allowance to 1/4″ and press seam open with both seam allowances to one side with wider seam on top. Fold this wider allowance over trimmed edge and top stitch down along fold. Used in denim jeans.
Ruffler – An attachment to your sewing machine that you fit instead of a foot. It can be used to gather/pleat the fabric as you sew. It differs from a small gathering foot as the gathers can be adjusted in length and frequency of tucks.
S – Satin stitch – a short zigzag stitch that forms a solid line, often used in applique.
Scraps – all those left-over pieces of fabric that you keep for future projects.
Scribble – A continuous machine stitch which is useful for covering large or small areas of quilting when a specific design is not required. The lines of stitching should not cross or join with each, producing a meandering stitch which will suit any type of quilt.
Seam allowance – the distance between the edge of the fabric and the stitched line – common seam allowances are 1/4″ (for patchwork) and 3/8″ or 1/2″ (for dressmaking). Amongst patchworkers the ‘scant quarter inch seam’ can be particularly tricky and could be described as ‘infamous’ rather than ‘popular’!
Selvedge: The finished edges of fabric which do not fray. These edge are created during the weaving process by the horizontal weft thread as it loops back from the end of one row to the beginning of the next. Some selvedges have a different weave, or do not feature the print or pile of the main fabric, and so may not be not used in the construction of the final item. Selvedges sometimes also feature makers marks. For some garments, or fabrics where the selvedge is not significantly different from the main fabric, it can be used as a structural component – for example for hem edges.
Sew Together – often used to indicate that the next step will be to sew the fabric right sides or wrong sides together. Can also be used when organising a group of like minded people to meet at a certain time to enjoy beverages along with cake – cake is very important – and enjoying each others company whilst sewing.
Shirring – Shirring is formed with multiple rows of gathering & is primarily a decorative way of controlling fullness. In contrast to gathering, in which fullness is controlled with a seam, the fullness in shirring is controlled over a comparatively wide span.
Smart Edges – meaning to overlock.
Smocking – Smocking consists of fabric folds, decoratively stitched together at regular intervals to create a patterned effect. The folds may be pulled in when the stitching is done, or the fabric may be first gathered into folds & then smocked.
Snips – scissors deisgned to be used in one hand to cut threads
Snippeting – The collectable snipets of information saved for future projects.
Spit – a little bit of moisture used on finger and thumb which makes it easier to roll fabrics, tie knots etc.
Stash – Fabric which has been smuggled into the house without the knowledge (or consent) of your partner, and which is produced after a reasonable time has elapsed, when you can honestly say ‘I’ve had it for ages’
Stay Stitching – A straight line of stitching within the seam allowance and is used on curved or bias edges. It makes it easier to put in sleeves and collars using stay stitching.
Stitch n flip – To sew the pieces together and then flip over and press.
Stitch in the ditch – A term used to describe sewing along a seamline from the right side after the seam has been pressed open.
Stitch Unpicker – A small tool specially designed to slide under and cut through unwanted stitches.
Stumpwork – Stumpwork is an embroidery technique originating in the 17th century. Individual elements of each design are raised up from the background by using padding or by applying the shape to wire before stitching to the background thereby creating a 3D effect.
Sewing with scraps
Scraps of fabric
T – Tacking – Very large stitches used to hold two pieces of cloth together to make sewing easier. The tacking stitches are removed once the permanent seam has been sown.
Tacking Thread – is very easy to break thread, designed for tacking and transferring markings from pattern to fabric. It is great for temporarily marking or stitching fabric as it can be easily removed – it breaks very easily and can be torn by hand. Because of this, it isn’t really suitable for anything other than tacking.
Tailor’s chalk – A piece of chalk used to mark fabric.
Toile – from the French meaning cloth, a toile is a test garment made up by a seamstress or dress maker out of cheap fabric to test the cut, size and shape of a garment and to check for any alterations before cutting the more expensive fashion fabric.
Top stitching – stitching close to the edge of a seam (on the right side, or ‘top’ of the piece) to stop seam allowances and facings from rolling or moving. Gives a professional finish, particularly useful when making bags and is also often used on necklines. Top stitching can either be decorative (use a decorative ‘fancy’ stitch or contrasting thread) or ‘invisible’ (use matching thread).
Tracing Wheel – used with dressmakers carbon to transfer information from the paper pattern to the fabric, such as positions and sizes of darts, circles, etc.
Twin Needle – An attachment for your sewing machine that produces parallel rows of decorative stitching in one easy step.
U – Understitch – when a line of stitching is made on a facing close to the seam through the facing and all the seam allowances. This encourages the facing to sit smoothly and not roll to the outside.
Unpicking – Something that we don’t like to admit to having to do, but when we do have to do it, it can take as long (if not longer) than the sewing in the first place. Usually occurs when in a hurry to complete something or when a very small stitch has been used.
V – Variegated thread – multi-coloured used for top stitching or quilting to create a different look or interesting effect on a garment or quilt.
Vertical Bobbin –The bobbin moves back and forth to pick up the thread.
W – Wadding – Wadding refers to a fibrous material (such as cotton, wool or bamboo) used for filling items such as quilts, wall hangings and placemats. It comes in various thicknesses depending on the level of insulation required and can be purchased in a selection of pre-cut lengths or cut off the roll for a unique size. Also known as batting or filler.
Warp – The threads that run down woven fabric.
Whipstitch – Visible stitches, wrapped around two edges, to join them together. Useful for sewing up soft toys.
Whoopsadaisy – A meandering machine stitch which has crossed and merged with other lines forming the shape of a flower, typically a daisy.
X – Xilinous – An obscure adjective relating/pertaining to cotton.
Y – Y-adjustment – One type of method for a full bust adjustment and described by Palmer/Pletsch. Takes its name from the shape of the alteration lines which run from i) the armhole notch to the bust apex, ii) the middle of the shoulder seam to the bust apex, and iii) vertically from the bust apex to the hem.
Yo-Yo – also known as a Suffolk Puff or a Rosette, this is made by running stitches around the edge of a circle of fabric and pulling them tight to draw the fabric up. Turning the edge of the fabric over as you stitch, towards the wrong side, gives a neater look. Tie off your thread and apply the yo-yo, drawn side up, to your project. Amy Butler’s ‘Bloom Quilt’ shows these off beautifully http://amybutlerdesign.com/pdfs/Bloom_Quilt.pdf
Z – Zig-Zag Stitch – The stitch can be used for decorative purpose or for tidy up of seams; adjusting width and length allows you to achieve all sorts of effects; some modern machines allow patterns that involve zig-zag stitches.
Zip – These are a closure method that uses 2 parallel rows of teeth that are attached to fabric tape. These are then stitched into an opening and closed using a slider which locks the teeth together. Standard zips are usually closed at the end of the tape – often in the form of a staple holding the 2 fabric tapes together.
The terms in this sewing glossary were provided by followers of The Sewing Directory in a competition we ran a few years ago. If you’d like to contribute any terms please do contact us.