25 Basic Sewing Terms Explained

If you’re new to sewing or just need to brush up on the basics, it helps to know some essential sewing terms. You’ll see these words used in instructions, patterns, and tutorials. Knowing the terminology will help make your project a success.

sewing on basic sewing machinesewing on basic sewing machine

Terms for Stitches

There are dozens of different stitches involved in sewing, but there are only a few you’ll run into on a regular basis. Here are a few basics:

Baste

To baste is to use large stitches to temporarily sew two pieces of fabric together. This allows the seamstress to check the fit or perform more complicated stitches.

Hem

A hem is the finished edge of a piece of fabric. Usually, this is a rolled hem, which involves rolling the fabric around the raw edge to hide it. A hem stitch shows only a small stitch on the right side of the fabric with a larger, hidden stitch behind.

Running Stitch

The simplest of all hand sewing stitches, the running stitch is the simple, straight movement of thread through fabric. The seamstress passes the needle and thread down through the fabric and then back up from the other side.

Topstitch

Topstitching is sewing to add a finished edge on the right side of a seam. This lets the fabric lay flat and provides a professional appearance.

Fabric-Related Terms

Fabrics come in all different textures and weaves, and there are some important terms to know when sewing with them. You’ll hear these words in textile descriptions, patterns, and tutorials.

Bias

Woven fabric has obvious vertical and horizontal lines where the threads interlace. If you turn it so it is on the diagonal to these lines, that is called the bias.

Bolt

If you’re buying fabric, it often comes folded around a cardboard or plastic rectangle. The entire folded piece of fabric, as it is shipped from the manufacturer, is called the bolt. 

Lining

The lining is the inner portion of a garment or item that is often a different fabric than the outer portion. Frequently, the lining is cut in almost exactly the same way as the exterior of the item, but it’s often a thinner material.

Nap

The nap is the direction a fabric texture takes on the right side. Certain fabrics, like velvet, have a distinct nap. This can affect how you place pattern pieces.

Raw Edge

A raw edge is an edge of the fabric that has not been finished with a hem or another finishing method. It’s where the scissors or rotary cutter have cut the fabric.

Right Side

The right side of a piece of fabric is the side with the pattern or color on it. Usually, this is the side you want to see in the finished item when you are sewing.

Selvedge

When a piece of fabric is woven, the weaving process creates two smooth, straight edges on either side of the fabric. These are called the selvedge. In general, you trim this off prior to sewing, since it is often stiffer than the rest of the material.

Wrong Side

The wrong side of a piece of fabric is the opposite of the right side. The pattern or color is more faded on the wrong side, and this side is usually hidden from view in a finished sewing project.

Yard

Fabric is measured in yards. The measurement abbreviation is “yd.” A yard is 36 inches of fabric as it is taken off a bolt.

Sewing Tools

Sewing requires a few specialized tools, and understanding what these tools are called can help you better understand instructions. You should know the following basic sewing terms for tools.

Bobbin

The bobbin is the small round thread-carrying device that goes inside a sewing machine. The machine pulls thread front he bobbin to create a lockstitch or two-thread stitch when machine sewing.

Needle

A needle is the instrument you use to guide the thread through the fabric. It has a hole or “eye” through which you place the thread. You use a needle in hand sewing, as well as machine sewing.

Pin

A pin is a sharp piece of metal used to hold two or more pieces of fabric together. In sewing, you usually use straight pins, but you can also use quilting safety pins when making a quilt.

Seam Ripper

A seam ripper is a tool that allows you to open a seam that has already been sewn. This is especially important when machine sewing, since these seams can be difficult to remove.

More Important Sewing Terms

There are some other important sewing terms you should know. Familiarize yourself with the following so you can understand directions for projects.

Casing

A casing is a fabric tube that’s part of a larger project. You use a casing to create a drawstring, gather curtains on a rod, contain elastic, or perform other functions.

Dart

A dart is a way to make two-dimensional fabric fit a three-dimensional form. A small amount of excess fabric is taken up to allow the fabric to fit the desired shape. This is common in dressmaking.

Gather

To gather is to pull fabric together on a piece of thread to create a ruffle. Generally, a seamstress bastes the fabric and pulls one of the basting threads. The fabric ruffles up along the thread and can be sewn to another piece of fabric in a desired way.

Notions

Notions are smaller sewing items necessary for projects. They can include zippers, thread, ribbons, buttons, snaps, trim pieces, and more.

Pattern

A sewing pattern is a printed design that allows you to sew a project exactly as instructed. Patterns often come on paper, but you can also find them on other materials like muslin fabric. Patterns include instructions for making the project and often a materials list.

Pleat

A pleat is a pinch of fabric that is sewn down. There are different types of pleats, including knife pleats and box pleats. A knife pleat is a repeated pleat that goes the same direction. A box pleat is two pleats facing in opposite directions.

Seam

A seam is where two or more pieces of fabric are joined together. Seams can be curved or straight.

Seam Allowance

The seam allowance is the amount of extra fabric you need to accommodate a seam. The width of the seam determines the seam allowance. If you have a half-inch-deep seam, you must allow an extra half inch on each piece of fabric.

More Sewing Terms to Learn

While these terms cover the basics, there are lots more to learn. Like any specialized topic, sewing is full of examples of jargon. Familiarize yourself with other sewing terminology to further your understanding of this enjoyable hobby.

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