Learn to Sew: A Sewing Dictionary


If you are new around here please check out my Learn to Sew series AND my Sew Crazy Monthly Challenge. Both are great opportunities to improve your sewing skills or to learn how to sew!

I know that learn to sew can be hard, so, I am creating a Sewing Dictionary with pictures to help you in your sewing journey. Bookmark or pin this page so that you can refer back to it as needed while learning to sew.

Sewing Dictionary: Basic Sewing Terms Defined (with pictures to help!)

Sewing Dictionary with Pictures:

Applique: To applique is to sew one piece of fabric on top of another, done with a satin stitch (a very tight zig-zag). The eyes in the picture below are appliqued in place:

How do you applique?

Back-stitch: To back stitch you will simply hold down the reverse lever or button on your machine and the machine will sew backwards. You will do this when you need to knot your fabric. (See Knot below.)

How do you back stitch?

Baste: A baste is a long and loose stitch-the longest possible that your machine will do. To baste you will need to set your stitch length to its longest setting (how to do that here). When you baste you won’t knot the thread at the beginning of the end. A baste is usually used just to hold fabric in place prior to sewing or to gather fabric. See how the stitches in this picture are long and farther apart than a typical straight stitch and it is not knotted at the beginning?

What is a baste?

Bias: The bias of the fabric is the 45% angle from the grain of the fabric (see grain below). So basically, if you turn or cut your fabric 45% (or diagonally) from the straight up and down direction that the fabric would typically go, you are cutting on the bias. This is sometimes called for in a clothing pattern because it changes how the fabric hangs (like in a skirt or dress).

Bias Tape: Some patterns you use will call for bias tape. You can buy this at the fabric store (you can also make your own, but I always buy mine). It will come in a package (see the first picture) and is typically used to edge things. It is cut on the bias which means that it bends easily around corners, making it perfect for finishing an edge on some items.

Definition of bias tape

Bobbin: The bobbin is the thread that comes up from the bottom and meets the thread from you spool to form the stitch. You will have to wind your bobbin and then insert it in your machine properly (learn how here). Wound bobbins look like this:

What is bobbin

What is bobbin thread?

Buttonhole: A button hole is a hole sewn to pull a button through. Many machines will sew one automatically for you. If you are doing it yourself it is done by sewing 2 parallel satin stitches the length of your button that are connected at the top and bottom and then sliced open in the middle to create a hole.

Fat Quarter: A fat quarter is a particular cut of fabric. Imagine a yard of fabric laying in front of you. Then imagine that you cut it straight down the middle going lengthwise and straight down the middle going horizontally. (So basically like cutting a cross or a plus sign into it.) You will now have 4 pieces of fabric, each of which is a fat quarter.

Foot Pedal: This is the part of you sewing machine that you press with your foot to make the needle sew. It goes on the floor where you can comfortably reach it with your foot:

What does foot pedal mean?

Fusing: You can buy fusing at your fabric store (also called Heat ‘n’ Bond). It will adhere one piece of fabric to another. To use it you will iron it onto your fabric then peel off a paper backing and iron it onto whatever you are wanting to adhere it to.

Gather: When you want to create ruffles you will need to gather your fabric. To gather you will do a baste stitch on your fabric and then, holding the threads that are at the end of you baste, gently pull the top thread while keeping the bottom thread steady. This will pull your fabric so that it starts to create a gather. Once you have it gathered as much as you want it to be, you sew it in place to make the gather permanent:

How do you gather?

Grain: Look very closely at your fabric and you will see threads that go up and down and sideways, perpendicular to each other. This is the grain (as opposed to the bias).

Hem: A pattern will often tell you to hem the bottom of an article of clothing or other item. To hem you will first fold the fabric over about 1/2″ and press it in place. Then fold it over 1/2″ again (so now no raw edges are visible) and press it again and then stitch it in place. This image shows a finished hem on a pajama pant leg:

How do you hem?

Interfacing: Interfacing can be bought at your fabric store just like fabric but in a special section. It is used to stabilize fabric or make a project a little more sturdy and is sewn on the inside of the fabric. In some patterns you will be asked to use interfacing. There are many different weights of interfacing, so refer to your pattern to determine what you need. If it says fusible interfacing it will need to be the type that can be ironed onto the fabric to adhere it in place. Interfacing will look something like this:

What does interfacing mean?

Knot: To knot your fabric while sewing you will sew forward about 1 inch, reverse (or back-stitch) back over those stitches and then sew forward again. It should look something like this when you are done: (though you will typically keep sewing beyond the knot instead of quitting after it like I did in this picture)

What is a knot on a sewing machine?

Lining: Lining is a layer of fabric that goes underneath whatever you are sewing. Think of it like this, if you lined a skirt, the skirt would have the outer fabric that is seen by all and then an under fabric that would give the skirt a little more substance and make it less see through. Some patterns will call for lining. Typically the fabric you use for lining will be a neutral solid color that blends well with your main fabric.

Notions: Notions are the accessories you will need to sew a project such as a zipper or buttons, thread, possibly bias tape, etc. It could also include the tools like the seam ripper or pins.

What does notions mean?

Pin: You will use pins a lot while sewing. Pinning helps hold fabric in place before you sew it. When you pin you will want to place the pins so that you can sew through them without hitting the pin head or so that you can easily slide them out of the way as you sew towards them. In the first example I could easily sew along that raw edge without removing the pins because the pin heads are well out of the way. In the second example you would sew towards the pins and then slide them out before you sewed over them, just before you got to them. Either way is acceptable:

Pin Cushion: A pin cushion holds you pins for easy accessibility. It’s not always a “cushion.” Mine is magnetic:

Press: Iron

Presser Foot: The presser foot is the little metal piece near your needle. You will lower it to press down the fabric (there’s a lever just above it and to the right) while you are sewing and then lift it again when you are finished. It’s function is to keep your fabric in place while you sew. There are also other feet that you can use while sewing including a zipper foot or button hole foot, but the main foot is your presser foot.

Raw Edge: The raw edge of the fabric is the edge that is cut (as opposed to selvage-see below).

What does raw edge mean?

Right Side (of the fabric): The right side of the fabric is the side with the pattern or pictures or design on it. On some fabrics it won’t really matter one way or another, but on some fabric there is a definite right side:

What does right side of the fabric mean?

Right Sides Together (RST): This means that you put your 2 pieces of fabric together so that the right sides of the fabric are touching each other on the inside and the wrong sides of the fabric are showing on the outside.

Satin Stitch: A stain stitch is a very tight, close together zig-zag stitch, like this:

What does satin stitch mean?

Seam Allowance: A seam allowance is the amount of fabric that is between stitch you are sewing and the very edge of your fabric. For example, if you are instructed to sew with a 1/2″ seam allowance, you would have 1/2″ between the stitch you are sewing and the edge of your fabric.

Seam Guides: The seam guides are built into your machine and will help you sew the correct seam allowance. They are marked with various seam allowances and are found right down near your needle and presser foot-in the area you will be sewing. If you are told to sew a 1/2″ seam allowance, find the 1/2″ seam guide on your machine and guide you fabric as you sew so that the edge of your fabric stays steady with the 1/2″ seam guide. This will create a 1/2″ seam allowance. In the image below the seam allowance would be the amount of space between where the needle is sewing and the edge of the fabric that you see to the right of the needle. In this case that would be a 1/2″ seam allowance. Notice the etching in the metal below and also to the right in the plastic. Those are the seam guides:

Sewing Dictionary

Seam Ripper: A sharp pointed tool that you use to rip out a seam when you make a mistake. Take the sharp point and poke it underneath a stitch to break the thread. Continue to do this on any seam that you need to take out.

What does seam ripper mean?

Selvage: The selvage of the fabric is the finished edge of the fabric that is on it when you buy it as shown in this picture along the bottom edge of the fabric. It won’t always be printed like this one is (this one has the brand of the fabric and also shows coordinating colors to use with the fabric) but sometimes will be the same pattern as the fabric:

What does selvage mean?

Sewing Machine Needles: These are special needles that are inserted into your machine to do your sewing. There are a few varieties, but Universal is the standard (you can also buy needles that are heavy duty, twin needles, etc.) You will want to have extra sewing machine needles on hand so that if you break a needle while sewing (which will happen sometimes) you can replace the needle without a trip to the store.

Sewing scissors: When you are cutting fabric you want very sharp scissors. You need a pair of scissors that is used for only cutting fabric because cutting paper or other things will dull the blades.

Straight Stitch: A straight stitch is a simple, straight line.

How do you straight stitch?

Spool of Thread: The thread that you use to create the top part of the stitch (coupled with the bobbin). You will need to thread it onto you machine (learn how here) and you will want to buy a variety of colors. You will typically want your thread to match the fabric you are sewing on as closely as possible.

Top Stitch: To top stitch is to do a finishing stitch on top of an already sewn seam. For example, on a bag strap you might sew the strap together, turn it right side out and then do a top stitch to give it a nice finished look:

How do you top stitch?

Turn: Often in a pattern you will sew with right sides together and then be asked to turn your project. This simply means to pull the fabric through an opening so that the right sides of the fabric now face out.

Webbing: A braided strip of fabric-like a belt-that you might use for straps on a bag or backpack. It can usually be purchased by the yard at the fabric store:

What does webbing mean?

Wrong side (of the fabric): This is the underside of the fabric. On some fabric it won’t matter, but on many fabrics there will be a clear difference between the right side and the wrong side:

What does wrong side of the fabric mean?

Zigzag: A zig-zag stitch is just that-a stitch that zig-zags. It’s often used to sew along raw edges to prevent them from fraying. It is also used in a satin stitch and applique:

How to sew a zig zag

Zipper: You can buy zippers at the store in packages. They come in a variety of lengths and colors so know what you need before you go:

This dictionary is a work in progress and I will continue to add to it as needed, so let me know what other terms you need defined. And be sure to join me for the Learn to Sew Series!

Amber
Hey there! I'm Amber, mom of 4 crazy boys, wife of 1 and non-stop, always busy, crazy project doer. (There's a reason why we call it *Crazy* Little Projects.) I love chocolate, reading, sewing and being with people!
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Comments

  1. Linda says

    Thank you so much ! Some of this I knew but a few were kicking my tushie. I looked all over for “basting” and couldn’t really get it but your explanation nailed it. And “selvage” that threw me too until I read this. And who would have thunk what those lines were next to the presser foot…lol

    I’m still a little stumped on “bias” but maybe I’ll have it figured out by the 7th.

  2. says

    Very helpful, and I’m going to tune into your Learning to Sew series on Mondays. I have also started a “Techniques” page on my blog and hope to grow and add to it as time goes by.

    Cheers.

  3. says

    Definitely tuning into this series since I just got a sewing machine for Christmas and embarking on a year of learning to sew. Now I don’t have to teach myself everything! Woohoo!

  4. Janet says

    This is great…. I am completely new to sewing, I have been reading… I love your way of explaining, it very clear. Thank you sooo much. God Bless You!

  5. says

    You are AWESOME!!!! Did you create this just for me????? LOVE YOU!!!!

    Thanks so much for sharing this at The DIY Dreamer.. From Dream To Reality!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

    • Amber says

      There are a couple of different dials on your machine that adjust tension. Can you tell me what’s going on? If I ever have a problem with tension I google it and usually find a helpful answer, but I will also say that I try not to adjust tension much on my own. I leave that to the pros (my machine is in the shop right now getting fixed because of a tension problem).

  6. Micha says

    Thank you very much for taking the time to put this sewing dictionary together. This is just what I was looking for. I am looking forward to your Learn to Sew series. I just found your webpage and I am already loving it!

  7. Jen says

    Thank you so much for such a great break down! I am learning on my own and after reading so many tuturials online and being completely lost by some of these words.. I was starting to become a bit frustrated. You’ve renewed my sewing motivation.. thank you again!

  8. Mary Jane says

    I’m going to once again attempt sewing…I’ve tried quite a few times over the years but just couldn’t seem to “get it.” I love how you explain everything. I’m having trouble with my bottom stitches not looking very good, and definitely looking different than the very neat top stitches. It is a fairly new machine, less than a year and half old, a Brother, and it hasn’t been used very much. I did make a rag quilt on it, and that was it. The stitches were fine then. I know I’m threading it right, as well as winding the bobbin. I’ve played a little with the tension dial but it doesn’t seem to change. I’m really befuddled and don’t know what to do. Other than this, I love my machine (it even sews without a pedal!)but the lack of neat looking stitches is taking away the fun for me. Should I take it in and have a “professional” look at it? It shouldn’t be messing up this early in the game and after having not been used very much. Anyway, I sure hope I can learn to sew…they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but I’m hoping to prove this saying wrong. Thank you for all your help.

    • Amber says

      If your bottom stitches are the ones messed up then it means it’s your top tension that’s off. If you have adjusted it and it isn’t helping, something may be wrong that only a pro can fix. How do I know this? My machine is in the shop right now for that exact problem. :( Google it though-there are a few helpful hints out there that might do the trick for you-like making sure there’s no lint stuck in it and things.

      • Mary Jane says

        Yes, I have adjusted it, but no change. I also took off the plate around the bobbin and cleaned the lint out-still no change. I think I’ll try changing the needle…I know a rag quilt and all that flannel can really give a needle a beating. So I’ll try this, but after that, there’s nothing left for me to try, at least that I can think of right now. And I’m pretty much all googled out. I hate having to take it in this early in the game; This really should not be happening. There’s only one place around here that fixes machines and when I took my older one there years ago just for a basic cleaning I came home and they had broken a part. Very discouraged.

  9. Meagan says

    This is so very helpful. I am learning to sew and I was getting so overwhelmed with not knowing the terminology. You are a LIFE SAVER!!!

  10. Cece says

    thanks for posting this! i’m very new to sewing and all the terminology was confusing. i greatly appreciate the simple explanations! thank you, thank you, thank you! :)

  11. Deniz says

    Hi Amber!

    I haven’t used a sewing machine since I was a child (apparently Barbie didn’t have enough clothes) so your dictionary is a great tool for getting started again! Thank you for your help :))

    Cheers,

    Deniz

  12. Kimberly says

    This is great! I am preparing to give my first ever sewing lesson for our home-school group and this will be a great visual for my first time students!

  13. Dina Hassanein says

    Thank you so so much!!!! I just bought my first sewing machine and I felt kindda overwhelmed when I tried to check online tutorials. This is easy and very helpful. Hope u keep on posting :)

  14. Dina Hassanein says

    Thank you so so much!!!!!! I just bought my first sewing machine and I felt kindda overwhelmed when I tried to check online tutorials. This is easy and very helpful. Hope u keep on posting :)

  15. Kimberly says

    I have sewed by hand since I was in 9th grade. I have almost completed a king size simple quilt. I have had several sewio machines. Can’t figure them out. Got any suggestions? Think I need sewing for people who are stuck in the 80s? Please help!!! Thank you

  16. says

    I just found your blog as I am gathering enough courage to buy a machine and learn to sew. Your sight has been so helpful and its giving me confidence that I can do this :) Thank you for putting this together I will be subscribing to your blog

    Love your newest Follower :)

  17. Catherine says

    Thank you for such a complete list for us beginners. I have scoured many websites and have not found both picture AND a nice description to go with. :)

  18. Esther says

    Wonderful. I am a visual learner so this is a great tool for creating crazy little projects. Love it. Don’t ever stop.

    Thank you for helping me learn more about sewing.

  19. Jenny says

    I love your site! Do you think you could add different hems to your dictionary? I have no idea what a blind hem is or what an overlock stitch is, but I think maybe I should know… Any help?

  20. Jem says

    Wow! Such clear explanations with great pictures. I am just starting out so this is a great help. Bless you!

  21. Helen says

    This is great! I took one sewing class in high school some 40 odd years ago since then iv been teaching myself to sew through books, help from other people, sewing shows, and anything else I can get my hands on. Your sewing dictionary is one of the best and well written set of instructions iv seen. The pictures are a great help as well. Much of the information I have already learned but you have made the information much easer to understand thank you

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