What’s the Project? If you’re new to sewing, understanding all of those sewing terms can be tricky! This beginner’s sewing dictionary will help define some of those words to get you going.
If you’re just getting started sewing, it can be really intimidating in so many ways! Maybe you’ve prepped yourself with all the things you think you need to begin sewing, but when you sit down to tackle that first project, the instructions are confusing and there are sewing terms thrown in there that you don’t understand!
Words like bias and backstitch and applique-what do these all mean? You can’t sew this project unless you understand them, right? This beginner’s sewing dictionary is designed to walk you through some of those beginning sewing terms that might trip you up so that you can get to the fun part-creating something fantastic!
I’ll break down a lot of sewing terms for you here. If you’re brand new to sewing, be sure to check out the beginner’s sewing guide as well as the Learn to Sew lessons. There’s tons of sewing information packed in there.
Beginning Sewing Terms Defined:
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. To do this you will set your machine settings to very close together stitches on the zigzag setting.
Back-stitch: To back stitch you will simply hold down the reverse lever or button on your machine and the machine will sew backward. You will do this when you need to knot your fabric. (See Knot below.)
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 the fabric in place prior to sewing or is used 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?
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.
Bobbin: The bobbin is the thread that comes up from the bottom and meets the thread from your 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:
Buttonhole: A buttonhole 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. This is different than a quarter yard of fabric which would be cut just lengthwise.
Foot Pedal: This is the part of your 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:
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 basting 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:
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 of the fabric.
Hem: A pattern will often tell you to hem the bottom of an article of clothing or another 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:
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.
Knot: To knot your fabric while sewing you will sew forward about 1 inch, reverse (or backstitch) 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)
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. Need help deciding what to get? Here’s a rundown of beginning sewing supplies for you.
Pin: You will use pins a lot while sewing. Pinning helps hold the 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 pinhead 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 pinheads 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 your project to make it lay flat.
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).
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:
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 satin stitch is a very tight, close together zig-zag stitch, like this:
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 your 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:
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.
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:
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 are 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.
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 your 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:
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:
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:
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:
Hopefully having these sewing terms defined helped! Now go sew something fun!
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