Let’s be honest: there’s a whole lot of sewing terms out there!
The first time you pick up a pattern, your brain might be spinning with all of the sewing words flying at you.
My goal here is to give some sewing definitions for a lot of sewing terms you’ll come across. I’m grouping alphabetically for the most searchability within this post for you. At any point, try a ctrl + f or use the table of contents to help you find a sewing word you happen to be looking for.
I’ll also be linking to other more in depth articles here on Elizabeth Made This as they come up. Look for those if you’re looking to dig a little deeper and learn a little more.
With all that out of the way, let’s get into defining some of these sewing terms.
101 sewing terms A-E
Applique is a technique where you stitch fabric onto another layer of fabric. This is usually decorative, cutting out shapes to create designs on your project. You can applique by hand or by machine.
Nearly any fabric can be used for applique, but it’s especially nice to use on plain fabrics when you want to add a focal point.
When you start a seam, stitching backwards for a few stitches, then forwards is called backstitching. A backstitch will secure the beginning and end of a row of stitches.
To backstitch, press either the backstitch button or reverse lever (depending on your sewing machine) while you are stitching at the beginning and end of the seam.
The feed dogs will move the needle through the fabric backwards. Let go of the button after a few stitches, then keep on sewing.
Learn how to backstitch by hand.
A basting stitch is a long machine stitch. Basting stitches are used to temporarily hold two layers of fabric together.
Use a contrasting thread if you want to remove basting stitches later.
To sew a basting stitch by machine, set your straight stitch to the longest length. Stitch close to the edge.
You can also baste by hand. Basting by hand is great for holding together delicate fabrics like lace in place while you’re stitching it. It’s also great for holding collar edges and waistbands while you’re topstitching them.
Bias is whenever fabric is cut at an angle to the selvage (see selvage).
True bias is cut at a 45 degree angle to any straight edge when the cross grain and selvage are perpendicular.
On woven fabrics, bias has a natural stretchiness that allows bias cut shapes to drape and bend around corners.
You need to take special care when sewing with fabrics cut on the bias so that it doesn’t stretch out of shape. Bias skirts need to hang to allow the weight of the fabric to settle before you hem.
Bias tape is made from strips of fabric cut on the bias. You can make bias tape from any lightweight woven fabric. Places to use bias tape include binding quilt edges for decoration, or to finish seams as in a Hong Kong finish.
A blanket stitch is a simple hand embroidery stitch that covers the edges decoratively. Loops of thread sit on the edge of the fabric with vertical stitches in between holding them in place.
You can practice your blanket stitch skills as you learn how to make a fabric yoyo.
A blind hem is just what it sounds like. With the help of a blind hem foot, and a blind hem stitch on your sewing machine, you can create a hem that is nearly invisible.
Blind hems are a great way to finish fancy fabrics, pants, or even knits. Use a blind hem any place where you don’t want to see a visible hem.
A bobbin is a small spool of thread that sits inside your sewing machine in a bobbin case under the needle. When you sew, the threaded needle pulls a tiny loop of the bobbin thread out to form a stitch.
Bobbins can be made of plastic or metal depending on your sewing machine.
A buttonhole is a special rectangular stitch that reinforces the fabric. The reinforced fabric gets cut in the center of the buttonhole, leaving a gap where a button can be used to fasten two layers of fabric together.
Sewing buttonholes can be tricky. Get these gamechanger tips for sewing buttonholes.
Buttons are round or square disks sewn to a project. Combined with buttonholes, buttons allow two layers of fabric to be fastened together. You sew through the button’s holes to secure the button to the fabric.
Buttons usually have 2 or 4 holes but they can have many more too for decorative purposes.
Shank buttons don’t have any holes at all but have metal loops on the backside of the button. Shank buttons are often large, decorative, and excellent for coats and jackets.
You can find buttons in every shade of the rainbow and more. But the law of buttons states that whatever button color you need, you probably don’t have it. In those times, why not try your hand at hand painting your own buttons.
A casing is a tunnel of fabric that holds a drawstring or a piece of elastic. The elastic/drawstring help to gather up the fabric.
Casings are often found on the top of casual pants like pajama pants, drawstring bags, or even waistbands. Casings always make for a simple easy to fit and comfortable finish on the top of pants.
You can form a casing by folding over the top of your project (like in pj pants) or apply a strip of fabric to make a casing.
Work on your casings with this drawstring bag tutorial.
Center front/center back
Center front and center back are two important locations on any garment. The mid point vertically down the front is center front. Hanging down vertically from the mid point on the back is center back.
It’s important to know where these points are so that your projects hang correctly and are symmetrical.
A chalk wheel is a simple marking tool for fabrics. Press the wheel along a line, and chalk comes out in sharp lines. These are great for marking details like darts, pocket placement, and buttons.
Chalk wheels are one of my 11 helpful sewing tools I’d recommend to anyone.
A clapper is an essential tailoring tool. It is a shaped block of hardwood that you use to help flatten seams once they are pressed.
Bonus: whacking seams on a bad day is great stress relief. Sewing is therapeutic!
On curved seams, clipping involves taking tiny cuts to but not through the seamline along the curve.
Clip on outside (convex) curves, and notch on outward curves. When you go to turn the clipped seam, it the clips will help release the curve so that the turned piece sits flat.
A cross grain of a fabric runs at a 90 degree angle to the selvage (see selvage). When you buy fabric, it’s cut (hopefully) along the cross grain. When you cut pattern pieces, you line them up with the grainline typically, though once in a while, you line up pattern pieces on the cross grain.
Covered snaps are a couture way to finish a coat or jacket. The fabric can protect delicate fabric from metal snap parts. Also covered snaps are beautiful!
To make covered snaps, cut a circle of lightweight fabric. Next, you run a gathering stitch around the outside and pull the thread to gather it around the snap. Make a small gathering stitch around the ball end so that it is exposed. On the socket side of the snap, you must work a small hole in the center with embroidery scissors so that the snaps will work.
Darts are triangular shaped stitched folds of fabric that help to give a garment shape. They help give a flat piece of fabric dimension so that it fits around curves. That’s why you’ll see darts in the bust area of garments as well in skirt fronts and backs along the hips.
Put your darts into use and save your jeans at the same time. Here’s how to fix a back gap in jeans.
Double knits are a heavier type of knit fabric. They’re made with a double knit weave construction. Usually they aren’t as stretchy as other knits and often look the same on the right side and the wrong side.
Ponte knit fabric is a very common and popular type of double knit. Scuba and liverpool are two more types of double knits.
Use double knits for jackets, dresses, cardigans, skirts and structured tops.
Double needles sew two evenly spaced rows of stitching at a time. Be sure to buy the right double needle for your project as there are double needles for different fabrics like denim and knits.
They are wonderful for topstitching denim or for helping to hem knits.
Drawstrings can be any ribbon, twill tape or other string like thing that fits inside a casing. There’s either buttonholes, or grommets where the drawstring ends poke out. Tug on the ends, and the drawstring gathers up the fabric to fit our bodies better.
An easestitch is a temporary stitch that helps mold a curved piece into a smaller curve. You make a small gathering stitch near the edge, pull up the thread to shape the piece, then sew the pieces together.
See Kate Sew does a good job of showing the whole process on a sleeve.
Unlike ruffles and gathered sleeves, the goal is to help fit the curves together. When you’re done, no tucks or pleats should be left in your seam from your easestitches. You’ll most often see easestitches in sleeve caps and back shoulders.
Edgestitching is a special decorative topstitch. You stitch two layers together 1/8″ or less from the edge. Literally you are stitching on the edge. This helps keep details like pleats and collars lay flat. An edgestitch is also a plain but delightfully decorative stitch.
Elastic is the extremely stretchy flat ribbon like material used to help gather up fabric inside of a casing. You can also apply elastic directly to edges of a fabric as in picot elastic and foldover elastic (FOE) to finish edges.
Types of elastic include fold over elastic, swimwear elastic, braided elastic, waistband elastic, buttonhole elastic, knit elastic, clear elastic, picot elastic, and elastic cord.
All of the different types of elastic have their own special uses in sewing. You can buy elastic in widths from 1/8″ up to several inches for wide waistbands.
For the best results, always use a ball point or stretch needle when sewing elastic to keep from getting skipped stitches.
Embroidery is any decorative stitching you do on the outside of a project. You can embroider by hand or by machine. It’s also worth looking for embroidered fabrics as they can be uniquely lovely fabrics that would be hard to make on your own.
Embroidery can get so intricate that it requires a dedicated embroidery machine. Learn how to embroider on a regular sewing machine.
Also check out how to embroider your kids’ art.
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.