3/31 | Sewing Terms for Beginners

When you first start sewing, you may find yourself overwhelmed with all of the new terms being used. Baste, selvage, under stitch – it’s a bit like learning a new language. Some of the words, once you hear them, are pretty self-explanatory but others may require a bit of explanation. Here is a list or a dictionary if you will of sewing terms for beginners. I hope you find it really helpful!

This basic glossary of sewing terms and phrases will get you started with the main ones.


Backstitching is what you will do at the beginning and end of each line of stitching to lock them in place and prevent them from unravelling. This is accomplished by making a few stitches forward and then reversing to make a few more stitches right on top of the previous ones.


These are temporary stitches made to hold the fabric in place before sewing. They are long stitches that are easily removed once your permanent stitching is done.


Bias is a term used in reference to fabric. It refers to a line that is diagonal to the crosswise and lengthwise grain of the fabric. If you are told to cut the fabric on the bias, you will be cutting it diagonally – on a line that is at a 45 degree angle to the selvage. A bias cut allows for the most stretch from the fabric.


At the top of your sewing machine, you will have thread coming from a spool. To make stitches that hold together, it becomes connected with thread that comes up from the bottom of your machine. That thread is wound on a bobbin – think of it as a mini-spool. The spool of thread sits on top of or on the back of your machine while the bobbin is inserted into a bobbin holder inside the machine.


Just as it suggests, this is the small opening in your fabric surrounded by tiny stitching that is then where the button goes through. Buttonholes are generally made with a specialized buttonhole foot.


Casings are made by folding over a piece of fabric to form a sort of tunnel. A piece of elastic or a drawstring will be fed through the casing, allowing for the fabric to be gathered up. This is often used at the waist of a garment but might also be used to gather pants at the ankle or sleeves at the wrist.


In order to help a curved seam lie flat, you will use scissors to make small snips along the curve.


The crossgrain of the fabric is the line that is perpendicular to the selvage edge.


Sewing a dart means creating a folded triangle of sorts. This triangle gives a garment more shape and dimension. It is used in areas where there are curves on the body, such as at the bustline.


Ease is the difference in the amount of fabric in a piece of clothing as compared to the measurements of the person wearing it. For example, a person has a 30 inch waist but the garment has a 32 inch waist. This is said to have 2 inches of positive ease. A person with a 30 inch waist and garment with a 28 inch waist would have 2 inches of negative ease.


When you are edgestitching, you are adding a second row of stitching very close to stitching of a seam line. This can help keep pressed seams in place.


A facing is a piece of fabric that is used to create a finished edge on a piece of clothing. Most often used for armholes and necklines.

French seam 

French seams are made by first sewing with wrong sides together. The seam is then flipped to the inside and stitched again with right sides together. This creates a clean edge both on the inside and outside of the project.


Basic gathering is done by sewing with a long stitch length. Several rows of stitches parallel to each other are made with no backstitching and long thread tails. This allows you to then gently pull on the thread tails to sort of bundle up the fabric into a bunch of little folds.

Gathering is used to sew a longer edge of fabric to a shorter one, adding fullness. This could be done, for example, at shoulder seams, sleeve cuffs, or at the waistline of a dress. It can also be used to create ruffles.

Gathering can also be done with elastic.


Grading is a term used to describe a method of reducing the bulk of a seam. The two layers of fabric are trimmed down to a different width to keep the seam from showing on the right side of the garment.


The grain of the fabric refers to the direction of threads in it. The crosswise grain is the line running from one selvage edge to the other.

Grain line

The grain line is the lengthwise line which runs parallel to the selvage.


Hem refers to the finished bottom edge of a garment, for example at the bottom of pants legs, skirts, or dresses. It is usually made by folding up the fabric and sewing it to secure.


Interfacing is added to sections of a garment to give them stability. It can be sewn in or fusible. It’s often used at necklines, collars, and areas where buttonholes will be added.


A lining is a piece of material used on the inside of a garment. They can make a garment more comfortable to wear (for example, a soft lining on the inside of a heavy wool fabric that might otherwise feel itchy) and can cover seams. Linings are also used to provide an extra layer of coverage when using fabrics that might be see-through.


The nap of a fabric refers to a fabric texture that runs in a certain direction. For example, velvet and corduroy are fabrics with a nap to them. It’s important to take note of the nap when placing your pattern pieces as they need to all run in the same direction when creating a garment.


Notches on a pattern are there to help you line up your pattern pieces correctly when sewing. Notches are also sometimes made by cutting little wedge shapes into the seam allowance on a curved edge to make it lie flat.


This is a term used to describe the accessories used in sewing projects. The notions section of your sewing store will include such items as buttons, zippers, snaps, and so on.

Pin tuck

Pin tucks are very narrow folds in fabric, held in place with stitching.


Pleats are made by creating a fold in your fabric by doubling the fabric back on itself. Pleats will create sharp creases when ironed. They are often used in making skirts.

Raw edge

The raw edge is the cut, unfinished edge of the fabric.

Right side

The right side of the fabric is the one that will show when the project is completed.


This is simply a “fancy” term for gathering.


Seams are the lines created when two pieces of fabric are sewn together.

Seam Allowance

Seam allowance refers to the distance between the raw edge of the fabric and the stitching line. In general, the most commonly used seam allowance is 5/8”.


When you purchase fabric, you will note that there are two raw edges and two finished edges. These finished edges are known as the selvage.


Staystitching is straight stitching done through only one layer of fabric. It’s often a smaller stitch than is being used in the rest of the item and helps to add stability. Staystitching is often done on curves to help keep them from distorting once the seams are sewn.

Stitch length

You can adjust the stitch length on your sewing machine to create longer or shorter stitches as suits the needs of your project.

Straight Stitch

A straight stitch is exactly what it sounds like. It is the most used basic stitch in sewing.


Much of the stitching done on a sewing project is meant to be hidden on the inside. In the case of topstitching, it is done on the outside. It is meant to be a decorative line of stitching that adds to the design of the item.


Understitching is a method used to help keep seams flat. It is often used on facings and linings to keep them on the inside of the garment and prevent them from moving to the outside.


Yardage refers to a length of fabric. The pattern you choose will indicate how much yardage is required.

Zigzag Stitch

Again, a zigzag stitch is pretty self-explanatory. It is often used with knits or to help prevent fraying.

It sounds like a lot of new terms to learn but once you see them used in context a few times, you’ll be a pro in no time. And you can simply pin this post and refer back to it anytime you need it!