As with any craft or specialized field, sewing has its own vocabulary. As you sew, you'll undoubtedly encounter a variety of sewing terms, whether in pattern instructions or in advice from a friend. Knowing what these terms mean and understanding how, when, and why to apply associated techniques will allow you to improve the quality and durability of the items you sew.
What follows is a summary of common terms and techniques. While this collection is by no means complete, it does cover those you're most likely to encounter.
There are many different types of stitches, both hand sewn and machine sewn. While a complete listing would fill an entire book, the following are those most often used in garment construction.
Running Stitch - This basic hand sewn stitch is formed by passing the needle in and out of the fabric, creating a row of stitches that looks like a dashed line.
Straight Stitch - This basic machine sewn stitch is used for most garment construction.
Zigzag Stitch - This common machine sewn stitch has a variety of uses. Built-in on most sewing machines, it's formed when the needle swings from side to side as the stitches are formed, and can usually be varied by adjusting the stitch width and/or length.
Back Stitch - When referring to machine sewing, this is the process of sewing in reverse over a previously laid line of stitches, usually for only a few stitches. A hand back stitch is created by forming each stitch in reverse. The needle is brought up out of the fabric a stitch length away from the last completed stitch, and then passed back into the fabric at the same point where it came up for the previous stitch. As it's much more durable and secure than a running stitch, back stitch is a good choice for hand sewn garment construction.
Blind Stitch - A hand sewn blind stitch is formed of long stitches across the back of the fabric, with tiny stitches across the front which catch only a few threads, forming a seam that's nearly invisible from the front. A machine sewn blind stitch is a specialty stitch, often built-in, used in combination with a folding arrangement of the fabric to produce a blind hem. (See section on hems below.)
Slip Stitch - An invisible stitch used for sewing openings shut or in appliqué, slip stitch is formed by passing the needle perpendicularly between the two pieces to be joined, with the thread passing inside a fold or across the back of the fabric between stitches.
Herringbone Stitch - Formed of interlocking long-armed X-shaped stitches, herringbone stitch can be used to join two pieces of fabric that have had their edges butted together.
Whip Stitch - A hand sewn stitch formed by passing the needle through the edge of the fabric always from the same side, whip stitch encases the edge of the fabric in a spiral of thread.
Blanket Stitch - Most often used as a decorative finish, blanket stitch is formed similarly to whip stitch in that the needle always passes through the fabric in the same direction. But as the needle is brought around the fabric it's passed through the loop of the stitch, forming a series of interlocking stitches which encase the edge of the fabric.
Buttonhole Stitch - Formed the same as blanket stitch but on a smaller scale, buttonhole stitch usually has a much shorter stitch into the edge of the fabric, and the stitches are worked so close together they touch. Aside from buttonholes, this stitch can also be used for eyelets or in any other circumstance in which an edge needs to be bound.
Bartack - Used to reinforce areas that will be under strain, bartacks are small rectangular blocks of stitching. A machine sewn bartack is composed of a short length of tightly spaced zigzag stitching. A hand sewn bartack is composed by first sewing several long stitches over the area to be covered by the bartack, and then sewing many short stitches perpendicular to these long stitches, completely covering them.
Arrowhead - Used in similar situations as bartacks, arrowheads are a more decorative method of reinforcement. They're formed by alternating and overlapping stitches laid along and parallel to two sides of a triangle, filling the area of the triangle as successive stitches are sewn.
Crow's Foot - Formed similarly to an arrowhead, a crow's foot is worked on all three sides of a slightly bowed triangle.
Additionally, many sewing machines have a variety of built-in stitch variations, some decorative and some functional.
There are also a variety of words which, rather than describing the form of the stitches, instead describe the methods of applying these stitches.
Baste - Sew a seam, either by machine or by hand, composed of a long loose stitch. Basting is used to temporarily hold pieces of fabric together, and is usually removed once the final stitching is complete.
Double Stitch - Sew the seam, and sew again a short distance into the seam allowance. This technique is used in areas that will be under heavy strain.
Under Stitch - Press the seam allowances of a completed seam to one side, and then stitch them down to the layer of fabric underneath close to the original line of stitching. Seam allowances are frequently under stitched to facings to help keep the facing from turning to the front.
Stay Stitch - Sew a line of stitching in the direction of the grain on a single layer of fabric, just inside the seam allowance. Stay stitching is used to stabilize fabric when cut in curves or other shapes that would otherwise be prone to distortion.
Top Stitch - Sew a line of stitching across the top of the garment. Top stitching is often used for decorative effect, but it can also be used to secure layers together to keep them from shifting.
Edge Stitch - Top stitch very close to the edge.
Overcast - Sew a line of zigzag or other stitching over the raw edges of the fabric to keep them from fraying.
Tack - Sew just a few stitches in place. Tacking is used to hold pieces of fabric or garment parts together at a single point.
Darn - Hand darning is a process in which a worn area of fabric is repaired by using needle and thread to reweave or otherwise recreate the structure of the fabric. Machine darning uses many randomly oriented and overlapping stitches to reinforce or repair an area.
Formed when pieces of fabric are joined together, seams can be constructed in a variety of ways.
Standard Seam - Place two pieces of fabric right sides together and sew through both layers.
French Seam - Place two pieces of fabric wrong sides together and sew. Then fold the fabric over the seam allowances with right sides together and sew again, encasing the seam allowances. (Sometimes the seam allowances are trimmed before the second line of stitches is sewn.)
False French Seam - Sew a standard seam, fold the seam allowances in on each other, and then sew the seam allowances together along the edge of the fold.
Flat-Felled Seam - Fold over the seam allowance of one piece of fabric right sides together and the other piece of fabric wrong sides together. Interlock the folded edges of the pieces and sew two lines of stitches, one just on the edge of each fold.
False Flat-Felled Seam - Place the pieces of fabric wrong sides together and sew. Trim one of the seam allowances and fold the other over it, pressing both flat. Then sew again along the edge of the fold.
Lapped Seam - Overlap the edges of two pieces of fabric with right sides facing the same direction, and sew through both layers.
Butted Seam - Butt the edges of two pieces of fabric against each other, and sew a line of stitches that catches the edges of both pieces, holding them together.
Sometimes techniques associated with seams may need to be applied in order for the seam to function properly.
Ending Seams - When starting and ending machine sewn seams, there are two methods that can be used to anchor the thread ends. One is to back stitch at the beginning and end of each seam. The other is to pull both thread ends through to one side and tie in a knot. For a hand sewn seam, take several stitches in place, knotting the thread as you tighten the loops of the stitches.
Hiding Threads - Sometimes seams are placed on a garment in such a way that they're visible from both sides of the fabric, such as on the hem of a flared sleeve. In these cases, it's nice to hide the thread ends. To do so, pull both thread ends through to the same side and tie a knot. Then pass the thread ends through a needle and insert the needle into the hem right next to the knot. Pass the needle through the space between the folded over hem for a short distance and then bring it back out. Pull on the threads until the fabric puckers slightly, and cut the thread ends close to the fabric. As the fabric straightens out, the thread ends will be pulled inside the hem.
Finishing Seams - For some fabrics and projects, seam allowances can be left as is. But if the fabric is especially prone to fraying or if the seam allowances will be subject to a lot of wear, it's wise to finish them to prevent them from fraying away. There are many methods for finishing seam allowances, including overcasting, treating with a fray-preventative, or binding or pinking. (See below.)
Binding - A process in which a tape or braid is applied over a raw edge and sewn down, encasing the raw edge.
Pinking - A process in which the edges of the fabric are cut in a zigzag line. This is usually accomplished by using pinking shears, which are special scissors with a zigzag edge. Pinking can eliminate fraying in some fabrics, reduce bulk in the seam allowances, or it can be used in place of notching. (See below.)
Grading - A technique in which seam allowances are trimmed to different widths. This technique is used to reduce bulk and facilitate turning facings and linings.
Clipping & Notching - When a facing or lining is sewn on a curved seam or a seam with a corner, the seam allowance will need to be clipped for a concave curve or an inside corner, and notched for a convex curve or outside corner. Failure to do so won't allow the fabric to lie flat, due to differing arc lengths along the seam line and edge of the fabric. Clipping and notching can also be necessary in other circumstances involving curved seams, particularly when the seam allowances are opened out flat.
Hems are those bordering edges of a finished garment, such as are found on the bottom edge of a skirt or the end of a sleeve. As with seams, there are a variety of methods of finishing these edges.
Selvedges - Some people like to cut their pattern pieces in such a way that the selvedges of the fabric form the hems, but this is often not a wise choice. For many fabrics, the selvedges shrink at a different rate than the rest of the fabric, which could lead to puckered hems.
Folded Hem - This is the simplest type of hem, formed by folding the raw edge over twice and sewing the folded edge down, encasing the raw edge. For a fabric that doesn't easily fray, you can sometimes get away with only folding the hem over once before sewing it down. Or if the fabric is very thick you might choose to only fold the hem once (being sure to somehow finish the raw edge) to reduce bulk.
Rolled Hem - A variation of a folded hem, a rolled hem is formed by rolling over a tiny amount of the edge of the fabric and sewing it down. This type of hem is often used for edging very thin or sheer fabrics.
Blind Hem - A blind hem is formed predominantly of widely spaced stitches that only catch the edge of the hem and not the front of the garment. Interspersed periodically with these stitches are blind stitches, which catch only a few threads on the right side of the garment. For a machine sewn blind hem, a specialty stitch is combined with a folding arrangement of the fabric so only certain stitches actually catch threads on the right side of the garment.
Bound Hem - Just like a bound seam, a bound hem is formed by applying a tape or braid over the raw edge and sewing it down, encasing the raw edge.
Casing - Commonly found at necklines, waistbands, and cuffs, casings are used when the garment edge or opening will be gathered with a drawstring or elastic. They can be formed by sewing a separate piece of fabric to the garment edge or by simply folding over the edge of the fabric so a tube is formed at the edge. At some point along the length of the casing an opening is left so the elastic or drawstring can be threaded through.
Before you can begin to sew, you'll often need to make marks on your fabric so you'll be able to align certain points during the construction process. There are many different methods and products you can use to make these marks.
Pencil - Regular writing pencils can be used, but sometimes they don't erase easily or wash out well. In their place, many people prefer to use pencils made specifically for use for marking fabric.
Chalk - Chalk is another popular choice since it brushes away easily, leaving no permanent marks. However, since it does brush away so easily, it isn't a good choice for making a mark you need to last for very long (particularly if the fabric will be handled a lot.) Chalk comes in a variety of colors and can be found in the form of chalk pencils, wedges, or even loose powder that's applied in a line by a special application tool.
Soap - Small slivers of soap can be used to mark fabric. These marks don't brush away easily and do wash out completely. But due to the usual pale color of soap, it doesn't work well on light colored fabrics. (Be cautious if you decide to try using a dark colored soap, as it might contain dyes or pigments that won't wash out.)
Tracing Paper - Different from artist's tracing paper, tailor's tracing paper is similar to carbon paper, with a colored coating on one side that can be transferred to fabric through the use of a tracing wheel or other transferring tool. Tracing paper comes in a range of colors, and the marks can be easily brushed away.
Chemical Pens - A variety of chemical marking pens are available, with inks that dissolve upon exposure to air, water, or special chemical erasers. However, these inks sometimes react with certain fabrics, forming a permanent mark where not intended. So when working with a new fabric, always be sure to test them on a scrap first.
Tailor's Tack - While not really suited for marking lines, tailor's tacks are very efficient for marking points, especially matching points on identical pattern pieces. To form a tailor's tack, thread a needle with a double length of thread and take a tiny stitch through the pattern and both layers of fabric, leaving a length of the thread slack on the other side. Take a few more stitches in the same place, always leaving some of the thread slack on each side of the fabric. Cut the loops of thread on both sides and remove the pattern tissue. Carefully pull the pieces of fabric apart but no so far that the thread is pulled loose. Then cut the thread between the layers of fabric, leaving tiny tufts of thread marking the points.
During the process of sewing, you'll often need to hold your fabric in place. Depending on the task at hand, there are several different methods for this.
Pins - Pins are probably the most common method for holding your fabric in place. The first point during a project at which they're likely to be used is when cutting out the fabric. Pattern pieces are usually pinned to the fabric in order to keep them from shifting. After that, pins are used at many points along the construction process to hold pieces of fabric together while seams are sewn. There are differing opinions on how pins should be used for this purpose. While some people prefer to pin parallel to the seam line, most prefer to pin perpendicular, as it's easier to sew over the pins when they're in that orientation. However, some people are adamant about not sewing over pins, and advocate removing them just before they pass under the needle.
Pattern Weights - An alternative to pinning pattern pieces to the fabric, pattern weights can instead be used to hold them in place during cutting. While you can buy weights specifically designed for this use, makeshift weights can also be created from anything from washers to coasters.
Basting - An alternative to pinning, basting can be used to hold pieces of fabric together during construction. This method is particularly advantageous when matching the seam allowances of pieces of fabric with curved edges of differing radii, or when dealing with fabrics that are very shifty.
Lining - A second layer of fabric that completely covers the interior of a garment, with the finished side facing toward the interior of the garment, and all seam allowances layered between the exterior fabric and the lining.
Facing - Similar to a lining, but extending only a short distance in from the garment edge.
Interfacing - A supplemental layer of fabric added to a limited area of a garment between the main fabric and the facing or lining. This extra fabric adds stiffness or body, and is often used in collars, cuffs, and along button plackets. There are fabrics manufactured specifically for the purpose of being used as interfacings, and many of these have been treated with a glue-like coating that allows them to be fused into place with the heat from an iron.
Underlining - Similar to interfacing, underlinings are added for extra stiffness or body. But while interfacing is used only in small areas, underlinings cover the entire interior surface of a pattern piece. They're cut from the same pattern piece as the main fabric, layered with the main fabric, and then the two pieces of fabric are sewn into the garment as one.
Interlining - An insulative layer of a fabric, such as a wool or flannel, added between the exterior and lining of a garment for warmth.
Gore - A tapered or trapezoidal piece which spans the full length of a garment, added to increase the width of a lower edge. The word gore is also commonly misused to refer to godets.
Godet - A triangular piece inserted to add width to an edge, but which comes to a point somewhere in the interior of the garment.
Gusset - A triangular, square, or diamond shaped piece inserted entirely in the interior of the garment, to add ease to a tight area such as the underarm or crotch.
Dart - A short wedge shaped fold of fabric sewn along its length so as to shape the fabric over a curved area such as the bust.
Placket - A finished slit or opening in a garment such as found at the wrist of a sleeve with a cuff, or down the front of a buttoned shirt.
Button Shanks - Buttons come in two styles, shank and flat. Shank buttons have a projecting loop (shank) on the back of the button, which allows the button to be attached to, yet held slightly away from, the garment. Flat buttons instead have holes in their face that allow them to be sewn down. But when attaching flat buttons you can't simply sew them flat against the fabric. If you do so, there won't be enough room underneath the button for the fabric surrounding the buttonhole. Instead, you must allow some slack in the thread holding the button to the garment, in effect forming a thread shank. The simplest way to do this is to loop the thread over a toothpick or small object as you sew the button to the garment.
Buttonholes - While buttons can be secured with button loops, buttonholes are much more common. These are small slits cut into the fabric, the raw edges of which are finished in some way. There are various types of buttonholes. Straight or plain buttonholes are the simplest, formed from a simple slit edged with stitching, often with bartacks at both ends. Eyelet buttonholes have an enlarged round space at one end of the slit, and are positioned so the button shank will rest in this larger space. Corded buttonholes are reinforced with a length of heavier thread or cording held in place by the stitches. Bound or welted buttonholes have smooth finished openings, edged by folds of fabric.
Backing a Button With a Button - Sometimes a large or heavy button can tear or distort the fabric to which it's attached, particularly if the fabric is very thin or fragile. In such situations it can be helpful to back the button with a small, plain button. This prevents the fabric from tearing or pulling through the buttonhole.
Tuck - A decorative fold in the fabric, often sewn along all or part of its length. Further decorative effects can be achieved with tucks by varying their number, placement, and also by sewing additional lines of stitching along or across the folds of fabric formed by the tucks.
Pintuck - A tiny tuck in the fabric, sometimes with so little fabric contained in the tuck that it simply forms a raised ridge.
Pleats - Used to control fullness as wider pieces of fabric are attached to narrower ones, pleats are regularly spaced folds of fabric, often pressed or sewn to hold their shape. Knife pleats have the folds of the fabric all pointing in the same direction. Box pleats are formed from two knife pleats facing in opposite directions, with the extra fabric on the outside of the garment. Inverted pleats are reverse box pleats, with the extra fabric on the inside of the garment. Cartridge pleats are a more rounded style, sewn perpendicular to the band to which they're attached. These are just the most common types though. Many other styles exist, some also with specific names.
Gathers - Like pleats, gathers are also used to attach wider pieces of fabric to narrower ones. But while pleats are carefully arranged, gathers are more irregular, usually formed by drawing the extra fabric up on a line of stitching.
Shirring - A process of compressing a small area of fabric by using multiple lines of gathers.
Easing - A very gentle gathering of fabric that allows a seam between two pieces of fabric of different lengths, without any perceptible gathering lines. Sometimes steam is used to selectively shrink certain areas of fabric to assist in easing, particularly on wool fabrics.
Ease - The difference between the measurements of the person and of the finished garment. Wearing ease is a certain minimal amount of ease required in most garments, without which they would be too snug for the wearer to move. Style ease is additional ease added to certain styles of garments so they have a looser fit.
Ironing & Pressing - Whereas ironing is the process in which the iron is pushed around over the surface of the cloth, pressing is the process in which the iron is positioned on the cloth, lifted, and repositioned, often with the use of steam. Sewing directions often call for pressing at various points during the construction process, particularly for pressing seam allowances open. This ensures the fabric lies properly before successive seams are sewn, eliminating puckers or misalignments. While you can press instead of ironing without ill effect, ironing when pressing is called for can sometimes lead to puckers or distortions as pushing the iron around on the fabric can stretch the fabric.
Finger Pressing - A technique in which a fold of fabric is compressed tightly between the fingers so as to form a crease. Finger pressing can be used in the place of pressing in small areas when it isn't convenient to take the work in progress to the ironing board. Alternately, it can also be used to mark points on the fabric.
Draping - A method of garment design in which fabric is draped over a person (or dressmaker's dummy) and arranged, marked, cut, and sewn without the use of flat patterns. Alternately, draping can be used to create a flat pattern.
Thimble - A protective cap for the end of a finger, often made of metal but also available in plastic, rubber, ceramic, or leather. Thimbles can be very useful when hand sewing, especially when working with stiff or heavy fabrics. To use a thimble, wear it on the middle finger of your sewing hand. Hold and guide the needle with your thumb and forefinger, and push with the thimble.
Understanding sewing jargon and knowing how, when, and why to apply various techniques will allow you to use appropriate methods when sewing. This in turn will lead to higher quality garments that fulfill your expectations and are worthy of the time invested in them.
© 20002009 Jessica I. Clark
Permission to print a copy for your own use freely given. Please contact me for permission to reprint or distribute.
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