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by | 30 Jul, 2020 | Sewing, Tutorial

Learn-to-Sew: Sewing Terms Explained

Are you confused by sewing terms? Pick up any sewing pattern and there will be terms used that are specific to sewing. Everything has its own jargon! And with all jargon there is a level of assumed knowledge that puts a barrier between the beginner and getting on with the fun. So in today’s post I’d like to break down that barrier before we get any further in this learn-to-sew series and explain what those sewing terms mean. This is going to break it down to the very basics so bear with me. I don’t want to leave any assumptions hanging out there. This is intended as a reference list for when you come across something you do not understand. Lots of sewing terms refer to fabric. I covered some of these in more detail in the All About Fabric post so go there to brush up too.

Wordle of sewing terms
Sewing terms – it can all get a bit much! Image created in Wordle

Cutting Out Terms

Fabric Right Side/Wrong Side

Fabric has a right side and a wrong side and this is very obvious on a lot of fabrics. See All About Fabric for more on this and what to do if it isn’t obvious. When I cut fabric that doesn’t have a clear right and wrong side, I mark the piece somehow (often with a big B – for back – or F – for front – in chalk) on the wrong side so that when I am in the middle of the project, I can still tell which way it is supposed to be.


Lining is second layer of fabric on the inside of a garment. It is usually not the same fabric as the outer layer and is often plain. Have a look inside a tailored jacket or skirt. They are usually lined with a silky fabric. However, many projects such as bags and homewares have a decorative fabric for the lining to add interest to the project.


Interfacing is a sheet of special paper or woven fabric which is used to give a sewing project structure, stiffness or strength. They can be fusible (where heat, such as an iron, is used to melt the spots of glue on the interfacing to adhere it to the fabric) or sew-in (where there is no glue and pieces are often based to the fabric before sewing). Interlining is a layer of fabric that is used between the main fabric and the lining to add bulk or insulation. However I have often seen the words interfacing and interlining used interchangeably. Your pattern should specify what type of material you need to go between your layers so take your guide from that.


The selvedge (selvage) of fabric is the finished edge of the fabric which does not fray and you find them on either side of the fabric width. See All About Fabric.


Grainline is also explained in All About Fabric. It refers to the direction of the weave of the fabric and runs parallel to the selvedge. It is important to follow grainline directions when cutting out so your garment hangs as intended.

Cut on fold

Usually when cutting out garments, the cutting layout requires that the fabric is folded. This means pieces which are the mirror image of each other can be cut out in one go. Sometimes though a symmetrical pattern piece will be cut on the fold. The straight side of the pattern piece is aligned with the fabric fold and the piece is cut without cutting along the folded edge so that when the fabric is opened up the piece is perfectly symmetrical. Look at the pattern layout and the markings on the pattern piece carefully to work this out.


A template is a shape cut from stiff card or plastic so that it can be used to cut out the same shape over and over again.

Transfer Markings

Patterns have a number of different markings to help you put your project together correctly. You need to transfer these markings from the pattern to your fabric. Using your tailor’s chalk or a disappearing fabric marker (see the post on Setting Yourself Up to Sew) mark the fabric on the wrong side corresponding to the marks on the pattern. What marks will you find?

Cutting line

This is the line around the edge of the pattern – the line where you will cut your fabric. Some patterns have more than one size so you need to choose the correct line for the size you are making. I personally don’t like to cut the paper pattern down to the smaller sizes because I might want them at another time. In this case you can trace the cutting line onto the fabric before you cut it.


You don’t need to transfer this mark but just make sure it is aligned with your fabric grain when laying out the pattern.

‘Cut on Fold’ line

As mentioned above, sometimes a pattern piece will need to be cut on the fold of the fabric. This mark (a long ‘U’ shaped line with large arrows pointing to the edge of the pattern) also does not need to be transferred to your fabric. It is just a guide for laying out also.


Along the edges of the pattern you will find triangles – and they might be single, double or sometimes triple. These are the notches which help you line your pieces up before you sew the seam (see Five Principles for Neat Sewing). The best way to mark these is to cut a triangle outwards from the pattern piece as you cut the fabric corresponding to the mark. If you don’t do it that way, however, just mark the triangles within the seam allowance with your chalk or marker.

Centre Back, Centre Front

Usually only found on garment patterns, this term refers to the is the mid point of the back or the front piece. If present, it is intended to be transferred to the fabric because it will be used later to help line something up such as applying a waistband to a skirt.

Darts, Tucks & Pleats

Darts, tucks and pleats will be explained below. On the pattern piece they will be triangle, diamond or rectangle shape wedge, depending on the type of marking. Sometimes they will have dotted lines and arrows. These will guide the construction of the darts, tucks or pleats so it is important to transfer these accurately.

Sewing Terms

Stitching line

Sometimes patterns have a stitching line marked. This is, as you would expect, a guide as to where to sew.

Seam allowance

The seam allowance is the distance between the edge of your fabric piece and where you will stitch your seam. Many patterns use 1.5cm (or 5/8”) but they are often different so make sure you check your pattern. If there is nothing stated it is usually safe to use 1.5cm.


You know what a stitch is. ‘To stitch’ is, as you would expect, to run a line of straight stitches along something.

Stitch length

Stitches can be longer or shorter and they are suited to different purposes. Your machine will have a way of adjusting the stitch length. For most purposes, a stitch that is about 3mm long will be fine. Sewing a buttonhole will require a shorter stitch length. When you machine baste (see below), you will use the longest stitch length possible.

Stitch width

Stitch width does not apply to straight stitching but is an important factor in zigzag and decorative stitches. Stitch width is determined by the swing of your needle and there will be an adjustment for it on your machine. If you need to use zigzag or decorative stitches, play around with stitch width and stitch length on a scrap of fabric to get your desired look.

Baste & Machine Baste

A basting stitch is a long stitch which holds fabric pieces together temporarily until the permanent seam is sewn. Basting is easily removed after the seam has been sewn. Basting can be done by hand stitching with a long running stitch or by using the longest stitch possible on the sewing machine.

Right Sides Together

You will usually be asked to sew seams with ‘right sides together’ so that the resulting seam allowance will be on the wrong side of the fabric and out of sight. This means, as it sounds, place the right (often the patterned) sides of the fabric facing each other.

Wrong Sides Together

Occasionally there are reasons to sew with ‘wrong sides together’. This means, of course, to put the wrong sides of the fabric against each other with the right sides facing out.

Align raw edges

This one is pretty straight forward, put the pieces together so the raw edges of the pieces are lined up.

Match Notches & Seams

This means line up your pieces so that corresponding marks and seams are aligned. Remember above I mentioned that notches might be single, double or even triple triangles. This is to differentiate one set of notches from another on the same pattern piece. So a single notch is matched to a single notch, double notches to double notches. To match seams, line the seam on one piece to the seam on the other. Often you will be asked to match notches and seams on the one long piece.

Clip seam allowances

I will do another post on clipping seams but this means to make little nicks in the seam allowance on a curved seam so that the seam will lay flat. If not clipped the seam allowance cannot open up around the curve. Make small snips with the points of your scissors (sharp scissors are definitely an advantage here) around the curved part of the seam about 1.5 cm apart. Cut close to the stitching (4-5mm away) but do not cut the stitching.

Clip corners

When you are asked to clip corners, you just need to snip the excess fabric off the corner of the seam. Cut diagonally across the corner about 4-5mm away from the stitching (where you pivoted around the corner) taking care not to cut through the stitching.

Trim seams

To trim the seam is to cut away the seam allowance to within about 6mm of the stitching (or as specified by your pattern) to reduce bulk. Again do not cut through the stitching.


Grading is similar to trimming seams but it means to cut the different layers of fabric to different widths to avoid an abrupt bump where the seam allowance starts. Usually only used with thick fabrics.


This means to pull the fabric the other way out. Usually, this is associated with making things like straps where you create a tube with right sides together and then need to pull it through so the right sides are on the outside.

Leave opening

Sometimes in order to turn a piece the right way out, you need to leave a gap in the seam – leave an opening. You can then pull the fabric through the opening and turn the item right side out.

Turn in / turn under

To turn in, or more commonly, turn under means to take the raw edge of the fabric and fold it up on the wrong side of the fabric so that the raw edge will be concealed. Usually, a raw edge is turned under twice so that the raw edge is contained in a seam.


A hem is the fabric that is turned to the inside of a garment or project so that the raw edge is concealed and a neat edge is left. ‘To hem’ is the act of creating a hem of course.


A casing is a long narrow space created by folding the fabric over to create a deep hem and stitching it down. Casings are created to accommodate elastic or a drawstring. The elastic or drawstring is threaded through the casing. In an elastic waisted skirt the elastic is contained in a casing.


A facing is a narrow piece of fabric that lines just a small section of a garment such as around a neckline to give it definition and structure and neaten what would otherwise be a raw edge.

Ease and Fullness

Some pieces are designed to give the wearer a little more room to move. This is called ease. However sewing patterns also instruct you to ‘ease in’ a piece such as a sleeve. When you are matching one piece of a pattern to another, they may not match each other exactly. The extra length is not just left hanging off the end because it does serve a purpose. The extra fabric needs to be distributed along the seam and as evenly as possible so that there isn’t an unsightly tuck at any one point. This extra fabric is called fullness so a pattern might say ‘distribute fullness’ if there isn’t a lot extra. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to ease one piece to another. This involves doing a length of ease stitching (regular stitching but just inside the seam allowance) and pulling the threads so the fabric bunches up a bit. It is bunched up just enough that the longer piece becomes the same length as the shorter piece (with the fullness evenly distributed) and then they can be stitched together as usual but with small tucks along the length of the seam.


Gathers are made in a similar way but are generally more voluminous and over a larger area. To gather a piece of fabric usually two parallel lines of basting stitching are made about half a centimetre away from one another. The threads are pulled up carefully so as not to break the thread to create the gathers. This is commonly used to attach a full skirt to a fitted bodice but there are many other times they might be used for decorative effect.


A tuck is a means of taking up fullness in a seam. It is created when the fabric is folded onto itself and sewn down. Easing and gathering create tucks. Very small ones are called pintucks.


A dart is a small seam in a piece of fabric to curve it to the shape of the body so, in garments, you commonly find them at the hips or bust. From the outside they look like a small seam that ends in a bit of a point.


A pleat is a type of fold (or special type of tuck) where the fabric is doubled over a measured amount to take up some fullness and is usually used for decorative purposes. They can be constructed in different ways to create different effects.

Finishing Terms


To ‘finish’ a seam or raw edge of fabric is to secure the raw edges so they do not fray. There are a number of methods for finishing and I talked about the common ones in the Five Principles for Neat Sewing post.


Topstitching is visible stitching, often used for decorative purposes, sewn from the right side of the fabric. It is used to help facings stay in place and to hold layers together in bags, for example. You will see topstitching on your jeans where it is both decorative and adds strength to the seam.


To slip stitch means to neatly hand-sew an opening closed. I admit it was only fairly recently, maybe ten years ago, that I learnt the correct way to slip stitch so that it is nearly invisible. I think I’ll have to do a video for you so that you can see how to do it neatly.

Pressing Terms

Press Seams Flat

To press a seam flat means to remove any folds in the fabric around the seam. From the right side of the fabric, run your fingers down the stitching line to push the fabric away on either side and bring the point of the iron along behind you. The result will be a visible seam with no folded fabric on either side.

Press Seams Open

You press a seam open from the wrong side. Open up the seam allowance and run the iron along the seam so that there is a nice flat seam allowance on either side of the seam.

Press Seams to One Side

This is where you press both sides of the seam allowance to the same side of the seam as opposed to pressing the seam open. See Five Principles of Neat Sewing for more on pressing, with some images to help. So that brings me to the end of a long list of sewing terms. Are there any others you have come across that have left you scratching your head? Have I assumed anything? I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of a beginner sewer and pared it back to the basics but are there any things that still do not make sense? Please let me know and I will add to and edit the post as necessary.

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