Sewing Terminology: 100 Sewing Terms & Phrases You Need to Know

This essential glossary of sewing terminology defines 100 must-know terms for both beginners and experienced sewers. Master specialized lingo covering everything from fabric types and tool names to patterns, seams, construction techniques, finishes, and garment care. Learn the precise vocabulary behind darts, pleats, grain perfection, blind hems, and more. A quick reference guide with clear examples builds confidence to tackle any pattern instruction.

100+ A-Z Sewing Terminology You Need To Know

Types of Fabrics

Chiffon – A sheer, lightweight fabric with a soft drape. Used for blouses, dresses, and scarves.

Denim – A sturdy cotton twill fabric. They are used to make jeans, jackets, and skirts.

Flannel – A soft, lightly brushed fabric made from wool, cotton, or synthetic fibers. Used for shirts, pajamas, and blankets.

Interfacing – A lightweight fabric used underneath facings to provide structure and support.

Lawn – A lightweight, soft cotton or linen fabric with a crisp finish. Used for blouses, dresses, skirts.

Organza – A sheer, lightweight fabric often made from silk or polyester. Used for formal dresses and overlays.

Sewing Machine Parts

Bobbin – Holds the bobbin thread in the sewing machine. Loads underneath the needle plate.

Feed Dogs – The teeth under the needle plate that move fabric back and forth under the needle.

Foot Pedal – Controls the speed of the sewing machine when pressed. Also starts/stops stitching.

Needle Plate – A metal piece with an opening for the needle that covers the feed dogs.

Presser Foot – Holds fabric flat while sewing. Can be changed to accommodate different techniques.

Tension Discs – Adjustable discs that control the tightness of the upper thread and bobbin thread.

Hand Sewing Tools

Bodkin – A large, blunt needle used to pull elastic, ribbon, or tape through casings and hems.

Hand Sewing Needles – Available in a variety of types and sizes for hand sewing. Have a sharp point and an eye for thread.

Loop Turner – A wire tool used to pull fabric corners right side out after stitching.

Pin Cushion – Kinds of Stuff pins for easy storage. Keeps pins from getting lost and protects fingers from sharp points.

Seam Ripper – A small tool with a sharp point for ripping stitches to remove or correct sewing mistakes.

Thimble – A pitted cap is worn on the finger to protect it from needle pricks while hand sewing. Often made of metal, rubber, or leather.

Tracing Wheel – A serrated metal or plastic wheel used to transfer pattern markings to fabric by piercing and leaving colored lines.

Cutting Tools

Pinking Shears – Scissor-like cutting tool with saw tooth blades to create a zig-zag edge to prevent fraying.

Rotary Cutter – Rolling blade makes accurate cuts of fabric. Used with a rotary cutting mat.

Scissors – Used to cut around a pattern or cut the fabric into shapes accurately. Come in a wide variety of types/sizes.

Seam Gauge – Small ruled metal tool used to accurately measure seam allowance distances from raw edges or hem depths.

Seam Ripper – A small tool with a sharp point for ripping stitches to remove or correct sewing mistakes.

Measuring Tools

Clear Grid Ruler – Thin, see-through acrylic ruler marked with a grid to accurately measure pattern pieces or fabric.

Curve Ruler – A flexible ruler that can be shaped to curved pattern edges for precise trimming or pattern marking.

Hip Curve – Shape used in combination with a long ruler to accurately measure body curves for pattern alterations.

L-Square Ruler – Ruler with a 90-degree angle used to accurately align pattern pieces on fabric grain lines.

Measuring Tape – Standard flexible tape with inches/centimeters to take body measurements for pattern selection/alteration.

Types of Stitches

Backstitch – Reverses stitch direction to lock the beginning and end of a seam to prevent unraveling.

Basting Stitch – A long, temporary stitch (4mm-5mm) to hold layers together until final stitching. Easily removed.

Blind Hem Stitch – Makes invisible hemming stitches by catching only one or two fabric threads to hide the stitching line.

Zigzag Stitch – Side-to-side stitch that leaves room for fabric to stretch. Used to finish raw edges or sew knits.

Types of Seams

Flat-Felled Seam – Enclosed seam with two parallel rows of stitching angled slightly. Used for durability on jeans, and shirts.

French Seam – Seam sewn inside out then trimmed and sewn right side out to fully enclose raw edges inside.

Overcast Stitch – Zigzag or small straight stitch sewn over raw fabric edges to prevent unraveling.

Serged Seam – Seam finish that trims the raw edges with an overlock stitch all in one step. Requires a serger machine.

Sewing Patterns and Alterations

Pattern Markings

Cutting Line – Outer solid line indicating sewing pattern piece edge to cut out.

Dots – Mark matching points to align pattern pieces accurately.

Grain Line – Indicates pattern piece placement on the crosswise or lengthwise grain. Marked by a long arrow.

Notches – Mark seam matching points like dots. Shown as triangular cuts into the cutting line.

Alteration Basics

Lengthen/Shorten Line – Pattern line marked parallel to the grain line, where you cut to add or remove length.

Pivot Point – Marked spot on a pattern for rotating pieces to alter their shape.

Toile – A test garment made from inexpensive fabric to check the fit before cutting the final fabric.

Trace Off – Creating a copy of a paper sewing pattern to preserve the original for future use or alterations.

Garment Construction

Seam Finishes

Bound Seam – Seam covered with bias tape or other trim. Provides a neat look and protects edges.

Hong Kong Finish – A seam finish using fusible interfacing strips to bind the raw edges cleanly.

Overcast Stitch – Zigzag or small straight stitch preventing fabric’s raw edges from unraveling.

Pinking – Cutting seam allowances with pinking shears to create zigzag edges that prevent fraying fabric.

Hemming

Blind Hem – Makes invisible hemming stitches that catch only one or two fabric threads.

Catch Stitch – Hand sewing stitch catching a crosswise thread then picking up just one or two threads. Creates invisible hem finishing on wool.

Hem Facing – A shaped facing made from lining fabric that covers the raw edges of a hem.

Top Stitching – Stitching is done on the outside of a garment to create decorative details or help facings/hems lay flat.

Sleeves and Cuffs

Ease Stitch – One or more rows of big basting stitches taken perpendicular to a curved seam through seam allowance only. Pulls in fullness before setting the sleeve.

Shirring Elastic – Multiple rows of elastic thread shirred on the back sleeve cap ease in fullness. An alternative method to sleeve ease stitches.

Split Hem – A sleeve hem split near the underarm, finished separately above and below the split for comfort and flexibility.

Vent – A slit at the hem edge allowing comfortable arm movement. Can end in a point or overlap slightly.

Collars

Interfacing – A layer of stabilizing fabric used underneath collars, cuffs, and lapels to provide stiffness and structure.

Notch – A matching mark that is shaped like a triangle/wedge cut out from the edge of the fabric. Used at points that must match for the collar to fit properly.

Stand – A piece of collar fabric that stands upright, surrounding the neckline. Provides structure for shirt and jacket collars.

Understitch – To stitch the inner layer of a collar to the seam allowance close to the seam after it’s attached to the garment.

Pockets and Plackets

Besom Pocket – A rectangular pocket finished with a narrow hem facing stitched to the garment edge. Popular on jeans, jackets, and skirts.

Jetted Pocket – A pocket with a clean finish inside the garment opening. No topstitching or flaps are visible.

Patch Pocket – A fabric pocket made separately and then stitched to the outside of the garment piece. Very versatile pocket style.

Welt Pocket – Made from a fabric strip folded forming the pocket shape. Provides a very clean tailored finish.

Zippers and Buttons

Buttonhole – A slit cut in fabric to allow buttons to pass through for fastening garments. Can be bound for a finished look.

Hook and Eye – Two-part fastening used as closure at the top of zips, on waistbands, or center back opening. Provides stability and a neat finish.

Invisible Zipper – A very discrete zipper hidden in the garment seam for a clean, sleek look. No metal teeth or stitching shows on the right side.

Separating Zipper – Zipper that unzips completely from top to bottom from both sides. Used frequently in skirts, pants, and dresses.

Lining and Interfacing

Fusible Interfacing – Material ironed to the wrong side of the fabric to stabilize, add body, and reduce wrinkling. Sold with a paper backing layer.

Hair Canvas – Layer of loosely woven fabric used in tailored clothing to add lightweight shape and support at key points. Sewn in between the main fabric and lining layers.

Lining – An inner layer of silky fabric to allow clothing to slip over other garments easily. Improves appearance and hides seam allowances.

Underlining – A layer of fabric cut identical to the fashion fabric and basted/sewn together along the outer raw edges then treated as one layer. Provides more heft and opacity to delicate or lightweight fabrics without adding bulk between layers like a traditional lining. Popular for evening gowns and wedding dresses.

Embellishments and Embroidery

Applique – Decorative technique layering shapes cut from one fabric onto another for ornamental effect. Stitched down around edges either by hand or machine.

Beading – Decorative trim created by stitching small glass beads, gems, pearls, or sequins onto fabric by hand or machine. Requires beading thread/needle for hand beading.

Couching – An embroidery technique using decorative threads laid on a fabric surface and then tacked down at intervals with tiny stitches. Creates texture and dimension to the design.

Smocking – Decorative stitching gathering fabric into small pleats to create texture and elasticity for motifs. Done by hand or machine and seen frequently on children’s clothes near necklines, cuffs, or hems.

Sewing Techniques

Darts and Pleats

Darts – Shaped folded fabric stitched to create form-fitting designs contouring 3D body curves. Most commonly seen tapering to a point from the waist or bust line.

Pleats – Folds of fabric stitched down into place. Pleating adds fullness, and a decorative texture or helps a garment fit better over curvy areas like the bust. Popular types include knives, boxes, and kick pleats.

Gathering and Ruching

Gathering – Long loose running stitches or differential feed setting on a serger that pulls the fabric into many small regular folds when drawing up the thread. Used to attach fabric pieces of varying widths such as sleeves into armholes.

Ruching – Drawing fabric up into an irregular compressed wrinkled effect by stitching or scrunching on elastic thread or elastic tape. Used decoratively as trim, on necklines or armholes.

Applique and Patchwork

Applique – Decorative technique layering shapes cut from one fabric onto another for ornamental effect. Stitched down around edges either by hand or machine.

Patchwork – A design created by stitching many small pieces of differently colored/patterned fabrics together into a unified whole. Requires precise cutting and stitching for best results.

Garment Care and Repair

Shrinkage – When the washable fabric gets smaller in size, often unevenly. Pre-washing eliminates this unpredictable factor.

Steam Pressing – Pressing with the heat and moisture of a steam iron to temporarily ease out wrinkles and creases in the fabric. Does not cure pleats or permanent creases like machine washing and drying.

Seam Sealant – A liquid silicone product brushed along enclosed seams that cures and stops irritating seam leaks on waterproof outerwear and rain gear.

Laundering Fabrics

Dry Clean – Professional clothes cleaning service using chemical solvents instead of water to safely clean fabrics with uncertain washability. Look for this symbol on garment tags.

Hand Wash – Gentle garment cleaning method using mild soap/detergent in cool water. Minimizes risk of shrinkage or damage to delicate fabrics. Garment tags marked ‘Hand Wash’ indicate items not suitable for frequent machine washing and drying.

Repairing Seams and Hems

Darning – Weaving new threads into the fabric using needle and yarn to mend damaged areas or reattach poorly secured hems/seams. Takes practice but leaves items usable instead of discarded.

Ladder Stitch – Hand stitch moving horizontally catching only a thread or two of fabric on each side to invisibly close openings. Also called slip stitch. Used to close and reinforce weakened shoulder seams or underarm seams prone to popping after repeated wear/washing.

Dealing with Stains

Hydrogen peroxide – Mixes with liquid dish soap and water to lift out blood or food stains without fading or damaging delicate colored fabrics when caught promptly. Rinse and launder as usual afterward.

Lemon juice – Natural citric acid removes dark underarm discoloration and yellowing on white cotton and linen when items are soaked for 1-2 hours in full-strength lemon juice and hot sun then rinsed.

Sewing Terminology from A to Z

Awl – A leather punch tool for making small holes in heavy fabrics where a machine needle won’t penetrate. Allows things like rivets, grommets, and eyelets to be set into place.

Basting Tape – A double-sided sticky tape used to temporarily bond fabrics together instead of pinning or hand basting.

Contrast – The noticeable visual difference between two fabric colors/prints placed next together.

Dress Form – A full-body mannequin adjusted to specific body measurements for pattern drafting and draping techniques.

Ease – The slight excess roominess built into a pattern over body measurements to allow comfortable movement.

Fat Quarter – Precut bundle of fabric measuring 18” x 21”. Fabric quantity is perfect for patchwork blocks and small projects.

Gusset – A diamond or rectangular insert added to provide comfortable wearing ease at body stress points like the underarm of a loose t-shirt.

Hook and Loop tape – Brand names Velcro®. Two-piece fastener with tiny nylon hooks on one side adhering to the fuzzy loops on the other side. Quick fastening for clothing closures instead of buttons or zippers.

Interfacing – Adds stiffness, and support to specific garment pieces like collars, waistbands, and cuffs.

Jalie Patterns – Independent sewing pattern company based in Canada offering innovative athletic wear, dancewear, and stretch knit patterns in inclusive sizing.

Kwik Sew – Well-known independent pattern company providing classic and trendy designs for the entire family. Part of the McCall’s brand family.

Linen – The fabric is woven from flax plant fibers. Known for exceptional coolness in warm weather and dressing up beautifully in tailored clothing. Wrinkles easily unless treated.

Muslin – Basic plain or bleached white cotton fabric. Available in a wide range of weights from gauzy to heavy canvas-like qualities. Used to create a test garment prototype checking for proper fit before cutting into fashion fabric. Also called toile or mock-up.

Nap – The fuzzy texture runs uniformly in one direction on fabric like velvet, corduroy, moleskin, and flannel. Requires cutting pattern pieces facing the same direction to avoid major shade variations.

On grain – Pattern placement aligning properly on the lengthwise and crosswise threads for the best appearance, drape, and performance.

Pleats – Folds of fabric repeatedly stacked, pressed, and stitched permanently into place forming controlled fullness for fashion interest or expandability.

Quarter scale – Reducing or enlarging a sewing pattern by 25% – either smaller or larger than the original. Helpful for testing complicated design details.

Raglan sleeve – Extends fully to the neckline in a diagonal seam giving extra ease through the shoulder/upper back. Used for loose-fitting garments and athletic wear. No shoulder seam to restrict movement.

Stay tape – Narrow twill tape stitched into seam allowances or garment edges on necklines, and armholes to prevent stretching out of shape from body stress. Also important when working with lightweight or unstable fabrics prone to losing shape over time.

Twill tape – A tightly woven ribbon with diagonal texture running crosswise along its length. Available in cotton, silk, and rayon as well as combination fibers like cotton/polyester for durability. Used decoratively or functionally to bind edges or make ties for clothing.

Understitch – Rows of stitching against seam allowances/facing close to the garment from the inside after being attached. Flattens them smoothly against the body of the garment preventing the inside from rolling out to show on the right side unevenly. Used on neck facing and armhole seams.

Vintage pattern – Sewing patterns produced approximately 20 years or more ago. Offering authentic retro and antique styles no longer available in mainstream pattern catalogs. Rereleased by small cottage companies allowing modern sewers to recreate dependably fitting classic fashions from previous decades.

Warp – Lengthwise threads held in tension on a loom. Crossed by the weft threads running left to right to create woven fabric. Denim shows the warp threads prominently running up and down the fabric length while weft threads blend into the background.

X-Acto knife – Very sharp, short blade knife used to trim allowance corners/curves too tight for scissors once seams are stitched without cutting through seam stitches accidentally.

Yardage – Unit of measure indicating the linear length of how much fabric you plan to purchase. Based on 36” wide standard fabric bolts found at fabric stores.

Zigzag stitch – Zigzag line stitch moves side to side providing stretch and flexibility to seam allowances so they can expand without breaking stitches when crossing curved areas like knits. Also used decoratively for ornamental stitching. Prevents fabric edges from fraying when stitched closely along raw seams.

FAQs

Q: What are selvages?

A: Selvedges are tightly woven lengthwise edge that runs parallel to the warp threads and prevents fabric raveling. Usually has an obvious texture difference and and can’t be sewn through. Must be cut off yardage.

Q: What does NFS mean?

A: NFS is an abbreviation seen on commercial clothing tags meaning “not for sale”. Usually found on sample garments used for display or advertising purposes only.

Q: What does grain perfect mean?

A: Grain perfect is a trademark term used by Cotton Select brand cotton fabrics. It indicates extra care was taken in the factory finishing process to perfectly align the woven threads resulting in crisp detail and exceptional stability during repeated laundering.

Q: What do pattern numbers like M7974 indicate?

A: Commercial pattern numbers are coded with a letter prefix indicating which pattern brand, followed by numbers showing its unique catalog ID within that company’s offerings for style identification. M = McCall’s brand. V = Vogue brand. S = Simplicity brand. B = Butterick brand.

Q: Why are there so many sewing terms?

Sewing terminology evolved over a long period starting with hand sewing and adding vocabulary for every new tool, technique, and fabric type invented as garment construction industrialized needing consistent language between factories around the world eventually filtering down to home sewers as well. The specialized nature of working with such a broad range of textiles and methods results in very precise descriptions to eliminate guesswork.

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