Any time we learn a new skill, hobby or trade, we are inevitably faced with a lexicon of terms that apply exclusively to its milieu.

The art of sewing is no different.

If you are contemplating signing up for sewing classes – or have already done so; if you are investigating sewing courses online, let Superprof give you the straight stitch on vocabulary related to sewing.

If the word piping makes you think of channels for water, indeed you have a word or two to learn about sewing.

Blind stitching, sewing on the bias; serging and appliqué: the world of sewing has its own language.

Let us go now, into this glossary, to expose the gore and the grain of sewing.

Terms Used in Basic Sewing Tutorials

Here are some of the most common words found in needlework guides, sewing books, sewing blogs; and discussed at the notion counter in your local fabric store.

Sewing Basics: Operations and Manoeuvres

Basting: assembling your cut out fabric by using large stitches, prior to running them through the sewing machine.

Basting requires at least a serviceable hand sewing technique.

Bias: folding your cloth diagonally, so that you obtain a 45° angle to the grain of the fabric – the lengthwise or widthwise threads.

Cutting on the bias is a common term, meaning to cut fabric diagonally. It is particularly useful when sewing garments of striped cloth; it makes the stripes form a V on the finished dress or skirt.

Binding: is a type of finishing to keep the edges of your material from fraying.

Binding can be of bias tape, another strip of material or even lace.

Buttonhole: to create an opening on one side of a shirt or waistband, opposite of a button, in which that fastener will pass through, effectively keeping the garment closed.

Darning: mending a hole in a garment without using a patch.

French Seam: a sewing technique that conceals stitching on the face – or right side of the fabric, as well as on the wrong side.

Notching, or notches: these are marks, usually V-shaped, in your sewing pattern that you must cut into your cloth.

These notches help you match one pattern piece with another. You can think of them as a guide to proper assembly of your sewing projects.

Decatising: the process of preparing a fabric for work by washing and/or ironing it.

Also known as crabbing, blowing or decating, this is the beginner step to working textile, so that it does not shrink during garment making.

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You should wash and iron your fabric prior to working it
Decatising fabric means preparing it for sewing Source: Pixabay Credit: Allchemilla

Fusible Interface: used on unseen parts of fabric – a pocket or collar, for instance, to make that part of the garment more rigid.

This interfacing generally comes with heat-activated glue on one side, so that you only need to trim the piece to your sewing patterns specifications and press it on.

Pleating: a sewing technique for making permanent folds in the fabric. To make attractive pleats, you simply need to fold the fabric back on itself and pin each pleat in place.

You can then sew your pleats into your skirts with a sewing machine.

Pleats should never be confused with ruching!

Ruching is a gathered overlay. Unlike pleats, which are consistently vertical, all sized the same and quite orderly, ruching tends to be horizontal – or diagonal! and uneven.

To execute ruching effectively, you would slightly wrinkle the edges of your fabric, and then sew it onto a flat underlay or lining.

Gathering is similar to ruching in technique – using a running stitch, but only one end of the material is gathered, and then sewn onto its correspondingly short piece.

Hemming: in fact, this is one of the simplest seams to learn to sew. Still, it is most in demand, at the tailor's or dressmakers' shops.

Every article of clothing – pants, skirt, dress or blouse, has a hem. It is at the bottom-most point of the garment, and gives you a clean, defined look. Hems also serve to shorten (or lengthen) a garment.

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Serger: is a type of sewing machine that sews, finishes and cuts seam allowances down, all at once.

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The threads lock around the seam to prevent fraying, thus providing a more durable seam than even the best sewing machine.

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Sergers are especially effective if you are working with knit fabric.

Knits: as opposed to woven fabrics, cloth that is knit has been... well... knitted.

This type of textile is more flexible, making it ideal for working with smaller pieces. Three types are knits are: Jersey, rib knit and interlock.

Trimming the Corners is the process whereby, once two panels of cloth have been joined, the right-angle corners are cut down so as to not exceed the border of the garment itself.

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The Straight Line on Sewing Tools

Even beginners at developing sewing techniques know that sewing anything requires a needle and thread.

For easy projects, such as hemming a skirt or slacks, that might be all you need.

However, if you intend to express yourself in your sewing, or you hope for a career in dressmaking, you will certainly need to expand your cache of sewing supplies.

Here is a list of the basics every sewing kit should contain.

  • An assortment of sewing needles, in varying sizes

    • a needle threader would probably be very helpful, too

  • A thimble will protect your finger from the needle's sharp point

  • A complement of sewing thread; in various colours and sizes

  • Bobbin: if you are going to engage in machine sewing, you will need a few of these

    • bobbins dispense the thread from the underside of the fabric.

  • Straight pins come in packs of fifty or one hundred – or more; you only need to buy one pack for your beginner sewing projects

    • You should also buy a pin cushion, essential to store those sneaky pins that like to hide in carpet and stick you in the foot as you walk.

  • Scissors: you should have at least one pair of fabric shears and one set of nippers, to snip errant thread

    • you may also like working with a rotary cutter and pinking shears, that leave a zig zag cut

  • A darning mushroom is very helpful in isolating the area to to be darned

  • An embroidery hoop is vital if you intend on doing any type of needlework

  • A seam ripper works better than any other implement at dissolving unwanted sewing stitches

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This sewing machine shows what types of stitches it can make
Many sewing machines graphically display the types of stitches they are capable of Source: Pixabay Credit: Buntysmum

Appliqué: an ornamental piece of fabric with a raised edge or border – called a merrow, that one sews onto a larger piece of material or a garment.

Essentially a patch, appliqués tend to be more decorative than functional.

Raw edge: this is the term used for fabrics whose edges have, as yet, not been treated – to a hem, a zigzag stitch or by overlocking on a serger.

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Before working any fabric, especially before washing it (to avoid shrinkage), it is vital to treat that edge so that it does not unravel.

Embroider: the art of decorating fabric, with either a raised or flat motif – or a combination of both.

Here, you can let your imagination run wild! You can add sequins or gemstones, floss or even a fabric scrap or two.

While some prefer traditional embroidery – meticulous, tiny hand stitching sewn closely together, newbies might prefer learning embroidery on a machine.

Quilting: sewing two or more layers of fabric together, sometimes with a batting between them, to make a quilt.

You can also make purses, curtains, jackets or sweaters out of quilted material. 

Grain line: in woven fabric, this is the longwise threads stretched on a loom.

The weft are the threads that go widthwise, across the warp – as grain lines are also referred to.

Presser foot is the device on a sewing machine that secures your fabric as you sew it. Its counterpart, the feed dog, is what pulls the fabric through the machine as the sewing needle goes up and down.

Even the most basic sewing machine has a presser!

Armscye has two meanings that, fortunately, both relate to where - in a garment, you place your arms.

The first meaning is, indeed, the openings in a garment through which the wearer puts his arms. The second denotes the place where sleeves will be sewn, in pattern making.

Placket is an opening at the top of any garment, that makes it easier to take off.

While generally at the top of pants or a skirt, plackets can also be found at the neck of a shirt.

Darts: a pair of folds sewn into the bust, waist and/or back of a blouse or dress to give it a more defined silhouette.

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From the Sewing Room: Types of Stitches

Now that you are beyond sewing for beginners, you are ready to go ahead with more sewing tutorials and sew like a seamstress or dressmaker (or tailor!).

By all means, allow us to oblige!

The latest installment in the sewing blog you follow recommended using a whipstitch.

A what???

So  that you are not left in such a quandary, we guide you through the many types of hand sewing stitches.

  • The straight stitch is the most basic of sewing stitches

  • An overcast stitch is used for both decoration and to protect fabric edges.

    • It is also called a whip stitch

  • As mentioned before, the zigzag stitch is used to protect raw edges of fabric

  • The blanket stitch loops over the edge of the fabric; the needle entry point is always on the same side of the cloth.

  • The blind stitch, mostly used to hem clothes, is invisible on the front of the fabric

    • It is also called a hem stitch

  • The Buttonhole stitch requires thick thread and satin stitches – very close together, in order to stay strong and not fray.

  • The running stitch should look like a dashed line when finished. It comprises of long stitches and can act as drawstrings, if you wish to gather material, or for ruching

  • Embroidery stitches should be very small and close together.

  • Crosstitching is just as the name implies: a multitude of little crosses, sewn in different colours of thread, to render a complete design.

  • Most cross stitchers make use of an embroidery hoop to keep their material taut, making it easier to stitch.

This is not what Mr. Dior meant about beauty without zest!
No attraction without zest? Surely not what Dior anticipated! Source: Pixabay Credit: Ryan McGuire

Celebrity Citations from the World of Sewing

As we nearly have this article stitched up, let us now leave you in stitches with a few quotes from some of the world's most famous fashion designers, past and present.

Mode passes, style remains – Coco Chanel (although they have essentially the same meaning, her famous line is often misquoted as: fashion is fleeting, style remains).

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Walk like you have three men walking behind you – Oscar de la Renta (ostensibly said to his runway models prior to a show)

One is never over-dressed or under-dressed with a Little Black Dress – Karl Lagerfeld (whether he meant the book by Simon Henry or the actual garment is not clear)

There is no virtue whatsoever in creating clothing or accessories that are not practical – Giorgio Armani

There is no beauty that is attractive without zest – Christian Dior (perhaps that explains all of the lemon print fabric available!)

You can read more famous fashion quotes at Harper's Bazaar.

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.