15 “Sewing 101” Terms for Beginners

15 “Sewing 101” Terms for Beginners

Most who want to start sewing see some words they don’t understand or have no knowledge of at all. It can sound like a foreign language, and we’re here to translate!
I, Kelly, have made my own cosplays (with help!) for 7 years, and I still learn more about sewing every day. So, I figured it would be helpful to share this with you!
Here are 15 terms that all sewing beginners should know.

Table of Contents:

1.    Tension
2.    Stitch Length
3.    Stitch Width
4.    Selvage
5.    Grain
6.    Bias
7.    Right Side (of Fabric)
8.    Wrong Side (of Fabric)
9.    Fabric Shears
10.  Seam Ripper
11.  Bobbin
12.  Presser Foot
13.  Seam Allowance
14.  Raw Edge
15.  Finish (a Raw Edge)

Terms and Explanations:

1. Tension

Noun.
-
how taut thread is.
In sewing, tension refers to how taut the thread is on a sewing machine. This determines how thread passes through the sewing machine, ensuring that each stitch is even on both the top and bottom, depending on the type of fabric. Some sewing machines adjust the tension using a number system on a knob or dial, and others have an auto-tension setting.

2. Stitch Length

Noun.
-
the length of each stitch.
The stitch length is adjustable on all sewing machines, but not all sewing machines have the same lengths. It’s typically indicated on a sewing machine with a picture of dashes that are short on one end and get longer towards the other end. It can be adjusted by either moving a dial, sliding a knob, or, if the sewing machine is all computerized, pressing a button.

The shortest stitch length on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q sewing machine.

The shortest stitch length on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q sewing machine.

The longest stitch length on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q sewing machine.

The longest stitch length on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q sewing machine.

3. Stitch Width

Noun.
-the width of each stitch.
The stitch width is how wide each stitch is from side to side and is adjustable on all sewing machines. Like with the stitch length, not all sewing machines have the same widths. The control for stitch width on a sewing machine is usually close to the control for the stitch length and is typically indicated with a zigzag pattern that gets wider. It can be adjusted by either moving a dial, sliding a knob, or pressing a button (if the machine is all computerized). The stitch width can only be adjusted for stitches that aren’t a straight line (i.e., zigzag stitch, overstitch, etc.).

The smallest stitch width on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q.

The smallest stitch width on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q.

Brother XM3700 Sewing Machine, which has no auto-tension function.

Brother XM3700 Sewing Machine, which has no auto-tension function.

The widest stitch width on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q

The widest stitch width on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q

Singer 7285Q Patchwork Quilting Machine, which does have an auto tension function.

Singer 7285Q Patchwork Quilting Machine, which does have an auto tension function.

4. Selvage

Noun.
-a machine-finished edge along the length of a fabric which prevents that fabric from coming undone.
A selvage usually looks noticeably different than the rest of a fabric, although sometimes it can be a little tough to see. The selvage is the best way to tell where the warp is on fabric, since the warp runs parallel to the selvage.

You can see the selvage clearly on this fabric.

You can see the selvage clearly on this fabric.

This fabric, it’s a little tough to see the selvage.

This fabric, it’s a little tough to see the selvage.

5. Grain

Noun.
-a clothes’ fibers that follow the length and width of fabric.
There are three different grains on fabric that are important to know. A grainline (aka the warp/lengthwise grain) follows along the length of fabric, parallel to a selvage. A cross-grain (aka weft) follows the width of fabric at a 90-degree angle from the selvage. Finally, bias is the grain at a 45-degree angle from the warp or weft.

6. Bias

Noun.
-
a type of cross-grain that’s at a 45-degree angle from the warp or weft of fabric.
Fabric cut on the bias has more a little more stretch than on a grain, even if you’re working with a non-stretchy fabric. Bias binding (aka bias tape) is cut from the bias.
Note: You can read more about bias binding here in another blog post.

A diagram of the selvage, warp, weft, and bias on fabric.

A diagram of the selvage, warp, weft, and bias on fabric.

7. Right Side (of Fabric)

Noun.
-
the presentation side of fabric when a garment is worn.
The right side of fabric is the side of a fabric that’s meant to face outward and be seen. It’s typically brighter, softer, smoother, and/or printed compared to the other side of the fabric (the wrong side). In other words, it’s the presentation side that everyone will see. Although it can be optional, sometimes both sides of a fabric look very similar, or you might prefer the look of the wrong side over the right side. In that respect, feel free to switch the two up! So it doesn’t matter.

8. Wrong Side (of Fabric)

Noun.
-
the hidden side of fabric when a garment is worn.
The wrong side of fabric is the side of a fabric that’s meant to face inward, hidden from view. It’s typically not as vibrant as the right side; you can sometimes see the weave (more so than the right side), it can be a little rougher, and/or the print is dull. Although, just because it’s called the wrong side doesn’t mean you can’t use it as the right side. Sometimes the wrong side even works better than the right side with whatever’s being made.

The right and wrong sides of a woven cotton fabric.

The right and wrong sides of a woven cotton fabric.

The right and wrong sides of a printed fabric.

The right and wrong sides of a printed fabric.

9. Fabric Shears

Noun.
-
scissors that are specifically designed to cut fabric.
Fabric shears (aka scissors made to only cut fabric) should be your pride and joy and should only be used on fabric. Because fabric shears are only meant for fabric, using them to cut anything else will make them dull—and getting shears resharpened isn’t cheap! Another similar tool is the rotary cutter, which uses a single circular blade instead of two straight blades.

10. Seam Ripper

Noun.
-
a small, sharp tool with a U-shaped blade (one side longer than the other) used to get under a stitch and rip open a seam.
Seam rippers help when you make a mistake and have to take out a few stitches or even an entire seam. They’re made to easily slip under a stitch and cut it with ease without harming the fabric.

Different fabric shears, thread snippers, seam ripper, and both plastic and metal bobbins.

Different fabric shears, thread snippers, seam ripper, and both plastic and metal bobbins.

11. Bobbin

Noun.
-
a small, circular plastic or metal spool that is wound with thread and manually loaded into a sewing machine.
Bobbins hold the thread that gets fed through the lower half of a sewing machine. Bobbins can easily be rethreaded with a sewing machine, as well. When it comes to sewing machines and where to put the bobbin, there are two types: top-loading and front-loading. Top loading bobbin sewing machines have a space beneath the sewing needle where you load the bobbin—usually by dropping it in so that it lays on its side. Front-loading bobbin sewing machines, on the other hand, require you to place the bobbin inside of a special bobbin case before loading it into a compartment on the front of the sewing machine.

Bobbin Tip (1).png
The compartment for a top loading bobbin.

The compartment for a top-loading bobbin.

The compartment for a front loading bobbin.

The compartment for a front-loading bobbin.

12. Presser Foot

Noun.
-
an attachment for a sewing machine that holds fabric flat while sewing.
There are at least a hundred (or if not a hundred, it definitely seems like it!) presser feet, and each one has its own purpose or specialty. Every sewing machine typically comes with 4-6 “essential” presser feet to get you started, and that you can get by for most things. Three feet that seem to always be included are the general-purpose foot, zipper foot, and buttonhole foot. The general/zigzag (all-purpose) presser foot is the one that’s used the most. The zipper and buttonhole presser feet, though, are designed only specifically for sewing on zippers and sewing buttonholes onto a garment. They’re there to make lives much easier.

These are some presser feet that might come with a sewing machine.

These are some presser feet that might come with a sewing machine.

13. Seam Allowance

Noun.
-
the amount of space between a seam line and the raw edge of a fabric.
Seam allowance is needed because you can’t just sew a seam line on a raw edge; you need some leeway or else the raw edge will fray and the stitches will fall right out! How much seam allowance you need largely depends on which part of a garment you’re sewing. Some of the most commonly used measurements for seam allowance are 1/4”, 1/2”, 3/4”, 1”, and 2”. Sewing machines even have a little seam allowance guide on a plate under the presser foot.

The seam allowance guide on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q sewing machine.

The seam allowance guide on the Singer Patchwork 7285Q sewing machine.

Different measurements of seam allowance (each one starting from the far left side of the ruler).

Different measurements of seam allowance (each one starting from the far left side of the ruler).

14. Raw Edge

Noun.
-
a cut, unfinished, edge of fabric.
The raw edge of a fabric can—and often does—fray or unravel.

15. Finish (a Raw Edge)

Verb.
-
the act of sealing the edges of a fabric edge in such a way to ensure it won’t fray or unravel.
Finishing the raw edge on a piece of fabric is very important to ensure your garment doesn’t start to fall apart over time and can be done in many ways. A few common methods are: using a liquid adhesive such as Fray Check, encasing the raw edge in more fabric (i.e., hemming it, using the binding method, or sewing on a cuff), and using a serger/overlock machine (or a similar stitch on a normal sewing machine, such as an overedge stitch). Serger/overlock machines use multiple strands of thread at the same time to completely enclose a raw edge with thread.

A fraying raw edge on a woven fabric.

A fraying raw edge on a woven fabric.

A raw edge that’s been finished off using an overedge stitch on a regular sewing machine.

A raw edge that’s been finished off using an overedge stitch on a regular sewing machine.

Jumping headfirst into something new, like sewing, can be exciting but a bit intimidating. I hope this post helped clarify some sewing terms and tools you might not have known!

- Kelly Willey, Marketing Director

Back to blog