"What does this sewing term mean?" The Sewing–English Phrasebook for Beginners

It has come to my attention that many new sewists (I say “sewists” because the word “sewer” could be taken to mean the things that have manholes) get stuck with the words they find in sewing patterns and books. I had a bit of trouble with some when I started sewing, then I got used to them, and now I just use them naturally. So I have put together a list of some of the most important ones I could think of. If you can think of any more, or want to know something, please comment below.

Seam allowances are the distance between the edge of the fabric and the stitching line. Seam allowances are sometimes also called “margins” (but not very often). Other kinds of “allowances” are the amount of fabric allowed for something, e.g. a hem.

Imagine you were weaving your own fabric. To start you set up the lengthwise threads on the loom. Then you start to weave the sideways thread in and out, between each lengthwise strand. When you get to the end of one row, you have to turn around and go back across. As you keep doing this you build up your cloth.

The lengthwise threads are called the warp, and the “across” threads are called the “weft” (in the old days they were called the “woof”). I remember it by thinking that when you have the fabric hung up on the loom, the warp threads may warp, and when you are weaving, you send the weft threads “weft and wight” (left and right).

The left-hand and right-hand sides of the cloth where you turn the shuttle to go back across are called the selvedges and they are naturally tighter than the rest of the cloth. If they weren’t they might be loopy and get caught on things, plus the cloth would be of poor quality. I think sometimes, the selvedges have thicker warp threads for strength.

The grain-line is the lengthwise thread and when you have your pattern lain on the fabric, the long line with the arrows has to match this. You make sure they match by measuring from one end of the line to the fold of your fabric, then repeat with the other end. If they match, your pattern is properly aligned. If the line has the arrows pointing away from the line at a 90 degree angle, the arrows are pointing towards the fold of the fabric, indicating that this piece is to be cut on the fold (and not have the fold cut).

There is also the cross-grain, which is perpendicular to the grain-line. It is the weft threads.

The bias is at a 45 degree angle to the grain-line. It’s stretchier than the grain-line and the cross-grain and that is what they use for bias-binding, hence the name “bias-binding”.

Selvedge: When I started my first dressmaking project, I didn’t know what the selvedge was. It’s the side edge of the fabric. If you look closely you can see it has little holes in it (where it was held on tenterhooks when they dyed it). It is best not to use the selvedge as a seam allowance because (I think) it can shrink more than the rest of the fabric so it would ruin your seams. By the way, before you cut your fabric it is usually advisable to wash and dry it so that if it shrinks, your garment will not shrink after you cut the piece out.

A notch is the little triangle on the cutting line of the pattern piece. When you are putting the garment pieces together, you match these up.

Dots or Circles are important too. They help you to get facings and pockets and things in place properly and accurately. You punch a little hole in the circle with your scissors or awl, and mark the fabric underneath with a tailor’s tack. Then, when it comes time to put the pocket or whatever it is on your garment, you just match up the tailor’s tacks. You may find it helps to use pins to make sure things are lined up.

Facings are pieces of fabric cut to match or nearly match the shape of the edge of the fabric you are neatening, such as at a neck-hole or an armhole. They are sewn on, clipped or notched, and turned inside the garment. Then you can under-stitch the facing to the seam allowances.

Hem is a turned up or tuned under edge of fabric. It usually means the turned up, bottom edge of your garment. A false hem is not really a hem; it’s a faced edge at the bottom of your garment.

Under-stitching is what you call it when you sew just the facing to the seam allowances. You can do it by machine most of the time, but sometimes, like on collars, you have to do it by hand because you can’t get to it by machine. If you don’t want to under-stitch, you can top-stitch instead. That just means that you sew so that you can see the stitches on top.

Interfacing is a type of material that looks like tumble dryer sheets and goes between the garment and the facing. It is usually applied to the facing by either pressing (if it is iron-on) or basting (if it is sew-in). It’s purpose it to give the garment structure, i.e. keep it in shape. It’s very important for waistbands unless you are using Petersham (also called waistband ribbon).

Ease is very slight gathering. It is usually done at the top of a sleeve. It has to be very slight because you are not meant to get any puckering. You can ease and stay-stitch  at the same time (called “super stay-stitching”) by putting the sleeve cap under the presser foot on its own at the first notch and, while you are sewing a little way inside the seam allowances and nearish the stitching line, push with your finger against the back of the presser foot so that you stop the fabric from going through so much. When it gets too built up, let it go a bit and push again like before for the next lot. Keep going until you get to the other notch. Then your sleeve is ready to go into the sleeve hole (called “setting the sleeve“). Even if you have a sleeve with no ease, it seems you have to still ease it in because of the seam allowances.

Stay-stitching is when you sew along the edge of one layer of fabric to stop it from stretching out of shape. Have this line of stitching near the stitching line and in the seam allowance. You must stay-stitch all curved edges and bias edges. If you are sewing loosely woven fabric, it is best to stay-stitch all edges (especially if you are sewing plaid, as I found out a while ago.)

Basting is temporary sewing. When you have pinned the fabric together, you can sew it by hand with a longer-than-usual running stitch to keep it in place without pricking yourself. If you are basting pleats in place, you can do so more securely if you sew a cross-stitch on the spot a few times. Some people like to baste on their sewing machines by using a longer straight stitch, but I prefer to baste by hand because it is easier and, in my experience, gives better results.

An under-collar differs from a top-collar in that it is a little smaller and is often cut on the bias. When the collar is attached to your garment, the under-collar will be underneath the top-collar. (I mention this because for a while the matter of an under-collar confused me somewhat.) BTW, it is the top-collar that is interfaced to keep it crisp.

Turn of Cloth Imagine you have a sandwich and you fold it in half. The top slice of bread would end up looking shorter than the bottom one at the edges. The difference in visible length in this instance is refered to as “turn of cloth” (when it is fabric). Undercollars have to be a bit smaller than top collars so that when the collar is turned over, it lies properly. If we didn’t allow for the turn of cloth, the top collar would pull the seam upwards and the undercollar would be all wibbly-wobbly (for want of a better word) underneath. The usual allowance for turn of cloth is an eighth of an inch (about 3mm), but more may be required for thicker fabrics such as coat fabrics.

Grading a seam is when you trim one of the seam allowances after sewing the seam. This makes the seam lie more smoothly when it is pressed to one side.

Have I missed anything? If there is a sewing term you would like explained, please ask below, and I will add it to this post if I know it.

Sabrina Wharton-Brown
The Sewing Corner


36 thoughts on “"What does this sewing term mean?" The Sewing–English Phrasebook for Beginners

  1. On your pattern instruction sheet there are probably several pictures of how to lay your pattern pieces out on your fabric. “Circling your pattern lay out” just means that you draw around the one you want so that you can find it easily when you come back to laying out your pattern pieces if you get interrupted by the door or something.


  2. I think that a false seam is when you sew a fold right down the WS of the fabric so that from the RS it looks like a seam.

    There are also false French Seams and False Felled Seams, both of which can be called “Mock” instead of “False”.

    A mock French seam which is when you sew the two pieces of fabric RS together as usual, then turn the raw edges in towards the seam and stitch the folds together.

    A Mock Felled Seam looks like the seam you get on jeans legs. To make it you sew the seam RS together as usual, trim one seam allowance to about half, place the other one over it to cover it, and then sew the larger seam allowance down. You can sew it from the RS so that you can see what you are doing and so do it more neatly.

    Here is a good tutorial for the mock felled seam:


  3. “Revers” is a French word that means “back, reverse”.

    Revers are the folded back parts on the front of your shirt that show the inside. When you don't button your shirt all the way up and instead have the top parts folded back like on Men's Hawaiian Shirts, the folded back parts are the revers.

    Sometimes a design might have revers without a collar. Sometimes they may be in a contrasting fabric. Sometimes they may be an unusual shape. In essence revers are like a collar but without the bit that goes around your neck.

    I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for visiting my blog.


  4. “Cut 1 on Fold” means to place your pattern piece's long straight edge along the fold of your fabric and cut so that you have a symmetrical shape, like when you cut a symmetrical heart shape out of paper.

    Cut two means cut two of that pattern piece out of fabric.


  5. What does seam breaking mean? I'm making a blouse and instruction states “Stitch front and neck edge in a 3/8″ seam breaking and reinforcing stitching at large dot. LAYER seam; clip curves.”


  6. I can only guess that it means to pull it so that the stitches break, and then sew it again. I read in Sandra Betzina's Power Sewing Book that you can do that to make crutch seams stronger (I don't quite see how that will help though).


  7. You don't have to. Actually, if you're not sure about the fit it's best to do the opposite: imagine they are pointing the other way and cut outwards of the seam allowances so that there is a little point sitcking out.

    Otherwise you could just clip into the seam allowance about 1/8 – 1/4 of an inch. That's easier and quicker. It's what I usually do.


  8. Wonder if you could help me with this one. I am making a window treatment. One pattern piece says “cut one” then has the arrows and line to place the piece on the fold of the fabric, then I have another pattern piece that says “cut 2” it has a fold line and then another part that says center fold, also for this pattern piece it says “double thickness”. I'm confused on how to lay out the fabric? For double thickness, is it you fold in half one way and then fold in half again so there are four layers of the fabric? It's a Simplicity pattern, 5318 view B valance. If you could help me I would be so grateful!


  9. On the first pattern piece you do just cut one on the fold. On the next one, you cut one on the fold and then another on the fold. I'm not sure about the “centre fold” part; is it shown in the instructions' drawings? Goodness! This is confusing pattern! So much for “simplicity” :). Maybe you could email Simplicity and they could tell you. I'm sorry I can't be of more help, but I've never made a valance.


  10. It means do something to stop them from fraying. Usually this means sewing a zigzag stitch over the edge, or overlocking/serging them.
    There are other options: you can do a clean finish which is where you just turn the raw edge under and stitch near the fold; you can bind the edges with bias binding or seam tape; you can do a Hong Kong finish, which is similar to binding. You can Google these terms to find pictures.


  11. Hey Sabrina,

    As a very VERY novice sewist, I found this post so so sooooo helpful, if I could, I would give you a flower or a box of bonbon, or whatever, THANK YOU!


  12. I am reading a pattern and it says cut a perfect corner. Does that mean a Miter corner? I am making cushion covers if that helps.


  13. Can you explain in more detail (a for dummies explanation if you will) about the grain. Im having trouble understanding how to do a straight grain when i cut my fabric. on my pattern instructions where it has a straight line w arrows at each end and says straight grain.


  14. If you imagine that your fabric, as it comes off the roll, is wallpaper, the lengthwise grain is the wallpaper as you would hang it down your wall. The crosswise grain is the side-to-side, with the selvedge being the edges that (in wallpapering) you have to match up. On fabric is it usually more tightly woven than the rest of the fabric and has tiny holes in it. These holes are where the tenterhooks held the fabric while it was being died. (That's where the expression “being on tenterhooks” comes from.)

    The bias grain usually refers to a 45 degree angle. This has the most stretch and it drapes nicely, which are two reasons why Madame Vionnet liked it so much.

    Some British books (specifically Metric Pattern Cutting) and people (like my tutor) who have learned from them sometimes refer to the bias as “the cross” but I find that confusing, so I call the bias “the bias” as most books do.

    I hope I've explained it well. I only thought of the wallpaper analogy yesterday at college.


  15. I am making a primitive Santa. The pattern for the robe has the center of the robe placed on the fold. At the top where the neck and arm is it also says, place on fold. The term in the instructions are “Cut (1) on doubled fold”. I understand the fold on the long part of the robe, but how do I get another fold at the top. I've never seen a pattern piece that asks you to place 2 different sides on the fold. I only have one fold. Thanks!


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