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Common sewing terms (and what they actually mean!)

what does this sewing term mean?

If you're new to the world of sewing it can be daunting, I'm not going to lie. There are so many new terms to learn, how are you supposed to know what a notch is? What is edgestiching? What is this selvedge (selvage for the Americans!) thing I keep seeing?
I've put together a list of common sewing terms - a sewing glossary if you like - with how to do them. Feel free to bookmark or pin this page so you can find it again when you need it!
Some additional advice to start with? Always trial stitches on a scrap piece of your project's fabric first!

Sewing specific terms:

Bartack - This is a type of stitch that you use when a garment needs reinforcing at a particular point. You'll see it on the lower edge of pockets on tailored pants and the fly of your jeans might be attached at the bottom with one. To do it, select a short length and narrow to medium width zigzag stitch on your sewing machine.

Edgestitching - Kind of like topstitching but a little further away from the edge, your pattern should tell you how far from the edge you should do it.

Finish Seam - This is a catch-all term for anything that will stop the fabric edges inside your garment from fraying. The most common one is an overlocked/serged finish (have a peek inside your favourite t-shirt), but if you do not own one of these machines, any machine capable of a medium length and wide width zig-zag can be used over fabric edges as an effective finish. Check if your machine has an overcast stitch and foot in the instruction manual for an even easier time!
On top of these, there are some fancier finishes like french seams, binding and hong kong seams for example. Seam finishes are frankly deserving of their own blog post, that'll be another day!

Grade Seam - Grading seams and grading patterns are two different things! Just to confuse you right? Grading a seam is a technique to help eliminate bulk in a finished garment. When you are asked to grade a seam, you will trim the seam fabric that will sit against the outer garment to 6mm (1/4") and the other seam fabric to 1cm (3/8").

Staystitching - A nifty technique to help your garment keep its shape on seams cut either on a curve or the bias (NOT up and down or left to right). Choose the longest straight stitch on your sewing machine and sew a line just inside the seam (3mm or 1/8" from it is fine). The pattern instructions should tell you what direction to do them in, but it's generally from the most outer point of the piece to the middle.

Topstitching - A line of stitching just a little back from the edge, around one mm or two (1/16") it helps to keep edges crisp and place.

Understitching - This is a line of stitching designed to stop the inside of your garment from peeking out the edges, contributing to a professional look. Press the seam allowances to the inside, and sew a 1-2mm (1/16") seam just next to the original seam on the inside layer, catching the seam allowances (normally it's three layers). Press again once finished, rolling the outer layer so you can see a tiny amount of it from the inside.

Clipping and Notching - This is a technique applied to curved edges to make them sit flat, such as around arm and neck holes. With a nice sharp tipped pair of scissors, cut into the seam allowance around the curve being careful not to cut into the stitches. For curves where the seam allowance is shorter than the body, just clip lines, but if the seam allowance is longer, clip little triangles out. You also want to do more clips/notches around a sharper curve and less for a flatter one.

Cutting specific terms:

Look for a cutting lay plan in your instructions, it should help you decide how to place your pattern pieces on your fabric before you cut them out. 9/10 times they will have you fold your fabric in half, selvedge to selvedge with right sides of fabric facing each other but it pays to check this.

Selvedges/Selvages - The woven edges of your fabric. There should be two on opposite sides, the other sides are generally the cut sides. The selvedges are often a slightly different texture and thickness than the main fabric, so for this reason we avoid them when laying our pattern pieces.

Grainline - This one is important! Ever had a cheap t-shirt twist around your body after a few washes and wears? Chances are it was cut off-grain. On most pattern pieces, there should be a long arrow. When you lay a pattern piece, use a ruler to check that the arrow sits the same distance from the selvedge the whole way along. Adjust until correct and then pin before cutting.

With nap / With grain - Some fabrics are a bit special and only look right with the fabric going in one direction down the body. Think velvet or a print where all of the patterns goes in one direction. Plaids can catch you out on this so make sure to keep them one way too! Most cutting lay plans provided with sewing patterns have this in mind, so if your fabric isn't like this, once you have a bit of experience you can go rogue and create your own plan to save fabric! Just make sure you get all of your 'cut on fold's and grainlines straight.

Cut one pair - Cut two pieces of the pattern out of the fabric, they should be mirror images, like a left and a right.

Cut one - Look for a cutting lay plan, and read the instructions carefully to see what direction the piece should be. Most of the time you will cut it with the pattern piece up, on the Right Side of the fabric but make sure you check what it looks like on the cutting lay plan of the pattern!

Cut on fold - Look at the pattern piece, there will either be a long straight arrow called a grainline, or a 'cut on fold' instruction along one edge. If it has a 'cut on fold', this piece will have this edge butted against the folded edge of your fabric when you cut it out, so you will have a piece that will open up once cut. This is normally for pieces that have the centre front or back, like the front and back of a t-shirt.

Cut two - This one annoys me. It should mean you need to cut two pieces of the pattern in your fabric, without mirroring them as you do for 'cut one pair'. But more often than not it means to cut one pair. Double-check your cutting lay plan just in case!

Cut (one pair, or one etc) Interfacing - Interfacing is a nifty fabric that helps clothing sit better, different kinds are good for different garments, if you're in doubt, your pattern may specify what kind will suit (thin, thick iron/fusible, sew in etc) Or you could ask a friendly sewing shop assistant. My best advice is to skip the non-woven stuff, it's not great quality.

Terms for Both Cutting and Sewing:

Notch - A mark on pattern pieces to help you match fabric pieces while sewing. You can mark these on your fabric with little snips (just big enough so you can see them) or a trusted removable marker. My favourite is a little sliver of nearly finished soap - it's practically guaranteed to wash off and it's practically free!

Other marks - You may come across other notch like marks on a pattern, that will make you wonder "what does this circle/square/triangle mean?" These tend to be away away from the cut edge. Make sure to mark them on your pieces with a trusted fabric marker (and get the right one! they'll be labeled with their size), as there will be another matching on on another piece you'll need to match it up to.

Right side / Wrong side - This refers to your fabric. Most fabrics will have a clear right side while some are a little harder to tell. Look for things like the smoothness, but if you really can't tell, choose one and mark what you have decided is the wrong side with a piece of masking tape, or a chalk arrow showing the grainline on each piece of cut fabric.

Have I missed anything? Tell me what you want to know in the comments and I'll help where I can!

what is edgestitching

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