Any endeavor that turns into a passion comes with its own set of terms, phrases, abbreviations, and secret handshakes. Well, maybe they don’t all have a secret handshake… maybe just a decoder ring. Sewing is no different, and although we do try to make sure we define the more unusual words we sometimes toss around, we can forget now and then. So, we pulled together our Top Twenty Terms that come into play on a regular basis. We’ve alphabetized them into a mini glossary. If you’re a pro, buzz through and see how many you know without peeking. If you’re just getting started, these are great vocabulary builders and awesome to throw into the conversation to startle any non-sewing friends who might be eavesdropping. “I was simply unable move forward without dropping my feed dogs.”
These Top Twenty Terms are just a few to get you started. Where possible, we’ve included links to tutorials on Sew4Home that explain a particular term or technique in more detail.
What are your favorites that we may have left off the list? Leave us a comment below so we can all build our vocabularies and impress our friends!
Back stitch aka back tack: To lock the beginning or end of a seam by sewing forward for a few stitches and then reversing to sew backwards directly over the same stitches. Modern machines all have a reverse button or lever. For more about stitches, you might find our tutorial on Setting Stitch Length interesting.
Bias: A diagonal line that bisects the up-and-down and side-to-side weave of a fabric. Usually a 45˚ angle. Most fabric will stretch along the bias, which is why binding that goes around a curve is usually cut on the bias. For more, check out our full tutorial on Bias Binding: Figuring Yardage, Cutting, Making, Attaching.
Colorway: This is a textile industry term that describes versions of the same design produced in different colors. Most fabric collections come in several colorways. To learn more about using those colors, take a look at our Top 10 Designer Tips for Blending Colors and Prints.
Darn: What you yell when you’ve sewn your sleeve to your project. Also, a repair made to a fabric hole by repeated stitches going back and forth. This stitching can be done by hand or by machine. Darning is a specialty stitch, but we do have a handy review of Hand Sewing Basic Stitches.
Drape: Yes, that may be the thing covering your window, but the term also describes the way fabric hangs. Although most often used to describe garments, we think about drape when designing projects that feature large swaths of fabric, as well as when figuring out what type of interfacing might be required to stabilize a fabric’s drape. We have a nice re-cap of our favorite interfacings for bags and totes.
Feed Dogs: This can be a command you shout at the kids at the end of the day. Or, it might be a part on your sewing machine. We’re going with Option B. A sewing machine’s feed dogs are the rows of “teeth” directly below the needle. You can see them poking up through an opening in the needle plate. They are what pull the fabric forward in synchronization with the stitch. Want more? We have an article to help you ID the Main Parts of a Basic Sewing Machine.
Fussy cut: When you see something within a fabric’s motif, and decide to cut it in a way that will precisely capture a specific section for a specific purpose, that is fussy cutting. There is no whining in fussy cutting. Find out more about the Whys and Hows of Fussy Cutting.
Grain: A term that describes the direction your fabric has been woven. It’s important to know which way the grain is running, because fabric that is off-grain when you are cutting pattern pieces can cause your completed project to stretch out of shape. We have tips on how to check grain and how to fix it if it’s off.
Hand: A friend of “drape,” hand refers to the feel of the fabric against your skin. It can be soft, stiff, loose, heavy, smooth, etc. It’s important because different projects require different types of hand. Upholstery needs a heavier, firmer hand. Billowing curtains need a soft and supple hand. Let’s give hand a hand.
Hand wheel: That large round thing on the right side of your machine in your hand wheel. It manually raises and lowers the needle. Depending on your style of machine, you may also use it to raise your bobbin thread. We turn the hand wheel sometimes when we’re sewing over a particularly thick area on a project and want to go super, duper slowly. This is called “hand walking” the needle.
Muslin: Yes, it’s a type of very basic fabric. But it’s also used to refer to a prototype of a project. Because prototypes are often made out of inexpensive muslin fabric, the prototype itself has become to be known as a muslin.
Nap: Something wasted on the young that we could all really use right now! Nap also refers to the short raised fibers on the surface of certain fabrics such as corduroy, luxury plush, velvet, and velour. Fabric with a nap looks different from different angles, and therefore pattern pieces must be cut so the nap is going the same direction on any sections that will be side by side.
Presser foot: The foot-shaped piece attached to (you guessed it) the ankle of the sewing machine. It presses down against the fabric to allow it to be moved along by the feed dogs (you learned about them above). Sewing machines use many kinds of presser feet, which are customized for different types of sewing. Take a look at some of the most common Basic and Specialty Presser Feet
Seam allowance: The amount of space between the edge of the fabric and the line of stitching. Most home décor projects have a ½” seam allowance. Most garment projects use a ⅝” seam allowance. And, most quilting projects use a ¼” seam allowance. Now that you know what it is, you might want to review our Four-Part Series of Machine Sewn Seam Finishes.
Selvedge: You’ll also see it spelled as selvege or selvage. It’s the edge of the fabric that comes finished from the manufacturer, along the length of your cut. It is often marked with information such as color code and other identifying data.
Tack: This term is used in sailing to describe a turn; in horseback riding, it refers to all the horse’s equipment, like saddles, reins, stirrups, bridles, etc.; in sewing, it’s a stitch used to temporarily hold two pieces of fabric together. It is most often done by hand, but when additional security is needed, it can be done by machine. See “back tacking” above, which secures the beginning or end of a seam.
Weft and Warp: A fabric loom is set with rows of thread criss-crossing each other to form the fabric. Vertical (lengthwise) threads are attached to the loom itself. These are called the WARP threads. Next, threads are woven between the warp threads, usually at a 90˚angle. These fill in the fabric and are called WEFT threads. The variations in the way the Warp and Weft threads criss-cross each other are how different weaves of fabric are created. Our All About Fabric Weaves tutorial covers all the ins and outs.
WIP: This is newer slang in sewing and is borrowed from the world of debits and credits where it stands for a project on the books that is still underway: Work In Progress. Most of us have a lot more WIPs than finished items. Another acronym you might see is: UFO. Not an alien, but an Unfinished Object.
WOF: An abbreviation for Width of Fabric or the width from selvedge to selvedge. For most cotton fabric, the standard WOF is 44-45″. Other substates come much wider. Home dec fabric is often 54”+. Fleece is usually about 60”. And there are even quilt backing fabrics that come 108” wide!