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Deciphering the Marks on a Measuring Tape

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Remember how scary it was to raise your hand in school and ask what you feared would be a "stupid" question? Hopefully we've moved beyond that childhood fear. Questions are great because they lead to answers, and answers are meant to be shared. Today's quick measuring tip came from a question in a visitor's email. Someone needed help figuring out what all those tiny marks are on a standard tape measure. We deal in fractions every day and are forever measuring quarters and eighths and sixteenths and whatnot. It all seems second nature to us! But when we stepped back and looked at our trusty tape with the eyes of someone brand new to sewing, we saw this question was indeed quite valid... there are a lot of marks with no identification. We came up with three handy charts to help decipher those little black lines. Download them to keep handy at your sewing station as quick reference tools.

We found that the most common measuring tapes are either divided all the way down to sixteenths...

... or broken down by eighths.

There are two measuring charts below: one showing the eighth breakdown and another showing sixteenths. In addition, we show a simple conversion chart from inches to millimeters. Our conversion goes out to two decimals for accuracy. When rounded to the nearest whole millimeter, ¼" would be shown as 6mm.

Use the PDF download link below each image to print good quality copies for yourself and a set for a new sewing friend. Then remind him/her to always measure twice (or three or four times), then cut once.





Comments (47)

Janmc said:
Janmc's picture

This is going to make it so much easier for me, I am new to sewing and have always wanted to do quilting. Thanks ☺

Jaye said:
Jaye's picture

Thank you so much! This is helpful. I have a tiny fraction to decimal chart next to my sewing machine as well. Your group of printables will round out my collection.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Jaye - You are so welcome! Check out our mini versions of this and other helpful tips. Use the search bar to search for Cheat Cards. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Issac - It should indeed make things easier!

Ana Maria RL said:
Ana Maria RL's picture

Thank ever so much, you will never know how much this will be helping. I am tired to beg for help, I was brought up with the metric system.

Christy L. said:
Christy L.'s picture

Hi, I wanted to thank you for offering these worksheets to those of us who struggle w/measurements & fractions. Believe it or not, I've been sewing on/off for years & have been able to manage WITHOUT being able to properly read a tape measure - meaning I could read the basic marks, but I had to rely on a cheat sheet to be able to read all the inbetween marks. My Dad was an Electrical Contractor who owned his own business & had experience wiring commercial properties averaging 950,000 sq ft. I called him to ask an electrical question & he asked how far he'd have to move an outlet. I knew then that I'd be in trouble because it was going to require the use of a tape measure & I wasn't going to be able to read it. Needless to say, after that phone call, I transferred the numbers from my sewing table onto my tape measure!

Robert said:
Robert's picture

Count the number of marks in one inch. (This is usually 8 or 16, sometimes 32.) Write this number down, and put a line over the number. Next, count the number of marks in the size of the thing you are trying to measure. Write this number over the line.

Example: if my tape measure has 16 marks per inch, and the thing measures 5 of those marks, then it is 5/16 of an inch.

Another example: if I use the same tape measure (16 marks per inch) to measure another thing, and it comes out as 4 whole inches plus 2 little marks, then that is 4 and 2/16 inches. But we usually write 2/16 as 1/8, making it 4 and 1/8 inches.

One final example, with the same tape measure: if something measures just 1 little mark shorter than 6 inches, then it is 5 and 15/16 inches. (Think about it.)

You can use this trick with any tape measure or ruler that has inches.

Helen Hougland said:
Helen Hougland's picture

In addition to the breakdowns shown and I printed out, this one paragraph has provided the answer I simply could not "get" in my lifetime.  My husband was astonished that I didn't know this seemingly simple thing about reading 2/16, 5/16, etc. measurements on a tape and would never explain it to me.  No patience.  Didn't want to ask anyone else.  NOW I KNOW.  Thank you very much

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Christy - So glad these were helpful. Believe me, you are not alone! There are many other folks out there in exactly the same place. Nothing to be embarrassed about at all, and we're happy to give you a way to remember what all those little lines stand for 

Ebony said:
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I would like to know where is the 5.0 mark on the eigths trying to make a circle skirt

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Ebony - So sorry, but I'm not sure exactly what you're looking for? 5.0 in metric? mm or cm? 

sayhelenatt@aol.com said:
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Thank you very much for this information. I'm always questioning the 1/4 when quilting.

Anne Moon said:
Anne Moon's picture

Thank you so much for sharing this,  I am definitely the person who was too scared to ask the dumb question :) You've made my life so much easier. 

JUNAID AHMED's picture


roseytheriveter said:

This is much appreciated!  I am beginning to teach my granddaughters how to sew, and this will help them a lot.

Kim H said:
Kim H's picture

Thanks so much.  I have a machine embroidery biz.  I think in inches, but have to digitize in millimeters.  This will be a God send!

Sew Dee Dee said:
Sew Dee Dee's picture

Thank you so much for making these charts (printable and large enough to see) available!!   I feel like such a dummy for not knowing basic ruler/tape measure markings.   Math wasn't/isn't my thing.

Kris Valle said:
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Thank you so much for these beautiful, colorful, printouts. I'm am printing and putting in my sewing room for reference and I think this will definately help me when I'm sewing with my daughter.

Peta Louise Graham said:
Peta Louise Graham's picture

Hi to everyone. I have been sewing for over 40 years (why do I still feel I'm 27) & a couple of years ago I made a discovery that made me think I was an idiot. It had been there in front of me for 40 years & yet I had never discovered. I live in Australia, which has converted to the metreic system. That's fine by me but my brain still functions in 1/4 inch seams for quilts and 5/8 inch seams for sewing (standard measurement on most patterns). One day I was using my standard width tape measure (not a skinny one) & realised that the width of the tape measure was 5/8 inch. A standard seam width. My life has never been the same.

Sharon Clark said:
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Thank you Peta, that is so good to know. Always learn something new everyday. :-)

Alphawolf said:
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I have been sewing since I was 5 years old and I am now almost 75.  I still read and enjoy every thing I see printed about items that make sewing more interesting, and, items that are helpful, no matter what skill level you have.  Thank you very much for this article on inch and metric measurements in sewing.  I have found I am never too old, or overskilled, to learn (or refresh) my knowledge of sewing, or, anything else for that matter. 

tavadela said:
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I too appreciate so much the information u have provided! I am not a stupid person, but I'll tell u, the tape measure & ruler w/ all their little lines have always confounded me! Thnx for taking the to respond to this hidden "disability" of mine.

Sunnie Mitchell said:
Sunnie Mitchell's picture

I'd type my thanks in all caps but I don't want to deafen anyone with my grateful shouting! I teach sewing to total newbies to the art here in NE Scotland and all of my students, aged 7 and up, are going to be equally grateful for such fab printouts. Lol, I can sew but I'm no artist and these charts look a lot neater than anything I tried to cobble together for them. I especially appreciate the large size of the tape and identified measurements, and that conversion chart is going to be a real help to my students as well - the younger ones are being taught metric in school but my students over the age of 40 (and I have quite a few!) are all Imperial yet all of them look at the flex tape with real bewilderment and I wasn't having any real success. Until now - Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you! 

Just Wing It said:
Just Wing It's picture

I'm going to have to side with Sandra VW on this one.  Wow.  Our schools are worse than I thought.

Jan R said:
Jan R's picture

Wow Sandra VW.. You are just plain rude. This is a great tool. I will use it to teach my young grand-daughters during there sewing lessons. There are many different skill sets and not everyone has the same as you. So hats off to Liz Johnson for coming up with this. Thank you very much.

Sandra VW said:
Sandra VW's picture

I can only hope you are kidding with this post. This is insulting. Who can't read a tape measure? 

You must think we are idiots. And as far as converting from inches to centimeters--you simply turn the tape measure over.

Carley said:
Carley's picture

As a matter of fact, Sandra, many people can't read a tape measure! I teach adults to sew and many have never touched a sewing machine. I cannot tell you how much they struggle with the measurements! Especially here in Canada where we also have metric. I find inches easier to use for sewing so that is what I teach. I have printed off the chart that breaks down to inch to 1/8's and I use it ALL the time! Thanks Sew4Home! 

Teresa Lynn said:
Teresa Lynn's picture

If someone cannot read a tape measure and would like to learn, I commend them and Sew4home for assisting. Sandra, what's your grievence? Why would YOU be insulted, just skip over it if it's information you already know? Obviously from comments here and where I first saw it on Pinterest, this is a helpful learning tool. I printed the conversion chart, and am thankful to have it. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Sandra VW - it's real and came from a real visitor's question. Different people have different skills. It's always okay to ask, and even though it's second nature to us, others find it helpful. 

Cherie said:
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I was so looking forward to this post.  Just as I thought that it would be.  It's a big help. Thank you so much!

Patti P said:
Patti P's picture

Thank YOU i alsway have troubles with all those marks this will halp me ALOT

Geraldine Schultz said:
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When converting inches to the metric system (when measuring material)  it is usual to use centimetres as opposed to millimetres.  Millimetres is primarily used to measure liquids i.e the amount of rain that has fallen. For example 1/2 yard would be converted to 0.40m or 40 centimetres.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Geraldine Schultz - thank you for your comment. Since a centimeter is so small (just about 2 and half to an inch), a millimeter would be the division downwards with dealing with our smaller fractions. I believe the metric measurement for liquid is Milliliters and Liters isn't it? 

María. said:
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Efectivamente los mililtros se usan para medir volumen.
La Longitud en Centímetros
La Superficie en centímentros Cuadrados 
El volumen en centímetros cúbicos.

En Costura no se Suelen usar los milimetros Por ser una medida muy pequeña.

Ev R said:
Ev R's picture

In Canada our tape measures and seam gauges have inches on one side and centimetres and millimetres on the other side (as in the last photo of the tape measure in your article); and Janome sewing machines'  guidelines on the needle plate are numbered in millimetres as well as in fractions of inches. The line marked 15 is very close to the line marked 5/8", so you know that 15 has to be referring to millimetres. Brother machines' needleplate guidelines are marked in centimetres with the second line identified as 2 and then an unidentified line followed by one identified as 3. (It is assumed we know that the first line is 1.5 cm.)

Sunnie Mitchell said:
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The same here in the UK, including the assumption re 1.5cm markings on machines. The mm conversion is going to be a big help to them for many sewing applications.

Christi295 said:
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Thank you Thank you! Now I can dispose of all the sticky notes that are all over my workboard that have inches to millimeters on them! Happy New Year to all Sew4Home Staff and readers!

norskie3 said:
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This site has been a favorite of mine for several years now and I have learned much and improved my sewing because of your good help.  I am so glad that you have answered a new sewer's question.  It proves that your are genuinely interested in helping people in all stages of their sewing interests.  Thank you!  I think these charts will help a good number of people

Jane Coombs said:
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Quilters in the USA are dedicated to the one-quarter inch seam allowance. Just wondering, what is the equivalent in the metric countries? What do the patterns say?