Sewing Encyclopedia

About: Costume and experimental fashion designer and artist. Maker of clothing and accessories for time traveling cyborg superheroes, and lucid dreamers. Interested in fusing couture design and leatherwork with w...

Refer back here for all the information you need about sewing terminology, material and tool definitions and resources for shopping.

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Step 1: Sewing Terminology

Backstitching - sewing back and forward to lock stitches, usually done at the beginning and end of a seam.

Bias - the diagonal direction in relation to the grain of fabric. Fabric is cut on the bias to create a stretchy or drapey effect, and is much more challenging to sew.

Bias Tape - long narrow strips of fabric cut on the bias to be slightly stretchy. Usually used to bind the edges of fabric or pipe seams. Available in single and double fold varieties.

Binding - finishing the raw edges of fabric by sewing a strip of bias tape or trim over them.

Bolt - fabric is stored in bolts. Each bolt is a roll that contains many yards of fabric.

Casing - a channel sewn in fabric which holds elastic or cord to create gathering

Crossgrain - the direction of the weft threads of fabric, and also the short direction of a bolt of fabric. Fabric is usually slightly stretchier and not as strong along the crossgrain.

Dart - a technique used to create shape in sewing projects, especially garments, by sewing a triangular or diamond shaped pinch into fabric to give it dimension.

Draping - a method of designing garments and creating patterns by sculpting with muslin or fabric directly on a dress form.

Ease - the extra room left in a garment or other sewing project to allow for comfort or movement.

Elastic - a stretch material that is made out of strands of rubber or another stretch plastic encased between woven threads, which makes it stretchy, strong and sewable.

Facing - a technique for finishing edges, especially shaped edges, and creating clean finished double sided fabric by sewing two pieces together and pressing them back onto each other along the seam.

Fiber Content - the type of fiber or blend of fibers that a type of fabric is made of. The most basic distinction is natural versus synthetic fibers.

Fusible Interfacing - fabric that has been treated with a heat reactive glue on one side so it can be ironed on to other fabric. Used to reinforce and stiffen other types of fabric.

Gathering - bunching up, or "shirring" a longer piece of fabric so it creates a ruffle or volume and fits into a smaller space.

Grading - trimming seam allowances to different width to reduce bulk in a finished seam.

Grain - the direction of the warp fibers on piece of woven fabric, and also the "long" direction of the fabric. When you are cutting you usually line up your pattern pieces along the grain.

Grainline - a straight line marked on a pattern with an arrow on both ends that indicated where line up the pattern piece with the grain of the fabric.

Hand - the way a fabric feels to the touch.

Hem - any on a number of techniques for finishing the raw edges of fabric which usually involve fold the fabric over and sewing it down.

Knits - fabrics that are created with a knitting machine. Instead of many individual warp and weft strands, knits are made with just one long yarn that is looped over and over onto itself in thousands of knit stitches.

Lining - a secondary inner layer of fabric used to finish the inside of a sewing project. Usually a thinner fabric than the outer fabric.

Lock Stitch - the basic stitch structure created by most sewing machines when the top thread from is needle interlocked with bobbin thread below.

Loom - The machine that woven fabric is made on. There are many types of looms, but the basic structure has warp fibers stretched across it which are interwoven with weft fibers to create cloth.

Muslin - a cotton "practice" fabric used for draping and making mock-ups of garments. The word muslin is also used to describe the mock-ups themselves.

Notions - a catch-all word for the small tools and fastenings used in sewing.

Pattern - a flat template used to guide the cutting and sewing of fabric to create a finished project.

Pleat - a decorative fold or set of folds formed in fabric to create volume or visual interest.

Print - a design on fabric that has been created by dying or printing, not weaving.

Seam - two pieces of fabric joined by a line of stitching.

Seam Allowance - the space between a sewing line and the cut edge of a pattern piece.

Selvage - the self-finished edges created during the weaving process that run along the grain of woven fabric on both sides.

Serger - a specialized machine for sewing knits and finishing edges. Sergers create an "overlock" stitch around the edge of fabric while simultaneously cutting it. Available in home and industrial versions.

Shirring Stitch - a large double stitch used to gather fabric.

Stay Stitch - a stitch used to give stability to fabric or hold it in place while you sew. Sometimes used on the edges of bias cut or curved pattern pieces, or to secure gathered fabric after it has been shirred.

Topstitch - a visible line of stitching usually used to hold one piece of fabric down to another. Sometimes purely decorative and usually done with a larger stitch length than seams.

Twill Tape - a flat woven, ribbon-like strip usually made of cotton that is often used as a seam finish or drawstring.

Trim or Trimmings - ribbon, lace, tape fringe or other decorative items used to add embellishment to sewn projects.

Warp - the base fibers that woven cloth is created on. Warp fibers are stretched across a loom and then weft fibers are woven through them. Warp fibers run the length of a bolt of fabric in the grain direction.

Weft - the crossgrain fibers of woven cloth which are woven into the warp at right angles.

Wovens - fabrics that are made on a loom with warp and weft yarns that are woven over and under each other at right angles.

Yarn - a long strand created by spinning together many small fibers. In textiles, yarn is the name for the individual strands that are woven or knitted together to create fabric.

Zigzag Stitch - a common type of sewing stitch found on most home machines. Useful for sewing stretch fabrics and finishing edges.

Step 2: Sewing Tools

  • Home Sewing Machine - any of a number of brands of portable compact sewing machines designed for the hobby sewer. Home machines are usually capable of sewing many types of stitches. Not as heavy duty as an industrial machine built into a bench, but much more versatile.
  • Industrial Sewing Machine - expensive, heavy duty machines that are built into special benches, and are mostly used by professional seamstresses and apparel factories. Juki, Singer and Brother are the most ubiquitous industrial brands. These machines are simple, powerful, and usually only have straight and back stitch capabilities.

  • Iron and Ironing Board - From getting wrinkles out of your fabric before you cut it, to pressing open seams during sewing, ironing is an essential part of sewing. You'll need a good iron and a board to iron on.
  • Sleeve Board or Tailor’s Ham - A sleeve board is a mini ironing board that lets you iron small tubes like sleeves and other hard to access areas, and a tailor's ham is similar but used especially for pressing concave and convex seams. They aren't essential tools but if you have them, you'll use them a lot especially the sleeve board.

Smaller Tools:

  • Extra Bobbins - bobbins are a small spool that holds the bottom thread on your machine.
  • Zipper Foot - a special kind of foot attachment for you machine that lets you sew on zippers, or sew next to any raised area. Sewing machines usually come with one, but you can also buy them separately. Make sure you are getting a foot that fits your specific machine.
  • Invisible Zipper Foot - an even more specialized type of zipper foot that is designed for sewing on invisible zippers. Your machine may also come with one. They can be useful, but to be honest, I have never used one, and I am going to teach you how to attach invisible zippers with a regular zipper foot.
  • Buttonhole Foot- some machines have a specialized foot for sewing buttonholes, which is usually included. Check your machine manual to see if you need to buy a special buttonhole foot.
  • Needles for Stretch and Heavy Duty Fabrics - different fabrics require different types of sewing needles, and we will be sewing with both heavy duty and stretch fabric in this class, so make sure you ave a range of need options.
  • Fabric Shears - having a good pair of scissors for cutting fabric is essential for sewing, there are many brands of scissors that will work just fine as long as you keep them sharp! Label your fabric shears, and try to never cut anything besides fabric with them!
  • Paper Scissors - you will also be cutting paper and other things while sewing, so have a pair of scissors dedicated to that as well, and when people try to borrow scissors from you, hand theme these :)
  • Thread Snippers- tiny little snips that are handy to have for trimming the ends for threads off seams and other small jobs where regular scissors are unwieldy.
  • Pinking Shears- pinking shears are scissors with a zigzag blade that cuts a shaped edge in fabric. Cutting the edge this way makes the yarns of the fabric less likely to fray, and is used as a seam finishing technique on some projects.
  • Seam Ripper- this little tool that looks like a tiny lobster claw, or some kind of scary implement from the dentist's office is used to remove stitches if you make a mistake.
  • Hand Sewing Needles - even when you're sewing by machine, you're always going to have to do a little hand sewing every now and then, so have a set of hand sewing needles handy.
  • Pins- an absolutely essential tool, pins are how you hold your fabric in place so you can sew it together. I like glass head pins best, and I usually try to have a variety of sizes, some finer, some thicker for different types of fabric.
  • Magnetic Pin Holder - There are a few different kinds of pin holders, from the old fashioned kind that looks like a stuffed tomato to these magnetic dishes. I prefer the magnetic kind because they are easiest to grab from.
  • Transfer Paper - used to transfer markings from patterns onto fabric, it's usually good to have some in both light and dark colors so it will show up on any color fabric.
  • Pattern Paper or Large Sheets of Tracing Paper - large semi-translucent paper that is used to draft patterns or trace pre-existing ones.
  • Tracing Wheel - a small spiky wheel that is used with the transfer paper to trace markings through form a pattern.
  • Tailor’s Chalk or Disappearing Marker - these are used to make marks on fabric that will disappear later. Both are good options, but chalk usually shows up better on dark colors than the pen does.
  • Flexible Measuring Tape - used to take measurements on yourself, on a dress form, or any other place where you can't use a stiff ruler.
  • Clear 18"x2" Ruler - these are one of my most essential sewing and drafting tools, the clear grid makes them great for drafting and measuring seams etc.
  • Metal Ruler or Thick Plastic Quilting Ruler - large sturdy rulers that create a straight guide line to cut along. You really only need one of these if you are planning to use a cutting wheel, which is a great tool that I highly recommend.
  • Cutting Wheel - cutting wheels are basically like pizza cutters for fabric. They have a sharp retractable wheel blade and come in different sizes. Mostly used for cutting straight lines, but sometimes used for for curves as well. You don't absolutely need one for this class but they are very useful tools.
  • Cutting Mat - when you're using a cutting wheel, you need to cut on top of a cutting mat or other appropriate cutting surface. Cutting surfaces need to be flat, smooth and somewhat soft so your blade doesn't get dulled or broken too easily. Depending on what you are sewing, they also need to be fairly large.
  • Hip Curve- a curved ruler used in pattern drafting. Very helpful for creating smooth curves.
  • French Curve - another type of curved drafting guide used for creating smaller curves.

Step 3: Fabric Types

Woven versus knit:this is possibly the most basic distinction when it comes to types of fabric. It is a fundamental structural difference in the way the fabric is created, and how it behaves.

Woven fabric is fabric that is made on a loom with warp and weft yarns that are woven over and under each other at right angles.

Different weaving patterns and different types of fibers create fabrics with different qualities, but standard woven fabrics are usually less stretchy and more structural than knits. Wovens are traditionally used to make the majority of clothing, especially anything tailored or structured (though more and more modern sportswear is created with knits because knits are more comfortable).

Some of the most common types of woven fabric are: quilting cotton, canvas, suiting, flannel, linen, denim, chiffon, organza and brocade among many many others.

Knits are fabrics that are created with a knitting machine. Instead of many individual warp and weft strands, knits are made with just one long yarn that is looped over and over onto itself in thousands of knit stitches.

Because of its structure, knit fabric is fundamentally stretchier than woven fabric even when it is not made with a stretch yarn, and it therefore needs to be sewn with a zigzag stitch, a serger, or another technique that allows the seams to stretch with the fabric. Knit fabrics are also usually softer and more "drapey" than wovens, making them popular for clothing. Some of the most common types of knit fabric are jersey, spandex, and sweater knits.

We will mostly be using woven fabrics in this class because they are easier to sew with a standard sewing machine, but we will also spend one lesson learning how to sew knits on a home machine.

Natural versus synthetic fibers: the yarns that make up a fabric are made from tiny fibers and those fibers can come from a variety of different sources, some man-made, and some naturally occurring. When you are shopping for fabric you will usually find a tag on each bolt of fabric that identifies the fiber content of the fabric. If you can't find this, ask for help.

Natural fibers are any fiber that comes from a plant or animal. Wool, silk, cotton, and linen are the most common naturally occurring fabric fibers. Cloth made from natural fibers tends to be more expensive and is often higher quality than synthetic fabric. I also think natural fiber fabric usually has a nicer feel, or "hand" than synthetic fabric, but the technology that creates synthetic fabric can give it more variation and versatility.

Cotton Plants. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman (Flickr: Cotton Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Flowers of the Flax plant which produces linen fibers. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Silk Worm and Cocoon. Photo by Creative Commons

Sheep whose wool is used to make cloth

Synthetic fibers are fibers that have been man-made by an extrusion process (which works kind of like a giant pasta maker with very tiny holes). Nylon, polyester, acrylic and spandex are some of the most common synthetic fibers. Fibers like rayon and bamboo can be considered semi-synthetic because they are actually made from a solution of wood pulp that is extruded in the same way as other synthetic fibers. Fabrics made from synthetic fibers have both advantages and disadvantages over natural fibers. They usually wrinkle and stain less easily, but they will melt under a hot iron, and they tend to retain smells more than natural fibers. They also tend to look and feel cheaper.

Spandex fiber. Photo by Luigi Chiesa - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Spandex fiber under a microscope. Photo by Photon 400 750 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Blends: These days many fabrics are blends of natural and synthetic fibers, combining synthetic spandex, for example, with natural cotton allows factories to create woven stretch denim. Also, such amazing advances have been made in the process of manufacturing synthetic microfibers that some synthetic fabrics can be hard to distinguish from natural fabrics.

Step 4: Online Fabric Stores

Joann - a chain fabric retailer with locations all over the US and online. Has a large selection of quilting fabrics and home decor fabrics and a moderate collection of cheaper fashion fabrics as well. Also great place for thread, notions and other craft supplies. - online store with a huge selection of fabrics of every kind and a good user interface.

Online Fabric Store - another site with a wide variety of fabric

Mood - a fabric store with locations in LA, New York and online, made famous by it's role on Project Runway. Mood carries a wide selection of high quality fashion fabrics, designer fabrics and home decor fabrics a relatively high price point.

Michael Levine - great fabric store in LA with an online store as well.

Spandex House - my very favorite place to shop for stretch fabric, Spandex House is a located in New York's garment district, but has a great online store as well.

SpoonFlower - an online service that lets you create your own prints and have them made into fabric! They have a limited selection of fabrics, but the quality of the printing is good and the prices are reasonable.

Step 5: Commercial Pattern Companies

Vogue - probably the most fashionable of the major pattern brands with designs marketed toward the professional "cosmopolitan" woman, has a wide range of patterns, especially in women's "misses" sizes. Also carries designer patterns from major labels as well as accessory patterns and patterns for men and girls.

McCalls - a related brand with a designs marketed toward a slightly younger customer with a more casual style. Also an umbrella for a few smaller specialty pattern companies including some Cosplay patterns and children's patterns.

Butterick - the parent company of both Vogue and McCalls. Carries another, very similar line of patterns often with a slightly more conservative, vintage style. Founded in the US in 1867, it was the first company to distribute graded sewing patterns.

Burda - another parent company for a family of different pattern publishers including Simplicity and NewLook. Burda is based in the UK and their patterns tend to be more complex and somewhat more high fashion.

For a fairly informative discussion of the subtle differences between the big pattern companies, see this thread.

Step 6: Indie Pattern Companies

If you're interested in sewing your own clothes or accessories from commercial patterns, thankfully your options are no longer limited to Vogue, Burda, Buttrick, and the other mainstream pattern companies! These days there are a growing number of small designers selling patterns with more contemporary relevance.

Seeing these styles constructed in fabrics you might actually want to wear (and worn by models that look like members of contemporary society) is not only refreshing, it's actually quite helpful and inspiring! Not that there aren't some great patterns in the big companies' collections, but sometimes when you're trying to envision sewing yourself a stylish wardrobe, it can be very hard to look past the 1980s fashion illustration on the cover of your paper pattern... ;)

Here are a few of my favorite indie pattern designers:

Thread Theory - small collection of awesome menswear patterns designed by men for men, as well as tools and tutorials

Colette - a great collection of patterns for women and men of all sizes, and a few accessories

Seamwork - a branch of Colette, a subscription online pattern magazine that sends you simple patterns every month, and has an associated podcast

Tilly and The Buttons - small collection of simple adorable patterns for women

Made by Rae - women's and children's pattern on the slightly hippier end of the spectrum

Papercut Patterns - medium sized collection of beautiful contemporary patterns for women

Grainline Studio - a small collection of women's patterns and accessories with a slightly more conservative style

Sewaholic Patterns - small collection of simple women's clothing and activewear patterns

Christine Haynes - very small collection of vintage inspired women's patterns

Named Patterns - large collection of trendy women's patterns from Finland

Deer and Doe - medium sized collection of women's patterns from France

Step 7: Sewing Blogs

If you spend a little time online, you will find a truly dizzying array of sewing blogs and websites devoted to hobby sewing in various forms. Following other people's sewing adventures and ideas can be great inspiration, but it can also just become a black hole that has you reading about sewing, while never actually putting needle to fabric! I recommend intaking sewing blogs in moderation :)

Here are a few great sewing blogs:

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