Oliver + S

sewing terms

We often hear our patterns refered to as "a sewing class in an envelope." We take it as a compliment when people recognize that we work hard to teach sewing skills as we write our instructions.

To further our educational mission, we've developed this extensive glossary of sewing terms. We hope you'll find it useful when you come across a term you don't know.


A piece of fabric sewn either by hand or machine to a larger piece of fabric, often for embellishment. When attaching an appliqué by machine, we suggest using a satin stitch. (See Satin Stitch.)


Backstitching can be sewn by machine or hand, and the purpose of each stitch is very different. Backstitching by machine involves sewing a few stitches in reverse at the beginning or end of a seam to anchor the seam and prevent the stitches from coming unsewn. Backstitching by hand is a decorative embroidery stitch often used to outline an area.


Closely set zigzag stitches sewn to reinforce areas of a garment or project subject to stress, such as pocket openings or buttonholes.


See Basting Stitch.

Basting Stitch

Long stitches, frequently used to hold multiple layers of fabric together or in position temporarily during construction, which can be easily removed later. Basting can be done by machine by simply setting the machine to its longest stitch length or by hand, usually with a long running stitch. (See also Running Stitch.)


The middle layer of a quilt sandwich, usually made of cotton or wool fibers that have been processed and wadded or “flattened” into loose rolls or sheets. Batting can be purchased in a variety of sizes and thicknesses, or lofts.


Any straight line that doesn’t run directly on the fabric’s straight or cross grain can be referred to as being on bias or off-grain. Fabric cut on the bias has more stretch and drape than fabric cut on the straight or cross grain, but bias cuts can distort or twist much more easily than straight- or cross-grain cuts. Usually bias refers to true bias. (See also Grain and True Bias.)

Bias Binding

A narrow strip of fabric cut on the bias that’s frequently used to encase a raw edge of a project or another fabric. Ready-made bias binding can be can be bought in packages, or you can make your own bias binding, speeding up the process with a handy tool called a bias tape maker. (See also True Bias.)


A narrow strip of fabric, whether cut as a straight-grain strip or a bias strip, that’s used to encase the raw edge of a quilt or other fabric. (See also Bias Binding.)


A hand stitch used to join two edges (for example, a hem to a garment) almost invisibly. Sew a blindstitch as follows, using a single strand of knotted thread in a hand needle: Working from right to left with your needle pointing to the left (or vice versa if you’re left-handed) and keeping your stitches loose and very small, roll the folded fabric edge back about 1/4", and take a tiny stitch in this edge. Then take a tiny stitch in the main fabric about 3/8" to the left of the first stitch (picking up only a couple of threads on the back of the fabric to keep the stitch from showing on the right side). Take another very small stitch in the folded edge 3/8" to the left, and continue alternating stitching between the folded edge and garment fabric, producing a series of small “V’s.”


A narrow channel of fabric often used to hold elastic or a drawstring.


The term drape refers to the way a fabric folds or hangs on the body when worn. A fabric with good drape will form soft, natural folds, while a fabric with poor drape will stand away stiffly from the body. Note that some designs call for fabric with fluid drape, while other more structured designs require stiffer fabric with little drape and more body.


Easing involves machine-sewing gathering or basting stitches on a longer edge (often a sleeve cap) that needs to fit to a shorter edge (in the case of a sleeve cap, the armhole). By gently pulling the stitches’ thread tails, you can draw in and narrow the longer edge without actually gathering it and thus ease it to fit the shorter edge to which it’s to be sewn. Easing produces volume in the area eased and, in the case of a sleeve cap, allows the cap to fit the curve of the shoulder. (See also Basting Stitch and Gathering Stitch.)


A straight stitch sewn from the right side of the fabric that’s between 1/16" or 1/8" from and parallel to a fabric’s edge, a seam, or another stitching line, which anchors, reinforces, or finishes that edge, seam, or stitching line. When edgestitching, use the edge of your presser foot as a stitching guide. (See also Topstitch.)

Fat Quarter

Often used in quilting, a fat quarter is ¼ yard of fabric (usually a quilting cotton), cut to measure approximately 18" wide x 22" long instead of the typical 9"-wide x 44"-long ¼-yard cut.

Feed Dogs

The grooved “teeth” on a sewing machine bed directly below the presser foot that hold the fabric against the presser foot while stitches are being formed and also move the fabric through the machine as it stitches.


As its name suggests, finger-pressing involves folding an edge or crease in the fabric or folding open a seam’s allowances by running your finger or thumbnail several times over the fold, crease, or opened allowances to “press” them. Sometimes after finger-pressing, project directions will call for additionally pressing the fabric with an iron, in which case the finger-pressing will improve the accuracy of the iron pressing.

Finish the Seam Allowances

You can finish the raw edges on seam allowances several different ways. We suggest zigzag-stitching each seam allowance’s raw edge, straight-stitching ¼" from the raw edge, or trimming the edge with pinking shears to prevent raveling. You can also finish seam allowances with a serger. Note, too, that some directions tell you to press the seam allowances together to one side (instead of pressing them open), and, in this case, you can finish the seam allowances together as one unit. (See also Seam Allowance.)

Fold Line

Pattern pieces are often cut on the fold to make a single cut-fabric pattern piece without a center seam. When positioning a pattern piece to be cut on the fold, make sure to place the edge marked “Cut on fold” on the fabric’s fold, which should run parallel to the fabric’s grain.


Using the heat of the iron to melt a glue adhesive on a fabric. Fusible web, which is often used for appliqué, is made of a dry glue adhesive that melts when heated to adhere two fabrics together. A dry adhesive is also applied to fusible interfacings, which enables the interfacing to stick to the back of the fabric to which it is being applied.

Gathering Stitch

A long straight stitch (when sewn on a machine) or running stitch (when sewn by hand) that’s used to cinch, or gather in, and shorten a length of fabric. To gather by machine, loosen your thread tension slightly so that the bobbin thread can be pulled easily. Then stitch 1/8" inside the seam line and a second row 1/8" outside the seam line, leaving long thread tails at the beginning and end of both rows of stitches. Next, pull the bobbin-thread tails on each row to gather the stitched fabric, adjusting the fullness evenly across the gathered area. Once you’ve basted and sewn the gathered area to your project, remove the visible row of gathering stitches.


The term grain refers to the direction in which the yarns, or threads, are woven in a fabric. The fabric’s grain runs both lengthwise (parallel to the selvedges) and widthwise (perpendicular to the selvedges). The lengthwise grain (or warp) is called the straight grain, while the widthwise grain (or weft) is called the cross grain. (See also Bias.)


The finished edge of a garment (usually the bottom edge), often formed by folding under and pressing the raw edge twice before topstitching the innermost fold. A hem can also be sewn by hand with a blindstitch. (See also Blindstitch.)


A special layer of fabric that adds shape and stability to another fabric (often in a facing, placket, or collar) and prevents that fabric from stretching or distorting. Interfacing can be a woven or nonwoven fabric and, depending on its makeup, is sewn or fused to the fabric. Select interfacings carefully to complement the fabric and the project for which they’ll be used. (See also Fuse.)

Ladder Stitch

Used to stitch two fabrics together invisibly, especially in needle-turn appliqué. Working from right to left (or from left to right, if you are left-handed), bring the needle up from the wrong side of the background fabric near the edge of the appliqué. Take a stitch along the fold of the appliqué, entering parallel to the point where the thread exited the background fabric and exiting the appliqué about 1/8" to the left (to the right if you are left-handed) on the fold. Now take a stitch in the background fabric, again entering as close as possible to where your needle exited the appliqué and coming back up about 1/8" from where the needle entered.


An easy, almost invisible stitching technique used to secure the stitches at the beginning and end of a stitching line. To lockstitch, position your fabric under the needle at the beginning of the stitching line, and set the machine’s stitch length to zero (or the lowest stitch length your machine offers); then take a couple of stitches in place. Reset the stitch length to its regular stitching length, and sew the stitching line. At the end of the stitching line, reset the stitch length to zero or the shortest length possible, and take a couple of stitches in place.


A triangular marking at a pattern piece’s edge that is used to help assemble the pattern correctly by indicating where to match similarly notched edges.


Pivoting involves changing stitching direction at a corner or another angled point in the stitching line. To pivot, stop with the needle down in the fabric when you arrive at the pivot point, and lift the presser foot. Then rotate, or pivot, the fabric to the new stitching position, lower the presser foot, and continue stitching.

Press the Seam Allowances

After sewing a seam, press the seam flat to set it. Then, depending on the project directions, you can either press the seam allowances open (away from the seam line) or together to one side.

Right Side

The side of the fabric that will be visible when the project is finished. On some fabrics, there is no discernable right side, so you can designate either side as the right side.

Running Stitch

A simple hand-sewing stitch in which the needle and thread move in and out of the fabric, with the stitches and spaces between them consistently about 1/8" long. When you elongate the running stitch to about 1/4" in length, it becomes a hand-basting stitch. (See also Basting Stitch.)

Satin Stitch

Satin stitches can be sewn by machine or by hand. On a machine, the smooth texture of satin stitching is created by sewing closely set zigzag stitches, which are often used to finish a fabric’s raw edge or to machine-appliqué one fabric onto another. A satin stitch sewn by hand is generally used for embellishment in embroidery.

Seam Allowance

The fabric between a seam’s stitching line and the fabric’s cut edge make up the seam allowance. Most American sewing patterns, including Straight Stitch Society patterns, have the seam allowance built into them. Be sure to check the instructions for how wide the seam allowances are. If seam allowances are included, they do not need to be added to the patterns. (See also Finish the Seam Allowances, Press the Seam Allowances, and Trim the Seam Allowances.)

Selvedge (or Selvage)

The narrow finished lengthwise edges of a woven fabric, usually ¼" to ½" wide, that are often more tightly woven than the rest of the fabric (which prevents the fabric from tearing when it is finished at the mill). Because the selvedges are constructed differently than the rest of the fabric, they may shrink at a different rate than the rest of the fabric when washed. Selvedges should generally be removed before sewing.


To join two edges almost invisibly with this hand stitch, stitch though the edge of one fold, picking up just a couple threads; then stitch directly across to the opposite folded edge, again taking a very tiny bite of fabric and bringing up the needle a short distance away to begin the next stitch.


A row of straight stitching within a cut-fabric pattern piece’s seam allowance that helps stabilize an edge like an armhole or neck edge to keep it from stretching or distorting during construction. Staystitching is usually sewn on a single layer of fabric 1/8" from the seam line, so it won’t show after construction.

Stem Stitch

A hand-embroidery stitch often used to outline an area.


See Tacking.


Hand-sewing several small stitches in one spot or area to discretely secure one fabric or element to another (like a folded-back sleeve cuff tacked in place).


Straight-stitching sewn from the right side and more than 1/8" (and up to several inches or more) from and parallel to an edge, seam, or another stitching line. Edgestitching and topstitching are essentially the same thing, with the only difference between them being the distance from the edge, seam, or other stitching line. (See also Edgestitch.)

Trim the Seam Allowances

Trimming the seam allowances (the fabric that runs from the seam line to the fabric’s raw edge) reduces a seam’s bulk so that when you press the seam or edge from the right side, you’ll get nice, crisp results. Trim seam allowances with scissors (not a rotary cutter) to about 1/8" (but no less) in width. Also take care to follow any directions that explicitly say not to trim the seam allowances at a certain point, for example, along an opening left for turning the work right side out. (See also Seam Allowance.)

True Bias

A 45-degree angle to the warp and weft threads. Fabric cut on the true bias has lots of stretch and drape and conforms nicely to contours. (See also Bias Binding and Grain.)


Understitching helps keep the facing/lining seam and the facing/lining itself inside the garment and prevents them from showing when the garment is worn. To understitch, press the facing or lining away from the garment, and press the seam allowances toward the facing/lining. With the facing side up, edgestitch close to the seam, sewing through the facing/lining and the seam allowances.

Walking Foot

A special foot attachment for the sewing machine that feeds fabric layers through the machine evenly. A walking foot is commonly used for quilting, but it can also be very helpful for sewing thick layers of fabric or fabrics that might stick to the sewing machine bed.


The yarns in a fabric that run parallel to the selvedge are called the warp. These are the fabric’s foundation yarns and are wound onto the loom before the fabric is woven. Warp yarns are usually the strongest yarns. Your fabric will drape nicely without distortion if you cut and sew so that the warp hangs perpendicular to the floor when the garment is finished. (See also Grain.)


The yarns that run across the fabric, from selvedge to selvedge. These are the secondary yarns of the fabric, or the fill yarns. These yarns are not as strong as the warp yarns and often have a little stretch (or give) in them, even when a fabric is not a stretch fabric. (See also Grain.)


To join two edges (or a folded edge to a base fabric) with this hand stitch, bring the needle up from the wrong side of the fabric through one edge; then insert the needle a short distance away into the second edge (or base fabric), taking just a tiny bite of fabric. Reinsert the needle a short distance away in the first edge, and continue taking diagonal stitches in both edges (or the edge and base fabric), keeping the angle, length, and distance between stitches consistent.

Wrong Side

The side of the fabric that will not be visible when finished. On printed fabrics, the wrong side is the one without the design. On some fabrics, there is no discernable right or wrong side—both look the same—and you can designate either side as the wrong (or right) side.

Zigzag Stitch

A straight machine stitch that changes directions with each stitch, creating a zigzag effect. Zigzag stitches are frequently used to finish seam allowances, but they can also be used for decorative stitching. Zigzag stitches set very close together can also be used for bartacking or for satin stitching. (See also Bartack and Satin Stitch.)