Bias and backstitch and applique… Oh my! What are they talking about? You can’t even begin most projects unless you understand them, right?



New to sewing or not, understanding all of those sewing terms can be tricky. There are times I still have to look up terms to see what in the world the tutorial is talking about, as if I casually know already… ohhhh that’s what that is called! Typically the name I make up for my sewing methods and notions aren’t what the dictionary calls them. But like everyone, I am learning. I found this beginner’s sewing dictionary to help define some of those common words you might see in “beginner” tutorials. Hopefully this will help lesson the internet click to learn road trip we are typically sent on.


Here are a few of the common terms that stump beginners:


Applique: To applique is to sew one piece of fabric on top of another, done with a very tight zig-zag (meaning the length between the zig and the zag needs to be adjusted so they are closer together).


Back-stitch: To back stitch simply means “sewing backward” Some machines will do this automatically, but for most of the more beginner machines, to do this, you will need to hold down the reverse lever or button on your machine and the machine will do the rest. It is done at the start of your stitching and the end.


Baste: A baste is a long and loose stitch-the longest possible that your machine will do. To baste you will need to set your stitch length to its longest setting. When this is called for, you won’t backstitch (a.k.a. knot) the thread at the beginning or the end. A baste is usually used just to hold the fabric in place prior to sewing or is used to gather fabric – good for making ruffles! For this stitch, you will need to adjust your stitch length to the longest – highest number on your machine stitch setting.


Bias: The bias of the fabric is the 45 percent angle from the grain of the fabric. If you turn your fabric diagonally from the straight up and down direction that the fabric would typically go, you are cutting on the bias. Why would you need to do this? One good example is in clothing patterns. Fabric direction is important in how all of the seams will line up.


Bias Tape: Some patterns you use will call for bias tape. You can buy this at the fabric store or if you want something more unique, you can easily make your own. When you are buying it, it will come in a package that you can usually find by the ribbon and thread section. Bias tape is used to finish the edges. It is cut on the bias (remember what that means?). This cut makes it easier to bend around corners.


Bobbin: The bobbin is the thread that comes up from the bottom and meets the thread from your spool to form the stitch. You will have to wind your bobbin and then insert it in your machine properly. Winding your bobbin can be done with your machine (check your machine manual) or you can buy separate bobbin winders if you are like me and do not like taking your thread out when you run out of bobbin.


Fat Quarter: A fat quarter is referring to the cut of the fabric. Most of the time we think of buying fabric by the yard, however, imagine that yard of fabric laying in front of you. Now picture it cut straight down the middle going lengthwise and straight down the middle horizontally. Each of those four pieces of fabric are now a fat quarter. Note: this is not the same as purchasing a quarter yard of fabric.


Foot Pedal: This is the part of your sewing machine that you press with your foot to make the needle sew. It goes on the floor where you can comfortably reach it with your foot. Pedal to the medal… not just for driving cars.


Fusing:  Fusing can also be referred to as heat ‘n bond. It adheres one piece of fabric to another. To use it you will iron it onto your fabric then peel off a paper backing and iron it onto whatever you are wanting to adhere it to. Comes in handy when you are appliqueing to keep your fabric in place.


Gather: This is a technique used with you want to make ruffles. To gather you will do a basting stitch (ah basting… yes! I know what this is) on your fabric and then, holding the threads that are at the end of your baste, gently pull the top thread while keeping the bottom thread steady. This will pull your fabric so that it starts to create a gather. Once you have the gathered look you desire, you can sew it in place to hold.


Grain: If you look very closely at your fabric and you will see threads that go up and down and sideways, perpendicular to each other. This is the grain of the fabric.


Hem: Some patterns tell you to hem the bottom of an article of clothing or another item. To hem you will first fold the fabric over about 1/2″ and press it in place. Then fold it over 1/2″ again (so now no raw edges are visible) and press it again and then stitch it in place. Once you learn to sew, chances are everyone will ask you to hem their clothing for them. Consider yourself warned.


Interfacing: Interfacing is used to make a project a little more sturdy and is sewn on the inside of the fabric. In some patterns or projects like t-shirt quilts or bags, you will be asked to use interfacing. There are many different weights of interfacing, read what kind you need for that specific project. Some will call for fusible interfacing which will need to be the type that can be ironed onto the fabric to adhere it in place.


Lining: Lining is a layer of fabric that goes underneath whatever you are sewing. Some patterns will call for lining. Typically the fabric you use for lining will be a neutral solid color that blends well with your main fabric. However, if you are making a bag, having a lining that is a coordinating fabric can add more personality to your project.


Notions: Notions are really just accessories needed to sew your project such as scissors, zippers, thread, etc. It could also include tools like the rotary cutter, seam ripper, or pins and clips.



Press: This simply means the tutorial is asking you to iron your project to make it lay flat.


Presser Foot: The presser foot is the little metal piece near your needle. You will lower it to press down the fabric while you are sewing and then lift it again when you are finished. It’s function is to keep your fabric in place while you sew. There are also other feet that you can use while sewing, but the most common one will be your presser foot.


Raw Edge:The raw edge of the fabric is the edge that has been cut.


Right Sides: The right side of the fabric is the side with the pattern or design on it.


Right Sides Together (RST): This means that you put your two pieces of fabric together so that the right sides of the fabric are touching each other on the inside and the wrong sides of the fabric are showing on the outside.


Seam Allowance: A seam allowance is the amount of fabric that is between your stitch and the edge of your fabric.


Seam Guides: The seam guides are built into your machine and will help you sew the correct seam allowance. They are marked with various seam allowances and are found right down near your needle and presser foot, in the area you will be sewing


Seam Ripper: Perhaps better know as a beginners most useful sewing tool. This is a sharp pointed tool that you use to rip out a seam when you make a mistake. Most sewing machines will come with this tool as in their accessory kit.


Straight Stitch: As simple as it sounds… don’t overthink this one! This is just a straight stitch… that simple. Just a straight line.


Top Stitch: To top stitch is to do a finishing stitch on top of an already sewn seam. It is a common term when sewing bags, napkins, blankets, and many other beginner projects. This is the stitch you will see after the project is complete.


Turn:  In a pattern, you typically sew with right sides together, and then it will ask you to turn your project. This means to pull the fabric through an opening making the right sides of the fabric face out.


Webbing: Webbing is a braided strip of fabric, like a belt, that can be used for straps on a bag. This is typically sold by the yard.


Wrong side(of the fabric): This is the underside of the fabric. The opposite of the side that you would like to be visible when your done sewing. The “backside.”


Zig zag:A zig-zag stitch is often used to sew along raw edges to prevent them from fraying. It is also used when appliqueing or when sewing fabrics that have a little stretch to them.

Joan Mantini

About Joan Mantini

After several years of being the Facebook page owner at Beginner Sewing, I noticed there was a desperate need to have a single go-to spot for members to be able to find answers to their common questions, get some useful tips & tricks, as well as find reputable places to purchase sewing products online. Taking my role as a trade publication editor by day, and combining it with my knowledge of frequently requested beginner sewing advice, I created An outlet that gives new sewists a free digital magazine geared for entry level sewing as an extra bonus!


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