Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology

Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology
Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology

So this post has come about in an unusual way. My husband was proof reading a post for me (thanks, honey!) and he came across some sewing terms that he didn’t know. Consequently, he said I should explain them, but I was worried about the flow of the post. So instead, I am writing this one that will have a guide of basic beginner sewing terms.

I have been sewing as long as I can remember. My first experiences with sewing were taught by my mother. As a beginner, I didn’t get too technical, just a basic stop and go on the foot pedal and hold the fabric straight. I learned more in middle and high school in multiple Family & Consumer Sciences classes that I took. But the majority of my advanced sewing skills came from my experiences in college, where I landed a job as a seamstress in the costume shop for the theater department.

But enough about me…below is the Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology and what you need know to start out sewing

Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliated links. As an associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you use them, I might be rewarded credit or a commission of the sale. Please note that I only recommend what I personally use and love and I always have my readers’ best interests at heart.

Types of Needles

There are many types of needles and sometimes it is hard to know which needle to use for which situation. First let’s break it down into two categories: hand sewing needles and sewing machine needles.

Sewing Machine Needles

Sewing machine needles come in two main types. The first type is the regular needles and is used in most situations. They are numbered – the higher the number the stronger the needle. For cotton fabric a 10-12 size is ideal. For delicate fabric it is better to move closer to an 8, and thick fabric like denim requires a 16-18. (Here is a variety pack) The second type of sewing machine needle is the ball point needle. They use similar sizing guidelines, with the major difference for a ball point needle being that it has a rounded tip. These are used for knit fabrics. The ball point is designed to loop around the fibers instead of piercing the fibers like a traditional needle.

Hand Needles

There are many options for hand needles – sharps, yarn, embroidery, tapestry, quilting, the list goes on. The internet has some excellent guides and most craft stores have descriptions to help you pick out the right needle. There are 4 variables in picking a hand needle: the sharpness of the needle point, the size of the eye, the length of the needle, and the diameter of the needle. For many projects a middle sized sharp needle will be okay. If the project is using special fabric or technique it is best to get a needle suitable for the project. In terms of size, hand needles are opposite of machine needles – the larger the number the smaller the needle. Here is a pack that a good variety.

Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology

Fabric Terms

There are two types of composition styles – knit and woven. The kind of fabric used for each has a right side and a wrong side.

  • Right side – the side the print is on
  • Wrong side – the side the print is not on
  • Right sides together – placing the side of the fabric that has the print together, so when you stitch it and turn it back right side out the printed side is on the outside
  • Seam allowance – the distance from the edge of the fabric to the line of stitching
  • Grain – the horizontal direction of the fabric
  • Cross grain – the vertical direction of the fabric
  • Bias – the diagonal direction of the fabric.

It is important to know the grain of the fabric when sewing due to the sturdiness and elasticity of the fabric. When pulling on the grain or cross grain, the fabric may stretch one way or another. This shouldn’t happen when pulling on the bias. Depending on the result that is needed, patterns will call for different pieces to be cut in certain directions.

Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology


  • Shears – scissors used to cut larger amounts of fabric
  • Thread Snips – smaller scissors used for clipping threads and for intricate cuts
  • Pinking Shears – scissors with a saw-tooth blade instead of a straight one, used for finishing edges
  • Pins – used to hold fabric together before sewing
  • Chalk – sewing chalk is used to trace out a pattern on a fabric to know where to cut or sew, and should dissolve with water
  • Rotary Cutter – has a long handle with a circular blade. It’s used to cut fabric with the assistance of a ruler and cutting mat. The blade is retractable for safety.
  • Clear Ruler – a measuring device that has lines on a ruler for accurate measurements. It’s clear in order to see the fabric underneath. They come in different sizes and shapes, but you can’t go wrong with a basic rectangle. There are specialty rulers for quilting and apparel.
  • Cutting mat – used with the rotary cutter and ruler to protect your counter when cutting fabric. It has measurement lines to help with accurate cutting.
  • Measuring tape – a circular measuring tape allows you to take accurate measurements on long curved surfaces
  • Thimble – a tool placed on your thumb while sewing to assist in pushing the needle through tough fabric as to protect your fingers from being needle pricks
Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology

Sewing Machine Parts

Most sewing machines have similar parts that have similar functions. That being said, every sewing machine is different. So when you’re first learning to sew on a new machine it is best to consult the owner’s manual. Here are some basic terms that every sewing machine should have:

  • Foot pedal – think of it as similar to a gas pedal in a car in the sense that it makes the sewing machine go. It’s usually placed on the floor and connected to the sewing machine via an electrical cord.
  • Presser foot – this holds the fabric down when sewing. These can be interchangeable based on the project; for example, a zipper foot or button hole foot.
  • Feed Dog – two toothed metal feeds that move under the presser foot to move the fabric along while sewing
  • Spool Pin – located on the top of the machine, this holds a spool of thread so the thread can come off the spool when sewing
  • Bobbin – a small metal or plastic spool that thread is wound on and placed in the bottom of the sewing machine to create the bottom row of stitches when sewing (see manual on how to install)
  • Reverse/back stitch – bottom that reversed the direction of the feed dog to create a locking stitch or back stitch in a row of stitching
  • Thread cutter – sharp cutter near the presser foot designed to cut threads after taking fabric out of the sewing machine
  • Balance Wheel-used to advance or retract the sewing needle.
Beginners Guide to Sewing Terminology

I hope this beginners guide to sewing terminology serves a a useful tool to help with sewing projects in your future. Have any questions or comments, let me know below.

Check out some of my sewing post… DIY Hammock Swing and Felt Vegetable Garden

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Levi Armstrong
1 year ago

Thanks for telling me that it’s essential to know the direction of the fabric you will be sewing to know the sturdiness and elasticity of the fabric. I’m planning to start making my clothes using my mother’s old sewing machine because I figured it’s a cheap way to be in style. However, I’ll take it to a sewing machine repair shop downtown first because it needs some maintenance and replacement parts to work efficiently. 

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