Sewing Terms, Tips, and Techniques

This glossary is an on-going collection of terms that I have come across in my sewing journey along with some tips and techniques.  I hope that you will find these helpful in your own sewing adventures.  

Alterations:  In sewing, alterations refers to changes being made either to a pattern, project, or garment.  There is one book that I highly recommend for pattern alterations that I found to be a valuable resource:  Fast Fit:  Easy Pattern Alterations for Every Figure  by Sandra Betzina.  

Bar Tack:  A bar tack refers to a hand sewing technique used to reinforce points of strain.  For example, the top of a skirt slit / pleat or the corners of shirt / pants pockets.  

Basting:  Basting is a form of hand-stitching.  It is not meant to be permanent.  Basting is all about preparation.  Some people like to baste their zippers in place beore machine stitching.  Basting can also be used to match plaids, attach interfacing, underlining, linings, etc.  

To make sure your layers do not shirt it is best to work on a flat surface.  When basting near the seam line it is best to sew inside the seam allowance making it easier to remove the basting threads.  

For light hand-basting work, usually when I'm basting underlining to my fashion fabric, I would choose a cheaper cotton thread.  But remember that this thread breaks easily.  It may be good for basting underlining since this basting can be removed later but you might want to use a strong thread for items that are basted for fitting reasons.  Silk thread is good for basting fine fabrics such as velvet.  

Basting isn't necessarily a straight stitch along the seam line.  Sometimes it may be necessary to baste on the diagonal such as when working with fabric that has a pile in order to prevent them from shifting.  When basting velvet, I like to use a rayon embroidery thread because it doesn't leave an imprint on the pile.  

Basting Tape:  Basting tape is a two-sided sticky tape that helps to hold fabric and zippers in place.  

I use basting tape whenever I'm sewing an invisible zipper.  It is a quick and easy method and the stickiness washes away.  Also a handy little item to have if you carry an emergency sewing kit for those hems that might come down.  

I've also found it handy for holding ribbons and trims in place instead of pinning.  I found that it provided more security and prevented any shifting from occurring.  

Bias:  Bias refers to the direction of the cloth and how a pattern piece is position and cut from the fabric.  The bias of a fabric is found on the diagonal direction.  Cutting a garment on the bias of a fabric moulds the fabric to the body unlike straight-grain cut fabric.  Pattern pieces are placed at a forty-five degree angle to form the grainline marking on the pattern piece in order to be cut on the bias.  Seam edges that are cut on the bias do not have to be finished since these edges do not fray like straight-grain edges.  

Bias TapeMaking bias tape is pretty easy to make when you have the right tools. And of course you will want to cut your fabric on the bias. This will prevent the edges from fraying and will give the tape some stretch to handle neckline and armhole curves. The tools you will need are
  • Bias tape maker 
  • Iron
  • Bias cut fabric
  • A ruler (I prefer to use a clear one)
  • Tailor's chalk

I have posted a how-to that you can find here on how I have made bias tape in the past. I frequently make bias tape when I want to match a finished edge with my fashion fabric. Making your own bias tape is another great way to use up those larger pieces of left-over fabric. 

Blanket stitch:  There are two methods for sewing a blanket stich, by hand or by machine.  Typically, sewing a blanket stitch by machine is seen in sewing a pre-fused appliqué in place.  Although, it can also be used as a seam finish.  

By hand, the blanket stitch is often used as a decorative stitch often seen on blankets and done in wool or embroidery thread. 

Bobbin thread:  Bobbin thread is a fine thread specifically used for machine embroidery.  Typically made of polyester, it is strong, light-weight and inexpensive, used to reduce bulk of your embroidery work.  It is beneficial for machine embroidery on light-weight fabrics.  It is used with your rayon, viscose or metallic embroidery thread on top, reducing bulk and allowing your completed work to be more pliable.  It can also be used for basting and eliminates the need to remove the basting stitches afterwards.  Since it is a fine light-weight thread, it would be hard to detect through the layers.  Bobbin thread comes in two formats, spools to be wound onto a bobbin or it can be purchased in pre-wound disposable bobbins.
Grading:  Usually this term refers to grading your seam allowance.  This is a technique where you would trim different layers of a seam allowance to a variety of widths in order to reduce bulk and create a smooth transition.  This is a good technique to incorporate before pressing and turning over seams of a collar or cuff.  

Grading can also be done for changes in sizes.  Grading, or the increasing or decreasing of the size of the pattern, is a fundamental process of pattern making that should be part of one's knowledge kit if you're interested in achieving a good fit from your patterns.  Grading principles are often applied to foundation pattern pieces and then those are used for more complicated design elements.  There are two traditional methods that are often used when grading for changes in sizes.  The first method is accomplished by slashing and spreading the pattern.  

The other method is by shifting.  Today, grading a pattern can also be achieved digitally using computerized pattern drafting software.  Pattern grading by hand aren't typically done by home sewists now-a-days.  In today's market, sewing patterns come in multi-sized combinations, eliminating the need to grade a pattern for sizing.  However, sometimes a size is needed may not be offered by the manufacturer or a vintage pattern only comes in one size.  In these situations I found grading knowledge to be a valuable asset.  Vintage sewing books often share a wealth of grading information not found online.  

Gussets:  Gussets are found in clothing to aid in the ease of movement or to reduce stress on tight-fitting designs.  

They may be found in the under-arm portion of a garment.  A gusset is typically cut on the bias so that there is reduced strain on the fabric.  They can also be decorative as when they are found in a clothing design.  

Invisible zipper:  There is nothing that gives your garment the professional look than a perfectly sewn invisible zipper.  My secret (no more) to sewing a neatly hidden invisible zipper is to press open the coil of the zipper before sewing it and prep your fabric edge with the serger and then use basting tape to hold the zipper in place.  The most important tool that is required for this techniques would be to use a quality metal invisible zipper foot for your machine.  Forget those plastic invisible zipper foots you can find at the fabric store.  They're not worth the money you think you will be saving.  

Jean-a-ma-Jig:  Quilters have been using the Jean-a-ma-Jig for quite some time before I discovered this little tool.  It is a small piece of plastic measuring 44 mm deep, 5 cm long and 37 mm wide and it has a cut out portion that is 6 mm wide and about 2.5 cm long.  When you approach an intersection in your seam that has bulk, it helps the presser foot to travel over the bulkiness without distorting your stitching or breaking your needle.  

Oil Cloth:  The modern use of this term refers to a vinyl which has been bonded with a flannel cloth or a synthetic non-woven backing.  This type of vinyl is used for table clothes and became popular in the mid-1950s.  

OOP:  This is an acronym used in the sewing community for the phrase out-of-print.  It is often used when referring to a sewing pattern that is no longer available from the manufacturer or designer.  However, you might be able to find an OOP pattern from an online seller.  

RTW:  This is an acronym for the phrase ready-to-wear.  Sometimes, the acronym ORT (off-the-rack) is used to refer to the same as ready-to-wear.  It refers to an article of clothing that has been factory-made and sold in a retail shop and in a finished condition.  It has been manufactured with the manufacturers' standardized sizing.  Not all manufacturers subscribe to a standardized sizing.  RTW often needs alterations unless your body fits into the manufacturer's standardized sizes that are offered.   

Sewing invisibly:  I first came across this term in a vintage pattern, OOP Vogue 1521.  It is used when you are interfacing a section that has a foldline, such as an extended facing, folded cuff or waistband.  Sewing invisibly means that you will have 1/2" long running stitches on the interfacing that are caught onto the wrong side of your fashion fabric with only the tiniest invisible stitch.  

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