Bolts of crushed stretch velvet in jewel tones

10 basic sewing terms you should know

I’ve known how to sew for years and years because my mother had the patience to teach me at the ripe age of 6 or 7. Right around that same time, the Samantha American Girl Doll movie came out and the scene of a sweatshop worker getting their fingers stuck in a sewing machine terrified me for years. Luckily, I overcame that hurdle and am now a sewing enthusiast.

I love crafting and sharing projects, and whenever I talk to my less-confidently-crafty friends about said projects, sewing seems to be the most intimidating task for them. I threw together a quick and dirty list of sewing terms you should know before you read your first pattern/embark on your sewing journey. If you wade into the waters of sewing clothing, that is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish in terms of terminology. For now, I present to you 10 (important) sewing terms and conventions:

Beginner's guide to sewing

Sewing Terms


The general rule is that if you are right handed and using a right handed sewing machine (the default kind) you should pin perpendicular to the seam you are sewing with the head on the right. In a lot of instances I like to place my pins parallel to the seam with the head of the pin toward me, so that as I approach a pin while sewing, I can remove it with my right hand. Experiment with what works best for you, because at the end of the day, as long as you don’t draw blood, or rip a hole in your fabric, you’re doing just fine.

Seam allowance

This is the distance between the edge of your fabric and the seam. The convention used to be 5/8ths inches, but somewhere between ½ and 1 inch is acceptable; the important thing is that you stay consistent and remember what you decided on when measuring and cutting the fabric.

Right sides and wrong sides

The right side is the side of the fabric that the world will see when your project is complete. Sometimes if your fabric is a solid color and has no defining texture, it will be hard to determine the right side in which case just pick one and stay consistent.

Bolts of crushed stretch velvet in jewel tones

Right sides together

Putting the right sides together is one of those things that you are always supposed do…except when you’re not. If you’re reading a pattern or instructions, you’ll often see the phrase “with right sides together (RST), do this or that.” The wrong side should be facing outward so that you end up with the seam hidden on the inside when your project is done!

*This might seem obvious, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve zoned out, then had to rip out a seam for 10 minutes.*

Pressing the seam

After sewing two pieces of fabric together, you’ll have a little bulky bit (your seam allowances) where they meet. To smooth it out, flip your fabric so that the wrong side is facing you. Then, take hold of the two thinner pieces on either side of the seam and open them like a book. Sometimes you really can just press the fabric open with your hands, but more often than not, an iron is the way to go. 

Selvage edge

The selvage edge of fabric is the edge that is woven tighter than the rest of the fabric. It’s meant to prevent fraying and you should cut it off rather than include it in your measurements for construction.

Woman cutting fabric with right side visible on green counter


The grain refers to how the fabric was woven. Sometimes, it won’t make any difference whether the grain is parallel or perpendicular to the selvage edge, but with projects like making garments, it’ll come into play. Basically, it indicates how the fabric will behave when you drape it or try to make it curve around boobs.


Simply put, the bias is the diagonal line from corner to corner of your piece of fabric. It would reside at a 45° from the selvage edge. This is more important in garment construction.


Backstitching is stitching going backwards. Why would you ever sew backwards, you ask? For stability and strength! That may be dramatic, but the point is to reinforce your seam at the very beginning and very end. It prevents the stiches from falling out the second you take it off your machine. These stitches should be directly on top of the seam you just sewed (or as close as you can manage.)

You can either turn your fabric around 180° so that you’re still guiding the fabric in the same direction you just had been; or you can press the “backstitch” button on your sewing machine. My machine is an analog Singer from who knows when, so I have to hold the button down the entire time I’m backstitching, but on other digital machines that’s not the case.

Top stitching

Top stitching is pretty self-explanatory; it’s stitching that you can see on the, you guessed it, top of your fabric. This comes into play a lot with hems and is that goldish stitching all over your jeans.

Demonstrating sewing terms Hand guiding fabric to topstitch a seam

I hope this list helps you feel more comfortable as you go forward with sewing 😊

Pro tip: save this post about on Pinterest so you can refer back to it later!

10 beginner sewing terms you must know

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