Very often there are words, expressions and technical terms connected to crafts that can be hard to understand and hard to explain. I wish I learned some of these expressions when I started doing sewing.
I therefore decided to make a little dictionary with some of the words and technical terms that we use often in historical garment making, to make it easier for you who just started with sewing or living history. This dictionary is also for you who have been around for a long time, but just didn’t bother to familiarized yourself with the terminology.
I use some of these words in many of my posts, for example the ‘how to’-posts, and to make it a bit easier for you and me both, I can refer to this list instead of explaining a word over and over again in each post. Some of the words I rarely use, but they can be nice to know anyway.
I hope you will find this helpful in your quest of crafting! This list will probably grow as new terms and words hopefully will be added. You learn as long as you live! Luckily! If you are missing any words or terms, please let me know!
If you find a word written in cursive, it means that word will be described later in the text or is already described earlier in the text.
Apron dress (garment)
An apron dress is a typical Viking age garment worn by the women. The dress is tubular with straps that goes over the shoulders to keep it from falling down. The straps are held together by oval brooches that probably also served as a status symbol.
The armscye or armhole is the opening at the side of a bodice where the sleeve is attached. If the garment is sleeveless, there will only be an opening allowing the arm to go through.
The armhole can be rounded, as seen in the picture below, or it can be straight. If you have a rounded armhole, your sleeve will need to be rounded as well, a so-called S-sleeve. This type of sleeve and armhole will give you a more tailored fit to the garment. A straight sleeve and armhole will give you a more basic fit.
Backstitch is a type of stitch used in embroidery and sewing. This stitch is probably one of the strongest basic stitch you can use if you are sewing by hand. It can therefore be used to sew strong seams without using a sewing machine. The backstitch is often used in embroidery to outline shapes, for lettering or to add details.
When you are doing backstitches, you start by putting your needle through the fabric from the wrong side of the fabric. The needle and the longest end of your thread should now be on the right side of the fabric. From the right side, go back down through the fabric a few millimetres ahead, or as long as you want your stitches to be (see stitch length). Make a knot on the back side to secure your thread. Now, bring the needle back up through the fabric with a distance to your former stitch. The distance should be the same length as your first stitch to make it even and nice. Further, you go back with your needle to where your first stitch ends. Go down through the fabric with your needle to make the second stitch. Continue this process and you will have a long, continuous line of seam.
To baste means to sew long, easily removable stitches by machine or by hand. Basting is meant to temporarily and fast join several pieces fabric together for several reasons. For instance, basting a seam allows you to test the fit of the garment before sewing more permanent stitches. If the garment is too big or too small, you can easily undo the basting and make a new and better stitching line. Basting stitches should be fast and simple, and it goes without saying that these stitches don’t need to be pretty. Basting is also a great way to keep the fabric from unraveling while washing it, for example.
Bias and true bias
To measure on the bias means to measure in a diagonal way on the fabric instead of the horizontal or the vertical directions, which is most common. True bias crosses the lengthwise grain and crosswise grain at a 45˚ angle, but any line that runs diagonally between the two grain lines is called the bias. The reason why we sometimes measure out something on the bias is becaues this direction often has more stretch and flexibility than both the crosswise or lengthwise grain on a fabric. Some garments is better made when measured on the bias precisely because of this. Trousers, stockings and hoser is typical historical garments made on the bias.
The bodice is the part of a garment covering the upper body. Examples of a bodice can be the front and back pieces of shirts, or the top pieces of a dress or a tunic.
Blanket stitches is a type of stitch used to reinforce the edge of a material. The stitch is decorative and are often used to finish for example an um-hemmed (see hem and hemline) blanket. The stitch can be seen on both sides of the fabric.
A casing is a fabric tunnel in which an elastic band or a drawstring can be threaded to pull in or pull together the fabric. A drawstring is a cord and the casing is the tube which the cord goes through.
The center back is a vertical line marking the center of a pattern or a garment at the back. It is smart to work from the center lines while making a garment. This line is often visible on a pattern, but don’t necessarily have be visible on a piece of fabric or the finished garment (unless you have a seam at the center back for example).
The center front is a vertical line marking the center of a pattern or a garment at the front. This line is often visible on a pattern, but don’t necessarily have be visible on a piece of fabric or the finished garment (unless you have a seam at the center front for example). It is always clever to work out from the center of the different pieces while making garments, this is to make sure that both sides (of the vertical line) on the garment pieces are equal.
A clip is a small cut made with scissors into the seam allowance. Usually a clip is made at a curved edge of a seam with the purpose of preventing the seam allowance from pulling or puckering, and it becomes easier to ease the seam allowance when folding or rolling it down.
Crosswise or cross grain
The crosswise grain is the direction going from selvage to selvage, and therefore also the same direction as the weft on a woven fabric. The crosswise grain is the grain line going 90° opposite direction of the lengthwise grain. The crosswise grain is usually looser and has slightly more stretch than the lengthwise grain.
A drawstring is a string, cord or lace going through a tube made in the fabric used to gather fabric or other material. They are usually found in, for example, sweatpants to keep them in place when you wear them, or on a gym bag – often called drawstring bags. A drawstring is loose when it is not being used, and tightened as needed during use. To make a drawstring work, you make a hem or a casing, which is a continuous tube of material.
Sometimes when you are making garments, some of your pieces that are made to fit each other perfectly when sewn together, don’t seem to fit like they should. Some bulkiness may appear – especially on curvy pieces – because one piece becomes a bit longer than the other due to stretching in the fabric, making the finished result look bad. If this happens, you can use easing to make the pieces fit better together. In practice, this means that you distribute the bulkiness over a larger part of the seam so that it appears less bulky. If there is only a little bulkiness and you have a long seam, you can often get rid of the bulkiness completely. It can be more difficult if it is the other way around – a lot of bulkiness and a short seam.
Fabric scissors are scissors used only for fabric, nothing else. Why? Well, cutting in different materials makes the scissors blunt. Cutting in paper with fabric scissors is the worst because paper consists of minerals which over time will make the scissors blunt! My favorite brand of fabric scissors is Fiskars, but any brand will do as long as you use them only for fabric and keep them sharp. To cut in textile with a pair of scissors that are not sharp is just horrible.
A facing is fabric used to finish the raw edges of a garment such as at the neckline and the armhole. Shaped facings are cut to match the edge they will face. The facing will add a layer and therefore support a neckline or other parts of the garment which is too weak to hold itself up, making the garment look better. You can also place the facing on the outside to make a nice detail, this would be a decorative facing. Facings are good to use if you are using a thinner fabric to make your garment.
Grading the seam allowance
Seam allowances can be graded or trimmed for them to be as invisible as possible on the outside of the garment. Grading the seam allowance is done by cutting one of the seam allowances narrower than the other one. You do this after you’ve sewn two pieces of fabric together. This allows you to fold the seam allowance you did not cut over the one you cut, leaving the narrower one enclosed inside the fold.
Grading the seam allowances is also sometimes necessary to prevent bulkiness. Where several seams meet, for example under the arm, where the sleeve seam meets the side seam, and at the shoulder, where the sleeves seam is meets the shoulder seam, you will get a lot of fabric. Grading here will help you prevent too much fabric and bulkiness.
Grain line is a collective term for the different directions of a fabric. Lengthwise grain, crosswise grain and the bias are the most commonly used. Cutting pieces according to a fabric’s grain line results in more accurate piecing and reduces stretching and distortion, enhancing the overall appearance of your finished garments. On patterns there are usually a line telling you how to place the fabric on according to the grain lines.
A gusset is a triangular or square piece of fabric inserted into a seam to add width or breadth, or to reduce stress from tight-fitting clothing. Traditionally, gussets were used at the shoulders, underarms, and hems of traditional shirts and chemises made of rectangular lengths of linen to shape the garments to the body.
Hem and hemline
To hem a piece of cloth in sewing, means that you fold up or roll a cut edge, a raw edge, and then folds it up again. Then you sew it down so that it completely encloses the cut edge inside the folded cloth. This way it can not ravel. A hem is also the edge of cloth hemmed in such manner. It is also used to adjust the length of the piece in garments, such as at the end of the sleeve or the bottom of the garment.
Hose is a type of garment used for the legs and lower body. They were worn from the Middle Ages through the 17th century, when the style fell out of use in favor of, trousers, breeches and stockings.
Sometimes it is necessary to smooth out or shape fabrics or garments with the heat of an iron. An iron can be used to fold down a hem before sewing it, or to fold down the seam allowances, making it easier to sew.
The lengthwise grain is the direction going from the raw edge to raw edge, and therefore the same direction as the warp on a woven fabric. The lengthwise grain is the grain line going 90° opposite direction of the crosswise grain. The lengthwise grain is usually tighter and has slightly less stretch than the crosswise grain.
The lining is an extra layer inside the garment, often made of different fabric than the main garment fabric. Lining is often used when you need a warmer garment or if you want to make a fabric stiffer, for example. It also cconceals seam allowances and construction details, and allows a garment to slip on and off easily.
A tape measure or measuring tape is a flexible ruler used to measure size and distance. It is great for measuring things that are not necessarily flat or straight, but curved like for example an armhole.
A neckline is an opening on the bodice of a garment. The hole is there so you can pull the garment over your head. The neckline can vary in size and shape. Rounded necklines, key hole necklines, squared necklines or V-shaped necklines are most common. You can also attach a collar to the neckline.
Needlework is another term for the handicraft of decorative sewing. Textile arts and anything that uses a needle for construction can be called needlework.
Patterns are paper template used when cutting fabric to make garments. A pattern indicates the shape of the garment pieces and includes markings needed in aligning them. You can make your own patterns or you can buy them from craft stores.
A pleat is one or several folds formed by doubling the fabric back upon itself and securing it by sewing it in place. There are many types and various sizes of pleats. Pressed pleats are ironed or otherwise heat-set into a sharp. Unpressed pleats will fall into soft rounded folds. In Viking age garments you can see pleats in the Køstrup apron dress or the Rus baggy pants for example.
The raw edge, or the cut edge, is where your fabric is cut. There can be several raw edges on your fabric, depending on how it is cut. As soon as you cut away the selvage, there will be a raw edge. If you bought a piece of fabric from a fabric store, there are usually two raw edges, one on each side of the fabric length wise. The raw edges easily unravels if the fabric is medium to lightly woven. It is therefore important to roll or fold and sew the edges before the garments is worn.
Right side of the fabric
The right side of the fabric is meant to be visible on the outside of the garment. Sometimes the wrong and the right side are hard to tell apart because they look similar. Sometimes there are not right or wrong side of the fabric. Confusing, I know.
Running stitches is one of the basic stitches in hand-sewing and embroidery. The stitch is made by passing the needle up and down through the fabric at a regular distance. These stitch is perfect for basting a seam.
A seam is what joins two or more layers of fabric or any other materials together. A seam consists of many stitches. So, a line of stitches becomes a seam. The seam usually follows the raw edge, but if you have to make changes to the garment – if it is too big and you need to make it a bit tighter some places – it is of course the seam that changes because the seam is what determines the shape of the garment.
The seam allowance is the area between the raw edge and the stitching line on two (or more) pieces of material being sewn together, or simply the folded part of one piece of fabric, to prevent it from fraying. The seam allowance can vary in width, from just a few millimetres to several centimetres, depending on how skilled you are.
Why do we need a seam allowance? Well, it is important to add a seam allowance to your measurements because those extra milimetres or centimentres will help you sew together your garment and fold down the seams without compromising on the size of your garment. You want to fold or roll down the raw edges so the fabric don’t fray and ruin your garment.
Most of the measurements you take to make a garment will include one or two seams, and what you want is to add a centimetre or two per seam. For example, lengthwise, on the front and back pieces of a garment, there will usually be two seams – one at the shoulder and one at the bottom. The length of your sleeve will also usually have two seams – one at the shoulder and one at the wrist. The measurement around your chest will include two seams – one at each side of your chest. Other measurements will only include one seam, like for example the circumference of your overarm, elbow or wrist on a dress or tunic, or the circumference of your leg if your making pants or hoser.
Some measurements don’t need seam allowance at all. For example the length between your shoulder and elbow, don’t need seam allowance because it is just to make out the placement of another measurement. I know this is a bit confusing in the beginning – I’ve been there myself. Eventually this is something you will learn to see yourself.
If you are new to sewing you can start by adding 4 cm to each measurement with two seams – this will give you 2 cm to fold down per seam. If you are familiar with sewing, you can add less. Whether you add 4 or 1 cm, it is important to be consistent and use the same amount of centimetres as your seam allowance throughout your project.
It is very easy to forget about the seam allowance, especially if the sewing is new to you. What I usually do is I take all the measurements at once, write them down and add seam allowance to the paper as I am taking the measurements. This makes it easier to remember to the add seam allowance while adding your measurements to the fabric.
Picture 1: Raw edge and the stitching line.
Picture 2: Raw edge and the stitching line and marks where to fold.
Picture 3: Fold one of the seam allowances so that the raw edge meets the stitching line.
Picture 4: Fold it again, over itself so that the raw edge is inside the fold. Sew it down.
In clothing construction, seams are identified by their position in the finished garment. A center front seam runs vertically down the front of a garment. A center back seam or back seam runs vertically down the center-back of a garment. It can be used to create anatomical shaping to the back portion of a garment particularly through the waist area and hips.
A side seam runs vertically down the side of a garment, from the armscye to the waist. It can also be curved a bit if the garment is supposed to be tight.
A shoulder seam runs from the neckline to the armscye, usually at the highest point of the shoulder. The shoulder seam meets the sleeve seam which runs along the armhole. Lengthwise on the sleeve you also will have a seam, usually under the arm, the underarm seam.
A seam ripper is a handy tool that may be used to undo a seam or stitches. If you have basted a seam, a seam ripper is very useful to undo the basting.
Selvage or selvedge
The selvage is the narrow, firmly woven, self-finished edges edge going along both lengthwise edges on a fabric. Selvages can look different on different fabrics, but the purpose is the same. The selvages keeps the fabric from unraveling. Once you cut off the selvage, you fabric can start to fray and unravel. Historically, garments were frequently constructed of full loom-widths of fabric joined selvage-to-selvage to avoid waste.
Serk /under dress (garment)
A serk is a garment worn underneath outer garments which are usually made of more valuable fabrics. An under garment, like for example a dress or a shirt, was meant to protect and to keep outer garments from being soiled or damaged by body odor and stains. It could also serve to lessen the friction of outerwear against the skin, to shape the body, and to provide concealment or support for parts of it. In cold weather, long underwear is sometimes worn to provide additional warmth.
The sleeve is the part of the garment that wholly or partly covers a person’s arm. The sleeves can be full-length or shorter. There are many ways to make a sleeve. Most common are the S-shaped sleeves and simpler versions like squares.
Stitches are the fundamental elements of sewing, and they can be done by hand or machine. A stitch is a single turn or loop of the thread or yarn in sewing, knitting, and embroidery. The thread you sew into the fabric when sewing, the row of stitches, is called a seam. The most common stitches are the running stitch and the backstitch.
The stitching line is the line where the fabric pieces will be stitched together, so where you will be putting your seam. If you use patterns and matching up the pieces of a pattern or making adjustments to you pattern, it is essential to match or adjust the stitching line, not the cutting edge. The stitching line is usually 0.5 to 1.5 cm from the cut edge. Between the stitching line and the raw edge is the seam allowance.
Stitch length is basically how long each stitch is sewn by using a sewing machine or hand stitching. Shorter stitch length means more stitches and a stronger seam, longer stitches means less stitches, but also a weaker seam. If the stitches gets very long and just barley holds the pieces together, this is called basting.
A thimble is a protective cap worn on the finger or thumb. It can be made of metal or leather for example.
Top stitch or top-stitching is a sewing technique where the line of stitching is meant to be seen from the outside of the garment, either decorative or functional. Top-stitching is most often used on the edges of a garment, such as necklines and hems, where it helps the facing to stay in place. It can also be used to attach details to for example pockets or tabs on zippers, especially on bags.
To trim the fabric in sewing means to reducing a seam allowance to prevent bulkiness. Grading of the seam allowance is used in a closed seam to reduce the amount of fabric created by the layered seam allowances. By trimming, grading and pressing in the right places your seams will look smooth and well-made. It is also worth mentioning that not all seams need trimming. It really depends on the seam position in the garment and of course the type of fabric. Side seams, centre back seams and sleeve seams are exemples of seam which often don’t need trimming. A curved underarm or crotch seam can with advantage be trimmed to help make these garments more comfortable to wear.
A trim can also be decorations such as ribbons, decorative bands or ruffles which you attach to your garment.
A tunic is a garment for the upper body, usually simple in style. Lengthwise, a tunic can go from the shoulders and to somewhere between the hips and the knees. The name derives from the Latin word tunica, the basic garment worn by both men and women in Ancient Rome, which in turn was based on earlier Greek garments.
An under garment, like for example a dress or a shirt, was meant to protect and to keep outer garments from being soiled or damaged by body odor and stains. It could also serve to lessen the friction of outerwear against the skin, to shape the body, and to provide concealment or support for parts of it. In cold weather, long underwear is sometimes worn to provide additional warmth.
Unraveling or fraying
All the raw edges of a fabric can easily unravel or fray if it is not treated right. Unraveling means that the single threads in the weft and the warp can start to loosen and separates. Sewing down or rolling the seam allowance will keep your fabric from fraying or unraveling.
The vertical threads in woven fabric, running parallel to the selvage.
The horizontal threads in a woven fabric, running parallel to the raw edge.
The width of a piece of fabric is measured along its smaller dimension or its crosswise grain, from selvage to selvage. So, the dimension of the weft is what decides the width of the finished fabric.
Woven fabrics are fabrics made by weaving warp and weft threads perpendicular to each other. Different methods of weaving are used to achieve different types of woven fabrics. Some fabrics are woven by hand and some are woven my machines. Different types of patterns can be different variations of twill (1/2, 1/3, diamond twill, etc), plain weave or tabby weave (1/1), and so on.
Wrong side of the fabric
The wrong side or the back side of a fabric is the reverse side of fabric. This side is not meant to be visible when you’re finished with the garment. In some cases, the wrong side can be used as the right side, and sometimes the two are hard to tell apart because they look similar. Sometimes there are no wrong or right side to the fabric. Confusing, I know.
I hope this small dictionary will be helpful for you now and in the future. Let me know if you want me to add a word or term, or if I am totally off and are explaining something wrongly.