Skip to content

A Glossary of Sewing Stitches

When I first started sewing clothes, I didn’t have a clue what many of the stitch types in the pattern were. Many patterns, including those advertised as ‘easy’ or ‘beginner’ level don’t really explain what the stitches are, though there are some which do give a glossary of stitch types used in the pattern – plus if you’re lucky there might be suggestions for how to finish your seams, notch your patterns and clip your curves and corners (and descriptions of how to do them). I’ve learned through asking my mother in law, who has been making her own clothes for years, and through googling when I’ve not known what a term means – however, I find sometimes it’s easier to have everything all together, hence I decided to write this glossary.

Sewing patterns
A selection of the sewing patterns I own - each designer has a different way of listing the techniques and stitches used in the pattern

As I mentioned in my post about what I made when I (re-)learned how to sew a couple of years ago, my first two pieces of clothing were both retro patterns from ‘the big four’ pattern companies (Vogue, Simplicity, Butterick and McCall’s are the big four, though they’re all now owned by the same parent company). There was a lot of gathering in my Vogue pattern for my wedding dress, so much so that we altered the front bodice pattern piece to be smaller and to pleat it rather than gather it – and I’ve heard since that the big four use ease stitching and gathering quite a bit in their patterns (I only own three patterns by the big four, so I can’t say for definite if this is true or not). Any pattern company who isn’t part of the big four is considered an ‘indie’ company, since they’re independently owned and run – some indie patterns even come with a glossary of the stitches they use, though not all do (my Tea House Top and Dress pattern by Sew House Seven has one of the best glossaries in a pattern I’ve come across yet).

Let’s start at the most basic ones and work our way along those you may come across. It’s worth saying this glossary isn’t exhaustive and there may be a few I miss, but hopefully they’re few and far between.

  • Baste – Baste stitching is effectively a temporary stitch which can be done by hand or by machine. It’s a longer straight stitch (~3-4mm) which holds your seams together, usually while you complete another, more complicated stitch or if you’re joining multiple pieces together (such as a crotch seam). This is done inside your seam allowance – if the seam allowance is 15mm, you should try to do your baste stitching at 10mm or less unless the pattern says otherwise.
  • Tack – Tack stitches are short runs of straight stitching which are used to hold something in place. For example, where a pattern has wide box sleeves with the edges rolled over, you’d use a tack stitch at the top and bottom of the sleeve to hold the edges in place. You would usually run the tack forward and back through the machine a couple of times to ensure the tack stays in place.
  • Backstitch – This is a straight stitch which is made by holding the reverse lever on your sewing machine. Some patterns specifically tell you to backstitch at the start and end of a seam, though others don’t. If the pattern just tells you to sew the seam together without saying whether you should backstitch it or not, definitely backstitch at the beginning and end.
A tack stitch in a box sleeve
This shop bought t-shirt I own has tacks in the sides of the sleeve as well as the top and bottom - this really helps it to hold its shape when being washed and worn
  • Easestitch – Easing is used to adjust a longer seam edge to a shorter seam edge, particularly when adding sleeves to a garment – though it can also be used to ensure the neckline sits properly in clothes with a v-neck. For this you’d want a longer stitch length (~3-3.5mm) and to make sure you have long tails of thread at either end. Don’t ever backstitch your easestitches, as you need to carefully pull the thread tails to make the seam edge shorter and this won’t work if they’ve been backstitched. Make sure to do your easestitching inside your seam allowance, as you don’t really want this showing in your finished project.
  • Gathering – Similar to easestitching, gathering requires longer stitch lengths and long thread tails, however when you’re gathering you’re moving quite a bit more fabric along the thread than you do with easestitching. Gathering is supposed to look as though you’ve collected the fabric together, while easestitching isn’t supposed to look this way. It’s typical for patterns connecting skirts to bodices or waistbands to use gathering as this technique gives a skirt a nice shape and lots of movement when you walk, dance or otherwise move your body (though not every skirt or dress pattern uses gathering).
  • Staystitch – This stitch is used particularly around curved areas and where you might need to clip close inside the seam allowance, as it helps to keep the fabric from stretching and distorting. It’s a straight stitch with a regular length (~2.5-3mm) and is done inside your seam allowance, usually before you attach a pattern piece to another.
  • Crackstitch – Stitching directly onto a seam so that the stitch is almost invisible is called crackstitching. This is also know as ‘stitch in the ditch’ as you’re following and stitching directly into the crease of the seam.
  • Understitch – Whenever you need to attach a lining or a facing to a seam, it’s likely you’ll see that it needs understitching. Here you sew your lining or facing to the seam allowance of your garment in order to keep the lining sitting in place – as you’re stitching to the seam allowance rather than the main piece of your fabric, there’s no stitching visible on the right side of your clothing.
  • Edgestitch – Edgestitching is used for both decorative and reinforcement purposes. As the name suggests, you sew the right side of the fabric very close to the seam (around 2-3mm away from the seam), catching the seam allowance. This helps to keep seams sitting in the right place and can be made decorative by using a contrasting stitch colour.
  • Topstitch – Like edgestitching, topstitching is done on the right side of your fabric and can be both decorative and reinforcing. Topstitching isn’t done as closely to the seam as edgestitching is; for topstitching you want to be around 6-10mm away from the seam. This helps the seam to lay flat, as you’re catching the whole of your seam allowance rather than just a small amount of it.
Edgestitch and topstitch detail in a linen blouse
This shop bought sleeveless linen blouse I own perfectly shows edgestitching and topstitching - it's neatly edgestitched around the collar while it's been topstitched with a twin needle around the arm holes
  • Whipstich – whipstitches are commonly used with zippers, either to help keep the tape together while stitching or to create a new stopper at the top or bottom of a zip. Simply push your needle from wrong side to right on one side of the zipper tape, pass the thread over the zip and go back down through the other side of the zipper tape, passing the thread under the zip to repeat the process. You’ll do this several times and it looks a bit like a bar when done enough times. Whipstitches can be done by hand, or you can use a machine to do them – if you have a four step buttonhole process, you can use the bartack stitch from making buttonholes (this is usually labelled ‘2/4’ on your pattern selector, but check out my guide on making buttonholes if you aren’t sure). Alternatively, you can use your zigzig stitch – set your stitch length to 0 and adjust your stitch width until you’re happy with it.
  • Slipstitch – this is a hand stitch and is used to finish facings, waistbands, collars and other areas where you want the seam allowance to be encased without stitches showing on the right side of the fabric. It’s much easier to show you how to slipstitch than it is to describe, so check out the post embedded below from Dragonfly Fabrics on Instagram showing you how it’s done. They did a series of hand stitching tutorials on Instagram similar to this one and they’re worth checking out – particularly if you’re interested in hand sewing clothes together.

And there we are – hopefully you find this glossary useful and it helps you to understand better what you’re being directed to do when reading sewing patterns.