Sunday, February 14, 2010 any other name

Writing instructions is one of the hardest things I do. Trying to communicate processes is difficult enough, but for an international audience with various types of sewing education, the language I use is not necessarily understood by all readers. I was once asked why I'd bother to explain "backtack" in an advanced pattern.... the simple reason being that some people call it "backstitch".

And of course, I'm one of those old-fashioned types who use the term "backstitch" for the process that most know as "understitch" (I've also heard it called "pinstitch" and "edgestitch on the facing").

My sewing terminology comes from a combination of my childhood of 1960's Enid Gildchrist magazines, my tutors at RMIT and from working (in the fashion and craft industries) in Australia and a few other countries - with people from all over the world. I've found that although we all use different terminology, we speak the same language when we explain the processes.

So this is what I call edgestitch... which is like backstitching (or understitching or pinstitching...) but on the outside of the garment or bag. Mostly I just call it "topstitching".

The predominant language of sewing in the published world seems to be American....I guess it's a population issue. I've noticed that Australians - who previously would have used Bristish terminology - are now using American terminology. It's a sewing-language I somehow bypassed in my sewing education, but I'm catching up through blog-world and my expanding sewing reference library.

In dressmaking books, I struggle to find a reference to "staystitching" as anything other than holding the shape of a curve on a single layer of fabric. When I speak to fashion-industry friends we all understand it as stitching that holds things in place before a seam is sewn - whether that be a curve on a single layer of fabric or straps and button loops in place. Anytime the stitch length isn't altered, something is held in place and the stitches stay in.... that's staystitch. That is, until you try to find it in a book.
I guess because in mass-production, there's rarely time to tack (or "baste".... a term that always brings turkeys to mind!) anything - so we tend to staystitch rather than mess about with stitch lengths or unpicking. In my language, tacking (or basting) means that the stitches are temporary.

I also use industry-style nicks as registration marks to bring the cut pieces of the garment together. Nicks can be cut accurately through layers and layers of fabric..... and they are marked with either a slit (like a long "U") or a "T" shape symbol. I've never understood those silly triangle notch marks on commercial patterns. (Why give yourself such a large margin for error when you can be accurate to the millimetre?). But give me a commercial pattern with silly triangles and I'll know what they mean (same thing as nicks, only more difficult to cut!).

...which brings up the whole issue of metric versus imperial. I was brought up in the metric age and I've never been a patch-working girl (who use inches even in countries with metric as the standard). I draft my patterns (in CAD) to be accurate to within two decimal places of a millimetre... but please don't ask me what that is in inches. In recent years, I've had to change my pattern seam allowances to be easily converted to half and quarter-inch (so that the imperial-measurements people can understand them). I'm afraid that's as far as my understanding of fractions of inches go!

There are also conventions and techniques that change with age, geography or simply the school you went to - darts or seams presed to the front, back or open, the way seams are clipped.... that sort of thing. This language we speak has many dialects!

I'm trying to compile a list of terminology here - trying to cover all "dialects". I'm interested to hear if you've heard any that I've missed - for the processes above, below or others not mentioned.

TOILE (Australia, UK and elsewhere) = MUSLIN (USA)
A test-garment, sewn in calico or other cheap fabric.

Duckbill Scissors = Applique Scissors

(Of hems) Fine Double-Turned = Fine Double Neatened = Pinstitched (yep - there it is again, meaning something completely different!) = Rolled
A super-fine hem that is turned twice and machine stitched - usually on a sheer fabric or handkerchief edge.

Block (Australia, UK and elsewhere)= Sloper (USA)
The basic garment shape from which patterns are drafted.

(Of seams - to stop raw edges from fraying) Trimming = Finishing = Neatening

Overlocker (Australia, UK and elsewhere) = Serger (USA)

What sewing language to you speak? What's your experience of the varied dialects...?


Gina said...

Aghhhh! What a terrifying muddle. Thanks for helping me realise that there is indeed inconsistency in the sewing language out there and that it's not just all in my head.

Glad to have your educated brain out there navigating the tricky waters of instruction-writing...

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

I think I need a good lie down after reading this!

My sewing vocabulary comes from what my mother uses (how I learnt to sew) and then more recently from the internet. I still have to check a fair bit of it and that's one of the reasons I'm wanting to start to attend some formal sewing classes.

I've also been looking at some books online that are purely sewing speak references.

Sorry, I couldn't be much help there. Best of luck with the writing!

gina said...

Well staystitching is used to prevent the fabric from stretching. Usually done like on the neck edge, or somewhere comparable, where the fabric is cut off grain thus giving it the tendency to want to stretch.

Vireya said...

Not all patch-workers use imperial measurements - they don't in Europe, for example. And I don't either. No way I want to go back to inches, which Australia sensibly threw out while I was at school.

A friend teaches a beginners' patchwork class, and I tried to persuade her to start them off using metric measurements, but I wasn't successful. But why should people learn a whole new measurement system to engage in a craft activity, when it is so unnecessary?

Sorry, rant over.

Don't forget differences in fabric names. What we call calico is called muslin in the US, which is why they use that word for their test garments.

Posie Patchwork said...

You are so patient!! I am an untrained self taught seamstress but if i don't know a term, i am cluey enough to google it!! I am not helpless or lost, but i just was never trained in sewing & started as a hobby while pregnant in 1998. I won't bother googling any more, just come straight to your blog, it's incredibly informative!! Love Posie

Kaja said...

This is the worst part of blogging in a language that you've not learned from home. All my knowledge comes from the Sweidsh school English, and sadly they don't teach you necessary words as "seam allowance" and "gathering" there. (perhaps they do in other countries, yes?)

So. I use my poor english knowledge, and borrow a few words here and an expression there, regardless of it being American, Brittish or Aussie English. Fortunately it still seems as if people understand me.

This blog post actually helped me. Even if you write perfect BE, there will still be yankees that don't understand you. So, in my way own democratic way of writing everyone will understand at least something. Hmmm. Perhaps not those words that I have made my own translation into English, the fourth verison of English, more known as Swenglish...

Louise said...

OMG! I know exactly what you mean! My sewing knowledge which is very basic and trying to improve all the time, comes from:
1) being taught by my mother who was taught at school in UK in the 50s
2) my not very comprehensive sewing eduation in school in the UK
3) American blogs
4) UK blogs
5) Australian blogs
6) sewing books e.g. Cal Patch
7) Winging it!

I frequently come across terms that I have to google to try to understand what they are and do I know them in another term. In fact this morning I was saying to OH that I should get a sewing encylodpedia to look up just so I understand the basics!

I'm tracking my knowledge journey at but at the very beginning of it!

Mandy said...

I was taught how to sew by my Mum and Great Aunt, and any terminology you use I get!! But since getting back into sewing in recent years I've had to have a little thesaurus in my brain to keep up!! I hate using inches etc but they are being used more and more. So thanks heaps for speaking my lingo!! Now to actually getting off my butt (I mean backside!!) and make that bag :-).

Luisa @ Dance in my garden said...

Thanks for an interesting and informative post, who knew that terminology could be so fraught with danger!?
I have this trouble with cooking measurements - will someone please tell me what a stick of butter is in grams? (lol)

CurlyPops said...

I think my vocab is a mix of things I've learned from American tv shows on Foxtel, a range of books, a range of blogs, and classes.
I use a mix of metric and imperial measurements as when I originally bought all of my cutting mats and rulers, there were no metric ones available, but if I'm using a measuring tape, I use metric..... no wonder I'm confused!

Fiona and Andy said...

It can be really confusing - I'm a Brit living in Canada at the moment and I've had a hard time understanding some commercial patterns I've bought over here. Add to that the fact that this country uses the metric system but panders to the US market ... therefore my new rotary cutting mat is marked in imperial (aghh!) and several of my fabric suppliers only work in yards. I was born in an age where, even in old-fashioned Britain, imperial measures were a thing of the past (except when we're talking distances - no, I don't know why we clung to miles either!).

However advanced the pattern it's always good to have the terminology explained - as you so ably illustrate, what I understand by backstitch is probably different to what you mean.

My sewing language comes from my mother and therefore what you describe as finishing / trimming or neatening a seam, I refer to as pinking!! And we use pinking shears to do this. I can't imagine why ..., but it will always be pinking to me!!

Kathy P said...

I use a wonderfully easy program called "convert" to convert your metric instructions to fractions. It's a free download from:

Here in the US, Calico is a small, floral print cotton that our grandmothers used for quilts and kids dresses. Your calico = our muslin. And Toile fabric is a single color scenery print on a light background, or visa versa.

Isn't language interesting!

sewcraftyfox said...

I feel your pain!!! I work on craft books with mainly UK authors, but the books sell worldwide. This means, as an editor, I must ensure that no matter which 'sewing language' my readers' speak, they can complete the projects and get the most from the book. My rule of thumb re catering for mixed abilities is that I'd rather over explain something. Better to irritate an experienced crafter than completely alienate and frustrate a beginner (and potentially soon-to-be-experienced crafter!).
BTW totally agree with you about notches v. nicks - I was cutting awkward notches until I realised all it needed was one snip - doh!
Jen x

mandysheilat said...

I think that you are doing marvellously!! Please don't worry too much - who was it that said "you can't please ALL of the people ALL of the time!" As someone who sews and crafts; and new to the 'blogging world' ( I don't have my own blog yet - need to make more things for it to be even slightly interesting!)I have really enjoyed reading and learning from the wonderful ladies who take their precious time to make tutorials - and don't forget 'a picture speaks a thousand words' and often 'explain' anything the written/spoken word cannot.

A friend of mine found a free pattern on Rowena's blog Rostitchery for me and I was hooked and now follow over 80 blogs! I am going thru a very messy divorce and I can honestly say that reading a few blogs each day has SAVED MY LIFE!

So what if we sometimes use different words - language changes all the time. As some born and living in England and working in a school - its getting harder and harder to teach children to spell and understand why some letters are silent. I say its because Britain has been invaded so many times we now use words that originate from France, Germany and Italian etc. Plus the spellchecker on computers is often written in American, not forgetting the effect of the media and catchy names for shops/businesses e.g. Hair Cutz!

I have to laugh when reading a sewing magazine like Sew Hip that uses the term 'sewers' when referring to people who sew - the old English terms would be seamstress or needle woman; a tailor for a man or even a machinist. A SEWER is what we in England we call the large underground pipes where all the erm 'stuff' from the toilet is flushed. LOL

So once again, can I just say WELL DONE and THANK YOU!!

Best Wishes'

A Peppermint Penguin said...

One of the reasons I so enjoyed discovering all the Australian crafty blogs is the similarity of language to the UK. I watch a lot of US tv programmes (see? not 'shows'!), read lots of US based blogs and have a shedload of US books and magazines on sewing. That means I can usually understand what is meant in a given instruction. BUT, I went to dressmaking classes in the UK when I started to sew, so learned a lot of terms there.

My maths at school was in metric, but my mum taught me to cook at home in imperial. I was quite happy buying 1 metre of 60inch wide fabric!

I learned pattern drafting in metric, so I bought a double sided cutting mat metric/imperial and metric rulers first. Then when I started patchwork I discovered Japanese books - all in metric - and have only latterly tried sewing things with 1/4inch allowance!

Biggest translation problems for me was in attending college - I was looked down on for using 'dressmaking terms, ew'. So had to learn all the lingo for industrial methods. Snipping notches now seems obvious! Double jetted pockets anyone? And to add to the Australian connection, my tailoring tutor worked at Daks over there as young man!

Daks, breeks, strides, slacks, trousers, pants.

To complicate matters with knitting... I taught my friend to knit, who is French, while she was still a beginner she brought her mother to visit me. Her mother has limited english, but is a very good knitter. Trouble was my friend spoke fluent english and french, but she couldn't speak knitting! She does now and we have much fun comparing the root of the terms - some concepts are the same and some are way off.

Writing instructions is VERY difficult, I think you are doing a pretty good job of it so far!


our shabby cottage said...

Mmmm, I think I must be a bit multicultural here Nikki! I use a lot of both. Some of these terms I have not heard of before.
I refer to it as topstitching too.
I have heard of stay stitch, this is in a lot of US dress making patterns I have.
I think your list may end up being HUGE!

Caitie said...

Well, I have learnt something today! I now know what a serger is - I've been seeing the term and could only guess that it was on overlocker!
I've been sewing since I was in primary school, and have always cut out those pesky notches! Duh - I can just cut nicks and be even more accurate! What a timesaving tip for me!
Love reading your blog!

Handmade said...

Selvedge / Selvage

I say REVERSE instead of backtack etc. I guess from teaching kids - cause that's the name of the button!

ambette said...

God, how confusing!

Well, luckily when I started sewing from your patterns I didn't know ANY sewing terms. I was a blank slate and now I've just adopted all your terms. I'll be stuffed if I ever have to sew from anyone else's patterns.

I'm one of these people who is really glad that all your patterns explain everything (even the really obvious stuff). I guess you can't over-estimate your audience's knowledge! :)

Eve said...

I'm with Ambette. Other than in high school, my first real experience of reading sewing patterns and instructions (and sewing for that matter) was with your 'large satchel and tote' pattern. The instructions were so good that it didn't matter that I basically didn't know any sewing terms, and I ended up with a wonderful bag and a very warm fuzzy feeling of success.

I've bought other patterns since, expecting them to be at your standard, and have been so baffled by unexplained terms and assumptions of my understanding that they have unfortunately remained unmade.

One day I'm sure I'll become experienced enough to interpret those patterns, but for now I am very happy making great bags from your fantastic instructions!

I wish I could find more basic sewing books that don't assume I'm making a dress, or working in inches (I use a conversion app on my iPod to help me)... Thank goodness for the internet and bloggers - I've learnt a lot from there...

Fer said...

Oh this is certainly a Pandora's Box you've opened here!

My Mum taught me to sew, and I started using commercial dressmaking patterns from about 11 years of age. Since delving into the world of Blog and discovering so many differences ('serger' stumped me for a while!) it made me wonder - most dressmaking patterns are made in America, but are they changed to suit the country they'll be sold in? Sizings are different for a start - a USA 4 is something like a 8 or 10 here....

Kaci Lusk said...

Hi Nikki, Kaci from the small American town of Borger, Texas here! I grew up with two grandmothers who sew, an aunt who sews, and an uplosterer for a father (he recovers furniture and car seats and boats and stuff on a giant commercial sewing machine). None of them taught me to sew. I spend years at the work tables of all three, silently observing their work. Then, when I was pregnant with my first child, my mother-in-law sent a blanket and I wanted the entire nursery to go with it. I went a bought an $80 sewing machine and started teaching myself. Ten years later. I still love to sew and am still having trouble figuring out the verbage on patterns. Slevages, staystitching, basting (its not a Thanksgiving turkey, its a dress!) just some of the terms I have had to google...and sometimes the answers are impossible to find. Thank you for your blog.

I was wondering if you or any of your readers has any tips on hemming a dress that you made yourself if you don't have anyone to help you. I have a rather amble behind and don't want the dress to be shorter in the back than the front, but I need to get it hemmed and don't really have anyone to help me. Any ideas would be appreciated.

SaharaSky said...

Confusing!!! I've never heard the words pinstitch or staystitch before. I backstitch, baste, topstitch, roll my hems and use a serger. Canada is supposed to be metric but a lot of our patterns and information come from the US so there's a lot of flip flop with imperial (drives me batty).

Sally said...

What a great post. I'm afraid I can't help you at all ... my terminology is usually limited to "sew the thingamagies together"!

Basting is one of my favourite parts of the sewing process though - there is something really earthy about it for me.

ruby-jo said...

I did fashion at TAFE in WA so maybe there is regional differences too.

What you call backstitch I call edgestitch. When I read backstitch I think back tack. Edgestitching is done on facings to help them turn under.

Topstitching is done on the outside.

I only ever work in decimal. No imperial measurements here.

I use industrial style nicks to mark my notches as well.

Louise said...

Boy it sure is fraught this pattern writing business. I know what stay stitching is even if I haven't done it for a while! And I LOVE my trusty tape measure at work while I switch constantly back between imperial and metric trying to work out how much fabric people need! Good Luck!

Tui said...

That's what I love about your patterns, Nikki. You put so much thought into them.
I initially hopped on to mention calico (Aus) = muslin (US) because it's really confused me in the past but it's been covered. Now I want to know what the US name is for our muslin (used for straining jellies and as soft baby towels).

Kathleen C. said...

Thanks very much for this post with your clear definitions. Some terms came back to me from years ago, and some are new.
Kathleen C.

Lynne said...

What an interesting post. I don't thnk I had considered the diversity in language when it comes to sewing. Maybe it's because I don't follow patterns. It's a shame that Australians are moving over to the American way though. I do have to work through a crochet pattern to see which version they are using as the stitches have the same name but are different.