A backstitch, or backtack, is where you reverse the sewing machine for a few stitches and sew back over an existing line of stitches. Backstitching prevents the seam from unraveling and should be done at the start and end of most seams. Backstitching can be preformed with a knob, button, or lever, depending on the type of sewing machine you have. For specific backstitching info for your sewing machine, check your manual.
The balance wheel, or hand wheel, is the round wheel located at the upper right of the sewing machine. The balance wheel manually advances the sewing machine. The balance wheel should only be turned in the direction that advances the sewing machine—never in the opposite direction. Turning the balance wheel in the opposite direction could ruin the tension on your machine or tangle the thread. The balance wheel is most often used to sink the needle before you start a seam, or to raise the needle once you have finished a seam.
A bar tack is a set of wide stitches performed several times directly on top of one another for reinforcement and stability. Bar tacks are often used as the top and bottom of buttonholes, the end of a fly, or at pocket corners.
Bias tape is a thin length of fabric that has been folded on itself twice to create a slot for finishing fabrics or seams. Bias tape can be purchased in various widths for encasing different seam allowances. Purchased bias tape often comes wound on a cardboard card, and is available in many colors and materials. Bias tape can also be handmade for specialty projects.
A bobbin is a small spool of thread that feeds the thread for the backside of the stitch. A sewing machine cannot sew without a bobbin. For information on inserting a bobbin see our guide. Bobbins come in different styles, so check your sewing machine manual for information on your specific bobbin.
A bobbin case holds your sewing machine's bobbin into place and guides the bobbin thread to the appropriate position for the sewing machine. Pictured here is a removable bobbin case; however, not all bobbin cases can be removed from sewing machines. The most common type of non-removable bobbin cases are for drop-in bobbins. Bobbin cases are specific to each sewing machine. For details and information on your bobbin case, refer to your sewing machine manual.
A buttonhole foot is a special presser foot for making buttonholes on your sewing machine. Buttonhole feet can vary in appearance, so refer to your sewing machine manual for specific information on your buttonhole foot. Buttonhole feet often require adjustment of the needle position to prevent collision of the needle with the foot, so be sure to read your sewing machine manual for instructions on use.
Unlike a measuring tape from the hardware store, measuring tapes for sewing are not stiff. The flexibility of a sewing measuring tape allows you to measure fabric with curves or slack accurately. Simply follow the edge of your fabric with your measuring tape. Most measuring tapes have standard units on one side and metric on the other. Measuring tapes are inexpensive and readily available at sewing or craft stores.
The pedal of a sewing machine does exactly what the pedal of the car does: control acceleration. To start sewing, slowly press on the pedal with your foot. The harder you press, the faster it goes.
Pins are a seamstress' (or seamster's) best friend. Sewing pins have a head on one end and a sharp point on the other. Pinning fabric together before sewing holds it into place as you sew. When pinning fabric together, think about how the fabric will sit in the machine and position the pin heads perpendicular to the direction the fabric will feed so you can easily remove them as you sew.
A presser foot is a sewing machine attachment that provides downward pressure, stabilizing the fabric as it is fed through the sewing machine. There are many types of presser feet; each has a specialty purpose. For information on changing a presser foot, check out our guide. It is important to lower the presser foot before starting to sew, so that the tension disks are engaged and the fabric feeds through correctly.
Putting fabric right sides together means placing the faces (or sides with the print or the side you would like to see when the project is finished) together, leaving the back sides of the fabrics showing on both sides.
A seam is a line of stitches that joins two or more pieces of fabric. There are many types of seams, and even more types of finishes for seams. If you are just getting started, check out our guides for straight and curved seams.
A seam allowance is the distance from a seam (or line of stitches) to the raw edge of the fabric. Seam allowances vary from an eighth of an inch to a couple of inches. Seam allowances in garments allow for tailoring and adjustments to patterns. Most of the time, you will want at least a quarter-inch seam allowance to prevent the stitches from unraveling the fabric or going over the edge. If you are using a commercial pattern, the seam allowance will be stated in the instructions.
A seam gauge is a small ruler with a sliding flange (marker). A seam gauge is often used as a guide for marking a seam allowance. To use a seam gauge, set the flange at the desired seam allowance. As pin the fabric, use your seam gauge to make sure that the turned edge is the correct length. Seam gauges are inexpensive and readily available at sewing and craft stores.
A seam ripper is a tool used from removing stitches. It consists of a handle with a forked head. On one side of the forked head there is a blade, on the other side there is often a cap. In the crux of the fork is a sharp edge used for cutting the threads. To use, slide the blade under the thread, move the seam ripper forward and position the thread in the sharp crux of the fork. Then, push forward until the seam ripper cuts the fabric. Seam rippers are inexpensive and readily available at craft and sewing stores. For full instructions on ripping a seam, see our guide.
The take-up lever is a part of the thread system of the sewing machine located directly above the presser foot. The take up lever lifts the thread back up out of the cloth after a stitch has been made. The take up lever is also a handy gauge for what position your needle is in.
A thimble is a small hard pitted cup worn on the finger. Thimbles protect the sewer from routinely stabbing their fingers while also providing the needed leverage to push a needle through two pieces of fabric.
Thread is what makes all sewing possible. Thread is available in every color and can be made of different fibers. There is often great debate among sewers as to what the best type of thread to use is. As you experiment with thread, you will come to find a favorite. To make seams less visible, try and match the color of your thread with the color of the fabric you will be sewing on.
Topstitching is regular straight stitches sewn near a seam. Topstitching is not done to join two pieces of fabric, but rather to hold fabric near a seam in place. Topstitching is usually done on edges and hems and can be decorative.
A zigzag stitch is a wide stitch that goes back and forth creating a zigzag pattern. Zigzag stitches are often used for sewing stretchy fabrics or, when very tightly spaced, sewing buttonholes. When sewing a zigzag stitch, it is important to select a presser foot with a wide opening so that the needle does run into the presser foot and break while sewing. For instructions on how to sew a zigzag stitch, check out our guide.
A zipper foot is a special presser foot that allows you to sew very close to the teeth of the zipper. Pictured here is the classic zipper foot, however they vary in appearance by manufacturer. Most zipper feet require you to offset the needle while sewing, as the hole of the presser foot is in a different location than a standard foot. For information on sewing with your specific zipper foot, check your sewing machine manual.