Do You Struggle With Sewing Terminology, Too?

sewing words

Words, huh? Slippery little beasts, don’t you find?

I noticed this on my last blog post when I mistakenly referred to a bodice whilst talking about a pair of culottes. Readers were kind enough not to correct me, but I woke in the middle of the night. Culottes don’t have a bodice, you fool.


I’d been referring to the rise – the distance between the crotch and the waistband. (I think that’s what the rise refers to.) But honestly, I come across this problem a lot. I know what piece of a make I want to refer to … but I just don’t have the words. Oh, you know. That bit between my boob and my armpit. And if you don’t have the words or the training, how do you Google? I usually refer back to the pattern for the correct terminology, but even so… This stuff is definitely not intuitive, especially when you’re teaching yourself at home.

I remember this from when I started sewing. I felt as though I’d taken a high dive into a whole new language, and there weren’t any dictionaries to hand.

That’s before I even started to ponder UK/US variations or how to pronounce these tongue-twisters!

I appreciate that a lot of the indie pattern companies have worked hard to demystify sewing, but I still sometimes find the language just out of reach.

Like I said. Words, huh? They are a difficult buisness… Any thoughts?

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49 Responses to Do You Struggle With Sewing Terminology, Too?

  1. Caroline says:

    I actually love all the different terminology – as a newbie sewer, as I learn more and more, I feel like a whole new world is opening up for me, that I’m gradually becoming part of. It’s completely addictive!

  2. lauriesannie says:

    Armscye. I’ve even seen it spelled armscythe. I looked it up recently to determine its origins.

  3. Fraggle says:

    I have been lucky I suppose, I learned a lot of the terminology from mum. Some things confused me though, it took me a while to realise that a toile is another name for a muslin for example. What I did struggle with were the acronyms that are used all over sewing blogs…so much so that I wrote a post about it so that if I ever forget I can go and check!

  4. alisonrea says:

    I am alway self-conscious when I try to say sewing terms. I’ve learnt almost everything by reading and I never know if how I pronounce terms in my head are how they are actually pronounced.

  5. Leigh says:

    I still have absolutely no idea how to say armscye. If I have to say it out loud I go for armhole instead. All of the acronyms and names of pattern adjustments threw me when I first started sewing and reading sewing blogs. It took me ages to figure out RTW because I was guessing the R as retail.

    • Erika says:

      I have this with a lot of English words I learn through reading. Honestly I mispronounced the word preface for over 10 years until I heard a native speaker say it out loud.

      As for all bilingual sewers out there: the oliver + s sewing translator at is absolutely genius. Translations are provided by actual sewists and not by literally translating something.

      • Elena says:

        That’s fantastic! I still write my patterns in Dutch because that’s how I learned it, which makes for highly gesticulated conversations when I try to explain it to my friends… because I don’t know what it is all called in English! :-p Until now. πŸ™‚

      • Marita says:

        Thank you for that link. Just what I needed.

      • Leigh says:

        Even as a native English speaker there are still loads of words I get wrong. I read superfluous as super-flu-us for years! English is tricksy!

      • Mertxe says:

        Genius indeed! Thank you!

      • I’ve always struggled with correct pronunciation of words because I learnt to read at a very young age (my mum taught me before the school system did). It’s a common challenge with early readers that they’re reading words long before they’re hearing them, so a lot of kids who learn reading young actually end up with a bit of a blind spot around pronunciation. Fascinating!

    • Jo Laycock says:

      I’m going for arm-sigh and that’s what I’m sticking with, goddammit. πŸ˜‰

  6. Olr says:

    I’ve encountered another sewing terminology related problem. As the majority of the learning resources I use are in English, I struggle with talking about sewing in my mother language (Polish), because I simply have no clue how some things are called! It’s sometimes quite funny, when my notes end up being bilingual… πŸ˜€

    • Fraggle says:

      That’s really fascinating (and amusing ☺️) and has never occurred to me… but it’s so obvious now that you mention it!

    • Josefine says:

      I’ve had this problem too! For example, it took me years to figure out what horse hair canvas was called in Swedish. I had to order it from the UK just because I couldn’t find a translation…

  7. Ewelina says:

    The problem exists in other languages as well which is interesting too. I tried a few Polish patterns some time ago and the fact that I might not actually understand the instructions never even crossed my mind, I’m a native speaker. And guess what – I was utterly clueless on more than one occasion. It was a whole new language where every sentence needed deciphering. It makes you want to ask who on earth is this written for, doesn’t it. Ah well, got there in the end. But it definitely is an interesting phenomenon.

  8. Ros says:

    I’m struggling with trouser fitting at the moment and keep seeing people mention the different crotch curves there are – J, L, U?!
    How do I know what they are and more importantly how on earth do I figure out which one I’ve got?!

    • Elena says:

      I think it just refers to the shape of the curve as compared to the shape of the letter. So a “J” curve will be smooth and an “L” curve will be rather squared, but I’m not sure what a “U” curve would be in this context! As to what your bottom is like, take a pair of trousers that fits you well, lay it flat and examine the curve. πŸ™‚

    • Janet says:

      Trouser fitting, ugh. Beg, borrow or steal a copy of the Pants for Real People book. The photos and styles are dated, but virtually everything you need to know is in there somewhere – including the terminology πŸ™‚ Good luck.

  9. Yvonne Bennett says:

    I live in the USA and am 55 years old. I began sewing at 8, on a treadle machine. About five years ago I discovered the website Pattern Review and I sat for hours and hours per day reading, as I had no clue what much of the things they were discussing meant! Then I discovered blogs and learned even more. I still have no idea what I don’t know!

    • Elena says:

      There are also different systems in pattern drafting that use different terms, even in the same language. So the jargon in the instructions will depend on the system in which the author works. So very confusing!

  10. Gosh I have probably told this story before like the senile old lady I am becoming, but a few years back our shipment of corset findings was stopped by Customs. Sewing notions don’t attract any duty into NZ, but I had to go down to Customs House and explain to the Customs officer who happened to be SA Spanish, exactly what things in the order were. Grommets, aiglets, busks, spiral boning and sprung steel boning, lacing, tips. It was great fun and involved a lot of me waving my arms around.
    As for armscye – which is the prettiest word don’t you think? – I love how it refers to the seam and its wily ways, whereas to me, armhole is more of a finished space in a sleeveless dress. On my planet anyway.
    Lastly, as someone who is mostly self taught in the days when there was no internet, I only knew a few of the technical terms that sewists throw about these days. I just DID the thing, no need for a word for it as there was noone to talk to about it. It’s been interesting acquiring the language in hindsight!

  11. I always heard that ‘armscye’ comes from ‘arm’s eye’ which makes sense phonetically, and visually, as it’s am opening in the garment which can be seen as sort of eye-shaped. It’s been corrupted in use and is often written as ‘armscythe’ which makes no sense, other than confirming what a tin ear most folk have! I first saw it in writing, rather than spoken, and read it with the right pronunciation by chance lol
    I can’t say I ever had any great problem with the vocabulary, I started sewing with Vogue/Style/McCalls patterns, and they usually have a directory at the start so it just sort of soaked in. Indie designers seem to make a big deal of it to my mind! Style Arc have a useful directory with attached tutorials, but there is a clash between their words and more common usages, especially in edge stitching/understitching/topstitching, which has confused me several times!

  12. I think for any chosen profession or hobby there is a different language. I work in IT so don’t even get me started on that acronym jungle. Those with the passion for said hobby will immerse themselves in the language and make the effort like you are to be able to speak to it proficiently. As I sew, I’ve learned the terms because they are right there in front of me and I’m touching them – well not the terms of course, but what they are referring to. Now, if we could just get Microsoft and Apple to realize that armscye, serger, and longarm are NOT being misspelled! Those little nagging spell-correct underlines as I type are seriously annoying!

    • Elena says:

      I always turn off the spellchecker wherever I can… Or add “my” words to the dictionary where I can’t turn it off. It is also not helpful at all when professional jargon is being automatically “corrected” by common usage making no sense at all, and without asking the user or even showing the correction! I once had “motherboard” corrected into “mother bored”. :-p

    • Erika says:

      That is definitely true. I grew up sailing with my parents, and so did my boyfriend with his parents, but whenever we have a new person on board we realize once again how specific our sailing vocabulary is.

    • Or ‘sewist’ in Facebook. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go back and edit out sexist. πŸ˜‰

  13. Gilly says:

    Oh, ho, the old armsyce conundrum – and I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what that was. Call me dim, but why not just call it an armhole – or am I missing something so rudimentary that I’m in danger of being struck off the sewists register?

    • Emily Handler says:

      Someone above made an interesting comment about how the “armhole” can/should mean the hole of the arm – for example on a sleeveless garment – but “armscye” is the seam of the arm. I have no idea if this is correct or not but it makes sense to me πŸ™‚

  14. I’ve always been resistant to using the terms “toile” or “muslin” – I feel self-conscious saying “toile” because I’m never sure I get it right and if I DO it sounds so pretentious coming out of my mouth. “Muslin” sounds more like a fabric choice than a process (which it is) so I’ve created my own which suits me fine πŸ™‚ “Practice Run”. Some terminology you have to use because there are no other words available and I’m at a loss to create my own!

  15. Mertxe says:

    How interesting and inspiring, both Karen’s post and your comments. I learnt all the vocabulary in Catalan and Spanish (we here are bilingual) as grew up learning to sew from my mum and neighbours. They were experts sewists! Most of them had spent some time in their youth in a more or less formal learning period with an official seamstress, often in exchange of free work at their workrooms. I learnt English as an adult, until I became a philologist. When I decided to record my makings in a blog, I decided to write in English to hide from my fellows (people out of the trade would not understnad the selfies, haha..) and also to learn the whole new register of sewing in English. And still learning… Armscye is maybe one of my favs, but what about lining, interlining, facing and interfacing??? πŸ˜‰

  16. LinB says:

    Technical jargon is a tricksy subject — on one hand, it provides a specific language for specific tasks, very useful to those who are in-the-know about those tasks or that industry. Jargon can be a convenient short-hand, to help complete the work.
    On the other hand, jargon can alienate outsiders. Not such a problem, perhaps, in popular sports or hobbies — where it is comparatively easy to look up definitions — but terrible indeed in religion. Using language to determine Us and Them, and then to annihilate Them, has been recorded as a dreadful practice for millennia.

    Take, for example, the Biblical story about the pronunciation of “shibboleth.” (Judges 12:5-6) Pronounce that word wrong, and you’d lose your head, right then and there.

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