With Halloween only a week away, people assume that as a costumer I’ll have a fabulous, elaborate, and extravagant costume planned that will be sure to make everyone in the room silent.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In reality, after a full eight hour day of sewing, my hands, wrists, and fingers are tired, and the last thing my brain wants to do is wrap around how to make said amazing glamorous Halloween costume.  Some of my co-workers are asked to make an exact replica of the white lace dress with red bows worn by Mary Poppins for their six-year-old and a superhero outfit and a set of wings at the same time in anticipation for this scary night.  Once people are aware of your ability to sew, they assume it’s fast, quick, and easy for you to create their dream costume, and you become a fairy godmother waving her magic wand.  Unfortunately, this is not the case, and I hope more people learn to handle a sewing needle and thread as well as they handle a laptop or iPad, because even knowing the basics is not only incredibly helpful, but entertaining as well.  It may surprise you how amusing some of the stitching terminology can be, and when a draper asks, “Are you available to help me cut boning?  Are we out of Male Whopper Poppers?” I wonder how someone who’s not in the sewing world would react.  To help ease your fear of the sewing needle, here’s a few amusing tricks of the trade and sewing terms that sound one way but mean something else:

Flatlining:  Don’t worry, no one is dying when we use this term.  Although I’d love any excuse to see George Clooney or Patrick Dempsey, in the stitching world, this only means that a layer of fabric is stitched behind the outside fashion fabric, usually for durability, strengthening, and giving the garment a structured look.  No heart paddles required for resuscitation, and the only suturing is basting (which I’ll describe next).


A sample of basting using hand-stitching methods.

Basting:  I often wish this meant we were roasting a turkey in the costume shop for lunch, but instead this word is used to describe large stitches done by hand or machine to help hold materials in place.  It’s usually meant for temporary purposes or to trace important markings like hem lines.

Prick Stitch

A sample of prick stitching and catching the smallest amount of fabric on the outside.

Prick Stitch:  As Cassandra in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike ” says, “Is she having problems with pricks?  Women often do.”  Although she has a point, this term actually means the smallest stitch you can make on the outside of the fashion fabric.

Stitch in the Ditch:  This doesn’t mean sewing in the gutter, rather it means sewing on the right side of the fabric on the seam to help hold down fabric on the inside.  This is usually done when sewing on a waistband that is folded over the front of the garment and then to the inside where it’s stitched down by stitches on the outside fabric in a seam.  It sounds confusing, but it’s a clever step that is hidden and does the trick.  Don’t believe me?  Take a closer look at some of the waistbands on your skirts or pants and you’ll see what I mean.

Stitch in the Ditch Final

A close-up view of a finished skirt waistband. On the left, the outside of the skirt has stitching in the seam of the waistband, if you look closely. On the right, the inside of the skirt has stitching where the outside stitches were sewn to hold down the inside lining.

If you’re still confused, here’s a great YouTube video from HowCast:

Serge:  Not to be confused with surge or surgery (although it would be another great George Clooney/Patrick Dempsey excuse), serging is a specific kind of stitching requiring multiple spools of thread and a serger machine to finish edges and stop them from fraying.  When you have to thread this machine for the first time, don’t let your nerves get to you!  Practice, using square knots, and deep breaths will get you through it and you’ll feel invincible.


A serger machine with multiple thread spools used to create the stitching on the seam for serging.


What serging looks like when sewn on fabric.

Bag Out:  Numerous assumptions come to mind when you hear this term, but it’s only a procedure used in order to finish and encase the raw edges of a garment piece, we often use this technique, that looks like a pillowcase.

How this method works:

Bag Out Final

(1) Pin right sides (outside) of the fabric together, leaving one edge open.

Bag Out 2

(2) Sew around the pinned edges on the inside (the wrong side of the fabric) and trim the seam allowance down, and turn the piece right side out and fold the edges of the open seam inside.

Bag Out Final 2

(3) Hand stitch or machine stitch the open edge closed.

Nap:  My love for an afternoon nap at work often makes me wonder why I hated them as a kindergartener.  Unfortunately, I’m SOL at work these days, since nap refers to the direction of texture or pattern in a fabric.  This is important with fabric like fur, which requires you to cut with the texture, or nap, in the same direction otherwise one piece will look smooth and the other piece will look worn and mismatched.  In order to determine which way to cut and layout your pattern pieces, you have to brush the surface with your hand in one direction to feel it smoothness and then in the opposite direction to feel that it’s rough.  The smooth texture will pick up the light differently than the rough texture, which is why it is so important to make sure the nap is going in the same direction on every piece.


An example of velvet that was cut on two different naps. Even though it’s the same velvet, being cut on a different nap causes the light to catch the surfaces slightly different.

Roll Pin:  We’re not actually rolling pins (ouch!), but using this clever technique to help the fabric conform to the shape of the body.  Instead of laying fabrics together flat, they are placed on a round object such as a bottle or curved piece of cardboard packaging tube to help imitate the curve of the wearer’s body so that the pieces will drape nicely across the body.

Roll Pin

A sleeve cuff draped and roll-pinned over a bottle to imitate the shape of a wrist.

Boning:  Even if we’d like to be having sex, this term doesn’t have the same meaning in the costume shop.  Instead, boning is a material made of steel or plastic used to help give structure and shape to the bodice of a garment and the wearer.


Boning can be made from various materials, including plastic. This specific boning shown on the right is steel and is cut and capped off with specific materials so it doesn’t poke the actress wearing the garment.

Horsehair:  This material isn’t from the mane of a horse.  It’s plastic webbing used to help structure the hem of a dress or a petticoat and is often used as tabs on a hat to help pin it to someone’s elaborate period coif.


White and black horsehair used for many different purposes in costumes and in wigs.

Bias:  This is no reference to prejudices, instead it’s the direction the fabric is cut.  Why should that make a difference?  Fabric is woven in a way so that if cut in a certain direction it will have different qualities.  In the case of bias, fabric is cut on the diagonal so that it can stretch as much as possible.  Why is that important?  So it can stretch around curves and rounded edges, which you want if you’re encasing or embellishing rounded edges or adding length to the hem of a skirt or pants.

Bias Tape

Bias comes in many colors and widths, not just 1″ wide black and serves many purposes.

Bias Tape Color

Bias in various colors and widths.

Crotch Depth:  One of my favorite measurements, all this requires is for an actor to sit on a table and then measure the distance from their waist to the table top.  We use this measurement to ensure pants will fit correctly.  In college, I overheard a student relentlessly trying to impress girls by telling them his crotch depth measurement.  Knowing what this actually meant, I wasn’t as impressed.


A button with a shank to help extend the button so it lays flat on a buttonhole of thick fabric.

Shank:  Tensions can get high in the backstage world, but the crew does its best to remind each other, “Jumpsuit Orange is not my color.”  For this stitching technique, all that’s involved is pulling the button away from the edge of the fabric so you can wrap thread around it.  This allows the button to stick out from the edge so it doesn’t pull down on thick fabrics when set in a buttonhole.  You’ll see it a lot on thick winter wool coats.


Snaps are closures used for various purposes. On the far left is the male snap, the female snap is in the middle, and a closed snap is on the far right.

Male and Female Snaps:  If you think sewing is Prim and Proper, just wait until someone asks you to sew on snaps in the Missionary Position.  Snaps are often hand-stitched on and are used for various strengths to hold costume pieces, decor, and accessories onto the costume.  And, if you forget who’s on top, it’s usually Missionary.

Swing Tacks:  When I heard this term for the first time, I met my colleague’s words with a blank stare and a thought of, “What in the Hell could that possibly be?”  After much practice, I found that this stitching is used to loosely hold together two layers of fabric to leave room for movement, most often used when attaching lining to the fashion fabric in the hem of a coat or skirt.  Most people create this stitch by anchoring the thread in one piece of fabric, then creating a crochet chain, and finishing by anchoring the thread in the second piece of fabric.

Swing Tack 1

The beginning of a swing tack involves anchoring the thread to the first layer of fabric.

Swing Tack 2

By pulling the thread through successive loops multiple times, a crochet chain is created.

Swing Tack

Once the desired length of the chain is finished, the thread is anchored to the second layer of fabric to create the swing tack.

Pad Stitching:  Pad??  Stitching??  Don’t let this term bewilder you!  This happens to be one of my favorite parts of tailoring.  It involves handstitching to tack the hair canvas (an interfacing used to strengthen fabric) in a collar to the underlining in a coat or front of a jacket to help the collar curve and roll properly.  On the right side of the fabric are tiny stitches holding the hair canvas to the outside fabric.

Pad Stitching

A closer look at pad stitching and how it helps a collar roll over correctly.

Blind Hem:  Not to be performed with your eyes closed, this stitch is used to hide the appearance of a hem on the outside of a garment.  You can do this by machine or by hand to just catch the edge of the hem.  To see how this is done by machine, check out this video from Craftsy:

These are just handful of the sewing steps we take to make a garment.  As you can see, this requires more than the wave of a magic wand, but that doesn’t mean sewing is only for those with special talents.  Although it’s Halloween, sewing is nothing to be afraid of and knowing these new terms you can see how humorous and entertaining sewing can be!  Start with the basics of sewing on buttons or hand-stitching to repair hems on your work pants and you’ll see that having these skills can stop you from throwing out your favorite pair of pants or taking a pile of coats only needing buttons replaced to the drycleaners.  To take classes and view more tutorials and advice, head over to Craftsy or the new U.K. website Love Your Clothes for information on how to care for your wardrobe.  You’ll start to see you can do as much with a needle and thread as you can with your laptop!

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