Sewing for Beginners

Learn How To Use a Sewing Ruler

By Jessica Strohlson

Sewing opens the door to creative minds all over the world – giving you the ability to put your inspiration to cloth and create something tangible…the rush is addicting! If you are new to sewing, many things can be challenging to learn. Rulers don’t have to be one of them. 

Your sewing ruler is one of the most valuable tools you could own as you pursue the craft. There are several different types of rulers you should consider investing in – and our guide will help you not only choose the right ruler for your niche, but also give you steps on how to properly use them. 

Types of Rulers (and Why You Need One) 

Rulers keep your measurements correct when sewing – and also allow you to keep edge-straight boundary lines, measure fabric, and can serve as a top asset to ensure your creation comes out well crafted and ready to wear. 

There are 4 main types of rulers you will encounter while sewing – and each one should be a potential purchase for your kit! 

  1. Flexible Measuring Tape

Flexible measuring tape can prove invaluable quickly – and can be used for longer measurements, measurements on a bust or a model (or even yourself!) This type of tape can prove especially helpful as you pin patterns or seams, providing you the flexibility you need to ensure placement accuracy and measurement. On average, most flexible tapes come in lengths of 60 inches and can be found inexpensively at your local craft store or purchased online. 

  1. Regular 12 Inch School Rulers

That’s right – you should own (and will regularly use) a regular 12-inch ruler, just like in school. You will likely also use this in pattern creation, as well as for buttonholes you may add to your piece. You can find these locally at your grocery store in the office section, office stores, dollar stores, or in virtually any online marketplace! 

  1. Sewing Gauge

A sewing gauge can be used in just about every place in your design. It’s designed specifically for areas that your larger rulers cannot go, and provides extremely accurate measurements. It’s slim and sleek design allows you to sew in confidence, and create accentuating features such as pleats and buttonholes. 

  1. Yardsticks 

A yardstick is simply a longer ruler. These are three feet long, and generally are made of hard wood or flexible metal material. You’ll be using these quite often if you plan to create blankets or clothing items, and can be very useful in creating a hemline. These can be found online, or at your local craft or hardware shop. Many larger stores, such as Target or Walmart, may have these as well. 

Learning the Math: Imperial System vs. The Metric System

Doing “sewing math” is quite easy, especially when you have high-quality and accurate measuring devices. While the visuals may differ slightly between each form of ruler you come across, here are the fundamental math lessons that remain the same for each measurement you’ll make. 

imperial vs metric system measuring tapes

Always be sure to check to see if the pattern you are using is in the imperial (uses inches) system or the metric (uses meters and millimeters) system.

Now, you’re ready to measure! 

Align Your Fabric

Always be sure that when you are measuring, you align the 0 with the edge of the material you are working with – thus providing you an accurate measurement. 

Imperial Measurement Explanation 

Each line on a ruler is called a hash mark. When you are using the Imperial (or school/inches ruler) it will look like this. 

Each line represents increments (as small as 1/16th, or 1/32nd in some rulers!) that double with each line you move to the right with. If your fabric lands between hash marks, it is recommended to always round up for the most accuracy to your closest hash mark. 

You wouldn’t be counting in decimals with this side of the ruler – you would be going in fractions starting from the 0 mark. See the example below. 

Metric Measurement Explanation 

The metric rulers go off of meters, centimeters, and millimeters, depending on which type of ruler you’ve purchased and what type of measurement you need. Before accessing the guide, look at your ruler to see if it is marked with “CM” for centimeters or “MM” for millimeters. 

Remember: 10mm will always equal 1cm. 

The metric system uses decimals to represent parts of a whole. In the example below, you see what has been measured as 37 mm. Each hash line would add “1” unit to that total. One more movement to the right past the red mark would be 38mm, and so on. 

Following decimal system rules, 37mm would be 3.7cm – adding a decimal and moving it to the right of the 3 to denote that it is part of a whole – and therefore what is after the decimal would be considered the “10th’s” place, as it is part of a 10th and not yet a full 10th. If it were a full 10th, no decimal would be needed and it would be reading as 4cm. 

Following the Rules: Tips on How to Use Your Ruler in Confidence

It may come as no surprise that sewing is an exact craft. Misreading the ruler can result in a catastrophic change to your design. While you’ve likely encountered the 12 inch school ruler at a minimum, there are distinctions to each ruler that are important to learn to enhance the quality of your work. 

Of course, you’re likely familiar with the old adage of “measure twice, cut once.” This rings especially true when sewing, and applies to every type of ruler you’ll find yourself using. 

Here are simple tips you can follow for each ruler to ensure a great sewing experience – every time!

Flexible Tape Measures

Because of their stretchable nature, your flexible tape measure can be worn over time and over-extend…leaving you with inaccurate measurements. It’s recommended in many sewing circles that you check your flexible measuring tape against an inflexible form of measurement (i.e. a yardstick) and ensure that your measurements are accurate. This can save you hours of time and much frustration later in the project! 

If you plan to use your flexible measuring tape on a model or on yourself to create clothing items, there are specific locations on the body you should use for the most accurate measurement.

There are many reputable guides online to help you assess your prime locations, but this cannot be replaced with anything but practice. Practice on yourself or a friend, get comfortable using the measure, and work on getting it down to the millimeter of accuracy!

If you’re using a flexible measuring tape with a metal tip, the backs of these normally have metal that is rounded. When pressed into the fabric, you can actually leave an indentation, which can be easily marked with a sewing pencil for faster future reference. 

Hard-backed Rulers (Yardsticks, School Rulers, Sewing Gauges)

Always ensure you are measuring from the zero mark to get the best and most accurate measurement. 
Always check to make sure which side of the ruler you are using – either inches, centimeters, or millimeters.


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