All about reading the tape measure

Learn how to use a tape measure effectively, understand all its markings, and gain proficiency in measuring accurately for projects involving precise measurements.

Reading the main markings on a tape measure is quite easy – you just have to read the numbers. But the question is, are you familiar with the various other markings and units on a tape measure? After all a wrong reading of body measurements with the humble tailor’s tape measure or the measuring tape can ruin your otherwise well-finished garment or project.

In sewing, precision and symmetry are very important. You have to ensure that the length of the garment is exactly stitched to what you or your client have in mind. You have to ensure that the seams, size of the hem, and other elements are all stitched to the nines in terms of measurements. For all this, the sewing tape measure is an important tool and you have to learn how to read it perfectly, if you want to master your craft.

In my teens, I dreaded the tape measure – It represented all the guilt at eating those extra chocolates after the second helping, or was it the third? When I gained weight in my 20s, I threw away the tape measure. Then I discovered sewing.

Tape measure has been a constant companion since then. Actually, tape measures in the plural; because I have at least 4 of them in different rooms. One of them is tucked away in a deep drawer, ready for the contingency situation when all the other three are missing.

When I started to sew and for a long time afterward, I just knew the main marks in the tape measure. A sewing friend then taught me the rest. Something as basic as this should be taught in school rather than some other nonsense that I learned in school, which I never found a use for afterward. In this age of laser measuring tapes, electronic tape measures and measuring tape apps, and easy paper patterns, one may wonder at the use of ordinary tape measures. But for me, it is one of the most useful and necessary sewing tools.

Imperial and metric markings on the tape measure

At first glance, the tape measure may seem straightforward, with its numbers and lines running along its length from the beginning till the end of the tape. From the bold numerals that represent inches and centimeters to the smaller subdivisions that help you achieve precision, each mark on the tape serves a unique purpose.

There are two types of tape measurements – metric and imperial.
Metric measurement markings represent measurements in centimeters and millimeters and meters (or metre in a different spelling) 
Imperial measurement markings represent measurements in inches and feet and fractions of inches.

The numbers given represent the whole centimeters and the small lines in between the centimeters lines are the millimeters. Ten millimeters make up one centimeter, and 100 centimeters equals one meter.

Scientists use the metric system, but when measuring the body, most people use the imperial system, i.e., of inches. 36-24-26 is not in centimeters, as you know; they are in inches and the anathema of millions of differently endowed girls. You can learn more about the different systems of measurement and how to convert metric measurement units to imperial units metric in this post on Dimensions of a yard of fabric

Different types of measuring tapes used in sewing

1. The regular sewing tape measure

This is the regular flexible tailor’s tape every sewist worth their name will have in a sewing kit.

Sewing tapes come in various lengths. Typically a measuring tape for measuring the body is 60 inches long which is about 1.5 meters (152 cms). You get 120 inch long measuring tapes in shops as well, which is useful for measuring those curtains and quilts and other home decor stuff.

My measuring tape comes with a right and wrong end ( with one end stiff with a metal plate), but there are simple ones available with both ends ready to measure. 

My measuring tape has metric and imperial measures placed on top and bottom. Only the imperial system is given on the other side of the tape. These markings allows you to measure a wide range of items, from small details like button placements, smocking dots, to larger body measurements like waist, hips, or fabric lengths. And the flexibility and thin design allows it to measure around curves and tight spaces.

How to read the markings on the measuring tape

Tape measures typically have markings in the form of lines or digits to represent measurements in either inches or centimeters.

The measurements are given as 1/8th of an inch, i.e., one inch is divided into eight parts. Sometimes measurement markings representing  1/16th of an inch are also given. Tape measures and rulers used in construction and design work usually have markings with 1/32 of an inch.

The main middle marking inside the inch represent 1/2 inch ( Half inch)

The next small markings represent 1/4 of an inch ( Quarter inch) & 3/4  of an inch ( three-fourth inch)

The next small markings represent 1/8, 3/8, 5/8 and 7/8 of an inch (eighth’s of an inch)

Markings inside an inch

The markings on a measuring tape. inside one inch.

Fractional markings on Tape measures

There are tape measures with fractional markings to those without them. The tape measure includes fractional markings for more precise measurements. A tape measure with fractional markings is the best to get measurements in fractions of an inch for woodworking, construction, or other applications where precision is crucial.

And in sewing, if inch is mentioned in your pattern, you will need to convert it to inches to know how much fabric you need.

Reading and interpreting fractional measurements on the tape can give your projects an edge. You need to understand how to interpret these fractions for precise measurements.

Reading a Tape Measure in Millimeters

The millimeter markings are typically represented by smaller lines between the centimeter markings. Each centimeter is divided into 10 millimeters.

Reading a Tape Measure in Inches

Inches on sewing tape measures are typically marked in full inches, half-inches, quarter-inches, and eighth-inches. To read the measurement in inches, locate the closest inch mark to the end of the object you’re measuring. If there’s a line halfway between two inches, it represents half an inch (1/2″). If there are additional lines, they represent quarter-inch (1/4″) and eighth-inch (1/8″) increments.

Reading a Tape Measure in 16ths of an Inch

The 16th-inch markings are the smallest lines on the tape measure, often appearing as tiny dashes between the eighth-inch markings. To read the measurement in 16ths of an inch, find the closest eighth-inch mark to the end of the object you’re measuring. Then, count the number of 16th-inch marks between the eighth-inch lines. For example, if the measurement ends at the second 16th-inch mark past the 1/8″ line, it would be written as 1/8″ + 2/16″.

Formulas to convert fractions to decimals and decimals to fraction.

To convert a fraction to a decimal, divide the numerator (top number) by the denominator (bottom number). For instance, 1/2 becomes 0.5.

To convert a decimal to a fraction, express it as a fraction over a power of 10. For example, 0.75 can be written as 75/100, which simplifies to 3/4

Steps to convert a decimal to a fraction

Count the number of digits to the right of the decimal point.
If the number of digits is less than or equal to the denominator, the decimal is already a fraction.

If the number of digits is greater than the denominator, multiply the decimal by a power of 10, where the exponent is the number of digits to the right of the decimal point.

The resulting fraction is the equivalent fraction of the decimal.
Here are some examples:

0.5 = 5/10 = 1/2
0.75 = 75/100 = 3/4
0.2 = 20/100 = 1/5
0.1 = 10/100 = 1/10
0.01 = 100/1000 = 1/100

Chart of fractional measurements to decimal measurements or vice versa

Inch to millimeter conversion Reference List.

12 inches make a foot. One inch is equal to 2.5 cms or 25 mms.

inches to mms - chart for converting fractional measurements to decimal measurements

You use simple maths which you studied (did you ? or slept like me) in school to add the fraction when you have to; to put it simply, 1/4 + 1/4 is 1/2 (ha). To add unequal fractions, you have to make the denominator equal and then add. Let me run before I start teaching gibberish.

When you are using the tape with the metric system or the imperial system, just ensure you measure from the zero line.

Have you realized that the tape measure you have been using for years may need to be revised – it may have stretched out of correct measures? You can replace it with a new one now and then or choose a fiberglass one that is guaranteed to be non-stretchy.  

Measuring is very important when making a dress. There is a very often said adage about measuring – measure twice and cut once – very forgettable I would think remembering all the occasions when I had forgotten this one saying – when that expensive fabric was cut a little too short because I didn’t measure twice.

2. Cutter practical guide tape

This is a kind of measuring tape with elastic tape and other tapes attached to a piece of plastic. 

3. Trouser Tape

This is a tape measure with a curved thing on top, which helps measure inseam length when measuring for making pants. This ruler measures 45 inches in length (114 cm).

4. Drawing rulers

The big meter scale available in wood, plastic, or metal can be very useful in drawing the long seam line, etc. A smaller Foot rule (scale) measures 12 inches in length and is usually made of plastic, wood, or steel. This is useful when you have to measure seams, small tucks, pleats, etc.

L square is a scale that is made like the capital letter L. This is great for measuring corners as it gives an accurate 90-degree marking. One side (the long side) will be 24 inches long and the other side 12 inches.

What is the use of the metal hook at the end of the measuring tape?

The metal hook at the end of the measuring tape is used to hook onto the edge of an object to take an accurate measurement. This way you do not have to hold the other end. This is useful when taking long measurements and also helps to take accurate measurement. You just have to hook the end of the tape measure onto the end of the object you are measuring and pull the tape measure taut.

What are the diamong symbols on my tape measure?

These markings are typically found every 19 3/16 inches on metal tape measures. A sewing tape measure do not have any diamond symbols. They are also known as joist marks or truss marks, and they are used to help with spacing floor joists and roof trusses.

Which equipment do you have and use the most for measuring?.

Checkout the post on correctly measuring the body for dress making

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Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.