How to Read a Tape Measure

Using a tape measure is common when building, sewing, or measuring things that are bent or curved. The tape measure can wrap around things, so it is possible to measure in a circle. This is why tape measures are so common for seamstresses. The tape makes it possible to measure vertical or horizontal lines, like the length of an arm or leg, as well as a curved body part, like the neck or waist. Learning to read a tape measure is fairly easy, but if you are going to be measuring with one, it is important to get comfortable beforehand so you do not make mistakes with the measurements.

Reading the Lines on a Tape Measure

The most confusing part of reading a tape measure is the numerous lines on the tape. The numbers make perfect sense, but the lines might be confusing. When measuring something, note the number on the tape that falls before, but closest to, your end point. This is a whole number and it tells you the number of total inches of your item. Sometimes a measurement ends at the whole number and measuring is easy. When you measure a person’s arm starting at the shoulder and the wrist lines up with the 24 on the measure, the person’s arm is 24 inches long.

Fractional Measurements on a Tape Measure

More often the measurement will align with one of the marks between the whole numbers. Count the number of lines that complete the measurement. The total number of lines between numbers should be 16, so your measurement will be a portion of a sixteenth. If there are four lines in the measurement, your result is 4/16. This fraction can be converted into ¼ to make it simpler to work with.

Your measurement is likely going to be a whole number and a fraction. Measurements are usually read as an inch and the fraction of the next inch. In some instances you are going to need to add two measurements together. If the measurements include fractions of an inch, you will need to know how to add fractions. Assume you have measured two lengths of fabric. One measures two and 3/16 inches and the other measures three and 1/16 inches. Together, these pieces of fabric measure five and 4/16, or 5 ¼.

It will not matter if you are measuring vertically and horizontally, or measuring around something. As a matter of fact, if you measure a person’s waist and you need to cut a piece of fabric to wrap around the person’s waist, you measure the same length of the flat piece of fabric. No conversions are needed when applying a round measurement to a flat surface and vice-versa.


Measuring with a tape measure is easy, but it might take a little practice. If you plan to work on a project that requires measurements with a tape, take some time to practice in advance so your measurements will be exact when you begin your project.