What is a Tape Measure?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Tape measures are essentially rulers that are flexible in nature. One may be constructed of a thin band of metal or made with cloth. These handy measuring tapes normally take up very little space, making them ideal for carrying or storing in small spaces. They can be used in a number of different professions with ease, making them extremely popular and functional.

Cloth tape measures often are used by tailors.
Cloth tape measures often are used by tailors.

A tape measure will typically use the same units of measurement that are common with rulers. Often, they are double sided, with one side of the tape including measurements in linear increments, while the other side will provide measurements in metric. This means that just one can function about anywhere in the world.

Spring style tape measures are a common tool for construction projects.
Spring style tape measures are a common tool for construction projects.

Tailors often favor a cloth measuring tape. Because the device is completely flexible, it is ideal for taking measurements that can be used to alter an article of clothing, or to create a new garment altogether. The image of a tailor wearing a tape draped over his or her shoulders is a common part of many cultures.

A tape measure.
A tape measure.

Spring style measuring tapes are often favored in construction situations. First developed in the 19th century, this type is constructed with a retractable metal band that is housed in a small casing. The casing easily fits into the palm of the hand, and a locking device makes it possible to extend the tape to a given point, then lock the tape into place. Because the thin metal band of the tape is flexible, it is possible to measure at an angle as well as a straight line.

A tailor's measuring tape.
A tailor's measuring tape.

Both examples of the tape measure are also found in the home. The cloth type is often found in sewing boxes and comes in handy for quick and easy measuring jobs. The spring style is often kept in the toolbox and can be handy for small woodworking projects or even determining the position of supports for hanging large works of art on walls. In all its forms, it is a relatively inexpensive device, and can be purchased at hardware stores and discount retail shops.

Tape measures are useful for different woodworking projects.
Tape measures are useful for different woodworking projects.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments



I like to use the tape measures that have the metal band to lock it in place. If I am measuring for something like curtains or drapes, this is a life saver. The windows are usually too long to try and do this with a cloth tape measure.

If I don't have a steel tape measure, I have been creative and measure as far as I can with a cloth tape measure. Then I place a mark where it ends and measure again until I come up with the right measurement. This gets the job done, but it just takes longer.

I will say a small cloth tape measure takes up less room than a steel tape measure. You can easily keep a cloth one in a drawer a sewing box or even a purse without adding much weight or bulk. I wouldn't really want to carry around a heavy steel tape measure in my purse.


Whenever I start a new diet and exercise program, I use a cloth body tape measure to measure different parts of my body. Sometimes this tape measure is my friend and other times it isn't.

I will start out with several different measurements and check to see if I have lost any inches from week to week. Sometimes I might not have lost any pounds, but I have lost inches. This is always encouraging even though it doesn't seem exciting as seeing a lower number on the scale. You can also tell if you have lost inches by the way your clothes fit, but it is always better to see the actual numbers written down.


I used to have a miniature tape measure attached to a key chain. I carried this around with me for many years before finally getting rid of it. I don't think I ever used it for anything. I kept it because I thought it might come in handy some day when I was on the road, but it never did.

I keep a cloth tape measure in my kitchen junk drawer. It doesn't get used a lot, but every once in awhile I will need a tape measure for something. This way I always know where to find it and I don't have to go searching for it or run to the store and buy one.

My husband keeps a laser tape measure in his toolbox in the garage. I wouldn't even know how to use this and just stick with a simple cloth tape measure when I need to measure something.

@JackWhack -- A tape measure that winds up is probably much safer than the kind that snaps back in place, especially if small kids are using them. All of the retractable tape measures we have around our house are the retractable kind that snap in place.


My dad used to get me to help him measure lumber when I was little. He would always tell me to go to one end and hook the end of the tape measure onto the wood. He would take it from there.

He had the kind of tape measure that you wind back up. Instead of it suddenly snapping back into the casing all at once, he had to slowly wind a handle on the side of it. This prevented injury, and it made no alarming sound, so I liked it.


The one thing that frustrates me about tape measures is the same as what annoys me about rulers. It seems that I always flip it first to the side with the measurements I don't need. I only use the side that measures in inches, and I wish the other side was either blank or the same as the first side!


@cloudel – I have a cloth one, and it makes a good body measurement tape. I use it to determine what size clothing to order.

I do a lot of shopping online, and without being able to try something on, the best thing to go by is my measurements in the waist, hip, and chest areas. My body weight fluctuates a lot, so I always measure myself before ordering anything, even if it has only been a few weeks since I last ordered something.

I can pull the cloth tape as taut as I need to without hurting myself. It's comfortable, unlike the cold, sharp metal of my husband's measuring tape.


I prefer cloth tape measures to the sturdy kind. The cloth ones come in a smaller casing, because they are not as thick and bulky as the metal ones.

As long as I hold it straight and flat, I can measure just about anything with it. I can carry it in my purse without adding any significant weight to it.


@Fa5t3r - The only problem is that they hurt if you use them wrong! I did quite a lot of sewing when I was younger and I was always catching my fingers with the tape measure.

I guess it was my own fault for using my husband's heavy duty tape measure for sewing but I was always losing the little ones that came with my sewing kit.


I have a friend who collects tape measures, which seems really daft until you see her collection. I think she started out with a camel shaped tape measure she got from Dubai (the camel tail is the actual measure) but she's got all kinds of quirky shapes. A little robot one and another one where the measure is the tongue of a frog and so forth.

I never realized they were so much of a tourist item, but I guess it's something different. And it is kind of satisfying to make a retractable tape measure snap back into the box.

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