How to Read a Sewing Pattern

How To Read a Sewing Pattern

One of the most important skills to develop as a sewist is being able to read and understand a sewing pattern. Knowing how to assess a pattern, determine the proper fit, and how to lay it out are the first steps toward creating beautifully fitted garments. A basic understanding of pattern design and construction is also crucial to being able to tweak that pattern to better fit the garment’s intended wearer, and, eventually, to creating patterns of your own design!

If you’re just getting started sewing with patterns, here are the basic things you need to know.

Choosing A Pattern


Start at the right level

Most patterns provide a lot of information right on the packaging, including a basic guide to how complex the sewing is going to be. You’ll get an idea of the equipment required, including notions and materials like interfacing, so if you come across anything you’re entirely unfamiliar with, you may want to try a simpler pattern to begin with, or leave yourself plenty of time to practice and experiment to make sure you get it right.

Choose the right size

When it comes to making and fitting garments, a lot is riding on the accuracy of your measurements, so before you even start trying to find patterns, make sure you’ve got the best, most accurate measurements you can manage. Here’s a handy tutorial on how to take measurements properly. It’s a great refresher even for experienced sewists.

With your measurements in hand, cross reference the sizing table on your pattern packaging. For separates, like a skirt and jacket, you may require different sized patterns. Always try to most closely match the most complex measurement. For blouses and dresses with fitted bodices, this is typically the neck and shoulders. Compare your high-bust measurement to the standard bust measurement listed in the sizing table. This will mean the top of your garment fits well, and that any adjustments required, such as to the bust cup and waist, will be less complicated. For pants and fitted skirts, use your hip measurements to determine your correct size.

Check the fabric recommendations

If you’ve got a length of fabric you’re just dying to turn into a beautiful dress, make sure that it’s compatible with the pattern you choose! Nothing is more disappointing than seeing a crisp collar spoiled by a too-stretchy fabric, or a relaxed, t-shirt style dress made uncomfortable by a stiff fashion fabric. Make sure to choose a design that suits your fabric, or vice versa, depending on which you select first.

Assemble your materials

Once you’re confident you’ve got the right sized pattern and you’ve chosen the proper fabric, now you just need to assemble all your materials. The most straightforward, of course, is getting your fabric cut. Your pattern should list the required yardage; pay close attention to the different yardage required for different fabric widths, and also for fabrics with nap like velvet and faux fur.

The pattern will also note any special equipment or materials required, such as buttons, rivets, zippers, interfacing, and more. Be sure to take all of this into account, and assemble all your tools and supplies at once so you don’t find yourself caught out in the middle of your project. Now’s also a great time to make sure you’ve got all basics, including the needles, threads, pins, tracing tools, and other equipment you might need.


Laying out and cutting your pattern


Read it first

Before diving in and cutting out your pattern, take some time to familiarize yourself with the pieces and how they’ll be assembled. Lots of patterns come with different options for sleeves or hemlines or other features; these can affect what pieces you cut out, and how. Once you feel confident you understand how your garment will go together, then it’s time to break out your paper scissors and start cutting.

Follow the layout scheme provided

Your pattern will show you how best to lay out your pieces on your fabric. This may require you to fold your fabric parallel or perpendicular to the selvedge edges, to lay it out flat, or maybe a bit of both. Pay close attention to this. Not only does the layout provided help you make the most of your fabric, but it also ensures that tricky pieces (such as those cut on a fold or on the bias) come out right the first time.

Transfer all your marks

Pattern-makers use a range of marks to help explain how a garment goes together, from notches and fold lines to gather points and buttonholes. Make sure that you transfer all of these from your pattern to your fabric using pins, transfer paper, tailor’s chalk, washable fabric pens, or your own favorite method. These landmarks are necessary to assembling your garment, and the more care you take in their placement, the better your final results will be.

One mark that may not be on your pattern, but which is nonetheless helpful to include is your seam line. Many patterns with built-in seam allowance simply assume you’ll keep the edge of your project aligned with your sewing machine’s guides, but if you’re new to sewing, or don’t want to have to keep one eye on the guide line and the other on your needle, having the seam line marked in can be a big stress relief. A double tracing wheel and transfer paper makes the process of adding in this line incredibly easy. It’s also a handy tool for adding seam allowances to patterns that don’t come with one built in.


Other helpful tips and tricks:


Use the right seam allowance

While a ⅝ inch seam allowance is common, at least in American patterns, it’s hardly the only seam allowance that’s used. Never assume that a pattern has a built in seam allowance, or, if it does, that the allowance is what you expect. Double check before beginning your project, and, if necessary, plan to add in the required seam allowance as you trace and cut your pattern pieces.

Check the scale

This applies primarily to patterns downloaded from the Internet, or, occasionally, to patterns drawn from old pattern books. Sometimes, patterns are scaled down so they can fit on a page or in a single image. This can also happen if your printer settings aren’t quite right when printing off a digital pattern. To make sure that your pattern is true to size, most will have an easy measuring trick: a box or line that is precisely one inch long. If you’ve prepared your pattern and discover that this test line isn’t the correct length, you’ll know you need to adjust the scale and reprint before continuing.

Standard or metric?

On the topic of measurements, it’s important to double check that you’re using the right units. The Internet has made it wonderfully easy to access patterns from all over the world, so there’s no guarantee that any given pattern will use your preferred measuring system. While converting back and forth may be a bit cumbersome at times, it’s definitely less so than realizing halfway through your project that your measurements aren’t working.

Make a copy

If you’re planning to make alterations to a pattern, it might be wise to make a copy to work with first. It may be a bit time consuming to transfer all those marks and diagrams to another piece of paper, but if you want to use the pattern again for another wearer, or if you’re concerned you may make mistakes in your alterations, it never hurts to have the ability to start over without taping all your pieces back together again. A roll of kraft paper comes in handy for this; it tends to be sturdier than tissue for patterns you plan to store and keep on hand for later use.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

The first few time you use a pattern, it’s a good idea to follow the instructions exactly so you get a sense of where the tricky bits are and how the pieces behave as you assemble your garment. You’ll be able to tell how the work you do in the assembly process affects the finished look, and have a better idea of how you might want to alter it to achieve different effects. Once you’ve got that experience under your belt, don’t be afraid to try different things. What would happen if you changed the hemline, or the neckline? How would it look with the skirt cut on the bias instead of with the grain?

The best way to learn to manipulate patterns to achieve the desired effect is to practice! There are lots of fantastic resources for learning how to do technical adjustments to achieve the perfect fit, like a full bust adjustment or waist size adjustments. For stylistic modifications, though, there’s nothing like practice to teach you how to achieve your desired effects.

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