Sewing Blog

Learn to Read Any Sewing Pattern!

When you sew clothing items, most of the times you are going to use a sewing pattern. These days, there are countless patterns available online (both for purchase and for free). But in order to use them, you need to know how to read a sewing pattern.

Whether it’s a downloadable PDF, a printed pattern (from a magazine or book) or even a vintage pattern, each and every sewing pattern will tell you the same things (more or less). In this post, we’ll review how to spot the essential information so you’ll know everything you need. 

How to read a sewing pattern

The first thing to look at is the instructions section of the booklet or file. This is where you’ll find a great amount of data, material and tips you can use before you even start to cut the fabric (and later on, to put the garment together).

On the pattern envelope

1. Line drawings

Line Drawings on pattern Envelope

The photos shown with a pattern can be misleading. Looking at the flat, drawn designs can help you better judge whether the style suits you.

The flat pattern more accurately shows the lines without any wonderful fabric distracting you; it shows you the essence of the pattern.

If your pattern comes with multiple views or variations, you can also see the differences between them more clearly in the line drawings.

2. Sewing level

Patterns labeled “easy” are more likely to include detailed instructions (like how to properly press seams while you sew, or which tools to use for each task). Meanwhile, more advanced sewers may be bored with easy patterns and might prefer a pattern that requires more experience.

More tips on choosing the right sewing level:

If you’re stuck and need help on a pattern you found online, you can try asking the designer for suggestions. Indie designers are usually available to respond to questions.

If you are a beginner, consider choosing patterns with fewer pattern pieces (avoid facings, collars, cuffs and so on) for your first projects. The fewer pieces, the easier and faster is will come together, giving you a quick satisfaction!

3. Fabric suggestions

Suggested Fabrics on Sewing Pattern

Sewing patterns often suggest a few types of fabric that are well suited for the project. Choosing one of the recommended options will ensure a finished project that looks like the picture that initially caught your eye.

As you sew more, you might want to experiment with fabrics not listed. Sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised by choosing something out of the box! However, that’s not always the case: for example, fitted patterns calling for knit fabric often won’t work in woven, stable fabric. The more you learn about fabrics, the more easily you can make this judgement.

4. Fabric yardages

Fabric yardages on pattern envelope

Designers provide fabric yardages to give you an estimate of how much fabric you will need based on the size you are making. On the chart, find the view and size you plan to make. There, you’ll find how much yardage you need. Some patterns will also include the yardage amount for 45″ or 60″ fabric widths.

Yardages should account for pre-wash shrinkages, but stay on the safe side: Buy at least a 10 percent more fabric as a self-insurance for shrinking fabrics. It’s also a good idea to buy extra fabric for patterns with a nap or fabrics with a print or pattern, so that you can maintain the directionality (some patterns will account for this).

5. Thread and notions

Next to the yardages, you’ll usually find a list of the notions you need for that specific pattern. For example, it will tell you if you need interfacing, zippers, bias tape, elastic, etc. Don’t forget to take a look at this part and buy what you need while going to the store.

Inside the pattern envelope

6. Size chart

The pattern pieces will be outlined many times — each line is for a different size. Somewhere on the pattern sheet, you will find a size key or chart that will help you choose the right lines for your size.


7. Pattern layouts or measurements chart

Before you start cutting, you can find out which pieces you really need by looking at a pattern piece chart or layout diagram.

If your pattern is made of very simple, rectangular shapes, the designer might provide only the measurements. But in most cases, your pattern will come with templates to cut out and trace onto your fabric.

Pattern Layout Example

The pattern layouts show you all kinds of information, including:

  • How to lay out your fabric (for example, if there is a fold and which way the right side should be facing)
  • How to arrange the pattern pieces on the fabric, including the grainline (this is especially important if you are working with multiple pattern pieces)
  • A key explaining what the lines denote as well as the right and wrong side of the fabric

8. Symbols

Various symbols are how a designer talks to you in a pattern. They will tell you how to place the pattern on top of the fabric, where the grainline is, if pieces should be aligned with the fabric fold, where to gather fabric, where to place a button and much more.

You’ll typically see a variety of dashed, dotted and solid lines that denote stitch lines, fold lines, etc. These vary slightly from pattern to pattern, so be sure to look at your pattern legend.

Here are some of the most common symbols:

Serger Pepper 4 Craftsy - Read a sewing pattern - symbols and notches

Your pattern may have more or different markings — make sure you understand the symbols’ meanings. As you cut your pattern pieces, don’t forget to transfer them onto the fabric, using a marking tool of your choice.

Tips for using a sewing pattern

Read through it 

Don’t skip this step. Even if you’re a more seasoned sere, reading all the instructions from beginning to end will help you understand the entire workflow. 

Print the pattern

If you are using a PDF sewing pattern, you need to print, trim and tape the sheets together. If you follow the directions and use the right tools, it can be even fun.

Trace the pattern (if desired)

If you are using a traditional paper pattern, tracing is a must! However, it’s not always necessary for a PDF pattern. I never trace. It takes me way less time to re-print, re-trim and re-tape than to trace the pattern.

Follow the right lines

Highlight the lines for your size with a bright pen to make them more prominent and trace the right one.

Serger Pepper 4 Craftsy - Read a sewing pattern - highlight size line

Want some more beginning sewing resources? Check our list here!

Startup Library: Sewing

The Complete Guide to Sewing for Beginners

Learn all the basics of sewing accessories and garments with our in-depth, beginner-friendly Startup Library class. Watch FREE with your 7-day trial of Craftsy Unlimited.Watch FREE With Your Trial

Buy the Class



One thing I would like to suggest, as a new sewist(?) and a person of size. One thing I found helpful was I had a woven non-stretch shirt that my dryer ate and deconstructed it. This allows me to lay it on a pattern and see where I have to make adjustments. One thing that is very important to a person of size is the stretch (ease) factor. My hip area increases 9 inches from standing to sitting so that needs to be factored in no matter what type of material that I use. I had to learn this part on my own as not many blogs or even classes teach this.

Irene Valle

That’s pretty interesting, Maryann.
I am sure I’ve heard about this in one of the several Craftsy classes I own and love, but I truly can’t remember which one it was 🙂
Every single sewer should know about her own fitting issues and how to fix them and looks like you’re doing great! Happy sewing <3


It is NOT a must to trace traditional paper patterns. To suggest this additional unnecessary task isn’t fair to someone learning to sew and needing things as clear and as close to an easy complete as possible. Once in a while there may be a reason but it’s rare, especially if you can pick up another for a dollar much of the time in the US. Also, saying that tracing is a must but you never do it could be rather confusing to a new sewist.


I’m new at reading patterns and sewing garments and found that piece of information helpful. In fact, I think it’s a good idea to trace the pattern to account for potential errors. I have yet to see a pattern for a dollar and see it just as necessary to buy another if I can just trace what I have.

Irene Valle // Serger Pepper Designs

Hi, Cindy!
Welcome to the wonderful world of sewing! As you can see, everyone has its own habits, there’s no right or wrong, just personal preferences.
As I say in the blog post, I am a fan of PDF patterns, this is why I say I never trace: I re-print.
If you buy paper patterns, I agree with you: buying that pattern again just to avoid tracing it would look weird to me too (since I’ve never found a 1$ pattern me too, they all sell for more than this, here in Italy!).
Thanks for replying, by the way…
and happy sewing <3
Irene // Serger Pepper Designs


I just finished watching Plus Size Pants Fitting. it has wonderful tips on adjusting pants for various full size areas. it goes way beyond using the multiple sizing method. This comment for person mentioning fitting challenges.

Lynda Woerner

Thank you for a nice, clear post with some good advice. I do wonder why you advocate tracing a paper pattern as a requirement. I have been sewing for years, and I have never traced a paper pattern, ever. That seems like a colossal waste of time and effort to me, especially if you are going to make the pattern only once. Adjustments can be made directly to the tissue in most cases, and tissue folds up and stores just fine. If I plan to make something multiple times, I might spray glue the tissue to heavier paper or cardstock and cut it out. Commercial patterns are quite inexpensive in the US. Simplicity, Butterick, McCalls and Burda are regularly available for between $1 and $3; Vogue and KwikSew for $5 or less, so if some kind of colossal error is made, it is not a costly fix. I have re-bought a pattern once or twice because I made a hash of it and decided to try afresh. It is actually cheaper for me to do that than it is to re-print a pdf pattern. Ink, paper, and tape are not free. In fact, for my cost benefit analysis, the lower cost of the pdf pattern frequently does not offset the cost of the paper pattern plus shipping. I can see to tracing a pattern is when multiple pieces are printed on the same page, and the pattern cannot be cut out. I have Ottobre (Finnish) and Burda (German) magazines that require tracing if you wish to make any of the patterns. I could also see tracing a vintage pattern that could not easily be replaced, but even then, I would consider some other method of preservation. And if I were working on a couture type project that is going to require multiple fitting adjustments, I would probably trace the pattern onto something sturdier to work with. I think telling a new sewer that they MUST trace a paper pattern adds a burden that is unnecessary and might put up a roadblock to a budding sewist. If I had been told I had to trace the pattern before I could use it when I made my first project, I doubt I would be sewing today. And my goal with print at home patterns is to use the copy shop version or if I have to print it out and tape it together, to never do that again, so I carefully save those patterns. I cannot tell you how much I hate to tape together and cut out floppy paper. Of course, this is just my viewpoint, from someone who hates the whole pattern process and just wishes the pieces would just cut themselves out so I can get to the fun part, the actual sewing, which I love. I dislike the cutting process so much i have actually started using pattern glue to adhere the pattern pieces to the fabric. That has made me hate the process less. Even better, sometimes my husband cuts the pieces out for me. In summary, I think tracing a paper pattern may be a good idea in some circumstances, but it is not a requirement.

Irene // Serger Pepper Designs

Hi Lynda!
I would say tracing a paper pattern is a must when you use it for several people that wear different sizes (more than one of your kids, you and a friend, customers…): if you don’t trace them, I don’t think there’s a way you can easily re-use them. With PDF sewing patterns you can just re-print them and you’re done.
I can leave you the link if you want to try it: maybe you will start appreciating the taping and cutting more 🙂 I personally find it easy and pretty quick and I no more hate it. Here’s the link, for your convenience:
Happy sewing
Irene // Serger Pepper Designs


I live in the US as well, and none of those patterns go for $1-3$. They are all over $15-$20 each! I have no idea where you are buying patterns for $1

Irene // Serger Pepper Designs

Hi J.
Are you referring to printed patterns?
I live in Italy but a lot of US sewers say they often find 0.99$ sales at places like JoAnn, Hobby Lobby, Godwill, Hancocks…
I hope this helps.
Happy sewing,
Irene //Serger Pepper Designs


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Reply