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
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.