Learn to Read Any Sewing Pattern!

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When you sew clothes, you're probably going to use a sewing pattern. So if you're uncertain about how that all works, now is a great time to get past that. Here, we're working with a traditional printed paper pattern. But many of the same guidelines apply when you're dealing with a digital pattern too. Let's break down the essential info.

How to read a sewing pattern

Start by looking at the instructions section of the booklet or file. That's where you'll find plenty of data, materials and tips that'll be useful even before you start cutting the fabric (and later on, to put the garment together).

On the pattern envelope

1. Line drawings

Okay, the photos shown with a pattern can be misleading, but looking at the flat, drawn designs can help you better judge whether you dig the style. The flat pattern shows the lines more accurately because there isn't any beautiful fabric to distract you; it's just the stripped-down essence of the pattern.

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

2. Sewing level

Patterns labeled "easy" will probably include detailed instructions (like how to properly press seams while you sew, or which tools to use for each task). These details will help a newbie out a lot!

More tips on choosing the right sewing level

If you're a beginner, try choosing patterns with fewer pattern pieces (avoid facings, collars, cuffs, etc.) for your first projects. The fewer pieces, the easier and faster it'll come together — that means more instant gratification.

If you're stuck and need help on a pattern you found online, try asking the designer for suggestions. Indie designers are often available online to help along the way.

3. Fabric suggestions

Sewing patterns often suggest a few types of fabric that'll work well for the project. Using one of their recommended options will pretty much guarantee a finished project that looks like the picture that initially caught your eye, so don't snub their tips.

As you sew more, you might want to experiment with fabrics not listed. You might be pleasantly surprised by choosing something out of the box, but don't forget about the box entirely! 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 call.

4. Fabric yardages

Designers provide fabric yardages to give you an estimate of how much fabric you'll need based on the size you're 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 those with a print or pattern — that way 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'll tell you if you need interfacing, zippers, bias tape, elastic, etc. Don't forget to take a look at this part before 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'll find a size key or chart to 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 just provide 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 (especially important if you're working with multiple pattern pieces)
  • A key explaining what the lines denote as well as the right and wrong side of the fabricf

8. Symbols

Symbols are just part of the language here. They'll 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 so 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, so make sure you understand what they mean.

Tips for using a sewing pattern

Read through it 

Really, truly 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're 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, this step might even be fun.

Trace the pattern (if desired)

If you're using a traditional paper pattern, tracing is a must! That said, it's not always necessary for a PDF pattern. I never trace because 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 — otherwise you might trace the wrong one.

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