We’re busting frustration today as we chat about how to read a sewing pattern.
Do you remember the first time you picked up a sewing pattern? Did the room start spinning as you were trying to decipher everything? It’s funny, but learning to read a sewing pattern can be a big hurdle to overcome.
And it makes sense. Sewing patterns have their own language for the things that you need to understand to be able to make a successful project.
So my goal here is to help you break down all the key parts of a sewing pattern. By the end I want you to know what everything on the back of the envelope means. After that we’ll talk about all of the markings you’ll encounter. I’ll finish up with some of my best tips for deciphering the directions. Off we go!
How to read a sewing pattern: understanding the back of the envelope
When you’re thinking about how to read a sewing pattern, go to the back of the envelope. Why the back? The front of the envelope only gives you ideals. You need hard data! Here’s the things to look out for on the back of the envelope.
Line drawings are outlines of the finished project. They give you a basic and crystal clear idea of what you’ll be dealing with. Does this dress have gathers? You’ll see that in the line drawing. Am I going to have to sew a whole lot of buttons? You can count them on that line drawing!
Line drawings are 1000X better than modeled pictures and illustrations for so many reasons. Let me count the ways.
- Details can be lost in photographs due to the model’s body position or a fabric’s print
- Fashion illustrations lie! They can be so appealing that you don’t get a realistic understanding of how this might fit on you.
- Fit: Line drawings very often show accurately how fitted a garment will be. Say you like a fitted waist. If you see a line drawing that looks boxy, it likely will be just that.
- Lengths and depths: Line drawings can help you see how long and deep certain elements can be. Does a neckline look too low for your comfort? You’ll see it straight away. Where is that hem going to hit? Check the line drawing!
I’ve made the mistake many times of getting sucked in by the pattern photograph. Our eyes are tricked by styling, colors, and fabric. A line drawing will help you cut through the noise and see what a pattern is really about.
The body measurements tell you a couple of things.
- What sizes does this pattern cover?
- Does this pattern have certain fitting helps like cup sizes?
- The measurements in key parts of the body used to develop the pattern
To pick your size, measure those key points of your body and compare them to the body measurement chart. You can totally be multiple sizes. One of the wonderful things about sewing for yourself is being able to pick just the size you need. My pear shaped self is constantly bridging the gap between my shoulders and hips. Pretty often there’s a 1-3 size difference between the two depending on the pattern and pattern company!
Finished garment measurements
Not all pattern companies do this, but if they do, they get bonus points. Body measurement charts give you one part of the equation. Finished garment measurements tell you how the garment measures when it’s all said and done.
This can be really helpful. Looking at the finished measurements, you can see how many inches the finished garment will measure at those key points. You’ll see that the finished measurements will be bigger (for wovens) or slightly smaller (for knits) than the body measurements. That’s because finished measurements factor in something called ease.
Ease: the amount of fabric added or taken away from a pattern in the case of knits for the fabric to sit pretty on your body.
For a coat, you want to have a lot of ease because that sucker fits over multiple layers. For a knit t-shirt, you want negative ease so that the knit can stretch and shape to your body.
Always check out a finished garment chart to see if you can cheat a little. It may be that the style of a garment or the ease will let you pick a smaller size. That A-line skirt almost always will handle my hips!
How much fabric you’ll need for this project. Notice too that the pattern envelope will often show how much yardage you need for different widths of fabric. If your fabric is more narrow, you’ll need more yardage to fit all the pattern pieces. If your fabric is extra wide, you’ll need less!
The yardage chart will also tell you if you need extra yardage for napped fabrics, plaids, stripes and directional prints”. This is so you can match the patterns around the project. Napped fabrics like velvet need extra yardage so that all the pieces can be cut with the nap running the same way. Nobody likes the two-tone effect you get when you cut your velvet any which direction!
This is where you’ll get ideas for what kinds of fabric to use for your project. You might see familiar words like cotton or linen, but you’ll also get specific types and weights of fabric. A cotton voile for instance is much lighter than a cotton twill. If you’re not familiar with fabric types at all, there’s a couple things to do.
- Read books about fabric: this post on sewing books for beginners has a couple suggestions on fabric.
- Collect fabric swatches: swatches are little pieces of fabric. They can help you feel what a fabric is as well as just know what it is. Here’s how to make your own DIY fabric swatch book.
Helpful sewing books for beginners
How to make a DIY swatch book
Notions are all the little things you need to finish a project. This section on the back of a pattern envelope will list things like buttons, zippers, elastic, snaps etc.
The last thing I want to cover on the back of a pattern are stretch guides. Stretch guides are something you’ll see on knit patterns. It’s a little ruler that helps you determine if your fabric of choice has enough stretch for this pattern.
Sometimes you’ll see patterns call for a certain percentage of stretch. That’s because that pattern was developed with that much stretch in mind. If you use a knit with less stretch, it’ll be a tighter fit. Pick a knit with a higher stretch percentage, and it’ll be hanging on you.
Unfortunately not all fabric stores mark how much stretch percentage a knit has. A stretch guide is a shortcut way to figure this out no math required. First, fold two layers of your chosen fabric so that the stretch runs between your hands. Next, fold the amount of fabric the guide requires and stretch it comfortably. If it hits the line, you’re good to go for this pattern.
Now that we’ve talked about the back of a pattern envelope, let’s open it up and talk about pattern markings.
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.
2 thoughts on “How to read a sewing pattern and avoid frustration”
I was about to jump out the window today trying to understand how to read a pattern I just bought. I’ve never done this before and now, I think I can go in better prepared. Thank you.
Excellent. It’s definitely a different lingo and it takes some time to process it all which is sometimes frustrating as you say when you just want to get to the fun part!