pattern envelope back

How to read a sewing pattern and avoid frustration

How to read a pattern: Pattern markings

common pattern markings

Sewing patterns all have little markings. They’re there to help you align certain elements evenly, and some help for cutting out the pattern. Here’s some common ones.

  1. Grainline: placed on the straight grain that’s parallel to the selvage
  2. Fold line: shows where to place a line on the fold of fabric
  3. Center front/center back: these lines mark the middle of the front and the back respectively. A must have for aligning things like buttons or collars.
  4. Notches: You’ll find notches that correspond to each other on multiple pieces. Sleeve notches match to body notches, and side seam notches are the most common. You’ll often see single notches on front sleeves and front pieces. Double notches on the back side of a sleeve match up to a back piece.
  5. Dots: dots can mark pivot points, the ends of collars or even areas you’ll need to gather fabric.
  6. Cutting line: where you cut the fabric
  7. Lengthen/shorten lines: placed at spots where it’s best for the style to add or take away length if needed.
  8. Buttonholes: Marks the position where you’ll stitch out buttonholes. I will always recommend marking the top and the bottom buttonhole, then using a Simflex for the other buttonholes. Here’s some more buttonhole tips.
  9. Buttons: Marks the position of a button
pattern notch
pattern notch on a sleeve

How to read a pattern: finding all the pieces

Inside the pattern envelope, there’s all the pattern pieces printed on tissue or other large paper + the directions.

To find all the pieces you’ll need, first pull out the direction sheet. On it, you’ll find a little diagram with mini outlines of the pattern pieces.

Next, figure out the pieces you’ll need. Very often patterns have multiple versions in the same envelope. So if you need a short sleeve on a top, you won’t need the long sleeve piece.

sewing pattern diagram

I like to either circle the pieces I need on the sheet or use a post-it to write them down. Note the numbers on each piece. Often pattern pieces look a lot alike. The numbers can help you keep track of everything.

From there, open up the pattern sheets and rough cut around the pieces that you’ll need. After that you can cut along the lines that you need for your size. If you like, you can trace the pattern instead.

How to read a sewing pattern: Key points in the directions

Pattern layout

One of the last things you’ll need to do before you cut your fabric is check out the pattern layout. This little diagram will show you a suggestion for cutting out your pattern.

There’s times when you might decide to break from the pattern layout. You might have to change things up if you have a narrower fabric than what’s listed for instance. Know that it’s not set in stone, but it is a good suggestion very often.

Single layer vs. double layer

Another thing to note about the pattern layout is if you’ll need to cut in a single layer vs. a double layer. Most home patterns have us match the selvages of fabric together and cut in a double layer. Sometimes you’ll run into a pattern that might have a full size pattern piece. In this case, you’ll need to cut the fabric in a single layer.

single layer diagram
The rare single layer layout!

If you see a single layer cutting layout, pay attention! It’s easy to cut things backwards with single layer cutting layouts. Ask me how I know!

Decoding illustration colors

One of the nice things about indie sewing patterns are the colored illustrations or photographs. It can be really easy to see which is the wrong side vs. the right side on those. But since we’re mostly talking about envelope patterns in this post, do look at the shaded key to the illustrations.

pattern illustrations

You’ll see different shaded colors or patterns for:

  • Right side of the fabric
  • Wrong side of the fabric
  • Interfacing
  • Lining

Not all patterns will use all of these elements, but as you’re sewing through, you’ll see them in play. Pay attention to them as you work through each step. It’s easy to sew things backwards and inside out. Sometimes unclear pattern directions can be cleared up with good illustrations.

Tips for getting through using pattern directions without pulling your hair out

Here’s the thing. Pattern direction sheets are often lacking. There’s only so much paper they can cram into an envelope. Sometimes pattern directions shorten steps, complicate others, and once in a while straight up steer you wrong. Until you have some experience, it’s hard to determine these things.

It’s tempting to throw the directions, shoot maybe you should some days! Still, I firmly believe though that you can get through sewing any pattern with the right help. So here’s some ideas for getting through the directions, especially when they’re not super clear. Here’s my pro tips for powering through!

Vogue Sewing book

Beating enigmatic pattern directions

  1. Read through the pattern directions: the more familiar you are with the pattern directions, the better. Read through the directions several times to know what you’ll have to deal with.
  2. Mark up your pattern sheet: After you’ve read through directions, mark it up! Draw lines where you think there’s a natural break. Sometimes trying to power through a whole pattern is a bad idea! Highlight any terms you’re not sure about or write little notes where you don’t understand something. Which leads me to the next point…
  3. Have a good reference book: a basic reference book like Vogue Sewing can be great to have on hand when you’re sewing. It can help fill in the holes that confusing directions sometimes leave.
  4. Make samples!: If you don’t understand a step, make a sample. Working out a process in some scrap fabric can help your brain figure it out. If you mess up royally, you’ll be saving your good fabric to boot!

How are you feeling about navigating your way around a sewing pattern? As you learn how to read a sewing pattern, the more confident you’ll feel with sewing. I promise if you work at it, a day is coming when you can glance at the pieces and know exactly what needs to happen!

More pattern helps:

The fastest way to assemble PDF patterns
The fastest way to assemble PDF patterns

Get PDFs the lazy way!

How to use sewing pattern magazines
How to use sewing pattern magazines

Let me convince you how great tracing can be

2 thoughts on “How to read a sewing pattern and avoid frustration”

  1. 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.

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