Beginner's Guide to Reading and Understanding a Sewing Pattern
So you've decided to have a go at sewing your own clothes, but sewing patterns look scary and difficult to understand. Let me help you with everything you need to know from how to choose a suitable sewing pattern through to reading and understanding the information on the packet, in the instruction booklet and on the pattern pieces.
Choosing a Sewing Pattern
If you're just starting out sewing it is probably best to choose designs that are relatively easy to sew. You know a simple day dress, top or skirt rather than a princess ball gown, as nice as that would be! Trousers are generally more tricky to fit, although a loose fitting pair of pyjama bottoms are a good beginner sewing project.
We stock a huge range of sewing patterns on our site, you can find them here.
Look for patterns with limited details and fuss. A good tip is to look at the number of pattern pieces which is often mentioned on the back of the packet. Less pieces means the garment is easier to sew.
The line drawings on the back of the packet also give you a clue. If you can see lots of lines drawn on the body of the dress, top or skirt it usually means more detail and more bits to sew.
Also consider how the garment fastens. A zip is probably easier for a beginner than lots of buttons and buttonholes.
You can see our top five beginner sewing patterns here for some suggestions and examples.
It is also worth mentioning there are two main types of sewing pattern:
- Commercial patterns, produced on a large scale, include the brands McCalls, Simplicity, New Look, Burda, Butterick, Vogue and Kwik Sew.
- Independent or 'indie' patterns usually produced on a much smaller scale. Some of the most popular or well known brands include Grainline Studios, Tilly and the Buttons, True Bias and Closet Core patterns.
Many beginners lean towards the 'indie' patterns, which tend to have more detailed instructions and often sewalongs on their blog to support your learning, although they are usually more expensive than the commercial patterns.
I learnt mostly by sewing with commercial patterns because I preferred to choose from a much wider range of designs. Once you understand the basic sewing terminology and as long as you aren't sewing anything too complicated they are easy enough to follow.
Choosing your Sewing Pattern Size
Once you've chosen your sewing pattern you will need to select a size. Prepare yourself, this may be wildly different to the size you wear in shop bought clothes, but really, who cares?!
All joking aside it is absolutely crucial that you don't choose your sewing pattern by choosing the size clothes you wear from the shops and use your body measurements as detailed below. If you choose your normal dress size your lovely handmade garment will more than likely be far too small.
The beauty of making your own clothes is that you don't have to try and fit your body into the standardised sizes, which are mass produced and in all honesty don't seem to fit many people particularly well.
The most important measurements to take for most patterns are bust, waist and hips and you will find a chart on the back of the pattern packet with these listed for each size.
Use the chart to work out which size you are in the pattern.
You may find you are straddling two sizes, if this is the case you can grade between them. For example if you were a 12 at the bust and a 14 at the waist and hips, cut a 12 at the top and taper out to the 14 line at the waist and hips.
It is a good idea to make a practice run in a cheap fabric to test the size/fit before you start sewing the real thing.
Choosing your Fabric and Notions
Next, the really exciting part - which fabric will you use and how much do you need?
Sewing patterns will usually provide a list of suggested fabric types on the packet together with a guide for how much to buy based on your size.
It's useful to think about what properties the fabric needs to have for your chosen garment type - does it need to drape and move well or does it need to be stiffer and more structured for example. You can find lots of clues in your wardrobe.
We also wrote a useful article about how to choose the right dressmaking fabric here.
Find the size you've chosen on the pattern packet and use the table to determine how much fabric you need to buy. There will often be notes for pattern matching stripes or checks and buying a little extra in these instances, but for a beginner I'd recommend going for a plain or a print that doesn't require matching.
The pattern will also provide a list of notions such as interfacing, zips, hooks and eyes, buttons etc that you will need and it is a good idea to order these at the same time so you have everything ready to start sewing. You can usually find everything you need on our website - yay!
Sewing Pattern Instruction Booklet
Inside the packet you will find the instruction booklet. This can look a little overwhelming and some of the terminology and phrases might sound a little scary, but actually it is quite simple.
You will usually be given a list of the pattern pieces you should have inside the packet so you can check everything is there.
A helpful tip is to circle the pattern pieces you need based on the view you have chosen so you can check you've cut out all the pieces you need.
You will find a glossary with some of the more common sewing terminology listed and explained so you can understand the instructions.
It can be useful to refer back to it as you follow the instructions, but also remember you can google these terms and can often find tutorials and videos explaining them if you need any extra help.
There is a key to show you the right and wrong side of your fabric, which is important when cutting out and will also help you to understand the instructions later on.
There are suggested cutting layouts for how to position the pattern pieces on your fabric, however, you don't have to follow these as long as you follow the rules for cutting out each pattern piece (more on this next).
Finally the instructions for how to sew the garment are listed step by step.
Sewing Pattern Pieces
Let's have a look at the pattern pieces themselves. Again, these can look daunting, but there are some key elements for you to focus on.
Firstly, most patterns are multi size these days, which means all the sizes are on the same piece on the pattern tissue or paper. You will need to cut the size you have chosen and grade if necessary as mentioned above.
Vital information on how each piece should be cut out of the fabric is also provided. Normally we fold fabric right sides together before cutting so it is cut on a double layer. The pieces will state to either cut on the fold or 'cut 1 or 2 or 4' etc which means don't cut on the fold rather cut out this number of pieces.
If a piece is not cut on the fold it is important to follow the guidance for the positioning of the straight of grain printed on the pattern piece.
The straight of grain runs through the fabric parallel with the finished edge of the fabric known as the selvedge. Therefore you need to make sure the straight of grain line on your pattern pieces runs parallel with the finished edge of the fabric and measure at several points along the line to make sure this is the case before pinning.
You will also find 'notches', which are little marks that help you to accurately position two pieces of fabric together before sewing. You can mark these by snipping the fabric or using tailors chalk. In some cases you will notice one notch, two notches, three or more and this is to help you understand which ones need to match up together.
There will also be markings for dart positions, on the sleeves to help you position them in the armhole accurately and to show you where to position fastenings etc. You can mark these on your fabric with tailors chalk or marking pens or pencils or use tailors tacks, a little stitch to signify where something should be positioned. Bear in mind the type of fabric you are using and whether marks will be visible when choosing your method.
There are usually markings for the waistline and bust point so you can check these are in the right position for your body. These don't really need to be marked on the fabric, but can be used as a guide when checking your fit if making a toile (practice run in cheap fabric).
If you do find the garment is too long or short for you, you can use the lengthen and shorten lines provided on the pattern pieces to alter the pattern to fit by cutting along the line and overlapping or spreading the pattern pieces to increase or decrease the length.
You will also find information on the finished garment measurements on the pattern pieces of many of the patterns. This tells you what size the actual finished garment will be at the bust, waist and/or hips. This will give you an idea of how loosely it will fit your body when you compare them to your actual body measurements.
Always remember there are lots of additional tutorials available on our YouTube channel and blog plus lots of other alternatives too, which you can use to support your learning.
My biggest piece of advice - don't be scared, get stuck in, what is the worst that could happen?!
Stay tuned for more tutorials and sewing lessons in our beginner tutorial series.
Have fun sewing!
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