How to Read a Sewing Pattern

Reading a pattern…sounds easy enough, right? Of course. That is, once you’ve actually acquired sewing skills. But what if you have no sewing skills? Or very few?  I would advise the early beginner to be on the look out for a few things, and to know you’re not alone when the confusion of your first pattern sets in.



While many big brands develop patterns labeled “easy”, they don’t always seem to be created with the true beginner in mind. Meaning, while the garment construction may in fact be simple — with the correct set of skills — the instructions leave out vital information we have yet to be exposed to.

Google, again, is your best friend. Most often pattern instructions are peppered with things like “ease”, “baste”, “slip stitch”, “lap a scant 5/8” (excuse me?), etc. What do these mean to a beginner? Nada. Good thing I’m highly skilled at googling, because no where to be found in most patterns are glossaries listing terminology. Even though the DIY community seems alive and well, you’d think big brands would take this into consideration, knowing home sewing is an art form on life support with younger generations.

Brands, hold my attention — don’t send me off to google and away from your product — provide me with all of the information I need for a seamless sewing experience. I’d rather have an understanding of steps the pattern maker intended I complete than one from a random person on the internet. Sewists, for now, you’ll have to rely on the random person on the internet. Good news is, she’s often a fabulous Brit who’s been sewing for ages.

Pick the right size and don’t sweat the number

It may sound like a no-brainer, but for a beginner who comes to this hobby without prior exposure, it’s a valuable bit of knowledge. Pattern sizing is not the same as ready to wear sizing. Don’t base the pattern size you choose off of the dress size you wear. Instead, invest in a soft measuring tape and measure yourself in the key areas of the bust, waist and hips (B-W-H). Continue to measure yourself from time-to-time so you can account for any fluctuation in weight. Don’t let the size on the chart impact your self esteem. It’s literally just a number, a code, assigned by the brand. It might as well be gibberish.


Pick the pattern size that most closely matches you’re B-W-H measurements. Don’t fret if they’re not exact. Follow the guidelines below:

Blouse – pick the size with the accurate bust measurement

Skirt – pick the size with the accurate hip measurement

Dress – same as the skirt; pick the size with the accurate hip measurement

Slacks/Shorts – pick the size with the accurate hip measurement

If you have to, round up to a bigger size so have enough fabric to take the garment in where needed.

Measure the pattern pieces

Lay the pattern flat and measure the key areas — will this size work for you? If not, plan accordingly. Go up or down a size, and plan known alterations a head of time.

Make known alterations in the beginning

The most beautiful part of sewing is that you’re creating a piece of clothing that you have control over. Yes, you’re following a guideline in a pattern, but you have control over nipping and tucking where needed.

Not only will you make sure to pick the pattern size that most closely matches your  measurements, but you’ll make quick alterations to the pattern if they’re needed. Most patterns come with lengthen/shorten lines which make it easy to move the waist line, hip line or hem line.

To lengthen, cut the pattern at the lengthen line and secure a piece of paper, measured to correct amount of length needed, to the pattern with masking tape.

You can also move darts if needed. This may be tricky for a beginner but it’s helpful to know this is possible. Darts should point to the apex of the bust (fullest point) – on your body take a measurement from your shoulder seam down to the apex and then from 1-2″ down from the under arm on the side seam to the apex. Do these measurements match the pattern’s measurements? If not, it’s possible to move and lengthen the dart so it will land in the correct spot.

Fabric and Notions

Check the width of the fabric you’re looking to use. They don’t always come in the same widths that are listed on the envelope. I do a lot of rounding – for example, if I choose fabric that is 54 inches wide, I will buy a little less than what the pattern suggests for 60 inch fabric.

Notions are the items you’ll need out side of fabric, like zippers, buttons, hook and eyes.

Also, be on the look out for interfacing measurements. Patterns will also let you know how much interfacing you’ll need. Interfacing is often iron-on facing you’ll adhere to pieces like collars and cuffs to make them stiff enough to hold their shape.


Flat Lines

I’m always so drawn to the illustrations on the envolpe but I often realize I’ve missed features of the garment that weren’t easy to make out through the illustration. Take a look at the flat drawings (seen below) to get a feel for the actual design of the garment. This will help you determine if the pattern is truly right for your figure.


Right and Wrong Sides

Every pattern will indicate how it identifies the right and wrong sides of fabric. You’ll need to be aware of this when following the diagrams/instructions.

I tend to make a muslin sample of each project before I cut into the real fabric and since muslin sides usually look identical I will write “Correct” and “Wrong” there on the muslin. Side note: I think the use of “right” is confusing…sometimes patterns reference the right and left sides of the garment as well as the right and wrong sides of the fabric. Things get a little hectic.


Pattern Layout

Sometimes the suggested layouts waste a bit of fabric. It’s ok to move pieces around in a way that best conserves the yardage, however, be sure to pay attention to grain lines and any other indications like pieces that must be placed on the fold.


Grain line

Grain line is the way in which fabric is woven. Think of the way corduroy looks but on a smaller scale. Patterns will show a long arrow on each pattern piece — when you’re placing your pieces on the fabric prior to cutting make sure the lines are running with the fabric’s grain. I’ve recently made the mistake of forgetting to pay attention to the grain line indications and the garment ended up being a bit of a flop.


On the back of the pattern envelope you will see the amount of fabric needed for fabrics with a nap – this is referencing fabrics with a pile like velvet and fur where the fibers lie in a particular direction.


That should do it for now! Reading patterns and following sewing instructions can be a challenge, but part of the fun in sewing is figuring out the puzzle. Take it slow and keep it cool. Good luck!


2 thoughts on “How to Read a Sewing Pattern

  1. I’m loving your blog! I’m so glad you started it, just as I decided to get into sewing. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

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