When I first started learning to sew, I put off learning how to read a sewing pattern for a long time. Almost a year! I made projects with homemade patterns I designed using my own measurements or just used simple patterns I found online. I’m somewhat impulsive when it comes to projects, and I tend to want to jump right in without worrying about the details. This is not a good approach to sewing. 🙂
But learning how to read a sewing pattern is an important step in your sewing journey. Not only does it open up a world of projects to you, it strengthens your foundational sewing knowledge!
This post breaks out how to read a sewing pattern into three parts: the outside of a pattern, the pattern’s inset sheet, and the pattern pieces themselves. Remember, your pattern may not be laid out exactly like mine is, but all patterns usually have the same basic sections.
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Reading the Outside of a Pattern…
This is the front of a McCall’s brand pattern. The top-right corner shows the pattern number (M6886) and below that is the range of sizes included (6-8-10-12-14). The front of this pattern also shows the different “views” of the dress you can make using the same pattern. A “view” basically just means that the shell is the same; in this case, you can customize the sleeves, length, and neckline for different views.
Pattern companies label the difficulty level of their patterns differently. Here is how some of the bigger companies do it:
- McCall’s has a Learn to Sew for Fun section for “very easy” patterns. They label the rest using easy, average, and advanced.
- Butternick groups its easiest patterns in “see & sew.” They label the rest using easy, average, and advanced.
- Vogue has a Very Easy Vogue section and also use easy, average, and advanced.
- Kwik Sew has a KWIKStart Learn-to-Sew line.
- Simplicity labels their easy patterns and sometimes even includes a time estimation, such as “easy 1 hour” or “easy 2 hours.”
When you flip this pattern over, you can see the sizing on the flap. Choose your size by using your measurements in inches for bust, waist, hips, and if necessary, your back waist length. (See a video about how to take your measurements here!)
Tip: Your sewing pattern size will likely be very different from the size you buy in stores. If you are in between sizes, size up. For example, my measurements are 35 bust, 26 waist, 37 hips. This puts me between a size 12 and 14, so I went with a size 14. (Remember the front of the pattern lists the sizes the pattern is for, and mine is for 6-8-10-12-14.)
Here is the back of the pattern:
Box 1 says that your fabric should have enough stretch to reach from one arrow to the next. Below is a larger view of box 2; it tells you how many yards of 60″-wide fabric you need. For example, a size 14 in view A requires 1.5 yards of fabric. Notice that a size 14 in a different view might require more or less fabric.
This section also lists suggested fabrics for this pattern.
Below is a larger view of box 3, the finished garment measurements section. Your finished garment measurements will be larger than your body measurements because you need to be able to get the clothing on and off, as well as function in it. You don’t need to worry too much about these, but they are a good reference.
Below is a larger view of box 4, which is a snapshot of each view. Along with your size, you’ll need to know which view you want to make so that you can buy the appropriate amount of fabric.
Reading the Pattern’s Inset Sheet…
Once you’ve purchased the right pattern, pull out the pattern’s inset sheet. The top left of my inset sheet shows illustrations for each view.
Look below this section to see which pattern pieces you’ll need for the view you choose to make. “A” is listed for pieces 1, 6, and 2. (Technically, no view is listed for piece 2. In this case, that means that all views use piece 2.)
The back of my sheet includes Sewing Information and Glossary sections. These include a fabric key; seam allowance measurements; info on pinning, fitting, and pressing; and key terms the sewing directions use.
Below these sections is the Sewing Directions section. Make sure you’re following the directions for the view you choose.
Reading Your Pattern Pieces…
Your pattern pieces will be labeled and will have what looks like a zillion lines, dashes, and markings on them. It can be a bit overwhelming at first–don’t worry!
Tip: Give your pattern pieces a very light iron on low heat. This will take out all of the wrinkles and make them easier to work with.
Remember how this pattern is for sizes 6-8-10-12-14? Below shows the cut lines for each size. Each line has a slightly different print to help you tell then difference when you’re tracing or cutting!
At the right side of this photo, you can also see that it says CUT HERE FOR A, E. This is the pattern piece for the sleeve, and that line tells you to cut there if you need the sleeves for views A and E (short sleeves!).
You’ll also notice several other markings on your pattern pieces, the most critical being the triangles, or notches. These are match points to help you line up pieces of fabric when sewing them together.
Tip: For a great explanation of sewing pattern symbols, check out this chart!
Instead of cutting up your patterns, I suggest using Swedish Tracing Paper to copy the cut lines and pattern markings. This preserves the patterns, letting you use them again!
Here are the cut lines and pattern markings for view A’s sleeve copied onto the tracing paper. Perfect!
You can use these pieces to cut your fabric; remember to transfer pattern markings onto your fabric pieces using a water-soluble marker!
I hope this post helped you better understand how to read a sewing pattern. Now I just need to get around to making this dress!