Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Demystifying Sewing Patterns


So - you’ve got your first sewing pattern and are ready to make that garment. But what on Earth does all that stuff on the envelope mean?! Navigating and deciphering the text on a sewing pattern cover for the first time can make your eyes glaze over and your brain ache. A whole load of information is crammed into a small space, numbers jumping all over the place. 

No need to fear though! It's easy to understand sewing pattern envelopes once you get to grips with them. Let's break it down…

Front cover


Pattern number → Most patterns have numbers which act as a product identification code to help you find a particular pattern. Smaller indie companies often give their patterns names too.

Size → While vintage patterns are often one size only, modern patterns tend to come nested in multiple sizes, allowing you to mix and match your measurements. Do still pay attention to this part though, as some companies sell two or more versions of a pattern in different size brackets.

Design variations → While some patterns are for one fixed design only, many offer a few different style options. The pattern illustrated above, for example, includes different necklines, hem length, sleeves, waistline tabs, and even a jacket.

Pattern envelopes also include photos, graphic illustrations, or sometimes both, for each design. Use your imagination here to picture the garment on your own body in a fabric of your choosing.


Back cover


Fabric suggestions → This will give you an idea of the kinds of fabrics that will suit the garment. It isn't a definitive list - go ahead and pick something off list which is similar in weight, drape etc to the fabrics listed. Just beware using knit fabrics (eg. jersey) for patterns suggesting only woven fabrics (eg. cotton, wool etc) and vice versa, as stretch can alter the shape and size of the garment.

Notions will be listed here too - the additional bits and bobs to put on your shopping list, such as the number and size of any buttons, the length of zipper etc. (Don’t forget to buy thread too!)

Body measurements → These numbers refer to the size of the body that the pattern is to fit, in inches (see below for cm). The measurements included are usually bust (around the fullest part), waist, hip and length of torso. Does your bust, hip and waist ratio match one of these columns exactly? Lucky you! Most of us, however, have larger bits and smaller bits, so will need to combine different sizes (eg. size 12 bust and waist with size 14 hip, or whatever). (We’ll look at fitting in more detail in a separate post.)

Pattern size → The pattern size is usually listed either in numbers which are supposed to correspond to ready-to-wear dress sizes (8/10/12 etc) or sometimes in S/M/L. Personally I consider these a red herring, as those sizes mean totally different things to different people. I prefer to pay close attention to body measurements (above) to pick out the pattern (or combination) that fits me.

Fabric requirements → This refers to the length of fabric that you need, in yards, to make the garment (see below for metres). Once you've picked your pattern size (based on your body measurements), follow the column down to the corresponding fabric requirement listing. Often the pattern will give you a couple of different fabric widths (eg. 45" / 60"), as the size of fabric rolls varies. If a pattern includes design variations, it may list different requirements for those two. The lengths given are often generous (sometimes ridiculously so), so sometimes you can get away with less – but do check the pattern layout first.

Sometimes a pattern will list a different yardage for fabrics with nap. Fabrics with “nap” are types such as corduroy and velvet - they have pile lying in a particular direction which looks slightly different from different angles. They often require more fabric to make sure the lay of the pile is all going in the same direction when you stitch the garment together. The same applies to fabrics with snazzy designs going in one direction only.

If you need interfacing and/or lining fabric, the pattern will list these too.

Garment measurements → These numbers refer to measurements of parts of the finished garment. These are sometimes printed in more detail on the pattern pieces too. Garment measurements are usually bigger than body measurements, even if it's a fitted garment, to account for "ease" to allow you to move around in it. It’s useful to compare the two, as ease varies between different pattern companies - subtract the body measurements from the garment measurements to work out the ease allowance. You may want to change the ease allowance for a closer or looser fit, depending on your preference. (We'll look at ease in more detail in a separate post.)


Metric version → Many sewing patterns present all this information in French as well as English. This is actually really useful for anglophones who uses the metric system of measurements. Body measurements are presented in cm and fabric requirements in metres, rather than inches and yards. (Some indie pattern companies helpfully list both.)

See? That wasn't so bad after all!

Although it is a LOT of information to digest, so I'll go into the inside of a pattern in another post if you would find that helpful.

Liked this? Read other posts in the Learn to Sew series.

38 comments:

  1. this post was so so helpful!!! Thank you so much for posting this. I would absolutely love for you to post about the inside of the pattern as well as customizing patterns to fit you so that you can make your own wardrobe. I can't wait to read them and get started on using the patterns I've bought that are collecting dust!

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  2. What a useful post, thank you - I've done classes for years now and still get confused sometimes!

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  3. For ease, I've learned that while it *can* differ, the standard seems to be two inches of wearing ease. So take your body measurements and add two inches and if they match, it'll fit! ;)

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    1. It's good to have a simple way to remember it like that, although ease is usually different for different parts of the body (more for the bust to allow you to breathe...) and some pattern companies can add up to 4"! So I always check the finished measurements if they're listed.

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  4. Wish I'd seen this years ago lol!!

    Thing I have found- particularly on certain manufacturers ease (New Look, yes you) that despite the pattern sizing saying I'm an 18-20, when I look at the pattern pieces, the measurements show a 16 would actually fit better (not helpful in the case of Vogue where their multisize goes up to a 16 and I have to take a risk on it fitting :D

    As for the dual information - most useful for those of us in England who still use imperial measurements, but find shops only sell in metres.....
    Either that or I just buy the yargade figure in case I make a mistake (very common)

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    1. Yes, it's always worth checking the finished garment measurements! And much easier if the pattern lists both metres and yards.

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  5. Very useful - I bought a pattern and was totally stumped with how much fabric to buy, so this is great.

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  6. These posts are so great! I'm trying to get back into sewing and, as I was mostly self taught in the first place, still stumble...a lot! So I'm really looking forward to these posts to help me learn and refresh and generally make the whole thing a bit less scary! Thanks Tilly!

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  7. Very well done! Patterns can be daunting, but I think you did a great job in breaking it down and making it seem less frightening. Keep it coming :)

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  8. Even thought I know all this already, I can see that this is a wonderfully done post that will definitely help people who are just starting out. The graphics are lovely!

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  9. Patterns are like Greek to me, Tilly, so I do appreciate your explaining them. I'd really like it if you'd do the pattern, too. I recently helped my sister sew up some jumpers-a dress to go over a shirt, here in the U.S.-and I know I made mistakes because I didn't understand all the marks and arrows and such. Thanks for doing this!

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  10. love this post
    so informative, can you with this mix the top measurements and bottom meaurements because some of us ladies aren't hourglass?

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    1. Yes! See what I wrote under 'body measurements' above. Basically you just draw a new line blending the sizes you want for each body area. I'll demonstrate in a later post...

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  11. Great post! I would love to have you break down the inside of a pattern... I am new to sewing and could use all the help I can get. :)

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  12. It's funny - I only started sewing last October and beforehand I thought I'd NEVER be able to understand patterns, in fact it was what had put me off for so long! But within weeks I could read and follow the basics. I wish I'd had your guide before I got going tho, it would made things so much easier!

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  13. Thanks so much for this post! I have a few patterns saved to try but the endless text on the backs always gave me pause.

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  14. Tilly, it's wonderful that you are presenting this information. I wish I had found this before I started learning to sew 3 years ago. But I guess learning by doing is the best way, perhaps? Keep up the great posts :)

    Katrina, first time poster but longtime reader and lurker

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  15. Thanks for your supportive comments, everyone - I'm so glad you find this post useful!

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  16. What a wonderful post! You are really good at explaining things! But my favourite thing about it has to be the sleek design of your pictures. A treat for the eyes!

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  17. Thankyou SO much for posting this! I'm a newbie to sewing, and the mass of info on the pattern covers confuses me so much (not to mention scares me to bits! Lol) :)

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  18. My biggest frustration with patterns is in the sizing. I now just make my 'rack size' because if I take my measurements I 'should' make a couple of sizes larger and then if I do that it just swims on me. To me it feels like pattern companies have kept the more traditional measurements but changed their pattern pieces to more modern sizes - or maybe they just think we all like swimming around in our clothes..... I know I'm not the only one who has this issue but then when I read a lot of other sewing blogs they never seem to comment on this..... I'd be interested if you ever have this issue??

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    1. Hi Miriam
      I used to share that frustration too, as different pattern companies apply a different amount of ease to the garments. But if you take a look at the pattern and compare the body size measurements to the finished garment measurements you can see how much ease has been added and change it if you want to. I usually keep at least 2" for the bust (so I can breathe!), 1" for the waist (so I can eat!), and 1 or 2" for the hips (to sit down) depending on how fitted the garment is.
      I hope this helps!

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    2. Thanks I'll have a look as ease next time :o)

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  19. thanks so much for sharing the knowledge. i was still abit confused about some of the info and have been hit and miss when making commercial pattern clothing

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  20. I'm enjoying the new posts to your Learners/Beginners series Tilly :)!

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  21. this is great... now what do I do once I open the envelope??? :)

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  22. Having just bought my first pattern this is extremely helpful in making me feel more confident on where to start.

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  23. Just what I needed as I've just bought my first ever pattern :-)

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  24. Well written post, I teach dressmaking as well as doing lots of upcycling myself. Understanding the pattern often puts people off starting at all! I'll be directing people to your blog. You were great on the Sewing Bee by the way!!

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  25. Wish I'd read this before I bought my first pattern. Especially the bit about how much material to buy, my skirt could have been half the price! Excellent blog,thank you.

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  26. This blog post is hugely useful, thank you very much for taking the time to write it. So often people dive straight in to teaching you how to sew before going through the definitions of sewing terms and pattern markings. This is such a valuable resource, I'm printing it out and tucking it in my sewing box!

    I've recently started contributing to a blog for Needlecase (www.blog.needlecase.co.uk), we're not doing so bad on writing about knitting but we certainly need to up our blogging on sewing. You've provided some inspiration for that here.

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  27. A hugely helpful blog post, thank you very much - Rachael

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  28. I recentlu bought a pattern for capri's, size 18, 20, 22, 24, and I know my measurements but after I goy them sewn they didn't fit, they wouldn't come over my thighs so I had my mom to try them on and they fit her perfectly, (size 12), all I did was adjusted the elastic for her. What went wrong? I am very pizzled and stomped. Now I'm scared to try to make anything else for fear of the same thing happening again. I need help please.

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  29. This is the kind of help I'm looking for. Thank you so much for taking the time to take pictures and write all this out. You have no idea how helpful this is for me!

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  30. Quick question. The front of my pattern says size 2-3-4 and the back lists fabric requirements for 1-2-3-4. Will I be able to sew the size 1 with my pattern? Thanks

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