4 February 2013

Understanding Sewing Pattern Markings

What do all those lines, dots and crosses on a sewing pattern mean? And what should you do with them?

Cutting lines
A multisized sewing pattern will have the cutting lines for different sized pattern pieces nested within each other. The different sizes are usually differentiated by different styles of dashed lines. Pick out the lines that match your size – you may find it helpful to draw over them in a coloured pen. These are the lines you should be cutting to get your pattern pieces.
Grainline arrow
A long, double-pointed arrow across your pattern pieces indicates the grainline. You don’t need to mark these arrows on your fabric – they’re just there to help you position the pattern pieces so they're going in the right direction in relation to the way your fabric will hang fabric.

Line up the grainline parallel to the selvedge, ie. running lengthwise down the fabric. An easy way to do this is to start by sticking a pin in one end of the grainline arrow. Measure the distance from the arrow to the selvedge. Now pivot the piece so that the other end of the arrow is the same distance away from the selvedge. Once you’re happy with the positioning, pin the other end of the arrow to hold it in place.

Place on fold arrow
Another kind of arrow you may see is one with two little sticky-outy bits like the image above. This indicates that you need to line up the cutting line the arrow is pointing too with the folded edge of your fabric before cutting it out (read this if you don't know what I'm talking about). The pattern piece only represents half the fabric piece, so placing it on the fold means you'll end up with one symmetrical whole piece. Make sense?

Darts are triangular – or curved – shapes stitched into the garment to help mould the fabric around the body’s curve. On a pattern, the lines of the dart are usually marked by a triangle (or a curved “triangle” – or whatever that shape is called! – for a curved dart. I’ve singled out one size of dart here so you can see the shape more clearly.

I like to mark dart "legs" using dressmakers’ carbon and a tracing wheel. You can also use a chalk pencil, tailor’s tacks or your own preferred method. (Read all about transferring pattern markings here.) Mark them on the wrong side of the fabric so you can align the lines when it comes to stitching them. I've added a red line down the middle in the image above - I like to mark the central line in on my fabric to help fold it accurately.

Notches will be indicated on your pattern by either a little triangle or a small perpendicular line along the cutting lines. If there are two next to each other, that indicates the back side of a sleeve or armhole. Marking the notches on your fabric will help you match up the pieces accurately when it comes to sewing them together.

A single snip is a better idea than cutting a triangle, IMHO – firstly, it’s quicker, and secondly, it’ll make your fabric less likely to tear or distort out of shape. Make sure the snips are shorter than your seam allowance so they won’t show on the outside of your garment.

Gather points
Gather points are usually marked either by little circles or crosses. They show you where to start and stop a line of gather stitching, such as when creating a puffed sleeve.

I like to mark them by sticking a pin straight through pattern and fabric, then making a little dot where the pin comes out with a chalk pencil or washable pen.

Buttonholes are marked by short lines that look like, well, buttonholes. You don’t need to mark them on both bodice pieces, as one side will have buttons on instead, of course! Women’s clothing usually does up right over left (as my pattern teacher would say, “Women’s clothing does up right over left, because women are always right”. Totally sexist, admittedly, but memorable!)

Some patterns include the position for buttons too, marked either by a circle or a cross on top of the buttonhole markings. I’ve left them off the Mathilde Blouse pattern because it’s a good idea to mark them in right before sewing the buttons on, so that you know they’re going to go in the right positions in relation to the finished buttonholes. Buttons tend to ride up so they should sit 3mm / 1/8” down from the top of a vertical buttonhole or inwards from the side of a horizontal buttonhole.

Fold lines and tuck lines
Your pattern may have other markings on it too. On the Mathilde Blouse, for example, the pattern includes folding and stitching lines for the tucks, and a fold line for the back opening.

While other markings are usually made on the wrong side of the fabric, it’s a lot easier to fold these lines into place if you mark them on the right side of the fabric (just double check your marking tool rubs or washes off!). For long lines, I like to mark the ends with either pen or scissors, then use a long ruler to draw the lines between these markings directly onto the fabric.

I think that covers many of the most common markings you're likely to find on your pattern. Hope it makes a bit more sense now!

Like this? You might also like:
Demystifying Sewing Patterns
Before You Cut Your Fabric
Marking & Cutting Fabric
Sewing Construction: The Basics
How to Make a Mathilde Blouse


  1. Once I get my hands on some fabric, I cant wait to go through all your newbie tutorials from scratch and get learning!

    1. Brilliant! Sewing is so much fun - you'll love it.

  2. I just wanted to say I love your blog, these posts are so informative and yet easy enough for a mostly-self-taughter like me to understand :)

  3. Very clear and full of good to know-stuff, as always!

    On a side-note: it's a bit funny about the "women are always right", that's the same trick as I give my students for remembering who stands on which side during couple's dancing! (Goes for both medieval dance and lindy hop) Whenever in doubt, just remember "the lady is always right" =) Everyone laughs a little, and from there on they all remember on which side to stand.

  4. This is such a useful post! I'll save it for later reading!
    Thank you for sharing!

  5. Tilly where were you about 4 years ago when I started sewing?? seriously though these posts are awesome, your explanations are really clear and concise. And congratulations on your first pattern it's beautiful! did you do all the grading etc by yourself?

    1. Thank you so much? I outsourced the grading to a professional service with the CAD technology to grade it more accurately than I ever could.

  6. Wow, I'm so excited to try your blouse pattern, it's so beautiful! I'm just starting out in sewing and started my own blog (www.sleeksilhouette.com) in the same way as I think you started yours, trying to help others who are newbies too. I've just stumbled upon yours and am amazed by all your newbie tutorials, I shall definitely be using them! I really want to learn how to draft my own patterns, and seeing that you started in 2010 and now have your first pattern out makes me so excited by the possibilities!!
    Congratulations. xxx

    1. I love your blog! New follower here :)

  7. Tilly
    I love these posts, always checking for new ones. I,m trying to learn, thoug sometimes I get very frustrated and abandone it... for me the hardest part is the fitting!!!

    Greetings from Spain

    1. Yeah, fitting can be a bit of a nightmare! But once you get to know your own body and the particular adjustments you need to make, it does get easier.

  8. hi, my name is Marta I authored the blog Oh, Mother Mine! In my blog also taught sewing through tutorials. I found you and I love your blog. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge. Here you have a new follower ;D


  9. I would really really love to learn how to sew but first i need to raise some money to buy a sewing machine. But i will continue learning the theory before i put it in practice.

  10. Brilliant! I have an old pyjama pattern which I have taken out and looked at several times but been too confused to tackle. Now I think I understand! I am going to measure the kids in the morning and go fabric shopping!

  11. I learned the button thing at work. I had one mad who would always get mad if you put his belt one backwards "All you girls do it like it's your belt. You see, a man's buttons and belt go THIS way."

  12. Help! I haven't cut my pattern piece yet because for a neckline it shows two solid lines, one says neckline and the under it, less than 1/4" it says fold line? Not sure what to cut on and what I'm folding? I have to make a casing for a gathered neckline with elastic. The food line is too narrow for the casing. Can u get what I'm asking?

  13. Hej from Copenhagen.

    Love the book and also just bought some patterns, thank you.

    Is all the patterns included with sew allowance? I am used to add it to the pattern, and that might explain, why the final results are a bit on the large size 😄

    Kind regards

    1. Hello Randi! Thank you for your support! No need to add seam allowances with any of our patterns. They all contain 1.5cm (5/8in) seam allowance, so you can cut them out and use them as they are!

      Hope this helps - happy sewing :)


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