How To Follow A Sewing Pattern
One of the first skills a beginning sewer must learn is how to interpret pattern marks and instructions. Most of these are straightforward, but it never hurts to have a lesson to get you started.
Choosing the Right Size
Before you buy a pattern, take the essential measurements needed to choose the right size.
Examples of required measurements may include:
- Length from base of the neck to waist along the spine
- Length from waist to ankle on outside of the leg
The back of every pattern has a list of measurements for each size. Most patterns cover several sizes. Choose the pattern closest to the size you need. If you’re buying for a child, try to choose a size with size options to use as the child grows.
Now lets move on to the next step in learning how to follow a sewing pattern!
Choose the View You Want
Most patterns also have a choice of minor style differences or embellishments. These are called “views” and are lettered on the front and back of the pattern. Different views require different amounts or types of fabric. For example, the pattern I am using to make outfits for my granddaughters includes views for a top with or without sleeves, a dress, and stretch pants.
Ruffles or pockets are some embellishments that may be included as different views. I want to point out here that it is not always possible to find exactly what you have in mind in a pattern book. As you gain experience, you can combine patterns or modify a pattern to meet your creative view rather than the stricter views pictured on the front.
Choosing the Right Fabric
Also included on the back of the pattern envelope is the type of fabric recommended, such as cotton, broadcloth, or stretch knits. In addition, the pattern will list the amount of material needed for available widths of fabric, such as 44-45 inches or 60 inches.
Choosing a wider fabric will make little difference when laying out the pattern. However, if you buy a narrower than recommended fabric, you may need to buy an extra amount to accommodate the pattern pieces. A rule of thumb: buy twice as much if your fabric is too narrow. But before you buy it at all, look at the instruction page to ensure the pattern pieces will fit on narrower fabric when it is opened flat.
Notions are pattern requirements beyond fabric, such as buttons, zippers, or interfacing. The back of the pattern will list notions along with sizes and amounts needed. Consult this section to ensure you have all you need to complete the project.
Every person has their own unique body dimensions. You cannot expect a pattern to fit every body type, no matter how hard the designers may try. For this reason, patterns have double horizontal lines on critical pieces to mark the ideal place to make adjustments without altering the fit and style of the finished garment.
To shorten, you’ll need to fold, or cut and overlap, at the double lines. Make sure you make the same changes to the front and back pieces. To lengthen, cut the pattern apart at the double line and separate the pieces by the desired amount. If you want to make this a permanent change, glue or tape a piece of blank pattern paper between the original parts. It’s a good idea to write the pattern piece number, size, and view on the separated piece so you don’t lose track of which go together.
Prepping the Fabric
Natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, or wool may shrink, so they should be pre-washed and dried. Zigzag the cut edges before washing to prevent raveling. Iron the fabric after washing if it wrinkles or develops creases in the drier.
Lay the fabric out with the manufacturer’s finished (selvage) edges together. The lengthwise grain is parallel to the selvage edge. Crosswise grain is parallel to the cut ends of the fabric, at a 90° angle to the lengthwise grain.
Prep the Pattern Pieces
The instructions included in the pattern will have a list of the pieces needed for each view and size. It also includes a drawing of recommended ways to lay the pattern pieces on the fabric. Find the pieces you need and cut them from the large pattern printouts. Once you’re sure you have all the pieces you need, carefully refold the extra pieces along previous fold lines and replace them in the pattern envelope.
Trim the pattern pieces close to or at the edges. Separate them for different colors or types of fabric. If you must make length adjustments, cut at the double lines.
Lay Out the Pattern
Trimming to size
No matter what the back of the patterns tells you about measurements, it’s always a good idea to measure the pattern itself before trimming along the correct, marked size lines on each pattern piece. Make sure to add seam allowances to your measurements.
Each size will have a different type of line, a combination of shorter and longer lines. You have the choice of completely removing the markings for larger sizes or of snipping and turning the extra paper under for use at a later date. If you are sewing for a child and they really love the pattern, you may want to save larger sizes for continued use. Or you may need it if you’re making matching outfits for siblings.
Whether you follow the instruction’s recommended layout or not, you must follow the directional lines or instructions found on each piece. A long, solid line with an arrow at each end marks how the lengthwise grain should run for that pattern piece. Some pieces will be placed lengthwise on the material, some crosswise, and some diagonal to the grain.
Turn each fabric piece until the arrow lines up with the lengthwise grain, and it will be positioned correctly. Follow the directions as carefully as you can. If your fabric is too narrow, you can fold the material with the raw-cut edges together and use the crosswise grain as you would lengthwise. But make sure any printed pattern on the fabric will make sense cut in this way. For example, you don’t want upsidedown or sideways animals.
Some pieces will need to be lined up against the fold of the fabric. Look for a line that bends with arrows pointing at the edge to be placed along the fold.
Often interfacing is used to help certain parts of a garment keep their proper shape and position. If your pattern uses interfacing, instructions will be printed on the pattern pieces. Collars or facing pieces are most likely to require interfacing.
Lining up fabric patterns
If your fabric has a repeating pattern that you want to line up, you may have to lay out the pattern on the cross-grain. Matching repeating patterns or lines can also require extra fabric. Therefore, I recommend increasing your fabric purchase by 50 percent for lining up printed or woven patterns.
Special markings on patterns such as notches, darts, buttonhole locations, or dots can be transferred to the fabric during the cutting process. Or you can mark these special features as you come to them. Some sewers get carried away and mark everything, even seam allowances. This is not necessary and is time-consuming. It is best to mark only what is truly needed to professionally assemble the garment.
Notches are triangular markings along the edges of the pattern pieces. They can be cut either into or out from the pattern (I prefer out). These notches are very important, so don’t ignore them. They will help ensure you are properly aligning your pattern pieces before you sew a seam. If they don’t line up, you know something is wrong, such as sewing the left sleeve in the right-side armhole. So, to prevent mistakes, always cut out the notches on all your pattern pieces.
Next to notches, darts can be difficult to measure and sew correctly without tracing them on the fabric. If you are a beginning sewer, you should try to choose a pattern without darts for your first project. It shouldn’t be too hard, as they’re not as popular as they used to be.
Dots can be important to mark where a zipper should end or other key meeting places for your pattern. You may wait until you get to that point in the directions before deciding if a dot needs to be marked.
You will probably need to mark buttonhole or pocket locations and pleats with some method. Sometimes chalk or a fabric marker will do. Other times you may use a straight pin for immediate tasks.
Follow the instructions.
Most patterns come with straightforward, step-by-step instructions for assembling. Follow the instructions carefully and you should have no problem producing beautiful handmade clothing.
Sewing instructions follow a logical sequence, and after using a few different patterns you will begin to understand how basic garments are put together. Then you can start thinking about modifications or even making your own pattern from scratch.
Caring for patterns
I have some patterns that I’ve used for decades and could still use them for decades more. I also have some that have been given to me and are a mess, with rips and missing pieces or instructions.
Many basic patterns never seem to go out style, especially for children. Others come back into mode periodically with some small twist that will have you pulling them out and dressing them up.
Fold pattern pieces on the original fold lines if possible and replace them in the pattern envelope as soon as you are finished with them. Don’t put them away too soon, as you may find you’ve missed an important mark and will have to pull them out again.
Some people keep their patterns in ziplock bags. I have done this with older patterns. However, keeping the patterns in a cool, dry storage space can make other protection unnecessary.
Use pattern weights instead of pins to avoid holes and tears along the pattern edges. I also use a tracing wheel as little as possible, as it can cause major damage after a few uses. But if you need the markings at first, use them.
Books and online sites can help you understand pattern vocabulary and usage as well as the best storage methods. Patterns have become more expensive over the last few years, and buying one is an investment. Protect that investment by taking care of delicate pieces. You will benefit with a lifetime of sewing pleasure.