How to Read (and understand) a Sewing Pattern

How to Read a Sewing Pattern Envelope

You just picked up your first sewing pattern from your local craft store – now what? 

Sewing patterns are packed with information and technical jargon that can be baffling, overwhelming, and off-putting for a beginner sewer. That’s why today we’re going to walk you step-by-step through how to read a sewing pattern – from the pattern envelope to the pattern, to the instructions – so that you can get started sewing your first pattern with confidence!

How to Read a Sewing Pattern Envelope

How to Read a Sewing Pattern Envelope

The first place to start when going through your pattern is the pattern envelope. This is the information you will usually find on the outside of the pattern envelope: 

  • photos and diagrams of the different views
  • a chart of sizes and corresponding measurements
  • yardage requirements for each size and view
  • finished garment measurements
  • suggested fabrics
  • additional required materials for each view

Next, let’s go through each of these sections in more detail. 

View Photos and Diagrams

Your pattern envelope will usually have a photo (or multiple photos), along with sketches or diagrams of the different “views” of the pattern right on the front of the envelope. Each view is a different version of the pattern that you can make from the pieces included in the envelope. These views are usually assigned letters (starting at ‘A’) to differentiate them so that you can find the correct pieces for each version. 

Your pattern will also usually have diagrams of each view included on the back of the envelope. 

Sizing Chart

Perhaps the most important information on the back of your pattern envelope is the sizing chart.

This chart includes the areas of your body that you will need to measure along the left side, the sizes along the top, and the measurements corresponding to each size inside the chart. For example, in the chart below, a bust measurement of 34 inches, a waist measurement of 26.5 inches and a hip measurement of 36 inches indicate that you should cut a size 12. 

Here is another example of a sizing chart on a different brand of pattern:

Yardage Requirements

The yardage requirements are also included on the back of the pattern envelope and are something you should check before you purchase your fabric. 

This chart has the pattern view and fabric width on the left-hand side. Fabric comes in two different widths – 45 inches and 60 inches – so the yardage requirement will depend on the width of your fabric. The chart will show the different sizes across the top. The interior is filled in with the number of yards of fabric you will need based on the size you will be cutting, the view you will be sewing, and the width of the fabric you will be using. In the chart below, if you are sewing View C in Size 22 from 60” fabric, you will need to purchase 2.5 yards of fabric. 

You will also find the yardage needs for linings at the bottom of this chart. 

Here is another example of a yardage chart (below the sizing chart). This one uses the sizes across the very top of the envelope and lists all the information for each size below it, rather than relisting the sizes for each chart. 

Finished Garment Measurements

You will also often find the finished garment measurements listed on the back of the envelope. This is useful when you get more advanced in your sewing and have an idea of what garment measurement you like, but for now you don’t need to worry much about this. Just focus on the sizing chart!

Suggested Fabrics

Almost every pattern will also have a list of suggested fabrics on the pattern envelope. This is important information because these fabrics are the ones the manufacturer knows will work well for their pattern. Often the pattern just won’t sew up as well if you go outside of the recommendations – not always, but it’s best to start with something that fits within the suggested fabrics if you can. 

Additional Materials

Every pattern will also have a list of additional materials that are required to sew up the pattern (if there are any). This is often labelled as “Additional Materials,” “Requirements,” or “Notions.”

How to Read Sewing Pattern Instructions

How to Read Sewing Pattern Instructions

The beginning of the pattern instructions, before getting into the step-by-step sewing instructions, also has a lot of useful information that can be hard for a beginner sewer to interpret. 

Here is the information you will generally find on the first page of your pattern instructions: 

  • view diagrams
  • diagrams and a list of pattern pieces
  • cutting layouts
  • brief definitions of different terms included in the pattern 

So, how do you use this information? Let’s take a closer look at each piece of information from the front page of your pattern instructions. 

View Diagrams

These pattern companies just love their view diagrams, don’t they? The same diagrams from the outside of the pattern envelope are usually also included on the first page of the instructions. 

List of Pattern Pieces

There will also be a list of pattern pieces, including their assigned number, a diagram, the name of the piece, and which views it is needed for. This is helpful when trying to find all the correct pattern pieces for the view you plan to sew. Some of the pieces may be used for only one view, some may be used for multiple views. 

Cutting Layouts

One of the most important sections of your first page of pattern instructions is the cutting layout diagrams. These diagrams show you visually how to lay out your pattern pieces on the fabric based on the view you are cutting, the width of fabric, and sometimes the size you are cutting. Simply lay your pieces on the fabric according to the diagram and cut them out.

Below, you can see that this particular pattern has several different cutting layouts shown: 

Let’s take a closer look at one of them, the layouts for Views A and B (which are shown together). There are four separate layouts: one for 45” fabric cut in sizes 6-14, one for 45” fabric in sizes 16-22, one for 60” fabric in size 6, and one for 60” fabric in sizes 8-22. 

The cutting layout for the lining is often included separately: 

Here is an example from another pattern: 

This one only has two different layouts for View A, one for 45” fabric and one for 60” fabric.

Definitions of Terms

The final piece of information you will usually find on the first page of pattern instructions is a list of terms, definitions, and other helpful information. This is very useful if you come across a term in the sewing instructions that you don’t understand. Also, your seam allowance is usually listed in this section – so check for the seam allowance before you begin to sew. 

How to Read a Commercial Sewing Pattern

How to Read a Commercial Sewing Pattern

The sewing pattern itself, once pulled from the package and unfolded will have various symbols and markings on it that you will need to understand. These markings are to help you ensure that you cut out and sew together your project correctly. 

These are the most common symbols and markings you will find on the sewing pattern: 

  • cutting lines
  • straight grain markings
  • fold markings
  • lengthen/shorten lines
  • notches
  • circles
  • darts
  • pattern piece numbers and how many to cut
  • waist markings

Below, we will go through each pattern symbol and marking and discuss what information each one conveys and how to use it. 

Cutting Lines

Commercial sewing patterns usually come with several different sizes included. The sizes are usually nested together, and each size will have its own specific cutting line that looks different from the other lines. 

You will need to first figure out what size you’re cutting based on the sizing chart, then find the line that corresponds to that size. Usually, the pattern will have either a legend to display which line type goes to each size, or they will have arrows indicating which line corresponds to each size (as in the photo below). 

Straight Grain Markings

The straight grain marking is an important one to be aware of. This one is indicated by a straight line with an arrow on one or both ends. When you line up your pattern pieces on the fabric, you want to make sure that the straight grain marking on each piece is running up-and-down on the fabric (along the lengthwise grain). This will ensure that your pieces are all cut in the same orientation so that they will drape nicely once sewn together. 

Fold Markings

The fold marking is indicated by a straight line with a downward pointing arrow on each end. This symbol indicates that the edge of the pattern piece that the arrows are pointing toward should be lined up along the fold of your fabric before cutting and should not be cut like the other edges. This is so that once the piece is cut out, you can unfold the fabric and will have two matching sides. 

Lengthen/Shorten Lines

Lengthen/shorten lines are included to show you where you should adjust the pattern from if you need to add or remove length. The lengthen/shorten line is indicated by two parallel lines going all the way across the pattern piece, like in the photo below. 

If you need to remove length, you can fold the pattern piece along the lengthen/shorten line. If you need additional length, you can cut between the parallel lines and add more paper between them to make the piece longer. 

Notches

Notches are marked by little triangles along the edges of your pattern pieces. Wherever you see a notch, you should snip the fabric about ¼ inch in with your scissors to mark the notch location. These notches help you to line up the pieces of fabric correctly while you sew. 

Often, a pattern will have notches with size numbers by them – in this case, snip only the notch corresponding to your size. 

On the other hand, some notches will be alone with no size numbers nearby, meaning you can snip that notch regardless of the size you have cut out.

Circles

Your pattern will likely also have circle markings on it. These circles can be different sizes, but whenever you come across a circle, you will want to mark the location on the fabric piece corresponding to that circle. I often mark my circles with a fabric marker, but you could also mark them with a small piece of thread knotted into the fabric. 

Just like with the notches, some circles may have size numbers next to them. If they do, only mark the one corresponding to the size you cut. 

Darts

If you’re sewing a pattern with any sort of shaping out of a non-stretch fabric, it will likely have a couple of darts. These are shown as large triangles on the pattern, usually formed with a dashed line. 

There will also likely be a dart placement for each size (as in the photo below), so you will need to mark in the lines shown for the dart that corresponds to your size onto the fabric. 

Pattern Piece Number/How Many to Cut

Every pattern piece should have the number assigned in the pattern instructions, sometimes the name of the piece, as well as how many pieces to cut out, printed onto it. This is just for your reference so that you don’t have to continue looking back through the pattern instructions as you cut and sew.

Waist Marking

Finally, another mark that is just there for your reference is the waistline marking. This is usually just a short or long line with the word “waist” or “waistline” printed next to it. The waistline marking is helpful when determining if you will need to make any adjustments to your pattern – if you hold up the pattern piece up to your body (or pin it to your clothes), the waistline marking should hit at your natural waist, which is the narrowest part of your torso. 

I hope you’re feeling a little more confident about tackling sewing your first pattern up! I promise, all it takes is practice and patience, and you’ll be a pro in no time. 

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