Patterns… Demystified!

on May 7 | in Sewing + Quilting Tips, Sewing Tutorials + Patterns | by | with 114 Comments

This article was written by Lara. Enjoy her introduction and thornberry blog, then prepare to feel much more confident in your understanding of clothing patterns starting… Now!:

Patterns Demystified ~ Starting to sew clothing from patterns

Selecting a pattern
If you are just beginning to sew for yourself, choose a relatively simple pattern. Something that is simple in style, not too fitted and without fancy details is a good starting point. Lounge pants with elasticized waists, smock style tops, or A-line skirts could be a good choice. Have a look at the pattern photos and/or illustrations and the line drawings that accompany it, checking both the front and back views. Many pattern companies have their catalogues available online. This can be a great way to compare styles and while away the hours!


Tips for style selection
Have a good look in the mirror, and a look at the clothes that are already in your wardrobe. What styles suit you the most? Which clothes are your favorites? Why? How tight or loose do you like your clothes to be? This is called ease. Clothing needs a certain amount of ease so that you can move in it! The rest of the ease is design ease, which is part of the style. Measure some of your favorite clothes and compare the clothing measurements to your measurements to work out how much ease you prefer your clothing to have.

Tips for size selection
You need to measure yourself before you decide what size pattern to buy. Commercial patterns are sized quite differently to ready-to-wear clothes.

Choose skirt and pant pattern size according to your hip measurement, and top and dress pattern size according to your bust measurement if you are a B cup or smaller, or high bust measurement if you are a C cup or above. If you are a C cup or above you can make a full bust adjustment (FBA) to accommodate your bust measurement, and you will have a better fit around your upper chest, shoulders and neck. We’ll learn more about full bust adjustments next week on the blog.

Once you have selected your pattern, have a look at the finished garment measurements printed on the pattern envelope back, and printed on the pattern pieces. Compare them to your own measurements, and the measurements you got from your favorite clothes. These will help you decide what size pattern to cut out, depending on how much ease you prefer.

Many patterns are multi-sized. With a multi-sized pattern you can cut out one size for the bust, grade to another for the waist, then grade to another for the hip in order to best match your own measurements.

For example, I generally fit into an Australian size 10 or 12 in ready-to-wear (US size 6 or 8), but my full bust measurement would make me a size 14 in patterns. However, I wear a C cup bra, so going by my high bust measurement I need a size 12 pattern. I am quite honest about my figure strengths and weaknesses, so know that often patterns are too large across my shoulders and much too small around my waist and stomach. So, where possible, I buy a pattern that includes sizes 10, 12 and 14, and make adjustments where necessary depending on the amount of ease that I want and how much ease is included in the garment design.

Pattern envelope front
The pattern front generally includes an illustration and/or photo of the finished garment, often in a few variations which can all be made from the same pattern. These illustrations and photos are generally on tall slim models, so be aware that the proportions may be a little different on your own figure (unless you are tall and slim as well)!

Pattern envelope back
The back of the pattern envelope usually has a line drawing of the back of the garments. Some patterns will have a written description of the garment. Body measurements and finished garment measurements are usually printed on the back of the pattern envelope, in addition to the amount of fabric needed to make the garment.


There will also be a list of suitable fabrics; this is important! Patterns are designed for particular types of fabric weights, drape, weave, thickness, and stretch, so it is essential to choose an appropriate fabric for the pattern in order to maximize your chances of getting a good result. Patterns designed for light to mid-weight woven cottons are a great place to start when you’re beginning to sew. The pattern envelope back also has information about notions; these are the extra things that you’ll need in order to make the garment, like thread, buttons, elastic, zips, trim, etc.

Pattern instruction sheet
Before you get out your scissors and pins, read through the pattern instructions! Most patterns start off with line drawings of the front and back of the garments, in all the views included in the pattern. There is usually an illustration of the pattern pieces, with each piece numbered and identified.


General sewing instructions follow, then a cutting layout.


Choose the layout appropriate for the size you are making, and the width of the fabric that you have chosen. It might be worth highlighting which layout you need to use.


Read through each step of the sewing process. Try to visualize what you’ll be doing. If there are different views included in the same pattern, highlight each step that you are going to follow for the view that you have chosen.


Pattern pieces
Pattern pieces are normally printed on tissue paper. Identify and cut out each pattern piece that you need to make the view you have chosen. Use paper scissors, not your good fabric scissors! You can cut these out roughly outside the outer marked line of each pattern piece.

I usually iron each piece with a dry iron to get rid of any creases and make the pattern pieces easier to handle. Make any alterations that you need, such as shortening or lengthening pattern pieces at the marked adjustment lines. If you make these changes at the marked adjustment lines you keep the proportions and style of the design much more than if you simply added or removed length at the bottom. If you are using a multi-sized pattern you might want to use a highlighter pen to trace over the size you are using, especially in places where you change from one size to another. Lay them on your fabric according to the cutting layout in the instructions, and pin into place.

Pattern markings
Grainlines: Fabric is woven from horizontal and vertical threads. The grainlines are marked on the pattern with long double-ended arrows. These need to be aligned with the vertical threads in the fabric. The cutting layout takes the grainlines into account when showing you how to place the pattern pieces.

Sewing Lines and Seam Allowances: The seam allowance is generally included in the pattern piece, so that the marked line is the cutting line. The sewing line isn’t marked, but is usually 5/8” in from the edge of the pattern piece. The cutting line is printed differently for each size.


Notches: These are the little triangle shapes on the pattern piece. They should be cut outwards when you come to them. They are important points where pattern pieces will be matched together.

Dots and Squares: Mark dots and squares onto the fabric with thread tacks or with a fabric marking pen or pencil or chalk (choose something that isn’t permanent). Once again, these are important points where pieces will be matched together or where stitching will need to start or finish.

Other Markings: Transfer the outlines of darts, pleats or other markings to the fabric pieces with thread tacks or with a fabric marking pen or pencil or chalk (once again, choose something that isn’t permanent).

Getting the Right Fit
Getting clothing to fit well is a huge topic. Luckily, there are plenty of excellent references around to help. You will find that the more clothing you sew for yourself, the more you will know your own body and which adjustments you need to make. And after all, we sew for ourselves so that we can get the fit that we want! As a starting point to getting fit right you need to:

  • know your measurements
  • know your body shape
  • determine how much ease you prefer
  • choose the best size pattern for you
  • check the measurements of the pattern pieces and compare them to your measurements
  • shorten or lengthen pattern pieces at the marked adjustment lines before cutting out the fabric
  • make any other alterations to the pattern pieces before cutting out the fabric
  • use the recommended seam allowances
  • Try the garment on as you go, adjusting it to fit where necessary. A full length mirror helps enormously when fitting garments.

We’ll share more about pattern adjustments on the blog next week. Many people swear by fitting methods such as tissue fitting or sewing muslins. Others find dress forms useful; you can even make your own dress form based on your measurements by following methods such as those described here.

Want to learn more?… Useful references and further reading:

Sew,Mama,Sew! is proud to offer a selection of unique women’s clothing patterns from small independent designers.

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114 Responses to Patterns… Demystified!

  1. ChrissyK says:

    I don’t know who you are but I love you! I am an amature wanting to expand my sewing skills and I have worked with patterns but still find some aspects confusing. I had yet to find a simple, “101” description/explanation of how to work with patterns until I stumbled upon this site. Thank you many times over! I do share a question that one of the other readers asked: What if you don’t want to cut the pattern? I have some cute dress and skirt patterns I’d like to make and my friends asked if I could make the same for them too, but we’re different sizes. Thanks again! Bless you! =)

  2. Carol J says:

    Thanks to my daughter in Norway (I live in Oz) I’ve just discovered your site, and this blog is just so useful.Thanks for helping me understand why sometimes I just get the wrong size pattern. Won’t happen in future!

  3. Raven says:

    Thank you ever so much. I feel filled with a whole new sense of sewing confidence.

  4. Great job of explaining this! Susan in SC

  5. Shelby says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I am a beginner sewer and the thought of making something from a pattern terrifies me…this makes it a little less scary.

  6. McArt says:

    fantastic thank you “sew” much

  7. katy says:

    invaluable, thanks so much!!

  8. Carrie says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!!! I am a mostly self taught sewer and have always been so intimidated by patterns!!! I try to stick with tutorials unless I have someone to help walk me through an actual pattern. This is going to be a big help, and has given me the confidence to go out and actually try one of the patterns I have been wanting to make.

  9. Wow, this was helpful. I always get lost in a pattern.

  10. Peg Miller says:

    Just found you! My youngest daughter took no interest in sewing growing up – too busy playing sports. Now, at the age of 30, she is hooked! I taught her how to thread her sewing machine 2 years ago and she has been off and running ever since. In fact, I think she sent me this link.
    My mom taught me to read patterns and sew when I was about 10 years old. It’s helped me in many areas of my life!

  11. this is great, I just purchased my first two clothing patterns and I’m so overwhelmed!

  12. dianne says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I’m new to all this and actually scared of patterns. Maybe now I can take a deep breath and dive in!

  13. Lil' d says:

    Thank you so much – I have some patterns I’m about to try and this gives me much needed advice.

  14. Crisanne says:

    Great help. Thanks!

  15. upstatelisa says:

    the tips about fitting and altering were very helpful!!!!!thanks!

  16. Amy L says:

    I’ve been working on some clothes for the past few weeks. At times I feel like giving up when I try and figure out what size I am compared to the size on the pattern. I’m a smaller fram and usually end up with a little too much in the end. I’m seriously thinking about making a dress frame, especially since it’s so inexpensive!!

  17. Geri Symington says:

    I have tried this before with some success NOW I have a good idea of where I went wrong AND where I can improve.

  18. Jean says:

    Lots of wonderful advice- helpful for me and I will surely be referring this to some of my friends who are picking up sewing for the first time too!

  19. Tina M. says:

    What a great post. Thank you so very much! 🙂

  20. Mel says:

    I have a lovely girls’ dress pattern sitting on my sewing table (for almost a year now) that I’ve been too timid to try. This eases my anxiety a bit!

  21. Lori says:

    Very thorough! I’m looking forward to the article on fitting next week.

  22. Jennie T. says:

    These are fantastic tips! Thanks so much for putting it all together.
    It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve worked with patterns, and I’m excited to get back into it 🙂

  23. Stine says:

    Back to basic – I can so follow this. Thanks a lot.

  24. Suzi says:

    Fantastic advice, thank you! I may even branch out past my 1 pattern..

  25. Jeanne says:

    Thank you for the helpful post! Perhaps my next sewn article of clothing will fit better.

  26. Kelli says:

    Great article! Thank you.

  27. Kristin Rose says:

    this is fabulous! right into my bookmarks 🙂

  28. Steph says:

    Very helpful thanks!!

  29. Kimmer says:

    Excellent, clear directions. I have a couple friends who want to learn to sew, and I’m going to point them in this direction.

  30. KC says:

    This is wonderful and more wonderful. I wish all my students could see this. I have one more reason to send them to SMS! Gracias~~

  31. EmmyLizzy says:

    Thanks for the demystifying those confusing patterns!

  32. Yohandy says:

    Thank you. This really helped me understand better all the details of a pattern.
    And thank you for the links. They’re great and totally inspire me. 🙂

  33. Alison says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! I totally needed this. Did I say thank you?

  34. Lissa says:

    thank you thank you thank you…

    I find it hard to follow patterns, was thinking it was my blonde thinking head… but this tutorial has helped!

    thanks a bunch


  35. Lisa says:

    Great information that’s understandable on my end. Thank you.

  36. Ashley H. says:

    SUCH a useful entry. Thank you!!

  37. Carla says:

    I’ve been sewing for a long time, but there are things about patterns that mystified me, so this series is really helpful.

  38. This helped me soooo much! I’m a beginner sewer. I’ve watched my mom sew my whole life, so it is coming pretty naturally, but these tips make the idea of sewing clothing so much less intimidating. THANK YOU for the tips!!

  39. Ana says:

    Thanks for these tips! I’ve only made a couple of garments for myself, and I can use all the tips I can get!

  40. Christina says:

    This is a lifesaver for pattern-dummies like me!

  41. Melissa says:

    Thanks for the tips!

  42. Michelle says:

    Oh my goodness, absolutely fantastic information. I’m going to be reading this one over and over and over… Thank you!

  43. Stacey Koehler says:

    I am a quilter wanting to make some clothes for my kids. Thank you for the instructions!
    Stacey in Minnesota

  44. autismtymz2_4life says:

    So easy to understand. Thank you 🙂

  45. Tasha Early says:

    What a great resource! Thank you!

  46. Anne says:

    The thing that amazes me is that I’ve been sewing for 25 years and patterns from the big companies — Simplicity, McCalls, etc — haven’t changed at all in that time. The pattern pieces themselves, the instructions, the backs of the envelopes — all look just as they did, and contain all the same information in the same format that they did, 25 years ago. The consistency is comforting, but it makes me wonder how they can remain unchanged when so many things in the world are being constantly revised and redesigned.

  47. Tabitha says:

    I excited, yet a bit nervous, about getting back into sewing clothes. There are so many wonderful fabrics and patterns out there now–thanks for all the tuts!

  48. Rae says:

    Thanks so much for all the info and tips!!!

  49. Stephanie says:

    Thank you so sew much for this! I am fairly new to sewing and this helped me out quite alot! I have bought patterns before and they didn’t fit and now I know about doing bust measurements, so thank you thank you!

  50. Kari says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have been stumbling through a couple clothing patterns, but with mixed results. I’m so glad you are giving such great info!!!

  51. Monika says:

    Thanks for this!

  52. Rebecca says:

    I am so glad about your comment about bust measurements! As a D cup, I have always used my full bust measurement and then had to scale things back to fit the rest of my body. I like the idea of using the smaller size and then adding a bust adjustment better. I look forward to the article on that topic.

  53. Marsha says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve always found the instructions included with patterns to be a bit…opaque. So helpful!

  54. Kelly Jo says:

    This post was / is / will be such a huge help to me!! I’m going to bookmark it directly because it’s got such great info!!

  55. veronica says:

    Aha! My mother, who has been sewing for thirty years, gave only the vaguest of tips when I made my first dress (I’m the knitter, and my sister is a costume designer, so they both thought I was a lost cause). This helps a lot- thanks!

  56. Katrina says:

    Perfect! I have used patterns before, but have never been able to figure out why they don’t fit me across the chest right…now I know. Very useful info…thank you!

  57. Lynn says:

    I am still a beginner as this is very helpful!

  58. sonja says:

    Thank you, thank you for this article. This just came at the right time for me.

  59. Amy says:

    I can’t believe I never thought of cutting two different sizes for the top and bottom. This will help me tremendously. Also, I’ve never cut out the actual pattern. I trace it on to tracing paper so that the pattern can be used again and again for different sizes.

  60. CodeCrafter says:

    Thanks for all these great tips and explanations! As a person kind of new to sewing this article is really helpful!

  61. Holly says:

    Thank you so much, the information was very helpful!

  62. LisaW says:

    This is really helpful! Thanks!

  63. Tammy says:

    Great overview! I never knew that you needed to go by the high bust measurement for over C cups. I’m looking forward to the instructions on how to modify patterns! And then maybe I’ll make something else besides a skirt! 🙂

  64. emily says:

    Thanks so much for this article…helps someone like me who is usually intimidated by a real pattern!

  65. Kim B. says:

    Love this post!! I’m a beginner so this is super helpful!

  66. Andrea says:

    This post (and the others this week) have been so helpful for me, a new sewer. Thanks!

  67. denitza says:

    I just started sewing and been looking at the patterns,, but been scared so far to try them. after reading this, I’m not so scared anymore. Thank you!

  68. Kristen says:

    Thanks so much for putting this together. It’s a tremendous help, especially the “for further reference” section!

  69. Jen says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you… maybe I’ll try a top for me now. (from the pattern I bought a year ago and keep staring at!)

  70. nicole says:

    Thank you!

  71. britt says:

    Great hints and instructions, but no one learned to sew by just reading so I hope some people keep this page open while they try to figure a pattern out and develop a new skill. Once again WONDERFUL information.

  72. so helpful! patterns can be so hard to understand!

  73. Amber says:

    Thank you for this! It is wonderful and you explained everything so well!

  74. Denise says:

    Great Information! Thanks!!!!!
    I don’t sew from patterns as much as I used to when my kids were little.

  75. Sam. says:

    Ah, I so needed this! You’d think reading a pattern would be easy (I did) until I bought a couple last summer and sat staring at them for days. Maybe now, with this tidbit of help, I can get to them!

  76. Carolyn says:

    Thanks so much for the instructions! It never occurred to me that I could combine measurements to make the best fitting garment. Thank you! I see many more tops in my future!!


  77. Jenny says:

    I’m new to sewing and really want to start sewing my own clothes so this was SO helpful. Thanks so much!

  78. Shelly says:

    I really need to sit down and read this one. Thanks.

  79. Chris Worthy says:

    Love this! Thank you!!

  80. Cocoa says:

    This is so well written! Thank you so much for breaking it down for us.

  81. fantastic information!!! thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!! 🙂

  82. Pamela says:

    This was very helpful! Thanks so much for the clear explanations.

  83. Cat says:

    This post was a big help to me. I am just now getting back into sewing after many years of absence. Patterns have always been a mystery to me now I think I do understand them, but I am saving this link just in case.


  84. jennifer says:

    You have given me the courage to try. Thanks and keep ’em coming!

  85. Erin says:

    Wow, lots of good info in here! Thanks!

  86. Kendall says:

    Thanks for this! I’m definitely a novice when it comes to sewing and have made many a phone call to my mother to try to figure out a pattern! Actually, I have a dress half-finished just sitting on my sewing table…it’s been there for months!

  87. Nancy says:

    I am not a garment sewer, but now with this information I think I might try something easy….

  88. apple cyder says:

    I just bought my first garment pattern. This will be very helpful. Thanks!

  89. Sarah Lisle says:

    I have seen the light!! Thank you so much!

  90. Sarah S says:

    Excellent detailed help for reading patterns. I’ll be sending this along to some beginning sewers I know.

  91. Jo Garlacz says:

    I am new to patterns as well, as a matter of fact, I am having a problem with an easy pattern that shows the pattern piece being used on the wrong patten side, which is fine, but, what I dont understand is, the actual pattern piece shows that it needs to be on a fold and the diagram shows it in the middle of the fabric??????????

  92. I am so excited about these fitting tutorials! I have sewn several things for myself, some have come out great and others not so great. I have a strange figure. I am very tiny in my hips and body, but my waist is much thicker than it should be. I havn’t figured out how to adjust this with patterns. So anything fitted in the waist never comes out right. It is hard because I used to have a small waist, but then baby number 6 fixed that. Well, I think it was babies number 6 and 7 and getting older : / So, things that used to look good on me, don’t look so good anymore.

    Anyway, I will be reading the blog with great interest this month!

  93. Lara says:

    Thanks so much everyone for your lovely comments! To answer Therisa, if you don’t want to cut into the original pattern, you can just trace over it. There is pattern tracing paper that you can buy especially for this purpose, or I use non-fusible light-weight non-woven interfacing (it’s really cheap). Just lay it over the top of the pattern and trace the size that you want!

  94. Sagan says:

    This is so incredibly useful. I can’t wait to learn how to make clothes to fit my bust. Since I have been breast feeding, button-up tops have been off limits. Once in a while I try to fit into one of my old blouses only to be disappointed by my button-busting-boobs. I think I am actually endangering myself and those around me (my little one) with projectile buttons.

  95. therisa says:

    I’m new to sewing, so this is a lot of information to take at once. I do have one question, and I have not checked other sites for the answer, so if it’s a repeat, then I’m sorry for repeating. Anyway, what if you don’t want to cut out the pattern, what do you do? For example, I have a pattern for my daughter, the sizes run from 2T to 4T. I’d like to preserve the original pattern so I can use it for another kid, if I decide to have another. Any suggestions?


  96. Amy says:

    Tons of Tips!! Wow – thank you for taking the time to write such a helpful post!!


  97. Jenna says:

    The mere thought someone is finally tackleing how to fudge around the larger bust sizes makes me weak in the knees. I’ve been sewing for years (even making some of my rent with it) but when it comes to making my own clothes I just get overwhelmed. Why?

    6’1 & a G cup. (that would be for Good Grief!) which puts me in a 24 to 26 bust measurement – with a size 12-14 waist. Never can figure out how o scale things so they fit everywhere on my rather extremist body.

    Yay in advance?

  98. Christine says:

    Thanks for all the info. Makes patterns seem less intimidating.

  99. Michelle says:

    Lara! You have totally gotten it AND successfully written about it! Thank you! I’ll link back to this from my blog, for all my friends who are so scared to start sewing from patterns.

  100. zarinaia says:

    Thank you! This is so helpful!

  101. Andrea says:

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. I found several shirt patterns that I wanted to buy but I was disappointed that they wouldn’t fit me because of my bust measurement. Now I know to go with my high bust instead. I can’t wait to learn how to accommodate my bust difference. I only want to make a couple of fairly simple shirts!

  102. Anna H. says:

    I don’t have any sewing mentors so this was immensely helpful for me. Even though I have had to learn all on my lonesome, I felt like I had a sewing fairy by my side for a step by step tutorial. I will definitely use this many times over. Thank you thank you thank you!

  103. Elizabeth says:

    Wow! That is a lot of awesome information. Thank you, Lara!

  104. water works says:

    I’ve been sewing for some time now, mainly for my easy to fit kids, and I really enjoyed this post on patterns. It has never occured to me that I am allowed to merge sizes in order to create the perfect fit garment for me. Something so basic and yet so ingenious! Thanks so much for this post. It’s definitely one of my favorites so far.

  105. Sara Cormeny says:

    This is such a good overview. If you’re looking for a book for beginners on sewing patterns, I learned a lot from Elissa Meyrich’s Sew Fast Sew Easy. And, I have a great simple skirt I was able to make from it!

  106. Katjaquilt says:

    Thanks for that superb overview.
    Pls be careful with european patterns. Most of them don’t enclude seamallowances, so that you have to add them to your choosen size.

  107. Michele says:

    Very helpful…thanks!

  108. thanks this is so helpful!

  109. Alejandra says:


  110. Viv says:

    Thank you so much for including this!

  111. renee says:

    thank you thank you thank you! i always have problems with patterns…

  112. Anne says:

    This is so helpful! Thanks!

  113. Kate says:

    tons of valuable information – thank you!

  114. P-Nessa says:

    I am so glad this was posted! I just bought my first shirt pattern and was more than a little overwhelmed. This should help immensely.

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