Mary Abreu from Confessions of a Craft Addict joined us for a truly impressive costume series several years ago. (Links at bottom of this post.) We’re big fans of her 2010 Little Girls, Big Style: Sew a Boutique Wardrobe from 4 Easy Patterns and we’re also super-excited about her new Modern Style for Girls: Sew a Boutique Wardrobe (Stash Books, an imprint of C&T Publishing).

From the publisher:

    Help your favorite girls develop a style all their own with this handy guide to creating endless wardrobe options. Starting with three basic pieces? a top/dress, skirt and pants? you’ll learn how to modify simple patterns and rectangles to make twelve classic garments: four tops/dresses, four shorts/pants, and four skirts. Technique instructions teach you how to gather, create waistband casings, and insert zippers. Advice on choosing fabrics and adding embellishments is also included.

We loved the mix-and-match, “basics to a full wardrobe”-approach in her first sewing book and we know the new book will be just as exciting. This is a nice way to economically add to your pattern options for a well-rounded set of garments.

We asked Mary to fill us in on how to read and prepare sewing patterns for our Teach a Friend to Sew series. She’s an expert! To coincide with her post and to celebrate the new book Mary is launching a giveaway at Confessions of a Craft Addict. Hop over and take a look, and be sure to check out Mary’s introduction too.

Reading/Preparing Sewing Patterns

The models on the front of pattern envelopes always look so happy and welcoming, it’s almost impossible not to buy as many as you can fit in your shopping cart. But for the novice sewist, what’s inside can make you question your interest in the hobby.

Before you toss that pattern in the donation pile, take a deep breath and give it another chance. Here’s a handy guide to deciphering the secret language of sewing patterns so you can turn transform your favorite fabrics into the garments of your dreams.

The majority of mass-produced commercial sewing patterns follow the same format: Modeled garment with a couple alternate views on the front (each one labeled with a letter), tables and charts to help you plan how to make the garment on the back. It’s a lot of information crammed into a pretty small space! Let’s look a little closer…

Fabric Requirements
If you want the garment to turn out similar to the modeled photo, you’ll want to stick to the types of fabrics recommended on the back of the pattern. A structured jacket pattern that calls for wool suiting or cotton twill will not turn out as expected if you substitute voile or lawn. Nearly every pattern includes the line “Extra fabric needed to match plaids, stripes or one-way design fabrics;” if you want to match the print of the fabric at each seam, you’ll need to buy more fabric to make it happen. When patterns are designed for knit fabrics, it’s common to find a stretch guide on the pattern envelope so you can test the stretch of a fabric to make sure it works with the garment.

Notions + Trim
If you need a zipper, buttons, snaps or elastic, it’s going to be listed in this section, broken down to match the different versions of each garment in the pattern envelope. Things like interfacings are usually listed with the fabric requirements but there occasionally may be a notion listed there, too, so it’s good to read all the way through to avoid missing something.

This is the section of the pattern that causes the most angst among my students because pattern sizing isn’t necessarily in line with ready-to-wear garment sizing. For example, if you typically wear a size 12 in clothes from the retailer of your choice, you might be surprised to find that a sewing pattern says you’ll need to cut a size 16, 18 or even a 20. Resist the urge to cut and sew the size filling your closet! Pick the size that corresponds with your measurements and cross check it with the finished garment measurements (see below). According to the chart on the back of this pattern, the size 18 looks like it works with my measurements.

Yardage Requirements
Once you know your size, you’ll use it to figure out how much fabric you’ll need. Most of the time, there will be options for fabric measuring either 45” or 60” wide. That width includes the selvage of the fabric. If the fabric you want to use is much narrower, you’ll probably want to double check that your pattern pieces will fit within the same yardage. Conversely, if you fall in love with a wider fabric, you may need less yardage than the envelope calls for.

Finished Garment Measurements
Some pattern companies print the finished garment measurement chart on one of the pattern sheets inside the envelope but it’s just as likely to be on the back of the envelope. I always recommend checking the size your measurements indicate against the finished garment measurements because the amount of ease included in the pattern might suggest sizing up or down.

“Ease” refers to the amount of room added to a garment so you can comfortably wear it. Without ease, you wouldn’t be able to raise your arm while wearing a jacket or sit down in a skirt. The amount of ease added to a garment varies based on the type of garment, the cut and what type of fabric is used when sewing. You’d need a different amount of ease for a pencil skirt than for a circle skirt. Garments meant to be sewn with knits may use negative ease, allowing the garment to take advantage of the fabric’s stretch to fit more closely to the body.

This pattern is fitted through the bust and waist; the finished bust measurement for the size 18 is 42-1/2”, which sounds like just the right amount of ease.

Inside the Envelope

The pattern instructions are usually folded together and printed on the front and back of the pages included inside the envelope. The number of pages varies based on the garment, the different options and the complexity. It’s not unusual to find instructions printed in other languages, too.

On the first page, there usually are line drawings of the front and back views of each item, labeled with the corresponding letter. You’ll use that letter to figure out which pattern pieces you need. The pattern company usually devotes a section of the instructions to a listing of all the pattern pieces, complete with line drawings and numbers. If you look closely at each pattern piece in that section, you’ll see lines with arrows, which will help you know how to place each pattern piece on the fabric for cutting.

If you’re working with a pattern with many pieces and different garment views, it can be helpful to mark which pattern pieces you’ll need. I often use a colored pen or make a quick copy on my home printer and then use a highlighter.

I’ve noticed that a lot of folks will skip over the section of general sewing information but it’s full of information that can help with cutting out the pattern, as well as putting it together. This is the place to find out what seam allowance you’ll be using, how you should press seams and things you really want to know before you get started cutting. There’s also information devoted to the symbols printed on the pattern pieces (more on that below).

Every garment option will have a diagram in the Cutting Layout section that shows how you’ll make all the pattern pieces fit on the amount of fabric the pattern says you’ll need. All the little arrows printed on the pattern pieces correspond to the grain of the fabric, which runs parallel to the fabric selvages. If the line bends at the top and bottom so that the arrowheads point to the edge of a pattern piece, this means you’ll cut out that piece on the fold of the fabric.

Be sure you pay attention to whether a pattern piece is cut on a double layer of fabric or a single layer. Sometimes a cutting layout will even show a combination of double and single layers (because it’s not already confusing enough!).

As you continue through the pages, the instructions begin for actually sewing the garment. It’s always a good idea to read the pattern instructions all the way through before you begin sewing (and I try to do it before I even begin cutting). If there are different views or options for the garment, it’s a good idea to mark the sections meant for the item you’re sewing.

The Pattern
The Big Four commercial patterns are printed on tissue paper. It’s thin, lightweight and will pretty much never fold back up and fit in the pattern envelope again. Use the pattern piece guide you marked to help you locate each piece needed for your garment. If I’m going to cut the pattern, I usually cut around each pattern piece to remove it from the sheet, press it flat with an iron on a low setting, then cut out the size I need.

Most of the time, though, I press the pattern sheet and trace each piece using something like Pattern Ease or Swedish tracing paper and a pen. Tracing is not as fast as cutting out the pattern directly but I find that it makes it easier for me to make any pattern modifications to improve the fit. Plus, I try to make a mock up (also called a toile or a muslin) to check fit in key areas before I cut into my fabric of choice; tracing allows me to preserve the pattern so I can change sizes if I find that I need to go up or down after sewing my mock up.

Whether you trace or cut the pattern pieces, it’s important to pay attention to all of the markings on each piece. Lines, notches, arrows and dots all indicate action you’ll need to take in order to have the garment turn out well:

A single, heavy line is for cutting. You’ll cut right on that line when you cut out the fabric.
Double, parallel lines are for lengthening or shortening. If you are long or short waisted or have an inseam that’s different from the pattern, you’ll use these lines to add or eliminate length. It might seem like adding or subtracting from the bottom edge of a pattern piece will accomplish the same thing but that’s not always the case. A fitted bodice, extended at the waist, will just make the narrowest part of the bodice even longer– which may not translate to a good fit, for instance.

Triangles along a cut line are notches for matching to another pattern piece. A sleeve will have two notches on one side of the sleeve cap and one notch on the other, which match with the back and front of the bodice.

Dots– either filled in or empty circles– show you where something starts, stops or lines up. A dot in the middle of the sleeve cap shows you where the sleeve matches the shoulder seam. Dots on either side of the sleeve cap indicate where you start and stop stitching to ease or gather the sleeve to the bodice. Dots may indicate the bottom of a zipper or the point of a dart.

You’ll want to use a marking pencil or pen, chalk or other washable marking implement to transfer marks to the fabric, usually on the wrong side. I prefer marking notches to cutting them but my mom taught me to cut them. If you want to cut them, I find that it’s better to cut triangles pointing out from the pattern piece instead of cutting triangles out of the seam allowance (which is how I learned). If you have to gain a little room in your seam allowance (but not enough to warrant going up a size), you’ll still have the full 5/8” to work with. But if you cut out the notches, that’s 1/4”-3/8” less to work with.

When you’re ready to cut out your pattern, make sure all of your pattern pieces are ready (trimmed to size, pressed and checked against your cutting list). If your fabric is machine washable, have it pre-washed, dried and pressed to eliminate all the wrinkles. Match the fabric, right sides together, using the selvage edges to adjust until the fabric lies flat. The cut edges of the fabric may not match, and that’s OK. It’s more important to get the fabric even and straight on the grain.

Use the cutting layout on the pattern instruction sheet to arrange the pattern pieces on your fabric, making sure the grain line arrows are parallel to the selvage. A clear acrylic ruler can help you measure from the selvage to the grain line marking to help you make sure your pattern pieces are lined up with the grain. If you are using a directional fabric, double check that your layout works with your fabric design.

My preference is to use pattern weights to hold down each pattern piece, rather than pins. I find that it helps keep things flat, which makes it easier to get a straight, even cut that is right on the edge of the pattern piece. Transfer any marks and keep your pattern pieces with the fabric to make it easier to keep up with everything when you’re ready to sew.

As you cut, keep the fabric and pattern as flat against the table as possible. This helps you get a clean, close cut and keeps distortion of your pieces at a minimum. Cut around each piece in a manner that’s natural and easy for you. I’m right handed so I usually cut counterclockwise. If you need to rotate your fabric and pattern piece to help with cutting, go for it– carefully, of course. And make sure your pattern and cut edges line up before you resume cutting.

Wrapping It Up
I may draft a lot of garment patterns but I can’t deny that I love the convenience of buying and using commercial sewing patterns. Once you’ve successfully sewn a garment from a pattern, you’ll find the preparation gets easier with each subsequent one. In no time at all, you might even find yourself with a complete you-made wardrobe!