Home/Blog/How to read and use a sewing pattern (part 1)


How to read and use a sewing pattern (part 1)

Hi there!

It’s been a while now and, back from Christmas holidays and having survived to the food marathon, I’m ready to be back on track with this new year’s first post. Today we will talk about sewing patterns: how to read and how to use them. In this first part, I will walk you through many examples of sewing patterns, either coming from famous companies like Vogue or from independent designers like Colette, from books or in their standard format. We will see what’s inside a sewing pattern, what is its structure, including the pattern description and instructions. In the second part, we’ll also see how to read the pattern symbols to use them confidently. Finally we will see something about buying options, print-at-home patterns and general quality of sewing patterns. Ready? Let’s get started!

The structure of a sewing pattern.

1 The pattern description.

The pattern description contains general information about the sewing pattern, such as the name or reference number, the designer’s and/or company’s name, the size chart and everything you need to know to use it the proper way.

Let’s see some examples. These are the V2948 pants pattern by Vogue and the V2960 1954 dress pattern by Vogue Vintage. On the front of the envelope you can see a drawing and/or picture of the pattern design together with the name of the pattern and size range.

On the back of the envelope you can see the pattern description, this usually includes: a short description of the design and style, the list of supplies you need (such as zippers, buttons, etc.) and the fabric suggestion. You also always have a size chart and the corresponding fabric requirements for each size.

Finally, a technical drawing of the garment design is usually included to give you a better sense of the designer’s style choices.

To know more about how to interpret garment illustrations and fabric suggestion to always find the best fabric/pattern match check out this previous post.

Now let’s have a look at what’s inside the envelope. Most patterns usually contain a more detailed pattern description together with instructions and, obviously, the actual sewing pattern.

You can see the pattern description is structured in different sections. On the left hand side you have the pattern inventory, with each (numbered) pattern piece and the corresponding description. Body measurements are also included here, so you can check what’s the correct size for you. In some cases (and I think that’s very useful) you also have the finished garment measurements, i.e. the measurements for the finished garment including body measurements + ease. These patterns by Vogue include this information directly on the pattern pieces (we will see that in the second part). The central section is dedicated to the fabric cutting layout. Here you find all the instructions on how to place the pattern pieces on fabric to get the most out of it (or kind of…). You can see there are different cutting layouts because they are actually different for the main fabric (dress) and for the interfacing pieces. Also, layouts are differentiated by size, as they often depend on how big the pattern pieces are for optimal placement, and by fabric height (e.g. see the 115 cm case in the bottom center of the image). In the last section on the right you find the sewing information, i.e. what is the seam allowance (as it is usually included in your sewing pattern) and additional info with a glossary to better understand the pattern instructions.

While the pattern information included in a sewing pattern tend to follow pretty much the same overall structure, they may change in style and level of details depending on the designer’s or company’s choice. Let’s see some other examples of pattern description layouts coming from sewing books. The first comes from “The Colette sewing handbook: inspired styles and classic techniques for the new seamstress” by Sarai Mitnick, founder of Colette Patterns. The second comes from Tilly and the buttons’ book “Love at first stitch”.

These lovely books contain both sewing techniques and sewing patterns. Let’s now have a look at how their pattern descriptions look like and what’s the information inside. Here are the Liquorice dress pattern description pages from The Colette sewing handbook:

Again, we have a general pattern description which this time is much more detailed. That’s more of an introductory section on what’s the garment style and tips about learned techniques and fabric choice. Tools and supplies needed are then listed below together with a list of the sewing skills required to tackle the project. Next page contains both the size chart and the finished garment measurements together with the pattern inventory and fabric suggestions.

Tilly’s Mimi blouse pattern description has pretty much the same structure, with some differences:

The general pattern description is this time on a separate page (not showed here, sorry!) and then you have plenty of information for getting started with the project. You have a list of tools and supplies, extended with some optional ones in case you want to go for any of the pattern variations included in the book. Then, there’s a list of techniques described in the book with the page number for reference, some fabric suggestions and cutting instructions (the “Pattern details” section). On the other page you can find sizing info and the fabric layout for the optimal placing of pattern pieces on fabric.

Next up is pattern instructions.

2 Pattern instructions.

Pattern instructions are one of the most important things in a sewing pattern. Sometimes we may know how to sew but we don’t quite know the garment construction rules, especially if we are beginners. Good pattern instructions allow us to tackle any sewing project regardless how strong our experience as sewists is!

So… what does make pattern instructions good?

First of all, every step of the garment construction should be properly explained. Even if we are expert seamstresses, when we decide to rely on pattern instructions, we completely rely on them. Which means that, in principle, steps that may seem obvious should also at least be mentioned to avoid errors. Second of all, at least relevant steps should be explained with illustrations or pictures and they should be clear, easily interpretable and unambiguous. There’s nothing worse than spending hours trying to understand whether one part of the drawing refers to the right side or wrong side of the fabric or how far do you have to stitch a seam.

Now let’s see some examples. Here are the pattern instructions for the Vogue V2960 dress pattern and for Colette’s Liquorice dress pattern.

In both cases drawings are used to explain the step-by-step instructions. I personally find it nice to have each step titled, as it gives you a sense of where you are and what you’re doing. I also have found instructions for Vogue V2960 pattern to be not always immediate to understand, perhaps also because they don’t use colours and everything is black and white with different patterns (sometimes too similar) to label different things (like right/wrong side, interfacing, etc.).

Tilly‘s approach to pattern instructions (in Love at first stitch book) is somehow different as she uses photographs instead of drawings for step-by-step illustrations:

She numbers and titles each step and explanations are pretty clear and always associated with a photograph. Every technique used is explained in the book and special techniques have dedicated sections (as in the example on the right).

So, overall I have to say I really liked her approach and I found it easy to follow even when I was just a beginner (I tackled the Mimi blouse project after just a few months after my very first sewing project and I succeeded!).


That’s all for today’s post about sewing patterns. If you have any comment or question about pattern description and instructions feel free to leave a comment using the form below. Is there any sewing pattern or designer you particularly like? Why is that? Do you own any sewing book with patterns included? How easy you found the instructions?

In the second part of this post, we will finally have a look at the actual sewing pattern and explain how to read and use it. Stay tuned and sign up to the newsletter not to miss any buzz!

Ciao ciao!

There are no comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *