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How to read and use a sewing pattern (part 2)

In this post, we will cover pattern symbols and markings and how to read them. We will learn something about print-at-home sewing patterns: how to print and assemble them. Finally, we will discuss pattern quality and some buying options.

Hello everyone!

Welcome to the second part of this post on how to read and use sewing patterns. As promised, today we are going to talk about reading pattern symbols and a few more things on print-at-home patterns, pattern quality and buying options.

1 Reading pattern markings.

Pattern markings are not too difficult to understand, in fact they’re meaning is typically pretty intuitive provided you know a few things about patternmaking basics. Unfortunately, they’re not standard at all, which means sometimes you can get lost with a sewing pattern coming from a different designer, especially if you downloaded it for free and there are no pattern instructions. So today I will walk you through all pattern symbols you may run into, what they stand for and their most common variations.

The first category of pattern symbols we will consider are style markings, i.e. all those markings that define the garment style such as darts, pleats, gathers and so on.


Style markings

Darts are design elements that define the fit of a garment. They pull fabric on one side to release it on the other. Darts can be placed in many different parts of a garment and can also be moved for decorative purposes. They can be straight or curved and have single or double points (called apex). The dart symbol is typically a triangle or a diamond shape whose sides can also be curved. The center foldline is sometimes indicated as a dashed line.

Pleats and tucks are folds in fabric which just differ in that a pleat is sewn only at the top whereas a tuck is stitched down (to become a flat fold on the garment). The symbol for pleats tells you to fold the fabric in the direction of the arrow matching the vertical lines. When circles are present, they are an additional marking to match. In a tuck symbol, foldline and stitchline may also be added as shown in the figure.

Gathers are style elements that allow to stitch together 2 pieces of different lengths, creating fullness where the fabric is released. Gathered edges can be indicated in many different ways on patterns. A curvy arrow commonly indicates a gathered area where circles are used as delimiters.

A buttonhole symbol is typically a line delimited by two vertical bars. Its size depends, of course, on the size of the button (always specified in the pattern description). Button placement is usually marked as a cross for each of the required buttons.

Placement markings

The second category of pattern symbols is placement markings. They can be used either to show how to place the pattern on fabric or to mark points that should be matched across pattern pieces when they are stitched together. The grainline is one of the most important things you need to pay attention to in a sewing pattern. It tells you how you are supposed to lay the pattern down on fabric (its selvedge should always be parallel to this line, you can read more here). Some pattern pieces are actually to be placed on the fold of the fabric (imagine for instance the front bodice of a standard T-shirt, in this case the center front line will be placed on the fold). The place on fold pattern symbol serves this purpose. Notches are then another very important element to consider: they are always placed along the edge of the sewing pattern (in the seam allowance) and they allow you to perfectly align two pieces that have to be sewn together, to avoid uneven distribution of the fabric (especially for large or tricky curvy pieces). When an attachment point is not located along the boundary of the pattern, then it is marked with a circle or a rectangle. These points are used on different pattern pieces to be perfectly matched when they are stitched together. Finally, center front and center back are often indicated as CF and CB in sewing patterns. Now let’s see the symbols in detail.

The grainline is always marked with a double arrow. You can use your tape measure to make sure the pattern piece is parallel to the selvedge. The place on fold symbol speaks for itself and usually substitutes the grainline marking. If you see no grainline but just this symbol, you need to fold the fabric parallel to the selvedge. There are some cases in which the fold runs at an angle with respect to the selvedge (e.g. on the bias), in these cases you’ll have the grainline symbol to help you align the pattern piece properly.

As you may have noticed there’s a bunch of different symbols for notches and they’re all used and valid. Which one to use is part of the designer’s choice but no worries: as I said, they are always placed along the edge of the pattern inside the seam allowance so you won’t get confused! Sometimes the single bar can be used to mark slits, in this case the notch will be for sure marked with a different symbol to avoid confusion.

Guidelines and other instructions

As we have seen in the first part of this post, some pattern instructions may also be shown directly on the pattern pieces. These are additional guidelines or markings that help you through the garment construction process or earlier for pattern tracing. For example, when we talked about Vogue patterns we said they do not include finished garment measurements in the pattern description. That’s because they use bust/waist indicators directly on the pattern, where these measures are provided. Seam allowance is sometimes also included on the actual sewing pattern, either along one edge or where the pattern piece description is. Then we have any sort of lines: cut lines, foldlines, stitching lines. They all function as helpers (and reminders) while constructing the garment except for the double parallel lines which are pattern alteration markings you can use to lengthen/shorten one pattern piece. So, here’s an overview of the most common guidelines and indicators you may find on a pattern:

2 Pattern symbols by example.

Let’s now have a look at some actual sewing patterns with their markings in action! So far we have seen style, placement and “helper” markings, but there’s always more in sewing patterns that tells you something about each pattern piece and how it belongs to the big picture. Even the simplest pattern is usually composed of different parts which range in size from big ones (such as a front bodice) to small ones (such as a collar or a cuff). As you can imagine, you always want to know which is which (especially the smaller ones with similar shapes, like front e back neckline facings). So what you never miss in each of a sewing pattern pieces is a description of what it is. Details may vary but they often include: the pattern name, a letter or number identifying the piece, a short description of what it is (e.g. “front bodice”, “sleeve”, “back yoke”, etc.), some reference to the size and cutting instructions (e.g. “cut 2 on fold” or “cut 1 + 1 interfacing”). You can see some examples in the pictures below (sewing patterns by Vogue, Colette and Tilly and the Buttons) – click on the images to show them full-screen..

We still haven’t said anything about pattern sizing and how to read it. So let’s see pattern size markings in action:

And finally let’s see all the other pattern markings we have seen today and some of their variations directly on pattern pieces (pictures coming from the following patterns: Vogue Vintage V2960, “Simple modern sewing” book by Shufu To Seikatsu Sha, Liquorice dress by Colette Patterns and “Love at first stitch” book by Tilly and the Buttons).

3 Print-at-home pdf sewing patterns.

Have you ever heard about print-at-home sewing patterns? If not, well… it’s time to try one! But first things first: what are we talking about? Print-at-home patterns are digital pdf sewing patterns that you can download and print with your own home printer so they are typically cheaper than their corresponding paper versions. They come in (often many) tiled pages, each of which prints in a standard A4 format. As you may have guessed already, digital sewing patterns need to be assembled into one or a few big pieces before using them. Some pdf patterns also include a large format version that you can bring to a copy shop and have them print it for you. But let’s see how can you manage to assemble a pdf pattern on your own, without paying extra money for a printing service.

How to print digital pdf patterns

Let’s say you bought and downloaded your new print-at-home sewing pattern on your computer. What’s next? First, you need to download and install the free Adobe Reader application in order to read the pdf file. Then, the most important thing when printing a pdf pattern is scale. Often times, Adobe Reader scales each page for you in order to fit it into an A4 page format. This will stretch your pattern pieces out of shape so that size and measurements will no longer match the ones provided by the designer. And you really don’t want that! So, to print your pattern go to File>Print and then disable any option that scales the content or tries to fit it to the page. Depending on your printer and software version, these settings may change in name, you might have something like “Page scaling” or “Scale to fit” or “Print scale”, in any case make sure you are printing the actual size of the sewing pattern.

Before printing the whole pattern, look for the page where you find a small square usually marked as “test square”. This is not a pattern piece, it’s just used to make sure you’re printing the right size. Make a note of the page number and then print only this page using the settings I explained above. Then, measure the square with a ruler and make sure what you measure is the same as the size printed on the pattern (e.g. 4″x4″). Once you’re all setup, you can proceed with printing the rest of the pages.


How to assembly print-at-home sewing patterns

Now it’s time to tile your pattern pages! You’ll see that each page has markings that allow you to correctly align it to the other pages. Depending on the designer, you may have numbers, letters, or alphanumeric IDs for matching. To assembly the sewing pattern you need a pair of scissors and (lots of) tape. First you should trim off the left and top (or right and bottom) margins of each page (or alternatively you can just fold them back). Then, you tape them together using clear tape by aligning margin lines and markings. Use a lot of tape in this process, this will preserve your sewing pattern for future use!

You can see some examples of printable pdf patterns in the pictures below.

You’ll also see how big they can get sometimes: mine took over the entire living room floor! 🙂

Digital pattern instructions

When you decide to buy a digital pdf pattern you are putting a lot of effort into printing and assembling it on your own. That’s why you want to make sure your time and work are worth. Sure, but how? Well, try to buy printable patterns from trusted designers with nice user ratings. Also, make sure they include clear and easily understandable instructions (unless you’re a confident sewer). As for the rest, you’ll realise what style you feel most comfortable to work with only through experience. As for me, I tried a few print-at-home sewing patterns (e.g. from BurdaStyle and Colette Patterns) that I found pretty good, but also some bad ones where seam allowances where not trued up or tiling was simply a nightmare! So, give them a try and find out what works best for you.

4 Pattern quality and buying options.

To conclude this post about sewing patterns I’d like to share with you some thoughts about pattern quality. We already mentioned a few things on how to choose sewing patterns and what to look for and I’d like to recap what makes a sewing pattern good or, better, what I like to find in sewing patterns. I think pattern illustrations are always very useful to get a sense of what you are buying. I personally like to have both photos and drawings, as they tell different things and together make the big picture. I think it’s nice to have all sorts of details in the pattern description: from fabric suggestions to the required supplies, from the fabric cutting layouts to a list of the technical skills you need to tackle the project. Some sewing patterns do include the level of difficulty (from easy to advanced), but I hardly find that useful. On the other hand, knowing what kind of techniques should I know before starting it’s really really helpful. Measurements are another important thing, I think it’s always good to have both the size chart and the finished garment measurements. As for pattern instructions, they should be as clear as possible, include each and every step of the construction and have at least the main steps explained with illustrations. Good patterns should always include placement and attachment markings (notches) to make sure you will be able to align pieces correctly. It’s also nice when pattern pieces are numbered and contain a short description. Finally, seam allowances should always be trued up, as this makes the work a lot easier and cleaner.

So now that we know what to look for in a sewing pattern, what are our buying options? Apart from big fashion companies, such as Vogue, Simplicity, New Look, McCall, BurdaStyle and others, you can also buy sewing patterns from independent designers. There’s plenty of options out there only waiting for you to pick your favourite!

In this post we have already seen sewing patterns from Colette Patterns and Tilly and the buttons. But there are many more designers selling their patterns, such as Sewaholic and Baste+Gather. Most of them have online shops where you can directly buy their sewing patterns. Alternatively, there are online haberdashery shops that also sell sewing patterns from independent designers, such as this one, or you can always find many options on Amazon.

So that’s all for today’s post, I hope you enjoyed it and if you have any question or you just want to share a thought, please feel free to comment! Have you tried any sewing pattern from independent designers? Any bad/good experience? What’s the most important feature you look for in a sewing pattern? I can’t wait to hear what you think!

I’ll see you in my next post.

Ciao ciao!

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