How to read a sewing pattern – Part 1

reading sewing pattern

Supplies Needed

You may have found that sewing pattern directions are complete and utter horse dung. Yes, sewing pattern instructions can seem damn near worthless. 

Where do you begin? Why are the instructions so cryptic? WHERE ARE THE PICTURES? Why does it look like a treasure map to a sewing hell hole? Here are tips on how to read them.

I don’t have a lot of commercial sewing patterns. I typically make my own patterns for costumes and find that process faster and less stressful than scouring the interwebs for a similar commercial pattern, spending money on it, waiting for it to arrive, and then siphoning the forces of nature to alter it AND make it fit.

Let’s start with the instructions on the outside. I have a Butterick sewing pattern B6097 — a button down peplum shirt. 

butterick pattern b6097

Skill Level

Looking at the front I’m thinking, “Yes. Very nice. It’s cute. I can totally do it!” Flip it over to the back and what do we see? SO MANY WORDS! But in nice large letters we see “EASY.” Is it really easy? I personally would not classify a shirt with buttons, a collar, and princess seams ‘EASY’. At least not novice easy. Easy is a t-shirt or a dolman style shirt or a maxi dress. In my sewing opinion, I would place this shirt between beginner and intermediate. 

butterick pattern back

SIZE CHARTS AND CHOOSING THE CORRECT SIZE

Somewhere on the back is usually a size chart. This one happens to be on the flap. Don’t get discouraged if you qualify for a size that is 2 times larger then your normal size. These commercial patterns are based on standard fashion measurements that run small for the average human who enjoys food. Each company has their own standard sizing. Always check to see whether the measurements are imperial or metric. Basically, everything in the US is imperial because ‘MERICA and international is metric. 

butterick pattern size chart

These size charts are not measurements of the final garment, they are measurements of body sizes. You might fall between sizes or your measurements are a blend of sizes. That’s okay. Choose by your largest measurement. On a pants or skirt pattern, you’ll want to match your hip size. On a top, choose by your bust size. Not bra band size, but full bust size.

Some patterns have a finished garment size chart. These are measurements of the garment when its complete. You’ll see the numbers are usually larger than the body size measurements. Sewing patterns are built with what we call ‘ease.’ This is extra room in the garment so we can do basic things like move around, sit, and bend over without revealing places where the sun don’t shine. If there was no ease in patterns, we’d literally be making second skins.

finished garment measurement chart

GARMENT VARIATIONS

Moving on we see a description for the different variations labeled A, B, C, and D. Easy enough. There will be very brief descriptions outlining the differences in variations. Or you can look the illustrations to get a clearer picture.

shirt variation description
shirt variation illustrations

FABRIC CHOICES

This pattern describes it’s designed for lightweight woven fabrics. Ok, thanks for the muddy clarification. Almost all fabrics are woven. At least they gave us a crumb and classified it as ‘lightweight.’

Then they go on to actually list the best type of fabric for the pattern: Shirting, Poplin, Linen, Chambray, Broadcloth. Notice there is no knit fabric listed. Knit fabrics tend to have stretch, are thinner, and usually have less structure (like a t-shirt). Think about the button down shirts you have. How many of them are light and stretchy? They’re typically not and knits are better suited for more casual wear. Because this shirt has a collar, buttons, and flared waist, you’ll want some structure. 

fabric description

But what’s this? “Unsuitable for obvious diagonals.” Let’s clarify. 

This means you’ll want to buy fabric that is solid colored or has a random pattern direction. You could even use a subtle horizontal or vertical patterned fabric. It would be a headache to line up a diagonal pattern so it matches at the seams. You’d also be buying a larger quantity of fabric because of the direction in which you have to situate the pattern pieces. 

Another thing to consider is the direction of the weave in the fabric. If a fabric has a strong weave pattern, the directions of the threads will be highly visible. Sometimes the threads will be the same color and other times the thread is multiple colors, like tweed fabric.

Take a look a bit further down where it lists the fabric yardage for the pattern variations. You might see a lining fabric, underlining, or interfacing fabric that wasn’t listed before. Sometimes the interfacing is not necessary and that is up to your discretion. In this Butterick pattern, the interfacing is most likely used to stabilize the collar, cuffs, and buttons. 

fabric amount chart

AMOUNT OF FABRIC

The amount of fabric you need for your sewing pattern is listed for each variation. Patterns will list the fabric yardage according to it’s width, hence you see 45″ and 60″ listed on the left.

These are standard fabric widths. You’ll need to check the bolt of fabric for it’s width. It should be listed on one of the ends! If you’re a size 16 and your fabric is 45″ wide, you would need 1 5/8 yard of fabric. For 60″ wide fabric, you would need 1 1/4″

Fusible interfacing is usually much less wide. On the chart below, we see the interfacing is listed in 18″ and 20″ widths.

fabric amount chart

*With nap or **Without nap

Nap refers to the texture of a piece of fabric. Think about velvet. At different angles it will seem lighter or darker. Running your hand across it, you might feel the fibers all want to lay a certain direction. This is the nap. Let’s say you sewed two pieces of velvet together, but their naps were going in opposite directions. You might see that one pieces looks darker than the other or it just doesn’t ‘look right.’ 

This Butterick pattern shows the widths with the nap instructions: 45″*/**. Those asterisks mean you can use a 45″ width fabric with or without a defined nap. If it was listed as 45″* then you would need fabric WITH a defined nap. The types of fabrics suggested by this pattern typically don’t have a defined nap so the selection should be easy and fun!

NOTIONS

Sewing patterns will list notions for the garment. Notions are just the extra supplies you need to finish the garments…buttons, snaps, ties, clasps, and other added embellishments. It will list the notions for each variation.

notion list

Erin

Erin has been a graphic designer by day and a seamstress by night for over a decade. At Mega Coven Art she combines her skills to give you useful sewing tips, costuming tutorials, and pattern drafting advice. And sometimes fancy tidbits from the Supernatural universe.