How to read a sewing pattern – Part 2

Pattern Drafting, Sewing

reading sewing pattern

There is a lot of instruction and guidelines for a commercial sewing pattern. Part 2 of ‘How to read a sewing pattern’ covers reading pattern instructions, fabric layout guides, and what pattern symbols actually mean.

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How to read a sewing pattern – Part 1

When you open a sewing pattern, you’ll see two different types of paper. One is the actual sewing instructions and the other is a printed light tissue that is the actual pattern.

sewing pattern paper

I highly suggest reading every part of the instructions BEFORE cutting into your fabric and sewing. Make sure you understand what each step is asking you to do and how to lay for pattern on the fabric.

Understanding sewing pattern instructions


Somewhere at the beginning of your pattern directions, you should see an illustration of the garment variations known as “views.” These show you what each variation looks like when it’s finished.

Pattern piece chart

Patterns with multiple pieces will have a chart that numbers each piece. The chart explains what each pattern piece is and which variation it’s associated with.

You can see here this peplum shirt has a lot of pieces. Variations A, B, C, and D all use pattern pieces 1-4 because there is no variation specified. However, piece 5 is only used for variations A and B.

sewing pattern piece charts

Fabric cutting layouts

Patterns show you exactly how to lay the pattern on the fabric. The right and wrong sides of the fabric and pattern pieces are denoted with an illustrated chart.

You may also see abbreviations that denote parts of your fabric such as size, selvage, fold, etc. These abbreviations will be seen on the layout illustrations so you can determine which way to fold your fabric and where the selvage edge is.

Each view will have a layout diagram for fabric widths. These diagrams will tell you which pattern pieces to use and how to lay the on the fabric.

This diagram also has the abbreviations mention earlier: S/L denotes the fabric selvage edge and F/P is where the fabric is folded.

You may also see AS which means this is how you would lay out your fabric for “all sizes”.

If your view has multiple fabrics (such as the main fabric, lining and interfacing), there will be a diagram each fabric. Be sure to review them carefully and DOUBLE CHECK placement, right/wrong sides, and fabric folds before cutting into your fabric.

Sewing information

Most patterns will begin with basic sewing information. It will outline what seam allowance to use throughout the whole pattern and also how to deal with seams.

These steps should be applied during the whole process. It may not be specifically stated on every step of the instructions, but it’s one of those unspoken things you should be doing.

Illustration Shading Key
This key refers to the illustrations in the directions so you can visually see what fabric they’re referring to and what side should be facing up or down. As you can see each ‘side’ of the fabrics have their own pattern.

Color code the shading key to easily decipher the fabric sides in the illustrations. This is an extra step, but can make a world of difference when you’re in the throes of sewing.


Next is usually a glossary for terms used in the directions. Most of the time its definitions for different stitching, but you may encounter explanations for techniques custom to a pattern’s construction.

It’s important to thoroughly read these terms and understand what they mean. They’re usually bare bones so I find it easier to google the terms and get more detailed explanations.

glossary terms in sewing patterns

Step by Step instructions

Each step will have written instructions and an illustration. Some will be labeled for specific views. This label should be clearly defined before each step.

In the picture below you can see steps 7 and 8 are referring to views A and B.

sewing pattern steps

Pattern pieces and their symbols

The pattern pieces come with their own set of instructions. Thankfully, they’re much easier to read and are mostly symbols.

Labels on pattern pieces

Each pattern piece will have a label so you know exactly what it is. The number corresponds with the number chart we discussed earlier.

It will also list the views the piece is associated with and how many times you need to cut it out.

Cutting lines

Patterns will have multiple cutting lines. These correspond to the pattern sizes. Each size will have its own outline designated with a dashed pattern. You’ll want to make sure you’re following the correct size’s outline on each pattern piece.

dash pattern size lines


Instead of cutting off size 14 and 12 to get to size 10, try tracing the size you need onto another piece of paper.

I like to tape copy paper together and trace the size I need with a serrated tracing wheel.

Pattern symbols

Patterns will come with symbols to take into consideration when laying out the pieces and marks for later reference. Generally, there is an industry standard for these symbols, but they can differ slightly from pattern to pattern. Especially independent pattern makers.

Sometimes, a pattern will include a legend of symbols. This Butterick pattern has one so let’s go over each symbol and others you might encounter on different patterns.

dotted lines for cut lines

These are lines you follow when cutting out the pattern pieces. They can come as a solid line or a variety of dash patterns so you can easily discern between the pattern sizes.

grainline double arrow

The double sided arrow shows you which direction the fabric’s grainline should be when you’re cutting. Place the pattern pieces on the fabric so this arrow runs parallel to the selvage edge.

cut on the fold arrows

These arrows mean you should cut the pattern piece on the fold of the fabric. Fold the fabric over and align the marked edge of the fabric with the fold. This creates a symmetrical cut of fabric. This symbol does not need to be transferred to your fabric.

geometric shapes

Geometric shapes most often denote markings for matching seams but can be completely custom to the pattern. Be sure to look over the instructions and pattern pieces carefully. You will most likely need to transfer these marks to your fabric.

Darts are tucks in fabric to create contours and natural shaping in a garment. The triangle and diamond shapes show you where to fold the fabric to sew a dart. They can be placed at any angle on the pattern depending on the location and shaping affect desired. You will most likely see them around the bust, waist, and hip areas. Transfer your dart markings to your fabric so you can easily press and sew the darts.

button hole markings

X marks the spot where you place a button. The long shape denotes where to cut and sew a button hole and how tall it should be. These marks should be transferred to your fabric.

double lines

Double lines indicate where to add or remove length in a pattern piece. These lines are usually seen on garments that need more personal customization such as pants or leotards, but can also be found on more universal garments such as loose fitting shirts and costumes.

bust apex symbol

This circle is placed on the highest point of the bust to denote what is called the “bust point” or “bust apex”. Use the bust point to calculate whether or not you need a bust adjustment but comparing it to your own bust apex measurement.

gathering symbols

The circles and wavy arrows show you where to gather fabric. You would gather the fabric in the direction of the arrows beginning and ending at the circles. Gathering can allow two different length seams to be sewn together or create fullness.

lines for pleats and tucks

Pleats and tucks are marked with a series of solid and dotted lines. You would fold the fabric on the dotted lines matching the solid lines and shapes. If there are no dotted lines, fold the fabric evenly between the solid lines. The arrows show you which direction to fold the fabric. It is usually wise to transfer these markings to your fabric for easy tucking and pleating.

garment marking abbreviations

These abbreviations mark seams in a garment. They are most often seen around the edge of pattern pieces and “cut on the fold” markings. These can be useful in labeling fabric if your pattern pieces look similar or for a blunt reminder when sewing.
CF = Center Front
CB = Center Back
SS = Side Seam


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Behind the blog!


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.


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