How to Read a Sewing Pattern [A Super Easy Ultimate Guide!]

Hey, you!

I have a question for you…

Do you like puzzles?!

Because sewing patterns are essentially puzzles.

So if you do like puzzles, then you will take to sewing patterns like a fish that has been out of water for too long!

And if you aren’t crazy about puzzles, this article will make it suuper easy to understand patterns.

Now, if you are ready, let’s begin making sense of sewing patterns…

First, The Definition of a Garment Sewing Pattern

A garment pattern is a starting template of a design.

The key word in the previous sentence is…

Starting!

In other words, when we buy a sewing pattern, it is the beginning and not the end of the design process as it relates to our body!

Now, that we’re straight on that point, let’s learn…

The Three Parts of a Sewing Pattern

Okay, we’ll be dissecting patterns from the Big 4 commercial pattern companies — Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity, and Vogue.

Although patterns from independent pattern makers and PDF patterns may use different symbols, what we learn here is transferable to them too.

There are three parts to a sewing pattern:

  1. The pattern envelope: front & back
  2. The guide sheet inside
  3. The tissue pattern inside

Taking the time to really understand the three parts of our pattern is an important first step to sewing an insanely fabulous garment!

NOTE: If you’re ready to begin this journey and would like to buy my recommended tools and supplies, please click HERE!

Let’s begin with the…

Sewing Pattern Envelope: The Front

On the front of every sewing pattern we will find the following information:

  1. The name of the pattern company ~ in the example below, McCalls
  2. The pattern number or name ~ M6886
  3. The size range ~ (6-8-10-12-14)
  4. The possible style variations included in the pattern, labeled with alphabetically ~ A, B, C, D, E, and F

front of a sewing pattern envelope

And in the case of this pattern, on the envelope flap…

  1. The standard body measurement chart (as shown in the image below)

front of a sewing pattern envelope

The sewing pattern envelope may also indicate if it is an easy pattern, if it is for petites or if it has special sizing options.

Easy patterns tend to have fewer pattern pieces and construction details. For example, McCalls 6886 is ridiculously easy with only four pattern pieces, a dress front, a dress back, a sleeve, and a neckband!

And it requires no additional notions beyond the appropriate sewing machine thread and sewing machine needle.

However, just be warned that not all patterns labeled “easy” are actually easy. Sometimes, so-called “easy” patterns assume that you know how to sew! Ask me how I know this?!

Sew easy tip: Please ignore the photos and illustrations on the front of a sewing pattern, they’re often fugly and/or hiding important style details!

Can you see what I mean on this Vogue VP961 sewing pattern?!

comparing sewing pattern illustration to line drawing

Hmm. From the illustrations on the front of the pattern envelope, could you tell that all those details around the bodice waistline was going on the back of this dress?!

This Vogue VP961 is going to be an interesting sewing pattern, methinks!

Okay, we’re off to the back side…

Sewing Pattern Envelope: The Back

There’s a lot of really good stuff on the back of a sewing pattern that can be a great assist in successfully making a garment that fits YOU!

So, make it your business to spend some time here…

back of a knit sewing pattern envelope

Here’s the information we will find on the back of any knit sewing pattern:

  1. A stretch gauge ~ allows us to determine how stretchy our knit fabric needs to be for this pattern.
  2. A description ~ provides information about the silhouette, lining or underlining, closure, and other details that may not be visible in the line drawings.
  3. A yardage chart ~ tells us how many yards or meters of fabric we will need for each view.
  4. Suggested fabrics ~ are the fabrics that will yield a successful result for this design. The listed fabrics will have drape and weight in common.
  5. Finished garment measurements (FGMs) ~ are the actual size of the garment after construction.
  6. Line or schematic drawings of each view ~ reveal the true style details of the front and back of each view.

The back of a woven sewing pattern also contains a yardage chart, suggested fabric, finished garment measurements, and line or technical drawings for each view.

back of a woven sewing pattern envelope

But it does not contain a stretch gauge. Because remember: Wovens don’t stretch.

And in the case of this pattern, it also has a…

  1. Notions section ~ thread, zippers, trim, buttons, interfacing are some of the most common notions required

Plus…

  1. The standard body measurement chart ~ is located on the back rather than on the top flap of the envelope

Now, let’s deepen our understanding of why this information is so important…

Do we like breathing, sitting, and moving comfortably?! Then, it is important to use the stretch gauge and make sure that our chosen knit fabric has enough stretch to go around our body comfortably! We’ll be covering just how to use it when we construct our first knit dress.

And it would be very disappointing to get to the cutting table only to find out we don’t have enough fabric to make the dress of our dreams. So use the yardage chart to avoid such disappointments.

Next, the fabric we choose will make or break our project! In the beginning, we should stick to the fabrics on the suggested fabrics list.  Because we need many successes to build our confidence as we learn.

Next, many sewing patterns will require additional sewing notions that help us finish our garment. Grrrr! There are few things more frustrating than being in the flow of sewing only to realize that you don’t have the proper interfacing or zipper or whatever to continue or finish.

Finished garment measurements (FGMs) include wearing (movement) and design (style) ease. This is a key area we need to pay attention to if we are to sew garments that have our preferred fit!

And finally, the line or schematic drawings clearly reveal the style details of the garment: Does it have darts? What are the actual style lines? Does it require fabric with body or drape?

Sew easy tip: If you want to see a back view, check out the line or schematic drawings on the back of the pattern envelope.

Okay, are we ready to explore the inside of our sewing pattern?! Then, let’s get to it…

Sewing Pattern: The Guide Sheet

Now that we know how to read the outside of a sewing pattern envelope, it’s time for us to get friendly with the guide sheet(s).

The guide sheets provided within sewing patterns contain a wealth of information, such as…

  1. Line or technical drawings front and back of each view
  2. Line and technical drawings of the individual pattern pieces and which view they are assigned to
  3. Core skills required to sew garments in the pattern ~ for example, pattern marking symbols, adjustment tips, and cutting and marking tips
  4. Cutting layouts for each view and size

sewing pattern guide sheet

  1. General Instructions ~ for example, how to tell right side, wrong side, and interfacing in pattern instructions, seam allowance (SA), how to grade (trim) SA, what direction to press SA, and more…
  2. Glossary ~ sewing terms used in the pattern
  3. Sewing Directions ~ step by step instruction on how to construct each view
  4. Other Languages ~ sewing pattern guide sheets come in Spanish and sometimes even French

sewing pattern guide sheet

For a really simple pattern, such as McCalls 6886, it may consist of just one sheet, double-sided. But for really complex patterns it can go on and on.

Sew easy tip: If you want to keep in ultra simple and easy on you, then look for patterns with four or fewer pattern pieces. Simplicity patterns tell you on the back of the pattern envelope how many pattern pieces are part of the design. For other pattern companies, remove the guide sheet and check the area that lists the pattern pieces.

Finally, let’s tackle the actual tissue pattern…

Sewing Pattern: Tissue Pattern

We’ll be covering pattern layout in another article. But for now, this is the least you need to know…

There are three categories of pattern registration markings:

  1. those that help us  fine-tune the fit of the sewing pattern to our body (fit markings)
  2. those that provide layout guides (grain line markings)
  3. those that aid in the actual construction of the garment (construction markings)

But before we learn about fit markings, let’s look at the central information on the image below.

sewing pattern information on tissue pattern

Each pattern piece will contain the following information in this area:

  • Pattern company (in this case, McCalls)
  • Pattern number (M6886)
  • Pattern piece number (#3)
  • Pattern size range (6-8-10-12-14)
  • Whether it is the front or back pattern piece (Front C D)
  • View that it is assigned to (C and D)
  • Cutting instructions (Cut 1 on Fold)

Also, it is a good idea to scan tissue pattern pieces for additional instructions, such as variances in SA at neckline or armhole from the standard 5/8 inch.

As you can probably see by now, pattern manufacturers try to be very helpful so that we sewists can bring a design to life.

Now, first up…

Fit Markings

There are three fit markings on a sewing pattern. And they are:

  • Adjustment lines (1) ~ these double lines allow us to lengthen/shorten the pattern piece as needed
  • Bust, waist, hip symbols (2) ~ the circles with a plus sign inside indicate the location of bust, waist and hip lines and their FGMs
  • Cutting or Size selection lines (3)

fit markings on sewing tissue pattern

Sew easy tip: Most patterns will assign a unique line style for each size. But not always. (See image below.)

comparison of sewing pattern sizing lines

Next…

Grain Lines

Sewing is all about the grainlines on fabric, the grain lines on pattern pieces, and the grain lines on our body. Because a well-made garment is grain-perfect!

There are three grainlines:

  • Grain line (this line can have an arrowhead on just one end or an arrowhead at both ends)
  • Cut on Fold
  • Bias

3 grain lines on sewing patterns: grainline, cut on fold, bias

Sew easy tip: The grain line, cut and fold, and bias are ALWAYS parallel to the selvage.

Construction Markings

There are many construction markings, but have no fear! They are all pretty easy to remember. They are:

  • Center Front (CF) ~ are written out on the pattern piece.
  • Center Back (CB) ~ are written out on the pattern piece.
  • Notches (single, double, and triple) ~ are probably the most important construction marks of all, because they help us put the garment puzzle together.
  • Circles, triangles, diamonds, and squares ~ are for matching seams and other miscellaneous construction details, such as pocket placement, zipper stops, gathering, clipping, precise matching, and more.

single, double, triple notches on sewing pattern

Sew easy tip: A single notch indicates the front of a pattern piece or the side seams. A double notch indicates the back of a pattern piece. And a triple notch always indicates the CB.

And here are some other construction markings…

  • Button placement ~ is indicated by an X on the pattern piece.
  • Buttonhole placement
  • Darts ~ can be a series of dots or they can be very minimal with just a dot at the dart point and at each dart leg.
  • Hemline ~ indicates the actual hem allowance.
  • Pleats, tucks, gathers ~ may be indicated by dots, circles, or squares.
  • Zipper stop ~ may be a circle or dot or an illustration of a zipper.

construction markings: notches, buttonhole placement, dart, hemline

As for seam lines, they are not marked on multi-size patterns. Because that would be too messy and too confusing. But they’re there!

If a pattern contains only a single size, seam lines may be marked as a dashed line 5/8 inch inward from the cutting line.

Sew easy tip: Markings can vary from one pattern maker to the next. For example, the Big 4 pattern companies’ notches look like triangles, while an indie pattern’s notches may look like a “T.”

The End

Well, there you have it!

You now know that a pattern is just a STARTING template of a design!

And that there are three parts to a sewing pattern: (1) the front and back of the pattern envelope, (2) the guide sheet, and (3) the actual tissue pattern.

And that the tissue pattern contains three types of registration markings: (1) the fit markings, (2) the grain line markings, and (3) the construction markings.

Yay!

Guess what?!

We’re ready to come to terms with how to duplicate a sewing pattern.

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!

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