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Understanding Sewing Patterns

Understanding sewing patterns

Understanding sewing patterns, learning to read them and work with them, can be a daunting prospect but once you get to grips with the terms and understand what you’re actually looking at – you’ll find working with these is a breeze!

The choice of sewing patterns has dramatically increased with lots of new and exciting independent sewing pattern companies now out there, but understanding the pattern terminology is pretty standard. Julie Bonnar from The Pattern Pages explains what you’ll need to know about your pattern.

Understanding Sewing Patterns 

Unpack a paper sewing pattern

A) Envelope Front

Pattern Number or Name

Each sewing pattern will have a pattern number to identify the pattern design. Smaller independent sewing companies often give their patterns a name to help you remember them.


Most pattern envelopes will show a model wearing the garment options/styles so you can get a feel for how it will look on you.

Some sewing pattern brands will also include line drawings to show main features such as seams, pockets and sleeves plus the different styles that can be made using the variations (known as views).


Sewing patterns can be multi-sized and many pattern companies provide the pattern in two sizes that crossover. For example, the new pattern 1252 from Simplicity comes in H5 and R5 that covers sizes 6-14 and 14-22.

Beginner sewing guides


The sewing pattern envelope may include a small garment description advising you on the sort of fit to expect. In this case, the pattern shows that it is part of the Jiffy collection which is based on a original vintage pattern from Simplicity.

Skill level

Most pattern envelopes will give an indication of what sewing ability is expected for the pattern – beginners, intermediates or advanced level sewers. It may also say how long it might take to make – usually found on quick make patterns.

B) Envelope Back

Sewing pattern envelope back


If the line drawings (illustrations/views) aren’t shown on the front of the pattern, they’ll appear on the envelope back. These show the design shape and outline plus any details such as seams and zip location.

Sewing Pattern Types

This will help select the right sewing pattern for your height. The choices are usually as follows:

  • Misses
    This pattern style has been designed for women of average proportions between the height between 5ft 5″ and 5ft 6″ (without shoes)

  • Women
    This is designed for women who are between 5ft 5″ to 5ft 6″ tall (without shoes) with larger bust and hips than Misses.

  • Petite
    These patterns are designed for women with a shorter back-waist length, and a height of between 5ft 2″ and 5ft 4″ tall (without shoes).

Fabric suggestions

You’ll find a list of suggested fabrics that the sewing pattern has been specially designed to use with.  I recommend following these guidelines as the pattern companies will have rigorously tested these. This is usually quite comprehensive, and may carry a warning of fabrics that aren’t suitable too!


This is a listing of items that you’ll need to complete the garment and will include things like zips, buttons etc.

Body measurements

Assuming you have in front of you the 5 measurements (height, chest, bust, waist and hips) – this section is important to compare with your own measurements. I find it useful to highlight my measurements on the pattern to see which pattern size is the closest to my actual size.

It’s likely that you will be a combination of sizes so here is a great tip for making the right selection:

For skirts, shorts and trousers – choose your hip measurement.

For dresses, tops and jackets – use your bust measurement.

Pattern sizes

The sewing pattern sizes are shown but don’t worry about whether you are a size 12 or size 18, you’re looking to make the garment fit you the best so use the body measurements above to decide which pattern size to select.

It’s a common misconception that when choosing a sewing pattern you automatically select the same size that you buy readymade clothes on the High Street. This is one of the main factors why many stitchers end up with garments that don’t fit as well as they had hoped! Remember very few of us will match a pattern company’s standard measurements. For more information of taking accurate body measurements, click here.

TOP TIP: I keep a record of all my measurements but redo them every time I start to make a garment (even if it’s a pattern that I’ve made before). Unfortunately we don’t all stay the same size, I know I don’t, no matter how hard I wish it!

Fabric requirements

Usually you’ll find the two most common fabric widths quoted 45 inch and 60 inch (115cm and 140cm). This will help you choose how much fabric you require for your chosen size and pattern view.
Obviously if you choose the long sleeve version, you’ll need more fabric! This yardage block will indicate how much fabric, interfacing and lining you require to make a particular view on a pattern.

TOP TIP: Always take the pattern with you when shopping to check fabric width and remind yourself of any notions you need.

Other things you might need to know


Finished garment measurements

These measurements allow for garment ease, which really means how much room there is to move around when made up. It may also state a wearing ease, which is the minimum amount of ease for a garment to be comfortable. Within the sewing industry wearing ease is usually 6.4cm at the bust, 2.5cm at the waist and 7.6cm at the hip area. Design ease is the amount that the designer has added/subtracted to create a specific silhouette.

To determine ease, measure the pattern from seam to seam (excluding seam allowances) and compare it with your body measurements to the total circumference measurement of the pattern. The difference is the amount of ease the pattern has.

TOP TIP: I recommend that you don’t cut corners by skimping on fabric and always use the correct seam allowance as these can affect the final fit.

The above ­ body measurements, sizes, fabric requirements and finished garment requirements are all provided in a neat table on the back of the pattern so you can follow them more easily.

C)  Inside the pattern envelope

Instruction pattern sheet

This is your guide to making the pattern up and will take you step-by-step through the making process with relevant images along the way. This guide will vary from company to company but the fundamentals are the same.

The best thing to do is read through this carefully before doing anything! It will include good advice on cutting layouts (Burda patterns include this information on the tissue), how to arrange the pattern on the fabric and views will also show optional styles such as length, sleeve and hem variations.

TOP TIP: I usually sit with a coffee and highlight any information that I feel is important to remember for the style that I’ve selected to make.

Pattern Tissue

This is the pattern template made from fine tissue paper. You’ll need to cut out the pieces out that relate to your size/view that you want to make.

TOP TIP: Check that the pattern includes seam allowances (some patterns from overseas sometimes don’t).


D)  A-Z guide to sewing symbols


These are the most common symbols that you can expect to find on the pattern tissue and the instructional sheet. The instruction pattern sheet often features the ones that appear on the pattern as a reminder.


Adjustment lines

These indicate where a pattern can be lengthened or shortened usually across the pattern at waist or hip level.


Read pattern markings

Buttonhole placement

A cross marks the spot where a button needs to be placed and a solid rectangle indicates the length of the buttonhole.


Cutting layout

This is like a map showing how to fold the fabric and position the pieces for the most economical use. This will vary from garment view, fabric width, pattern size and nap so be sure to follow the correct one!


Cutting lines on a sewing pattern

Cutting lines

This is a series of solid outermost lines that mark all the sizes found on the paper tissue. You will need to cut along the one that denotes the correct size for you.

Darst marked on a sewing pattern


This is a tapered fold in a pattern to allow for fullness, which help shape the garment to your body contours. Mark and fold along the centre line, matching the dots and stitch to the point. The dart can be single-ended or double-ended as shown here.



These indicate areas of construction where precise matching, clipping, gathering or stitching is required. They’ll indicate where a dart or gathering etc needs to be added (see above).

Easing line

This short broken line, with dots at either end has a directional arrow to mark the area to be eased.

Fold line marking

Place on the foldline

This indicates where a paper pattern piece needs to be placed on the fold of the fabric so that two identical halves are cut as one avoiding additional centre seams.

Fabric grainline

Grain line

This is the suggested direction in which to place the pattern piece on the fabric with arrow parallel to the selvedge.

Hem allowance

This is the amount of fabric allowed for the hemming.

Commercial sewing pattern markings


These triangle shapes that appear along the cutting line for matching seams. When cutting out you can save a bit of time by clipping these into the seam allowance rather than cutting out above the cutting line to mark their position of the fabric.


Pattern layout

Diagram found on instruction sheet, which indicate how to layout pattern pieces on the fabric.

Seam allowance

This is the area between the fabric edge and the stitching, usually 15mm (5/8”) for dressmaking.

Now you’ve got your sewing pattern figured out why not read Julie’s beginner’s guide to making your own clothes. 

This feature was written by Julie Bonnar, owner of The Pattern Pages.   To be kept up to date with the latest sewing patterns visit