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Sewing Patterns 101

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

Ever needed a specific garment for a cosplay, like a shirt or a pair of pants, and felt entirely lost in where you should start? Thankfully, sewing seems harder than it really is. Once you learn how to decipher the code -- I mean -- read the pattern.

Overview: The Envelope

How to Find Your Size/Measuring Yourself

Patterns come in a range of sizes. The sizing charts can be found either above the yardage information or on the flap of the pattern.

We all know approximately which size we are based on standard store bought clothing sizes, But how do you find which size fits you perfectly?

Using a tape measure, Measure the widest portion of your chest, the smallest portion of your natural waist line, and the widest portion of your hips. The natural waistline is different for men and women. Men will measure their waist at the belly button, while a woman’s waistline will be a little higher, more in line with the bottom of the rib cage.

You may find that you don't fit into just one size category. If you find you’re chest measurements fall in the rare grey area between a 12 and 14 , go with the larger size. You can always take it in the other areas later if necessary.

What Kind of Materials and How Much Will I Need?

One of the basics of sewing is knowing what kind of fabric to use with what pattern. Each pattern lists the recommended fabrics types for the garment on the outside of the packet. They also helpfully list any additional supplies you’ll need such as bias tape, zippers or buttons in this section as well. And below that you can find A handy chart to help you find the correct amount of fabric you need for your project.

Navigating the Instructions

Now that you’ve successfully bought all of your supplies. It’s time. Time to tackle the dining room table sized sheets of tissue paper, the oversimplified illustrations, and the sometimes-too-vague instructions. This part is usually what people find the most aggravating (Myself included).

The initial 2-3 pages will contain all the following info:

Piece List

  • The Piece List includes visuals of each pattern piece found in the envelope as well as a list of those pieces and which Garment they are used for.

Pattern Legend or Sewing Key

  • Helps you understand the visual aspect of the instructions

Seam Allowance

  • Can usually be found under General Directions, typically measuring out to 5/8 of an Inch thick unless otherwise specified


  • A small list of common terms used in the instructions.

Fabric/Pattern Layout

  • The Pattern often outlines suggestions on how you can lay out your pattern pieces on fabric and interfacing.

Common Words and Terms That May Not be in The Glossary

  • Grain: Grain describes the direction of the warp and the weft in a woven fabric.

  • Selvages: is the tightly woven edge of a fabric. It prevents the side edges of the fabric from raveling or fraying.

  • Grain line: The imaginary line running lengthwise on the fabric, always parallel to the selvage edge.

  • Nap: A type of fabric that has texture to it or raised fibers, Like a Suede or a velvet. If your fabric has nap, pay careful attention to the grain line so it’s all going in the same direction.

Tips and tricks

Smaller Doesn’t Always Mean Easier

  • For instance, gloves are not as easy as they look. The smaller the project, the finer the details, the more obvious your mistakes will be. My recommendations for starter projects are Skirts, Pants, Shirts and Bags.

Read Ahead

  • Always read ahead. Never anticipate the next step.

Pre-Cut Pattern Pieces Bigger Than Needed

  • Cut your pattern pieces out of the tissue sheet as large as they come. You will cut along your size line once it’s pinned to the fabric.

Trace Guidelines

  • Trace the guideline for your size on all pieces. The lines can sometimes meld and get confusing while you’re cutting

Use Chalk Or Fabric Markers To Mark Symbols On Fabric

  • That’s it. That’s the tip.

Cut Notches Outwards

  • Cutting small triangular notches “outward” instead of “inward” helps alleviate fraying and potential issues with seam lines

After Use: Iron Your Folded Pattern Pieces

  • A low heat setting will help flatten them for storage and make them easier to put back in their envelope.


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