How to Read a Sewing Pattern
I don’t do a lot of clothes sewing but when I saw this beautiful fabric at Hobby Lobby I had to make some pants with it! Have you ever had fabric just scream at you so you had to buy it and make all the things before the day was done? I grabbed a Simplicity pattern to go along with the fabric and realized that if you don’t know how to read a pattern it can be super duper confusing! So I have put together a long list of tips and directions for how to read a sewing pattern. Plus after the tips see the pants I made and I will tell you about hacking a paper sewing pattern!
How to Read a Sewing Pattern
Buying a Pattern
If you are wanting to buy a pattern you will probably need to start by looking through the books in the store. Sewing patterns are organized by category in books. Once you have found a pattern you will find the letter/number of the pattern and then go to the file cabinets to get that pattern. This pattern is Simplicity 8390, and it is easy to sew which is exactly why I picked it!
Once you have picked your pattern flip it over. This is where you can find all the supplies you will need to complete the pattern. Measure yourself before you go to the store or take a measuring tape with you so that you know how much fabric to buy. Then pay close attention to the Fabrics and Notions section so you know exactly what supplies to purchase. This pattern called for a package of single fold bias tape, and I used a Rayon fabric from the Hobby Lobby spring line of apparel fabrics (<–you can find some of the fabrics online or shop in store for the fabric pictured in this post.)
How do you find the grain of fabric?
Most fabrics have the straight grain running top to bottom (with the selvage edge along the right and left.) In other words the grain usually runs parallel to the selvage edge. The selvage edge is the edge that was on the bottom of the bolt when you bought the fabric, this is the edge that wasn’t cut when you selected your yardage. On quilting cotton it often has the name of the fabric line and the color story printed on the selvage edge. With many clothing fabrics the selvage edge has a slight fray to it or tiny little holes (as pictured below.)
Fabric Grain on Patterns:
Once you have found the grain of fabric you will be able to line the fabric up in the correct manner on the pattern. You will want to acquaint yourself with the key (pictured below) so you can correctly place your pattern using the grain. The key below also lists important facts like the seam allowance and what all the other little pictures on the pattern mean. Reading the entire pattern is a great way to get all the information you could possibly need for your piece. I definitely recommend reading the entire pattern before you get started cutting or sewing.
How do you lay out a pattern on fabric?
When you are using a store bought pattern from Simplicity or a similar brand it comes with instructions. All the ways to place the fabric are clearly shown in the directions.
If the fabric has a pattern you might need to buy extra fabric so that the sewing pattern covers the right area of the fabric pattern.
What side of fabric do you pin pattern to?
Lie the pattern on the fabric as indicated on the pattern instructions. So for the pants that I am using in this example I pinned the pattern and cut it once on the right side of the fabric and once on the wrong side of the fabric so that I had two opposite pant legs. Sometimes each piece of the pattern will list where it should be cut when there are multiple pattern pieces. Reading the instructions carefully is crucial for using these patterns.
If you look at the image above you will see that one of the pattern pieces is darker than the other. This indicates the direction the fabric should go (right side down vs wrong side down.)
What is the nap of a fabric?
A fabric with nap is a fabric that has some texture to it. When you run your hand along the fabric you can feel the nap. Fabrics like velvet, velour, and corduroy have nap. If a pattern calls for a nap fabric these are the types of fabrics you should look for. Fabric like cotton and jersey doesn’t have a nap as it has the same hand no matter what direction you run your hand.
A pattern will indicate if a nap fabric is required. You can often use a nap fabric even if the pattern doesn’t call for it. You can check what fabrics are recommended on the back of the pattern package.
Transferring the Pattern
There are several ways you can use your pattern. You can simply lie the tissue paper pattern that is included over the fabric and cut. Or you can transfer the pattern to butcher paper or Pellon Easy Pattern so that it is sturdier (and easier to save) before transferring.
Be sure to transfer all of the symbols that are on the pattern. Darts, notches, and seams are all listed and should be heeded when transferring the pattern. In the image below you would be sure to notch the fabric and mark the circle for assembling the pattern later.
To put the piece together just follow the instructions on the direction sheet. It will walk you through each step of the process and help you complete the piece.
How do I change a pattern?
There are so many great patterns but you may not always be able to find exactly what you are looking for. You can hack a pattern by making small changes. This pattern called for a wide leg but I wanted it to come in at the bottom, because I like to pretend I am Aladdin 😉
There are several ways to change the pattern. You can take a pair of existing pants and then trace the seam onto your new pair, like this. Or if you know the general outline you would like and you are fairly handy at these things you can eyeball it. I knew that I wanted to bring the leg in at the bottom. I pinned the fabric so it tapered in at the bottom, after I had already sewn the pants together.
Last I decided to add a tie and a V at the bottom that mimicked the waist tie. Oh and as you can see I made these pants completely on my home machine (without a serger.) I finished the edges with a zig zag to keep the fraying down (after this picture obviously!)
Finished! They are lightweight and just perfect for my upcoming trip to Disney!
What lingering questions do you have about how to read a sewing pattern? Share with me in the comments below.