Adventures in Dressmaking: How to use a sewing pattern!!!

Friday, September 14, 2012

How to use a sewing pattern!!!

Sometimes I hear from friends or readers about how they can sew, but don't know how to buy a pattern and use it to make clothing that fits. I guess with all the tutorials on blogs these days you can make a lot of things (skirts, dresses, etc.) just by tracing an old garment or by measuring and gathering rectangles. I'm almost the opposite, though--I rely on sewing patterns to get a good fit and don't trust myself to put together a dress or bodice without a pattern to guide me! Although with the basic pattern pieces, I'll modify like crazy to get the look I want.

But I still start with a basic pattern, and I really believe once I mastered a halter dress pattern when I was 16, my sewing skills and passion really took off! There are pros and cons to both ways of making things, but I'd love for you all to learn to use patterns and not be intimidated... let me see if I can help!

Here's a question I got from a reader, Taylor:

Q: I am very new to sewing (all I can make are pillows) and I am interested in making my own clothing. My problem is, I cannot figure out how to read a pattern! How do you recommend getting started? Also, how do I cut out the pattern onto the fabric? I feel like I would get that all wrong. I apologize in advance if this is already on your blog - I didn't see anything about this topic.

It's a great question, Taylor. I don't already have anything on my blog but I should!! Hence this post! Here's my answer:

A: You’re definitely not alone in wondering about this. I learned to sew using patterns, so I’m afraid to sew without them for most things, but I know a lot of people are intimidated by all the pieces and instructions.

But, I can give you a few pieces of advice, I hope… patterns do include instructions, and they are typically pretty good for the bigger companies. There are a lot of “one-hour!” or “super easy!” patterns for simpler styles that would be good to start with. Although once you understand the basics of dress construction, for example, you’ll know how to make almost any dress pattern.

The pattern will also tell you how to cut it out, although you don’t have to follow it exactly. The first part of the instructions tells you which pieces you need for which style you’re making, and there will be a cutting layout guide that shows you where to put the pieces on the lining and fashion fabric (typically it’ll show for 45” wide fabric and for 60” wide fabric, so depending on what yours is you can use either). The first thing you do when you open the pattern and read the beginning will be to cut out the paper pieces of the pattern that it says you need for the style you want to make—no need to worry about being exact on the lines, just cut a little bit larger around them. Use paper scissors for this part!!! You have to unfold it all and find the right pieces (usually pretty random where they are), and then you can get your fabrics out and pin the pieces to the fabric. The cutting guides often waste fabric, so I cut things out just grouping the pieces as close together as possible while following the grain and fold markers. Then you’ll use your sharper scissors to cut out on the lines of the pattern pieces, or approximately, through all the layers including the fabric. I fold my pattern pieces to the right size rather than cutting off the larger sizes, just in case I want to use the pattern again later for a larger size.

On each pattern piece it will say “cut 2 fabric, cut 2 lining” or “cut 1 on fold” or something. That tells you how many and of which fabric you need. For complicated things those and the descriptive labels ("midriff back" or whatever) are really important, but for a simple dress style you’ll probably be able to see what part it is you’re cutting out! Like the front of a dress bodice is a pretty obvious shape. Also pay attention to the double-pointed arrows on each piece that tell you the grain line; align these with the grain of the fabric so your garment lays properly (parallel to the selvage edge and the center fold). Those lines are very important, also--that's why the cutting guide will help you lay your pattern out. Also note the other lines on the pattern that you aren't supposed to cut, like the darts and gather guides--I recommend keeping the pattern pinned to the fabric until you're ready to assemble, so you can refer to those guides. And cut the little triangle notches so you align your sleeve to bodice in the right place, e.g.

In my opinion, it would be easiest to start with a lined dress or garment because then you don’t have to worry about making facings at the neck and sleeve edges. So don’t be scared by the lining! I recommend cutting out the lining first and making any modifications you want to the pattern--cut the bodice a little longer if you're tall, or fold the pieces (below) if you're shorter or whatever--and then, ideally, try it on pinned together or at least measure very carefully. Then you can use the cut-out lining pieces as your pattern on the fashion fabric and that way you know you'll make the same modifications to both.

Making Butterick B4915 (out of print) shorter for one of my bridesmaids' dresses--cutting the lining!

I don’t use patterns for most of the skirts that I make; I just tear the fabric to the length I want and sew the selvages together, hem, and pleat or gather into the waist of my dresses. But that’s just because of the style of dress I typically make. Either way, most skirts are very simple and are basically rectangles or sort of triangular shapes.

Once you have everything cut out, the pattern will explain step-by-step what to do first. Follow each instruction and if you don’t understand one, I’d say try looking at PatternReview.com or Googling the name of the pattern and description of the step. Maybe someone else has had the same problem!

There are tons of great beginner patterns out there, and it just depends what look you want! Here are a few I’d recommend, just off the top of my head:
But really, almost any style you can imagine can be easy if the pattern’s not too cluttered and once you understand the basic construction!

20 comments:

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  1. I remember when I was first learning to sew the patterns were pretty intimidating in their sewing instruction jargon, but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy. I think what hindered me also was in my excitement to start learning, I just wanted to jump right in so instead of reading the instructions I mostly tried figuring it out by looking at the pictures lol (although sometimes this is more helpful). What finally helped me to understand was to research the terminology, so when the instructions said "stay stitch", I knew what the heck stay stitching was. I was able to do this by actually paying attention to the little terms guide they provide in the pattern, but mostly from my beloved copy of "Reader's Digest Complete Guide To Sewing" that was gifted to me by my mom's friend. I also asked other experienced senior sewers.

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    1. Good points! The pictures can be more helpful than the instructions in some cases, but you definitely have to pay attention to both when you're first learning!

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  2. I think it also helps to find out if other people have made the same pattern. If you google it or use a website like patternreview.com, you can read through what they thought of the pattern and what problems they've encountered.

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  3. I started dress-making by drafting my own patterns. In fact, I attended a dress-making course that teaches both drafting and the construction. I tried commercial pattern once, Burda's Anda. It shouldn't be a difficult pattern to work with (from what I read), but I had a horribly hard time editing it to fit my Asian frame. I never believed in commercial patterns again.

    For skirts, the rectangle skirt is one of my favourite. It's pattern-less, easy to sew and really versatile!

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    1. That's very ambitious! I stick to modifying commercial patterns but drafting would be fun to learn.

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  4. Honestly, if I were to do it over again, I would have gotten a Colette Patterns beginner pattern. The instructions are very detailed and are perfect for a beginner.

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    1. Good to know! They do such nice things, that's not surprising. =)

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  5. I learned to sew when I was a teenager. I started on doll clothes, mostly - of course - for Barbie, but there were also baby doll clothes, and I made some Raggedy Ann dolls that I dressed and gave as gifts. I got used to how the pattern pieces fit together to shape the garment, and even how to make darts, etc. The nice thing was that these tiny clothes don't take a lot of fabric, so if you mess it up, you don't have to feel too bad about just chucking it and starting over. Even though both my mother and her mother sewed like crazy, and were willing to help out, I really did learn a lot from the experience of doll clothes.

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    1. Cool! I made a lot of Barbie clothes when I was a kid, too, but normally just by hand, and they hardly fit. Doll clothes or kids' clothes are fast and good to learn on!

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  6. Just a couple of things to add. Always wash or dry clean fabric as directed on the bolt before cutting out the pattern. Most fabrics are washable theses days. The grain of the fabric runs up and down and the arrows on the pattern should be parallel to either the fold or the selvage of the fabric. I sarted sewing when I was 13, almost 50 years ago. I made most of my clothes in jr.high thru college. I was lucky in that I never had to alter patterns, but when I tried to sew for my daughter in her teens, I could never get the patterns to fit her. She was large in the bust but small waisted.

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    1. Very true to pay attention to pre-washing! Same with any sewing... fabric may shrink at different rates!

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  7. I am just in awe of anyone who sews and understands patterns or can just make something beautiful without a pattern. I sew just easy things right now but would love to make something I could wear. I am so intimidated by the patterns and all the markings on them. I am a very visual person so I have a difficult time reading wordy documents. I wish there was a class around her I could take. lol. I am going to save all this info and maybe just get the guts to just try and be patient with myself. Thank you Suzannah for posting this to your blog and thank you everyone for the comments. They really are so helpful.

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    1. Definitely, keep this info in mind when you're ready for a learning project! Once you get the hang of it with an easy pattern (pajama pants??) you'll feel much more comfortable. Good luck!

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  8. This post has been so helpful! My mum has been sewing all her life but has never really used patterns, and when I first opened one up we were both so intimidated that I packed it away and went back to tracing garments and doing simple self-designed sewing projects. I think it's a great skill to master and I hope that taking your advice into account, I will get the knack of it one day :)

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    1. Oh, wow! Definitely worth looking into patterns at least for the most basic elements of the garment, to ensure a good fit!, then you can use your drafting skills to make things more interesting and add draping etc!

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  9. I am continually reminded every time I read sewing blogs that it's really too bad sewing isn't taught in schools anymore. I feel fortunate to be from a generation that learned this useful and fun skill from really, really talented women - not only in the classroom but our mothers as well. As someone who has sewn her entire life, I am so happy that sewing is reemerging as a fun and beneficial skill to have.

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  10. I am trying to use patterns now. I make quilts and bags and all sorts of non-clothing items mostly. I made one dress that came out ok, but I wish I knew that patterns are made for a B-cup (I am a D). Knowing that I'll have to change basically every pattern I buy is really discouraging. Someone should make patterns for today's sizes. Most people do not have 1940 bodies.

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  11. I am trying to use patterns now. I make quilts and bags and all sorts of non-clothing items mostly. I made one dress that came out ok, but I wish I knew that patterns are made for a B-cup (I am a D). Knowing that I'll have to change basically every pattern I buy is really discouraging. Someone should make patterns for today's sizes. Most people do not have 1940 bodies.

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  12. Hi, I might be logged in as my SO here, so I'm sorry if so...! Anyway, I'm just about to make my first dress, and I really wanted to not cut the pattern pieces to size and then never be able to make the dress any bigger, but the idea of tracing the pattern or chalk-transferring it onto my fabric just sounded tedious! So the idea of folding my pattern pieces to size is *genius*. Thank you!

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  13. Thank you so much for posting this!!!! I am very new to sewing and this just helped tremendously!!! Now I am a little less freaked out about using the pattern I bought!

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