The Basics of Home Sewing: the Sewing Patterns Part 1

Since starting my little sewing shop, I have had a lot of people ask me what I sell, but unfortunately, I often have the same comment: “I have no idea what you are talking about”. I grew up in a household where sewing clothes was a hobby and a livelihood, but I understand that a lot of people were never exposed to it or may only have a vague idea of what sewing your own clothes entails.

Let’s go back to the basics. To sew at home, you need a few key things: 1) sewing machine, 2) notions (thread, needles, etc) 3) fabrics and 4) some kind of instructions or model to help you cut/fold/arrange your fabric to give you a piece of wearable cloth – this is called a sewing pattern.

Today, I will focus on the last item from that list: the sewing pattern. 

Paper sewing patterns

What is a sewing pattern?

A sewing pattern is a guide to construct your garment starting with how to cut the fabric, how to assemble the pieces and how to finish your project to get the desired piece of clothing at a desired size. It includes a set of templates from which the parts of a garment are traced onto fabric before being cut out and assembled. It also includes sewing instructions to assemble these parts together in the right order and following a certain methodology.


Who creates the sewing patterns?

Sewing patterns are created by patternmakers, but they are not all created equal. Not too long ago, there were only a few big companies creating these sewing patterns: Butterick, McCalls, Vogue, Simplicity. They are sometimes referred to as the “Big 4” although all owned by the same company now. These printed patterns used to be more readily available from fabric chain stores, and even some department stores. They usually publish huge catalogs with hundreds of models to choose from a few times a year. If you have learned to sew with these patterns, and kept going, you are a star! But by now, you probably know all the adjustments you need to make to these patterns so that they actually fit you. The instructions on these patterns are not always the best for novices and the illustrations make you wonder and second guess yourself more often than they should. These patterns often fit instructions for several different clothing models, in multiples languages, and all that on 2 sheets of paper! Impressive, but often confusing.

In the recent years, independent (indie) sewing patterns produced by independent designers or small companies have become quite popular and are now more widely available. These companies don’t usually have hundreds of clothing models to choose from and you can’t just walk into any chain store to get them. Indie patterns tend to offer detailed instructions and are often accompanied by tutorials, videos, hacks, tips to make you succeed in your sewing projects and make the most of your pattern. However, not all indie sewing patterns are created equal. I have to admit that some are not great and it seems like there are new ones popping up every day. There is a lot of variety with some companies catering to various body type, aesthetics, etc. Indie companies tend to engage actively with their fans on social media where they get a lot of user generated content providing inspiration and real-life examples of what the results could look like.

There seem to be a debate on a lot of sewing forums and blogs about either loving r hating indie patterns. Some will be vocal in saying that they only sew from the “Big 4” and want nothing to do with indie patterns, and other will say the opposite. I do find it unfortunate that this subject generates such divisive comments and friction between camps. I have several patterns from the Big 4 and have sewn with some of them. Unfortunately, they didn’t make me feel like I could sew successfully for myself and actually enjoy it. I have learned a lot from sewing indie sewing patterns and I would probably do better now with the Big 4, but I am not sure I want to try it again. Indie patterns offer up so many ideas to express your individuality and personality!


What are the formats for sewing patterns?

The most commonly known format is the traditional printed sewing patterns. Sewing patterns are printed on large sheet of “tissue” paper and sold folded in small envelopes along with a set of instructions. There are also other formats that are not printed sewing patterns. Today, you can get digital sewing patterns (typically an acrobat .pdf file) from various sources. Several designers only offer pdf through their website. You click the buy button, download your pattern and can be ready to use it within minutes. Once you have your pdf, there are a few ways to get your pattern ready to use:

  • You can print it at home on regular paper (A4 or US letter format). Each pattern will vary in their amount pages. Some instructions will tell you which pages to print depending on the model or size you want to make. Some patterns are layered which allows you to print only the size you need (look for a pdf file that have “layers” in it if you want to do that). You have to follow the printing instructions carefully to ensure you get the correct scale for the pattern selected. Finally, you have to assemble your pattern by piecing together each sheet.
  • You can send it to a copyshop or a specialized copying service to have it printed on large sheets of paper. These versions are usually referred to as A0 format or Copy shop format. No cutting or taping involved but you have to wait to receive your printed copy, and spend extra money for the printing/shipping services.
  • Another format is projector files. With the properly calibrated equipment, you can directly project an image of the pattern on your fabric to trace it without having to manipulate any paper at all. I have not personally tried this method, but from my understanding, not all pattern companies offer this format at the moment. It seems like an interesting (and trending) format and the method would offer the users options to “play” with the pattern using technological tools and software.

You can also get sewing patterns and instructions from books (I love books! More on that another time) and magazines. Even though instructions may be printed in the book or magazines, some will still require you to download the pattern files and to print them. They are not always included in full size printed format.

Printed patterns offer the convenience of having it all together, ready for you to use. They usually come in nice little packages and if you buy an indie sewing pattern your purchase supports small businesses.

Indies printed sewing patterns are what you will find in my shop. I carry only a few brands of indie sewing patterns that I have tried and love. I selected a few patterns from each company to cover a range of garments. I currently carry patterns from Grainline Studio (Chicago, Illinois, USA), Megan Nielsen (Australia), Closet Core Patterns (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), Wiksten (Portland, Oregon, USA), True Bias (Denver, Colorado, USA), Pauline Alice (Spain), Deer & Doe (France) and Merchant & Mills (England).

Indie sewing pattern brands on top of a pile of Closet Core Sewing Patterns


Ok, I have a sewing pattern. Now what?

Each sewing pattern will come with a set of info usually including: a description of the garment usually accompanied by line drawings of the front and back views, a size chart, suggested fabrics, notions required, finished garment measurements and how much fabric you will need to make the garment.

Here is an overview of each of these elements.

(1) Description and line drawing: a short description of the type of garment and the options included in the pattern. Some pattern offers multiple options: various neckline or collars, sleeve length, pockets, etc. The line drawing is useful to show the details of the front and back that might not be clearly visible from the picture of the worn garment.

(2) Size chart: most patterns offer multiple sizes on the same pattern. If you normally wear a size 8 from ready to wear (RTW, bought from a store) don’t assume that you need to sew a size 8 from a sewing pattern. Sizing for sewing patterns are different than ready to wear and also differ from brand to brand. The most common sizing you will see are American, European and French sizes, but they may be different for each brand. Various measurements may be presented depending on the type of garments. Usual measurements include the bust, waist and hips.

(3) Finished garment measurements: this is the measurement of the garment once you are done sewing if you followed the instructions. It is used to give you an idea of the type of fit intended for the garment and the ease it contains: loose, close fit, tight fitting, … If the finished measurements are smaller than the size proposed, the pattern has negative ease and it means that the clothes are smaller than your body to get that close fit. This is common for knit projects where the suggested fabrics stretch to conform to your body. Project with woven fabric will usually have positive ease, the finished size will be bigger than your body to allow you to still move and be comfortable while wearing the garment.

(4) Suggested fabrics: each pattern is drafted with a type of fabric in mind. The suggested type of fabrics are the fabrics that the patternmaker think will work best to provide the results intended. You can deviate from the suggested fabrics, but the results may not look like the original design. The two large family of fabrics are woven or knit fabrics. A pattern designed for a woven fabric, can sometimes be done with a knit fabric, but this is something that you can learn by experimenting. However, a pattern designed for a knit fabric, won’t usually work for a woven fabric. But this all depends on the design.

(5) Fabric requirement: once you selected the view (model) you want to make and the size, you can determine how much fabric you will need. There is usually more than one info per size depending on the width of the fabric you pick. The most common width listed are 45, 54 and 60 inches. If your piece of fabric is larger, you will likely require less length.

(6) Notions required: this is the material you will need on top of your basic sewing tools, patterns and fabrics. It includes thread, closures, elastics, trims, etc. I prefer the gather these before starting a project to make sure I have everything to complete it.

      Sewing pattern back cover example
      The example shown above is the back cover of the Emerson Pants sewing pattern from True Bias. The description and line drawing present the 4 variations proposed by this pattern: cropped pant or short with high rise (pant sitting at your natural waist) or, cropped pant or short with a mid rise (pant sitting approx. 1 in below your navel). This pattern is designed for light to medium weight woven fabrics. The pattern also gives you an idea of the difficulty you can expect (1 1/2 out of 5 or advanced beginner). Let select a size. For pants, the waist (usually the smallest part of your body) and hip (full hip or fullest part the of the hip) measurements are the most important. In this case, since the design includes an elastic waistband, the hips would be the most important measurement to check. The pants need to go over your hips to get to your waist! If your hips measure 39.5 in, you would select a size 10. If I wanted to make a mid rise short (view B) in size 10, I would need 1.5m of fabric either in a 45 or 54 inches width. Thread, interfacing and elastic would also be required to complete this project. The finished measurements give the hip measurement and the length. For view B in a size 10, you would get a finished garment with 42.5 inches and a length of 14.25 in (from top of waistband to hem). That’s 3 inches of ease at the hip to allow you to sit and move.


      To cut or not to cut…

      There are a few options when it comes to cutting your pattern pieces:

      • You can cut the pattern pieces directly from the paper.
      • You can trace the pattern on another piece of paper and cut the pattern on there. This will allow you to preserve the original pattern.

      Some patterns require tracing and can’t be cut directly. This would be the case for overlapping patterns (multiple patterns on the same pattern sheet is common in books and magazines) or if the seam allowances* are not included (it makes it easier to trace and add your own before cutting to ensure you don’t forget them).

      *Seam allowances refer to the area between the stitching and raw, cut edge of the fabric. 

      I prefer tracing, it allows me to preserve the original pattern in case I need to make another size or view, gives me a chance to get familiar with each piece and markings and also allows for directly modifying if needed (grading between two sizes or shortening/lengthening).


      What to do with your pattern when you are done ? You can read my post here on how I manage my pattern collection to give you ideas.  

      There you go, you are ready to use your pattern. Stay tune for the next post in this series to learn more about using and reading the pattern: how to lay it onto your fabrics, what are all those marking on it and more.


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