Beginners Guide to reading and interpreting sewing patterns and choosing a size
So far in my top tips series I’ve covered some of the basic things you’ll need to know if you want to start learning how to sew and make your own clothes. In this episode I’m going to be focusing on sewing patterns themselves, how to interpret them, read the information and get the information you need to make the garment that you want. From all the people I’ve spoken to in the shop and met on workshops I know sewing patterns can be overwhelming and daunting so I hope to breakdown that for you and give you the confidence to work it all out.
To hear me chat about it, check out my latest Youtube video or read on for all the info!
First of all I want to break sewing patterns down into two main types
The larger, more traditional sewing pattern companies/houses that have been around for decades. For example Newlook, Vogue, Simplicity, Butterick, McCalls and Burda. They mostly produce printed sewing patterns.
Smaller independent companies - these companies often get called indie patterns and there are tens if not hundreds of these companies now. Some of my favourites are Closet Case Patterns, Deer and Doe, Grainline, Tilly and the Buttons, Papercut patterns - this list is so long now! Some produce printed patterns and pdf’s, some are pdf only.
What are the differences between large pattern companies and smaller indie ones?
The number of different designs they offer! The larger companies will have hundreds of designs covering lots of different styles and types of garments. As they have been around for a long time and have large teams of people working on the patterns they are able to produce patterns at a high volume. The smaller indie companies are usually either a single person or a small team of people designing and producing the patterns through every stage of production from drafting to grading, testing and then actually manufacturing and getting the physical patterns produced. Therefore they will have a limited number of patterns and can’t release them at the same rate.
The variations included and style of garments. It’s quite common that in a New Look pattern for example that you will be multiple different garments within the same pattern, for example a little jacket, skirt and top. Or sometimes it might be multiple variations of a similar garment. Whereas indie patterns typically, but not exclusively, have a smaller number of variations maybe two or three. Indie patterns usually also have their own style and aesthetic, just let different high street shops have their own style and identity. You might find that once you find a pattern company that you like then no matter what garment they release you like it as you just identify with their style.
The instructions. The patterns from larger companies are very standardised and typically quite brief. From my experience I think that they always presume quite a lot of prior knowledge and understanding of garment construction. Instructions from indie companies are typically much more in depth and will really break down each step and are therefore more encouraging for beginners or those still building up their dressmaking skills.
The quality and look of the physical pattern. The larger companies typically print their designs on very fine brown tissue paper. The outside packaging is usually a thinner paper envelope and the designs will be technical drawings of the garments or sketches. Sometimes there is a photograph of the garment made up.Indie patterns usually have their own very specific style that makes it really easy to distinguish that it is from a certain company. Again some have photographs, some just have technical drawings. This is much more thought gone into the packaging and it can vary from a simple paper envelope to a more sturdy box. The pattern itself might be printed on tissue or sometimes they are printed on much thicker heavy duty paper that is easier to trace from if you like doing that - Tilly and the Buttons and Deer and Doe are a few examples of that. In general they tend to look prettier and more appealing
The online support - sewalongs, hashtags and blog posts. Some indie sewing patterns have online ‘sewalongs’, which are usually a series of blog posts that take different elements of construction and explain them in detail with lots of pictures. This is great when you are trying something for the first time like a shirt collar for example. If you like using social media then you can usually really easily find lots of other versions of a pattern from an indie company by looking at the hashtag for that design. Similarly there are usually more blog posts from people who have made garments from indie companies where you can read about their version, how they found it, what changes they made etc. You do get that sometimes for the larger companies but as there are so many more hundreds, probably thousands, or patterns it’s just less likely that as many people will have made it and then actually blogged about it.
Sizing and labelling of sizes in sewing patterns. This is quite a large topic, which could probably warrant a whole post and video just on this subject so I’ll aim to give a quick overview. The size range included in all sewing patterns varies hugely. Some patterns focus on petite sizes, some focus on plus sizes, some cover somewhere in the middle and don’t capture the ends of the spectrum. Sizes are usually labelled numerically but there is unfortunately no standardised way that is used across all patterns, so a size 12 in one pattern is unlikely to be the same in another pattern.
When sewing patterns are created they are usually based around a block of a certain size and then graded up and down accordingly to achieve a range of sizes. Different pattern companies will use different blocks as a starting base as they will have developed their own, hence the reason why there is so much variation.
Choosing a size. So when you come to choose a size you have to pretty much ignore what it is actually called and completely forget about what size you think you might buy if you went into a shop. You need to know your bust, waist and hip measurement and plot that on the size chart. It’s really common and normal that your measurements might span more than one size. In that situation there is a few things you can do. You can take into consideration the style of the garment, what fabric is it made from and how fitted it is by looking at the finished measurements chart. Clothes made from woven fabrics with no stretch will have positive ease. This is when the finished garment is bigger than your actual body. Clothes made from stretchy, jersey fabric or fabric that is woven but has elastane in it to make it stretch may have negative ease. This is when the finished garment is smaller than your actual body as the garment has been designed to stretch and fit around your body.
So for example you were making a top that was A-line in shape, fitted over the shoulder and bust and then looser over the waist and hips, it’s probably best to choose a size based on your bust measurement and then if your own actual waist or hips don’t exactly correspond to the measurements for that size on the pattern but when you check the finished garment measurements you can see that there will still be at least 2 inches of ease then you might be ok to just make that size anyway.
Making pattern alterations
This is a huge topic and one that needs to be covered over lots of other blogs and videos as there are so many things that you can do to alter patterns but I hope the overview of sewing patterns in general I’ve given you in this post gives you more insight into the different patterns and what makes them unique. If there are any pattern alterations in particular you would like me to cover please let me know in the comments below!