Tutorial: Introduction to Clothing Patterns: Where Do I Start??

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#1 Syagria on 7 years ago

[U]Part 1[/U]

There are many sewing novices here seeking advice, and a common question I see popping up is, "I want to make X, but I'm new to sewing. Are there patterns I can use?"

The short answer: Yes. And this may perhaps be a bad generalization on my part, but I'm going to assume that those new to sewing may feel a bit lost when trying to understand patterns for the first time. If you don't have someone on hand with some bit of experience, patterns can be bewildering. That's what this tutorial is all about.

The long answer: Yes! And here's how to do it!

There are all manner of patterns out there. As a general rule, the easiest place for you to start will be your local fabric store. 99% of them will have a patterns department. Ask a staff if you don't spot it right away.

1. I've never done this before, so what are good patterns to start with?
Something simple! Don't jump into a 14-piece Tudor-style dress on your first try. Things that are good are basic skirts, pajama pants, robes and other loungewear, scrubs, and then simple blouses. There are many uncomplicated patterns that are designed to teach sewing, and are often clearly marked as such, or as garments that can be made in a few hours. These are great for beginners. Remember: no one is born knowing how to do this. We all learn it on the way with lots of practice. Even if you're not working on a costume, practice by making your own clothes. You can never have too many pairs of fun flannel pajama pants!

2. How do I even find a pattern?
The 2 most common pattern makers (in the US, anyway) are Simplicity and McCall's. Secondary, but also common, are Butterick and Vogue. Other pattern-makers are available, mostly online. The big 4 each put out a look-book every 3 months that is a portfolio of all the patterns they currently publish (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, introducing new season looks in addition to the older collections). When you first look for patterns, give yourself plenty of time - it's amazingly easy to kill an hour or more flipping through the books. The books have patterns for just about everything from formal wear to window treatments and casual tops to Halloween costumes for the dog... chances are, it's there if you have the patience to look. The books are organized in sections, and some patterns may appear in 2 sections - a skirt may be in the business-like sportswear section, but also in the casual skirts section.

Bring reference pictures with you so that you can find a pattern as close to your character's outfit as possible. If you can't find something similar in the portfolio for one pattern maker, dig through the book of another. Often, I'll look through everything, pick out 4-5 designs from different manufacturers that are close to what I want, then make a final selection.

3. So are there differences between pattern makers?
Yes. You may find very similar designs between makers (especially for popular or trendy looks), but also each maker will have designs that are pretty unique just to them. Aside from that, you may discover that sizes (I'll get to this in a minute) may be quite different between manufacturers. Some of this depends on the measurements the company uses, and some depends on your body type. For my body type, I tend to find that Simplicity fits me best, and that Butterick tends to run small. This is more of an FYI, because honestly? Don't worry about this for now. You'll get a feel for this as you get more experience and find a particular pattern maker you prefer. Also, pattern makers WILL discontinue a pattern that is out-of-date, unpopular, or old-fashioned (without the coolness of being retro), so although you might remember, "Hey, I saw this pattern two years ago that would be perfect for what I need now!" don't be surprised if you can't find it - but another maker may still have something similar. Pattern makers have their catalogs online, too.

4. I found just what I want! Where do I get the actual pattern?
Take a look at the page the garment picture is on - you should see a fairly prominent number, usually 4 digits long. This is the pattern number. Nearby in the store, there should be a set of file cabinets. Each drawer will be labeled by company and a number range, which indicates what patterns numbers are contained in that drawer. Patterns are always filed in numerical order within the drawer, unless someone has mixed them up.

5. But... why does this pattern have two different pattern numbers?
Some patterns may only cover certain sizes (which I'll get to in a minute). For example, pattern #1111 may be for sizes 2, 4, 6, and 8, and pattern #1111A or #1112 may cover sizes 10, 12, 14, and 16. Some simpler or less-fitted unisex patterns (pajama pants, robes, etc.) may be broken down into XS, S, Med, and Lg, XL, XXL. There are 2 reasons for divvying patterns up this way: one, if you aren't sure of the size, or if you're making multiple sizes of a garment, you'll be forced to buy 2 patterns instead of one and the company gets more money, and two, scaling a pattern up or down isn't always as simple as it seems. Sometimes there are major shifts in angles, lengths, curves, or other aspects of the pattern, so that scaling a size 2 pattern to a size 12 pattern makes the pieces look completely different, and have vastly different printing layouts or fabric requirements.

6. How do I know what size pattern to buy?
I will - you can probably guess what I'm about to say - get to this in a minute! First, I need to give an overview regarding the dizzying amount of tiny tiny print on the back of the pattern envelope. Flip your pattern envelope over so you're looking at the back.

7. Holy smokes, what is all this?! Is this a math test?
I'm going to include an example to illustrate what this looks like, for those who have never looked at a pattern envelope before. Suppose I find that Simplicity 2314 is just the skirt pattern we need. This is the back of that pattern envelope. There's a wealth of information and instructions here.


I) General info. Most pattern sets will include patterns pieces to create more than one look (different length skirts in this case). These are labeled as looks A, B, and C.
II) The pattern will also often include a list of material types that are appropriate for the garment. This is a very versatile skirt pattern, that will work well with many types of fabric. Some patterns are more specific. This, too, doesn't mean that you couldn't use a different material - but the materials listed here are those that the pattern makers have identified as ideal.
III) Fabric alone does not a garment make! You need other stuff, too. That's what the notions list is - other things you'll need, like buttons or zippers.
IV) Body measurements. It may strike you as odd that they'll bother putting a bust measurement on a skirt pattern, but this is the standard list of measurements for Simplicity garments that are listed on all Simplicity garment patterns. It's easier/cheaper than re-writing the table for just skirts or just tops.
V) Fabric requirements for each look. The three different garment looks are listed here, with the amount of fabric needed, along with any additional specifics for a particular look (trim, for example).
VI) Additional fabrics needed. Since all skirts will require some amount of interfacing, it's listed as a common fabric for all of them, rather than it being listed 3 times.
VII) Finished garment measurements. If you make everything right, these are the dimensions the final garment *should* be.

#2 Syagria on 7 years ago

[U]Part II[/U]

8. Now that you've gone over all of that, will you finally tell me what pattern size to buy?
Yes! The first thing - and one of the most critical - things to understand about pattern sizes is that they have NOTHING to do with your clothing size. A person might wear a size 6 in jeans, but her size in Simplicity patterns might be a 10, and her size in Butterick patterns might be a 12. Or 14. Throw out, at once, the idea that buying a size 12 pattern means you are "fat." That is simply not true. 12 just happens to be a number. What is more important than that number 12 is that the garment, when finished, fits you, and fits you well. A plus-sized lady in an outfit (costume or otherwise) that fits her well will *always* look better than a thinner woman trying to squeeze herself into something a size too small (ever notice that slim girls still get muffintops when they wear pants that are just way. too. tight? It has nothing to do with weight!).

Take a look at the "body measurements" section of the pattern envelope. Typically, patterns will list bust, hip, and waist measurements - if you have these on hand before you go to the store, it will make your life easier. Look up a tutorial on the appropriate way of taking measurements, and don't pull the tape measure too tight. Remember, you're not trying to impress anybody with a tiny waist number and a big bust number - you're trying to make sure the pattern you buy will be the right size for your dimensions! For a skirt, the hip measurement is probably the most important one: you can adjust the waist as necessary, but if the skirt is too narrow to fit your hips, there's not much you can do about it. On the waist measurement line, look across horizontally until you find your measurement or the next highest number. For example, a 35 1/4 inch hip measurement lands between 34.5 inches and 36 inches, so bump up to the 36. If you follow that column down 2 lines, you'll be on the line that reads "Pattern Size." A 36 inch hip corresponds to a size 12 pattern size, as outlined by the blue box in the picture. (Note: You can use the waist measurement, too, or both together, to make your pattern size decision. There is a minor amount of trial-and-error here.)

Keep in mind that pattern makers design their patterns to ONE standard set of measurements - measurements that might not be all that relevant to the variety of body types of modern women! Looking at this pattern, it assumes a 10-inch difference between the waist measurement and the hip measurement. I don't know many women with those dimensions. This may mean you'll have to do some custom tailoring later on; another good thing to check against is the "Finished Garment Measurements" listed at the bottom. For example, a 32-inch waist measurement on this pattern translates to a size 18, which makes my jaw drop open - the finished garment measurement is 50 inches in the hips. Most of the people I know with a 32 inch waist would be swimming in that! The upshot is, the measurements are a good starting point, but be aware that they aren't a perfect indicator of size or of whether the final garment will fit you. The good thing is that nearly every commercial pattern nowadays is made to be somewhat customizable, so you can take in a bit here or add a bit there and you'll end up with something far more in line with your measurements. This is something that takes some practice, so don't fret about it too much when you're just starting out.

9. You've totally terrified me.
Don't panic! It's really not something to stress over. Generally, the basic measurement guidelines on the pattern envelope are sufficient for simple patterns for beginners. If you're really worried that your garment will be too small, go for the next pattern size up, and you can always take it in later.

#3 Syagria on 7 years ago

[U]Part III[/U]

10. Alright then, I'm getting this pattern, in this size. How much fabric will I need?
In the pattern example above, let's say you've decided on Look B, and you've decided that you're a size 12. To find out how much fabric you need, start on the Pattern Size line, in the column starting with pattern size 12 (blue box outline). Follow the column down until you get to the block of information for Look B. The next line reads, "45" or 60"." This refers to fabric width. Most apparel fabrics come in bolts that are either 45" wide (most common) or 60" wide. In this situation, regardless of how wide the fabric is, you'll need 1.5 yards. Pattern pieces can be laid out differently based on the width of the fabric, so in some situations (Look A) less material is needed for 60" wide fabric than for 45" wide fabric. Be sure to get the trim and interfacing, too!

11. Bought my fabric! Bought my pattern! What do I do now?
At home (or some place where you have a lot of room to spread out), open your pattern up. You'll find two things - a set of folded up tissue paper (the patterns themselves) and some instructions printed on heavier paper. The instructions will include some basic information on marking and such - this is a useful thing to read, if you're a newbie. Unfold the tissue paper patterns and take a look at them. A few things to notice: First, all pattern pieces have an individual number. In the instructions, there is a list of what pattern pieces are included in the set. The instructions will also tell you which number pieces are used for which looks - this skirt may use pieces 1, 2, and 3, but long skirt may use pieces 1, 4, and 5. This will help you figure out which pieces you need to cut out for your garment. The pieces are also labeled with what they are specifically (skirt front, skirt back, waistband, etc.). Second, pattern pieces have multiple lines outlining them. If you look closely, each one of these lines is for a a different size. If you need pattern size 12, make sure you stay on the line for that size and don't accidentally end up on the line for size 14 or size 10, or your garment will look all screwy when you're done. (More advanced technique: cut everything out on the largest size possible, and fold the edges of the pattern in on the lines of the desired size. This will enable the larger sized pattern to be used at a later date, if needed.) Third, pattern pieces will also usually include some basic instructions, such as "Cut two from fabric" and/or "Cut two from lining," or "Cut 1 on fold."

Once you've identified which piece numbers you'll need, and what size they need to be, cut out all your pattern pieces on the proper size line. As you're cutting, you may come across some triangles or diamonds that stick out from the line. These are important! These are markings that you will use later to line up your fabric pieces together, so don't cut these off. Also, cutting paper with fabric scissors can dull the scissors and dull scissors can make a terrible hack job of your fabric later on, so if you think you'll be doing a lot of sewing, invest in a good pair of fabric-only scissors. It's not uncommon for fabric designers of any sort to become fiercely protective of their treasured fabric scissors.

After cutting out the pattern pieces, iron them with a dry iron set on the lowest heat setting. Keep the iron moving - very little heat is needed to get the folds and wrinkles out of thin paper, and you don't want to scorch or burn the paper. Don't use steam.

12. Are we at the fun part yet? Can I pin out the pattern pieces and cut the fabric?
Nearly. It's a good idea to prep your fabric, as well. Most fabrics have sizing or starch or sometimes extra dye in them, and you want to make sure to rinse that out so it doesn't cause your garment to shrink or have the dye bleed onto other fabrics. Generally, all I do is fill a basin or my tub with some luke-warm water and either gentle fabric soap (like Woolite) or dish detergent, and then slosh the fabric around for a bit. Rinse until all the soap is gone, squeeze out the water (do not twist; it will stretch and damage the fibers), and lay out to dry. Try to avoid hanging the fabric, as this can cause the fabric fibers to stretch. You could probably run it through the clothes dryer - I don't because I'm too lazy/cheap to go to the laundromat to do that.

Once the fabric is dry, press the wrinkles out of it, and lay out as much of it flat as you can. If you look in the instructions of your pattern, in the beginning it will show you several diagrams called pattern layouts. These are designed to show you how to lay the pattern pieces out on the material to minimize wasted space. If you do not follow these guidelines, you'll run the risk of not having enough material. Find the diagram for your look and for the width of material you purchased and use that as a guide.

13. Other than the layout diagram, are there any other things I should keep in mind?
One initially important marking on a pattern piece will be a long line with an arrow. This arrow indicates how the pattern should align with the direction of the grain of the fabric. Woven fabric has long fibers running the length of the material (the warp, usually made of stronger threads), and fibers running the width of the material (the weft; these threads often aren't as strong as the warp) and the edges of the material, width-wise, are called the selvage. The selvage often looks different, may be a different weave, or might not have color printed on it, so try to avoid having your pattern pieces extend into these areas when laying them out. When you lay out a pattern piece on the material, line up the grain-line arrow with the length-wise warp fibers. Try to get it exact as possible (one method is to use a ruler to measure from the selvage edge to the pattern grain-line arrow to ensure that it is a uniform distance from the edge); if your pattern is at an odd angle to the grain, the garment often will not drape or hang properly, and may twist or bunch up weirdly when you wear it.

Pin the pattern to the material at the ends of the grain-line arrow first. Then pin around the edges of the pattern. If the pattern piece says, "Cut two," the easiest way to handle that is to fold the material in half the long way, line up the selvage edges so that the grain on each half is aligned, pin the pattern piece through BOTH layers of fabric, and cut out both pieces at the same time. Do the same for a pattern piece that needs to be cut on a fold. As best as you are able, lay out and pin as many of the pattern pieces at once as possible prior to cutting - this way you will know if the pattern pieces will fit on your material and you can make adjustments as necessary. If you pin and cut out a piece, and then pin and cut the next piece, you may get to the end and discover that you are somehow short of material. When cutting out your pattern pieces, be sure to notch or otherwise mark those little triangles or diamonds I mentioned earlier. These markings will be used to align fabric pieces to be sewn together. In addition, there may be special marks (such as "gather between these two dots"), so be sure to transfer all of these marks to your fabric. You can use a washable fabric pencil, chalk, or a colored pencil to do this. Avoid using ink or pen, for obvious reasons.

Some people will trace the pattern piece on the fabric, remove it, and then cut out the material on the drawn line, others will cut around the paper pattern itself as it is still pinned to the material. If you're precise with your scissors, it won't make much of a difference, although if you are reusing the same pattern many times, inevitably the paper pattern starts taking some abuse, and may eventually show some differences from how it originally looked, which may throw off the design of the finished garment. If the pattern is only being used once or twice, or if you're careful with cutting, it doesn't really matter.

When you're done cutting, make sure you either keep the paper pattern pinned to the cut fabric OR you very clearly mark what fabric is what piece, as well as which is the front of the fabric and which is the back. I keep the pattern pinned to the fabric until just before I'm ready to use it - it makes it much easier to keep track of, and I don't have to worry about pencil labels rubbing off prematurely.

13. I did it! Everything is cut out! Can I finally start sewing?
Go for it - but I'm not going to include that here! There are a lot of sewing tutorials out there, so if you have any questions, dig up one of those. Hope this helped you, and remember to have fun!

#4 KnightJeran on 7 years ago

Could I just say..... THANK YOU! My god... People are always saying "well, just use a pattern! all the directions are right there! just go for it!" and I just have NO IDEA what I'm doing. SANNNNKKK YUUUUUUUU.

#5 ilikecookies on 7 years ago

Thaaankya :D <3 wow i can't believe how perfect this timing was though~! XD Cause i'm actually going fabric shopping later today (^.^) But seriously though. THANK YOU. :3

#6 VerrinEleni on 7 years ago

Very good tutorial. I'd like to add (from experience both sewing and working in a fabric shop) that whatever you plan on doing to your finished garment, you want to do to the fabric before you begin. So if you plan on throwing the garment into the dryer, you ought to do that to the fabric as well. Some fabrics shrink enough to pucker seams or cause the garment to not fit correctly. Also, if you're using two different fabrics, one may shrink slightly more than the other.

You also want to check on the fabric care methods while you're in the shop. For example you can't throw corduroy (at least the type my store carries) in the dryer without risking permanent damage.

#7 SirLucius on 7 years ago

Wow! This is incredibly helpful! I was just looking at patterns the other day and I had no idea what it all meant. Thanks a bunch!

#8 saphira on 7 years ago

where i live i'd have to have patterns shipped, so i usually make my own, but this tutorial was very very helpful. Thank you! ^^

#9 Crimson_sword on 7 years ago

This is freaken amazing!!!

#10 RoseHanabira on 7 years ago

I've been using patterns for a couple of years, and I have to say, what a wonderful tutorial! Very in-depth and insightful!

I recently had to deal with the trouble of the hip/waist ratio and overall body type not being at all realistic for the pattern I was using (the Green Pepper leotard pattern is the bane of my existence; who has a 38" bust with only 30" waist and 40" hips?! And that's their largest size?! I know I'm using a skating pattern, but I don't have the figure of an ice dancer!). I am SO GLAD that you went into a bit of detail about that, I hope that it will save a few people of some unpleasant surprises!

#11 Syagria on 7 years ago

[u]Part IV:[/u]

First off: Thanks for the reads/compliments, everyone! Glad people are finding this helpful.

A few things I should add:

[B]A:[/b] VerrinEleni makes a very good point above: if you're planning on running your garment through a clothes dryer, it's a good idea to run your fabric through it before working with it. Different fabrics have different reactions to heat. I tend to either just spot-clean costumes or dry a lot of my laundry on the "fluff" setting, which has no heat. It takes longer, but highly reduces the risk of shrinking cottons or other fabrics. Most cotton material these days is pre-shrunk cotton, so the effect of a dryer should be minimal, but it can still happen. Also, if you are planning on dying fabric to a different color, do this BEFORE cutting pattern pieces. Dyes often require very hot water, which may have some effect on your material - better to know it before you do all the sewing work!

[b]B:[/b] There's one other tidbit written in very tiny font at the bottom of pattern envelopes that I didn't mention. It says, "with nap, without nap, or with or without nap." "Nap" is a term that refers to fabric that has some sort of plush quality to it, called "pile," which are fibers that actually stick out from the material base itself. Velvet, velour, and fur are materials that are easily recognizable as materials with pile. "Nap" is the term for which direction those pile fibers lay. If the fibers are all smoothed one direction, the material has one tone (and probably looks glossy); if some fibers are rubbed a different direction, the material has quite a different color. If a material has nap, that means you want to be sure to lay out your pattern pieces in an orientation so that all the nap is running the same direction, otherwise one piece might look like a totally different color than the rest of the garment. For some patterns, you may have to buy extra material and use a different cutting layout to ensure unidirectionality of the nap on all the pattern pieces.

#12 Cats_Shadow on 7 years ago

This is extremely helpful!! Thanks for posting it!

#13 Majesty on 7 years ago

I love you so much right now. Finally I understand what I need to do. Thx so much *huggles*

#14 mrsxu2 on 7 years ago

This is really freaken amazing!!!

#15 DingDing on 7 years ago

Thank you thank you thank you!!
I really hadn't a clue about patterns, I've used one before at school but that was 2 years ago.