How to Read a Sewing Pattern: Choosing your pattern and reading the envelope
Remember Nikki from the Pin, Cut, Sew studio who had some great advice on how to read a sewing pattern? She has a second step for us!
Let me reintroduce you to Nikki and learn what she has to say about how to make sense of sizing!
In one of the large sewing Facebook groups, I’m a part of, a newer seamstress was venting about her lack of success with using patterns lately because of the ill fit. She just couldn’t seem to make sense of the sizing!
While we may be quick to blame the pattern industry, the fault really lies partly with the ready-to-wear fashion industry and what we call “vanity sizing”. In this article from Time, Eliana Dockterman puts it simply: “As Americans have grown physically larger, brands have shifted their metrics to make shoppers feel skinnier—so much so that a women’s size 12 in 1958 is now a size 6.” (That article is truly fascinating if you get a chance to read it!) Here is another great read about this issue as it pertains to sewing.
While sizing labels on clothing at the store have gotten gradually smaller over the course of several decades, the sizing on sewing patterns have stayed relatively the same and this is why the first thing I tell people when helping them sew with a pattern for the first time is not to read too much into the number of the size they are on the chart! We ladies can be quite sensitive about this, no?
So, let’s go back to that handy size chart on the back of the pattern envelope. Once again I’m using my kids shorts pattern for reference. This being a kids pattern with an elastic waistband, we won’t have a hard time fitting. For this pattern, making it with six different girls, I simply used their waist and hip measurements. If these measurements put them in two different sizes, I always go with the larger one. Kids are obviously less curvy than adults, so the size chart on children’s pattern tend to be pretty reliable. I had one student who had to take in the side seams because her shorts were too big, but this was no problem. If they’d been too small, that would have been much harder!
Pro Tip: It’s easier to take in than to take out! So if you have to choose, going up a size makes more sense than going down a size. Even on complicated patterns, I’ve been able to add darts, gathers, larger seams or other creative solutions to solve too-big issues. Too-small issues, on the other hand, have fewer options for fixing.
Now, here’s where things get really interesting. Like the new seamstress on the Facebook rant this morning, you may find that that handy sizing chart isn’t always super accurate. What if it told you to make a size 14 and it turned out absolutely huge?? This is where the “finished measurements” come in. On my shorts pattern here, you can see that they’ve included this information in a separate box on the pattern envelope. This must be a new feature they’re adding, because this is the first time I’ve noticed it and what a grand addition it is! This chart will tell you how big around your finished pair of shorts will be! Grab a measuring tape and wrap it around your model, it’s that simple.
For patterns that do not include this on the outside, however, you can find these finished measurements on the pattern pieces themselves. Let’s take one of my own recently sewn pattern as an example. On the front piece, you will always be able to find a large circle with a plus sign in it. This is your bust point and this is where you’ll find that list of finished measurements. So my full bust measurement is 35″ and for a woven fabric (non-stretchy, remember?), I want to have about 2″ of ease (breathing room). You can see on my pattern piece, I’m going to make a size 10.
These finished measurements can also be found at the waist line and at the hip line, always on the “front” pieces. These make it very easy to grade between sizes. So if I were making a dress and my bust point says to make a 10, but I need a 12 in the hips, I simply grade up in the hips. Below is a dress pattern where I have used this method in the past and you can see what I mean by grading. You can see where I was cutting a small through the top and swerved over to a medium by the time I got to the hip point (see those finished garment measurements I was talking about at the hip point?)
This may all seem complicated, but I promise it is not! In fact, it’s the beautiful part of being able to sew your own clothing! How many of you have fitting issues that make it hard to shop for yourself? Are you tall and can’t find dresses that are long enough on you? Are you pear shaped and can’t find tops and dresses that don’t gape in the upper body while fitting your lower half? Are you fuller in the belly and wish you could find shapes to flatter you? Are you short waisted like me and find that all your tops bunch up in the lower back? Are you long and lean like my daughter? When we sew for Natalie, we cut a girls size 10, but use the length of the size 16! She’s 13, for reference. Here is a cute denim jumper she recently made herself:
What I’m trying to say is that once you start sewing for yourself and figure out your size and fit adjustments, you will have reason to celebrate because you can make clothes to fit your own unique body and learn to flatter your figure! And, I might add, you’ll become a more savvy shopper because you’ll know what good fit looks like. You may even find yourself noticing other peoples’ fit problems and wanting to tell them there’s a better way 😉