How to Read a Sewing Pattern: Reading the Instructions

Nikki from Pin, Cut, Sew is back to share the next steps in reading a sewing pattern! If you haven’t read the first three posts, you can find Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here. Today’s topic is: reading the instructions.

Meet Nikki from Cut, Pin, Sew

Welcome! Nikki’s my name and sewing’s my game 🙂 I’ve been sewing pretty much my whole life and there’s nothing about it I don’t love. I’m convinced that anyone can learn to sew, which is why I strive to provide inspiration and tutorials for all skill levels.

How to Read a Sewing Pattern: how to cut out your pieces

How to Read a Sewing Pattern Part 4: Reading the Instructions

How to sew with patterns

Did you ever take those quizzes in school, where the first instruction was to read all the instructions and the last instruction was to ignore every instruction after the first one? So you looked like a total idiot if you skipped reading the instructions? Yeah, well, when reading sewing patterns, I’m going to tell you NOT to read all the instructions before you start. If you’re a beginner at using patterns, reading all that stuff with all those drawings is just going to overwhelm you. Thus, today’s Pro Tip: Just take it one step at a time! 

We talked about the first page of instructions already when we learned to use the cutting diagrams in part 3, but there’s some more important information on that sheet. In time, you won’t need to refer to this page at all, but for starting out, if you’re having a hard time knowing what the instructions mean by certain terms, go back to your “General Instructions” and chances are you’ll find your answer. See below the glossary of terms on a pattern I cut out to make today.

How to read sewing patterns 

I know, those are very short descriptions, but it’s okay because we have the Internet, ha! I promise you’ll find plenty of videos or more thorough explanations of any of these terms with a quick google search.

Also on this page, you’ll find your “seam allowance”, which is how far from the raw edges you’re going to be sewing unless otherwise instructed on certain steps. For garment sewing, seam allowances are almost always 5/8″ (in the U.S., at least). If you have trouble knowing where that is on your machine, use your gauge to measure from the needle and stick a piece of washi tape there as a guide. I do this for my sewing students quite a bit to help them stay on their seam allowance!

How to use a sewing pattern

You can also see in the above photo, along with the seam allowance, there’s a fabric key. In the drawings throughout the instructions, you’ll come across these textures to help you see which parts in the drawings are the right or wrong side of the fabric, for example.

The last bit of good info on this sheet is about pattern markings. You may have noticed when you cut out your pieces, there are notches, circles, squares and/or triangles all over them. These markings are important! You’ll find your own favorite methods of marking, but I’ll share some of what I do after this next photo.

How to sew with patterns

Most of your markings will be notches and these help you line up your pieces correctly when sewing them together. I cut a small snip (not too big, maybe 1/4″ so it’s well inside my seam allowance). For the circles, squares, and triangles, different people have different preferred methods. A collection of marking pens and tailor’s chalk is a good thing to have on hand. I don’t like marking with these things, so I almost always just mark with pins by picking up a couple of threads with a pin in just the right spot. This works for me, but experiment with the tools available to you and decide what you like best. Megan Nielsen has written an excellent article on five ways to make your pattern markings. To make these markings, simply stick a pin through the circle on the pattern piece and then mark each fabric layer right on the pin.

See that pin in my dart circle? 

SEE THAT PIN IN MY DART CIRCLE?

You’re officially ready to start sewing! And remember, just take it one step at a time!

Trying to write a post covering every new thing you’ll encounter as you sew various patterns would be impossible, but here are my three pieces of advice as you work through the instructions:

  1. Trust the process. Some steps may not make sense at first, but they’re in there for a reason, so don’t skip them.
  2. Us the Internet! One of the best things about people who sew is that they love to help others learn to sew too and there is so much content online to help you with those steps you don’t understand.
  3. Press as you go. You can always tell when a handmade garment has not been properly pressed! Make friends with your iron, because it is an essential tool in sewing. When the instructions say press, you’d better press! And remember, pressing is different that ironing!

I hope this series has helped you feel prepared to tackle sewing with patterns! Part 5 will be about fitting garments as you go, so stay tuned for that.

How to read a sewing pattern: Reading a pattern envelope

How to read a sewing pattern: A Look at PDF Patterns

How to read a sewing pattern: What pattern symbols mean

Joan Mantini

About Joan Mantini

After several years of being the Facebook page owner at Beginner Sewing, I noticed there was a desperate need to have a single go-to spot for members to be able to find answers to their common questions, get some useful tips & tricks, as well as find reputable places to purchase sewing products online. Taking my role as a trade publication editor by day, and combining it with my knowledge of frequently requested beginner sewing advice, I created www.beginner-sewing.com. An outlet that gives new sewists a free digital magazine geared for entry level sewing as an extra bonus!

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