Learning how to read a sewing pattern can seem daunting. At first, it feels like you are trying to learn a whole new language — and you kind of are. However, it isn’t nearly as difficult as you might fear. After you get a grasp of the basics, you will be off and running before you know it. Once you know how to read a sewing pattern, you can make an unlimited number of items for your wardrobe, create gifts for family and friends, or delve into the world of cosplay. It’s all up to you. All it takes is a little bit of knowledge and, of course, some practice.

How to Read a Sewing Pattern

Learning how to read a sewing pattern isn’t nearly as difficult as most beginners fear. The first thing you need to do is find a pattern. You can buy sewing patterns at your local fabric store. There will be books of available patterns that you can search through to find what you are looking for. Usually, there is a table where you can sit as you browse through these books. Each company, such as McCall’s and Simplicity, will have their own book displaying their sewing patterns. The patterns in these books are organized by type (shirt, skirt, etc) and are color-coded accordingly. You simply look through the appropriate section and until something catches your eye.

Each pattern has a number that you then use to find it in the store. In most cases, the patterns are kept in drawers or bins. They are organized based on the pattern numbers contained within, much like a library. This makes it quite easy to find the particular pattern you are looking for. In the example below, featuring a McCall’s sewing pattern for costume capes, the number of the pattern is in bold on the right-hand side of the package.

The front package of a sewing pattern for various kinds of costume capes.

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As you can see from the example, patterns make more than one item. Each will have a letter to identify it. In the cape pattern, there are three that can be made, labeled A, B, and C.

However, there is more to consider when choosing a pattern than just whether or not you think the finished project looks great in the picture. There are a few things to keep in mind when picking out a sewing pattern and much of this important information is found on the outside of the package, such as difficulty, fabric recommendations, and size.

Pattern difficulty

Each pattern is labeled according to difficulty. You can find patterns that are beginner level, easy, or very easy. Others are much more difficult. In the example pictured above, the difficulty level is in the bottom left-hand corner. This pattern is considered easy and this sewing project can be completed in as little as two hours.

If you are reading this article on how to read a sewing pattern, it is fairly safe to assume that you are a beginner. This means you should stick to easy, beginner level patterns. As you gain experience, you will be able to handle more difficult patterns but don’t rush yourself. As with most things, trying to tackle a project that is beyond your abilities just leads to frustration. This isn’t the time for delusions of grandeur. Be realistic about your skill level when choosing a sewing pattern. You’ll be glad you did.

The back of a sewing pattern.

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Pattern size

There is a ton of important information on the back of the sewing pattern’s package. Among these are pattern size and measurements. Choosing the right size pattern is vital. If you wear a size 12 but you buy a size 3 pattern, you aren’t going to be at all happy with the results, for obvious reasons. Each sewing pattern can make several different sizes, so they will have a size range listed on the outside of the package.

Patern size and measurements on the back of a sewing pattern.

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Some patterns, such as our cape example, have all sizes in only one package. Others have a much smaller range, so be sure to look closely at the pattern’s size to make sure you are picking out one that will actually fit you.

Fabric recommendations

On the back of the pattern’s package, you will find a recommendation for which fabrics will work best for this particular sewing pattern. You may be tempted to think that any fabric could work, but this isn’t always the case. Not all fabrics flow or move the same. Differences in thickness and stiffness can make a huge difference in your finished project. In addition, some fabrics are simply more difficult to work with than others. Stick to what the sewing pattern recommends, especially if you are a beginner.

Chart on the back of a sewing pattern showing fabric recommendations and how many yards of fabric you will need.

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The package will also tell you how many yards of fabric you will need to make the item. This will vary according to what size you are making. In the example above, which shows the back of our McCall’s cape pattern, we would need 6 1/2 yards of lightweight satin to make Cape B in size small that is 45″ long.

Line drawings

As a side note, on the back of the package there are line drawings of the clothing items the pattern makes. This can be helpful if you aren’t sure if the pattern is what you are looking for from the pictures on the front.

Line drawings on the back of a sewing pattern.

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Sometimes, when the images on the front are in a different color than what you are picturing in your head, it can be hard to discern what the basic style is just by looking at it. These line drawings can help you make that decision if you aren’t 100 percent certain after seeing the full-color pictures on the front or in the book.

Understanding Pattern Instructions

Now that you’ve chosen a pattern and picked out the fabric, the fun really begins. The next step in learning how to read a sewing pattern is learning to understand the instructions that come with your pattern. Your sewing pattern will include a pamphlet with directions. Begin by reading the instructions in their entirety. While you only need to read the directions for the item you are making (remember, there are usually more than one), you do need to read all the way through from the first to the last step.

If there are any words that you don’t understand when figuring out how to read a sewing pattern, take the time to Google them and learn what they mean. This is essential if you want your finished product to turn out correctly. Don’t just ignore something you don’t quite grasp because you will likely end up making a mistake in the process. Alternatively, you can purchase a book on sewing terms.

Multiple pattern pieces

Each sewing project will consist of multiple pattern pieces. Look at the directions for your specific item and see what pieces of the pattern you will need to make it.

Diagrams in pattern instructions showing which of the multiple pattern pieces are needed for this project.

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In the McCall’s example we have been using, we need pattern piece one and pattern piece two to make Cape B. Piece one is the template we will use to make the main part of the cape. Piece two is for the hood. Cut out the pattern pieces that you need but be careful. There are multiple lines that allow for the range in various sizes. You want to make sure you are cutting on the right lines or your garment will come out the wrong size. You also need to use caution when cutting so that you don’t cut off extra pieces that are marked in the pattern. Go slow.


Speaking of things indicated in your pattern, just what are all those markings anyway? When learning how to read a sewing pattern, this can be the most confusing part. Your pattern should include an explanation of the markings that particular pattern uses. Here is the example from our McCall’s cape. Each symbol used in the pattern is accompanied by a handy-dandy definition and explanation.

Legend on the back of a sewing pattern showing the markings used in this pattern and their meanings.

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However, these are not the only markings in sewing patterns. For a more in-depth overview of some markings you might encounter while learning how to read a sewing pattern, this video can help you get a feel for some of what you might see in more advanced patterns.

After you have pinned your pattern to your fabric and cut it out, you need to transfer the markings over to the fabric. Use dressmaker’s carbon, a tracing wheel, or a marking pencil to transfer any important markings from your pattern onto the fabric. This ensures that you match up the various pieces, place darts in the correct places, and evenly space your buttonholes.

Ready to Sew

Now that you have learned how to read a sewing pattern, have cut out your pattern and fabric, and have transferred your markings, you are ready to start the actual sewing. Go back to your pattern instructions and work your way through the directions step-by-step. Don’t jump ahead of yourself. Instead, follow the directions in order. Otherwise, you won’t get what you bargained for. Work through each step of your instructions. Follow them to the letter. And before you know it, you will have created your very own sewing project!


Featured Image: CC by 2.0, by stampinmom, via Wikimedia Commons