What Are the Best Tips for Reading Sewing Patterns?

Tiffany Manley
Tiffany Manley
A person sewing.
A person sewing.

Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks that an individual faces when he or she decides to sew is understanding the various markings, abbreviations and terminology used on sewing patterns. To complete an item, the person sewing it should know how to read the pattern envelope, pieces and instructions. In addition to understanding what information is found on the outside envelope of sewing patterns, an individual also should familiarize himself or herself with the various markings and guidelines on the sewing pattern pieces and instructions.

Sewing patterns generally come with instructions.
Sewing patterns generally come with instructions.

Pattern envelopes contain general information about the item to be sewn. Although sewing patterns differ, many pattern envelopes contain information such as what type of fabric and notions are needed, how much fabric is needed and the sizes available. The envelope might also contain several pictures of the items that can be sewn using that particular pattern. Measurements, pattern brand and pattern number might also be contained on a pattern envelope.

Sewing patterns also include instructions on how to sew the item. Many times, these instructions will offer an explanation of the various markings and symbols used on the pattern pieces, so they might be a valuable resource to an individual who is new to sewing. In addition, the instructions will provide step-by-step guidelines on sewing the item properly. Many sewing patterns come with pieces and instructions for multiple items, so an individual should make sure that he or she is using the correct instructions and pattern pieces.

Pattern pieces are used to guide an individual in properly cutting fabric for the item to be sewn. These pieces include markings used to understand cutting the fabric and markings that need to be transferred to the fabric for ease of sewing. Some common symbols found on sewing patterns are straight lines used to line up the piece with the fold of the fabric, dashed lines to represent seams, hemlines, button holes and grainline markings. Pattern pieces usually are numbered and might have the name of the item being sewn printed on them.

In addition to understanding what the various markings on sewing patterns mean, it usually is helpful for an individual to read through the entire sewing pattern. Sometimes it might be difficult to understand how to properly sew an item, so reading through pattern instructions allows an individual to see how the item continues to come together. If something is still unclear, an individual might choose to consult a book, magazine, online resource or other material for clarification on specific questions.

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Discussion Comments


@indigomoth - You have to pick your course carefully though. I know my mother tried doing a course that was supposed to teach her how to read sewing patterns and it turned out to be absolutely useless.

Their big draw was that they provided sewing patterns for free, but they only gave her one, and the teacher didn't try to help anyone individually.

She said what really helped her was finding a friend who knew what she was doing to come over and sit down for a few hours and just walk her through a simple pattern, so she could note a bunch of things down about it.

But, my mother likes to have things written down so she can learn from them.


@browncoat - While I agree that there is no substitute for practice when you are learning how to read a sewing pattern, I would also suggest taking a beginners sewing class if you get the chance.

I took one a few years ago. It was just a weekend course, but they covered all the basics. It was really good for me, because frankly, I didn't even know where to start when it came to sewing.

The patterns might as well have been written in a foreign language for all I understood them.

I had bought a dress sewing pattern, hoping it would somehow all be clear once I got it home, but no.

After the course, at least I knew where to start.


I'd say my best tip for understanding a sewing pattern is to find a comprehensive guide to them, either online, or at the library unless you feel like investing in one.

Then, just start using them. Dive right on in. If you start with some free and easy sewing patterns from online, you won't have to worry about investing any money into them and you can just keep trying over and over until you get it right.

I really think this is the best way to learn something. If you keep going, eventually you'll learn how everything works and it will be automatic, so you can stop using your guide so much.

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    • A person sewing.
      A person sewing.
    • Sewing patterns generally come with instructions.
      Sewing patterns generally come with instructions.