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  • Writer's pictureSew Retro

How to read a commercial sewing pattern - A 3 part - guide to understanding the bewildering jargon.

Congratulations you have got to know your sewing machine and have made a few items. Feeling confident to take the next step?......................................... a commercial pattern.

You have given a lot of thought to choosing your pattern, but how much fabric do you need? do you need a zip? buttons? AND after looking inside the pattern WHAT do the markings on the pattern mean ? the straight of grain, fold line and tailors tacks !!

Here in a 3-part series Sew Retro guides you through using commercial patterns from the very beginning once you have chosen your pattern, to laying on the fabric , cutting out, and transferring the marking onto your fabric.


What fabric is suitable for my sewing project?

How much fabric do I need to buy ?

What are notions ?

How do I know what size to cut ?

Do I need to wash my fabric before I cut out and sew.

What pattern pieces do I need to cut ?

What is the straight of grain ?

What is nap ?

What is the fold line?

How exciting you have just bought a pattern, flip the pattern over and on the back you will find all the information you need, to buy your fabric and notions.

Highlighted in pink are the pattern designer’s fabric suggestions = these are fabric that will suit the style of the pattern you have chosen. The suggested fabric choice will help you achieve the look and flow of the pattern. For example, if your pattern suggests viscose a light fabric with good drape and you choose a stiff denim fabric you will not have a flowing skirt but a skirt that sticks out and holds that shape.

Highlighted in purple are the ‘Notions’ this is what you will need to buy in addition to your fabric* to complete your garment. For this pattern I would need to buy eleven half inch buttons, and if I was making C, a package of half inch single bias tape. If your pattern requires a zip, this is where you will find the zip length and the type of zip to buy.

*My pattern does not tell me to buy matching thread, but you will need a least one reel of thread. *

Highlighted in yellow, is your guide to how much fabric you will need to buy.

If I was to make B and I was size 12, if my fabric is 115 cm wide I will need 3.60 cm and if my fabric is 150 cm wide I would need 2.20.

Fabric is sold mainly in two widths 115 cm and 150 cm both in fabric shops and online. The width of the fabric in the shop will be marked on the roll, and width be shown online if you are making an online purchase.

Once you are back home grab your paper scissors and before you open your pattern, check your size. The sizes for this pattern are found on the flap of the envelope.

It is recommended that you wash your fabric before you cut out and sew.

NEVER cut paper with your fabric scissors you will blunt the scissors.

Once you have checked your measurements against the size, you will need to follow the line and cut out the pattern. For example, a size 12 maybe shown as a --------------- line. Cut out all the pieces that you need in your size.

If you are making style B, you will need to cut out all the pattern pieces marked B in your size. Some of the pattern pieces will only be marked with B, others may have ABCD, you will still need to cut these pattern pieces out in your size.

This section here shown below and, included in your pattern, will help you to check you have cut out all the pieces you need to sew together to make your garment.

I have highlighted the patterns pieces you will need to cut from the list. No 7 the sleeve is for B and D and marked, but 17 the front band is not marked ABCD but you will need to cut the pattern pieces marked with B and the pattern pieces left blank.

What is the selvage and where do I find it on my fabric ?

Now you have cut out all the paper pattern pieces, you will need to fold you fabric in half, selvage edges together.

Where your fabric was cut off the roll or bolt in the fabric shop IS NOT THE SELVAGE the selvage is the tightly woven edge of a fabric as shown above. It prevents the side edges of the fabric from unravelling or fraying.

Once you have folded your fabric in half selvage edges together, and secured the edges with a few pins, to stop the fabric moving when you cut out, you will need to lay your pattern on the fabric.

Shown above is the layout - showing you where to place the pattern pieces on the fabric.

In your pattern pack it will included a layout for fabric that is 115 cm wide and 150 cm wide.

You will need to chose the layout according to your fabric width. Above is the layout for fabric that is 115 cm wide.

Shown above is the layout if your fabric is 150 cm wide.

What is nap and why would it need a different layout.

Nap is when all you pattern pieces need to go in the same direction. When you are sewing with velvet or corduroy, you MUST cut all the pattern pieces in the same direction. Traditionally, the pile runs down the garment, meaning that when you run your hand from the top of the garment to the bottom, the velvet or corduroy will feel smooth. However; if you are working with a velvet or corduroy in a rich colour, your fabric will appear more saturated if you choose to cut the garment with the nap running up the length of the garment. Regardless of which option you choose, just be consistent. If you were to cut the sleeves in a different direction, when you have made you garment the sleeves would be a slightly (but a noticeable) different shade to the rest of the garment.

If you have a one direction print i.e. rows of dogs, if you cut a pattern piece in a different direction, the dogs will be upside down on your garment.

What is interfacing , why do I need it and do I cut it out now ?

With the fabric layouts you will also find a layout for your interfacing, on your pattern pieces it will tell you if you need to cut out in interfacing as well as fabric, as shown on this pattern piece it tells you to cut 4 in fabric and 2 in interfacing. Some patterns will have separate patterns pieces for interfacing only.

HERE is a link to what interfacing is and why and when you need to use it.

Part Two of the guide will cover

How do I lengthen or shorten my pattern?

What is the grain line ?

What is the fold line ?

What are tailors tacks, how do I make them and when do I use them ?

Part three of the guide will cover

What are notches ?

What is basting ?

What does press mean ?

How do I know if the pattern is referring to the right side of the fabric or the wrong side ?

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