How to Use a Pattern

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
How to Use a Pattern

I'd love to know the number of times someone has seen something I've sewn and said, "I wish I knew how to sew!"

The truth is, the amount of formal sewing instruction I have received couldn't be any more rudimentary. The extent of my sewing training is a 7th grade Home Economics and a little bit of explanation from my mom (a wonderful seamstress) about how patterns are used.
My 7th grade Home Economics project was a 9-patch pillowcase that left me frustrated with a grade of B-; the corners of my patches didn't match up perfectly. I vowed never to sew again because I was no good at it.

The introduction to patterns from my mom planted a seed of hope that wouldn't sprout until 12 years later when I wanted to make a Halloween costume for my first baby. Using a pattern I purchased from a fabric store, I managed to make my way through the construction of a tiger costume, complete with a stuffed tail, stripes that were individually sewn on, and a fitted hood with ears. All I was armed with when I went into battle with that pattern was the little bit of experience I've mentioned.

Many crafters have no qualms about following an online tutorial on how to construct something from fabric as long as good instructions are provided. We're confident to make drawstring bags and clutches and aprons and placemats by cutting out rectangles and squares and stitching straight lines. But scanning just the back of a pattern envelope with all the columns of measurements, words denoted with one, two, and even three asterisks, and unfamiliar terms like with nap or without nap can quickly cause feelings of intimidation.

reading general directions

If you're one of these crafters and you happen to push yourself to proceed with opening the envelope and pulling out the instruction sheet, it only gets worse from there. Now you see not only asterisks but stars and arrows and triangles and dotted lines.

The funny thing about purchased patterns is all those mysterious, confusing symbols actually make constructing something easier using a pattern than not using one. Of course there are varying degrees of difficulty in patterns so that's not a blanket statement. Making a wedding dress is not easier to make than a throw pillow, regardless of the set of instructions you are using. But if you take 2 items of similar style and construct one using a purchased pattern and one without, you might be surprised to find the one using the pattern goes together much faster and with less effort than the one without. You can thank all those mysterious symbols for that.

Using a pattern can not only make your job easier, it can reduce your material costs. This is because the instructions that come with patterns provide the most efficient way to lay out the pattern pieces on your fabric to reduce waste.

 The use of a pattern is also likely to leave you with more professional looking results in your finished project. To demonstrate this, we'll compare 2 aprons I've made as we walk through the steps for using a pattern.

completed apron

Vintage inspired aprons are very trendy right now and I decided wanted one with tiers of ruffles going down the front. Remembering examples of online tutorials for making ruffles, I sat down and figured a way to stitch together rectangles of fabric in varying sizes to come up with this version of the apron. It's cute and perfectly functional. It ties behind the neck and in the back at the waist. All of the edges are hemmed so they won't unravel. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it other than I wanted the ruffled section to be really big and impressive. I didn't just want cute. I wanted cute and sophisticated.

image of pattern

The floral ruffled apron with this pattern was exactly what I had in mind.

image of back of pattern package

After choosing a pattern, the first step in using it is to flip the envelope over to determine what materials are needed. The first box you come to after the column of illustrated aprons lists the types of materials that work best for the projects included in the pattern package.

In the box beneath that you'll find a list of notions needed for each project. Notions are things such as zippers, snaps, buttons, and in this case, bias tape. To determine what notions you need, simply look for the list that follows the letter that coordinates with the illustration of your project. For apron C, I needed 3 packages of 1/4 inch double fold bias tape.

The third box is the first step in determining how much fabric you need to purchase. Since this is a garment, the process begins with a size chart. According to your body measurements, the pattern size is listed in the box beneath this one. Beneath the size chart and pattern size boxes are boxes listing the amount of fabric you need according to the size chosen. This particular pattern only lists measurements for fabric sold in 45 inch widths. Some materials are sold in 54 or 60 inch widths and many patterns will also list the amount to purchase for fabrics of these widths.

The double asterisks denotes these fabric amounts will work for fabrics with nap. Fabrics that have nap (or pile) are fabrics that have raised fibers that all lie in one direction such as fleece, synthetic suede, corduroy, and velvet. Although it might be tempting to ignore the nap requirements because it requires more fabric, it's very important to heed the advised amount and layout instructions for the pattern pieces. If the pattern pieces aren't cut with the nap all running the same direction you can end up with mismatched colors throughout the garment as napped materials look different when viewed from different directions.

prewash your fabric

Prior to beginning to work with most patterns, it's advisable to pre-wash your fabrics. This will preshrink it and wash out any excess unset dyes remaining on the fabric. Fabrics that were not pre-washed and end up shrinking in the wash will pucker in stitched areas. While this is desirable to some quilters because of the texture it adds, you're not likely to be excited to see puckered seams on an article of clothing you spent your precious time and money on.

Prewashed fabric should be pressed to remove wrinkles that could affect the cut size of your pieces.

General instructions

The first thing you'll find on the instruction sheets is general instructions that apply to all of the projects. There is important information such as how much seam allowance to use when stitching, how to transfer markings to your fabric, and any special cutting instructions.

Special markings on the pattern

At this stage of a project of the most important things to pay attention to is the markings indicating the direction your pattern pieces and fabrics are supposed to lie. Right-side up or right-side down is the difference between you making another trip to the fabric store to replace ruined fabric or moving on to the assembly stage of your project.

The pattern pieces are printed on very large sheets of tissue paper, all folded together to fit in the envelope
Patterns pieces that have a variety of size options are all layered together

Patterns pieces that have a variety of size options are all layered together and you must pay careful attention to cutting along the proper line for the desired size all the way around the pattern piece.

Cutting out your pattern

When cutting out your pattern pieces, it is not necessary to cut right along the pattern lines. In fact, it's best not to. It saves time cutting out the pieces you need if you do a rough cut an inch or so away from the lines and focus on cutting right along the lines after the pieces are pinned to the fabric. This way, you only need to worry about being accurate with your cutting one time instead of two.

Material that has grain to it

Material that has grain to it (made from fibers woven together) can be laid out so the pattern pieces are cut on the straight grain or cross grain or the bias. The white edges with the writing on them that you see here are called the selvages (or selvedges) and they run parallel to the straight grain. The edges where the fabric is cut from the bolt run parallel to the cross grain. Cutting at a 45 degree angle to the selvages is cutting on the bias. The printed instruction sheets will diagram how to lay out all of the pattern pieces, including how to position the fabric. In this example, the fabric is folded right-sides together so the selvages meet. The pieces are laid out and cut on the straight grain.

laying your pattern on the fabric

After laying your fabric out in an area where there's plenty of space to work, begin pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric.

a piece on the fold as instructed by the arrow printed on the pattern

This is what it looks like when you put a piece on the fold as instructed by the arrow printed on the pattern. You can see the fabric beneath the tissue. The fold remains uncut and when the fabric is unfolded after cutting it out, it will be symmetrical.

use a tape measure and measure from the long arrows printed on the pattern pieces

The more accurate you are at this stage of a project, the better the quality of your finished project will be. It doesn't take much time to use a tape measure and measure from the long arrows printed on the pattern pieces (indicating the piece should run parallel to the selvages) to the selvages. The distance from the arrow to the selvages (or the fold if it's closer) should be the same along the length of the arrow.

Use scissors that are designated for cutting fabric only

And it's finally time to start cutting! Use scissors that are designated for cutting fabric only. Cutting other materials such as paper can quickly dull scissors making your job cutting fabric more difficult. I really like these Fiskars No.8 Razor Edge Scissors. I rarely ever use any other scissors when I'm cutting fabric.

Seam allowances are already included in the pattern pieces so there is no need to allow for it when cutting them from the fabric. Simply cut right along the printed lines.

I've pulled the pattern back here to show how I cut notches

I've pulled the pattern back here to show how I cut notches. The upside down triangle on the pattern piece indicates to notch the fabric here by snipping down into the seam allowance. My mom taught me to, instead, cut a triangle up away from the pattern piece. It prevents accidentally cutting too far into the seam allowance and these triangles are easier to see later than notches are.

Earlier I stated that the markings on patterns will save you time. These notches are used to align pieces and as start and stop points for some stitching. On a project made without a pattern it would be necessary to measure and find those points yourself. The pattern makers take care of this for you!

The instruction sheets provide detailed step-by-step directions, including illustrations

The instruction sheets provide detailed step-by-step directions, including illustrations, for sewing the fabric pieces together once they have been cut out.

The notches will be put to use to quickly and accurately align pieces.

The notches will be put to use to quickly and accurately align pieces.

You'll be even be given instructions to help provide a crisp, professional finish to your project such as clipping curves to allow them to curve smoothly.

You'll be even be given instructions to help provide a crisp, professional finish to your project such as clipping curves to allow them to curve smoothly.

comparing my apron made without a pattern and the one made with a pattern

When you're finished, you should have something to make you smile and feel proud to have made with your own hands.

I'll end by comparing my apron made without a pattern and the one made with a pattern. The ruffles are big and full and exactly what I hoped for. The reason?

This is what my ruffles are constructed from.

This is what my ruffles are constructed from.

This is what the ruffles of the patterned apron are made from.

I could spend a lot of time trying to create this pattern piece myself. Or I can pay someone else a few dollars to do it and spend my time doing something less stressful!

If you've been putting off the idea of creating something using a pattern because it's unfamiliar territory, I hope you now have a better understanding of what's really inside one of those envelopes. What's in there is a lot of helpful stuff for those of us who want to sew!