If you’re a beginner sewist, a sewing pattern envelope is NOT easy to read! Learning the mechanics of how to sew while also struggling to understand the pattern envelope you’re working with is exhausting.
If you’re starting your sewing journey, let’s save you time. This post walks you through what an experienced seamstress looks at, so you can ramp up your sewing faster.
A sewing pattern envelope can look like gibberish if you don’t understand the nuances of sewing language.
For me, the first pattern I ever worked with was something I picked out for Halloween and… I legitimately didn’t understand anything I was looking at. From the size chart to the recommended fabrics, my eyes glazed over. I genuinely had no comprehension of what it was I was even trying to read.
I don’t want you to go through that experience. This post will walk you through, step-by-step, what to look at and how to interpret it.
Once you learn the basics of what you’re reading, it’s substantially easier to use thousands of other sewing patterns.
Choosing a Size from the Sewing Pattern Envelope
For the Big 4 pattern companies, there’s usually a distinction between the smaller and larger patterns. These sizes are normally grouped together for printing purposes and feature size ranges. There are also groupings for plus-size, children’s sizing, petites and “standard” sizes.
To determine if you fit into one size range versus another, take a look at the size chart. You can usually find this on the back of a printed envelope.
BIG NOTE: Your size in ready-to-wear (what you buy at Target, or Nordstrom, etc) is NOT the same on a sewing pattern. You want to know your physical measurements FIRST before deciding on what size range is most appropriate to you!
The Size Chart
The chart organized in a simple grid, outlining Bust, Waist, and Hip sizes. Additional measurements may be listed, like length or distance from neck to waist. When approaching a pattern, most fit decisions can be made with the Bust-Waist-Hips measurements.
NOTE: You might fit into multiple sizes and that’s ok.
To read the chart, find the size (or range of sizes) closest to yours.
Before you walk away with that pattern, double check the Finished Garment Measurements chart, if available. This similar chart will break down what the completed Bust-Waist-Hips measurements will be.
If a Completed Garment Measurement differs widely from your actual measurements, that’s usually “ease” or the amount of extra moving fabric you’ll have to sit/stand/do a backflip in. This topic is outside the scope of this post.
The Pattern Description is relatively straightforward on the sewing pattern envelope, breaking down the specific description of the garment. It’ll talk about the length, intended fit, and details like what type of zipper it’s using or cut of sleeve. If there are multiple designs in a pattern envelope, it’ll also detail what the difference is between them.
This reference supports the line drawing on the envelope, specifically describing one design over another. Another bonus is that if you’re practicing additional sewing techniques, you can see what you’ll learn in that design.
NOTE: A/B/C denote specific design elements. Pay attention to the letter, as its be used as a reference point for the entire design.
Straight forward, but very simple. This section breaks down what specific notions you need for the design you want to make. If you’re making A or B, it’ll break down what size zippers, buttons, or other sundries you’ll need.
This section lists out all recommended fabrics for your sewing pattern. Using this information (as well as fabric swatch book,) you can narrow down the best material for your use case. If there are a lot of options, the list also shows you the possibilities with the design. Read the list carefully! You can dramatically change the sewing pattern by changing the fabric chosen for it.
NOTE: Be careful if you’re selecting an unlisted fabric! Using a fabric not recommended may change the drape and silhouette of the garment in unexpected ways. I highly recommend sticking the list if you’re a beginner.
If you’re taking the plunge on using a fabric not listed, make sure to consult your Fabric Swatch Book for something similar. This way you can ensure that you’re still getting the feel of the recommended fabrics.
Additionally, there are quite a few warnings in the fabric description!
- Diagonals: Some sewing patterns call out that obvious diagonals should be avoided. The way the pattern is designed means that the fabric may clash with the shape of the pattern pieces. This is an explicit call out to avoid diagonals as much as possible.
- Extra fabric for matching: If you want to use a plaid or striped fabric, you must buy extra fabric. It doesn’t specify how much, but the rule of thumb I always use is about half an extra yard. If it’s expensive fabric, I go with an additional yard, in case of major issues.
- Use Nap yardages for…: For fabrics which are printed with an obvious top and bottom, use the yardage amounts and layouts indicated more carefully. This ensures your pattern pieces are cut correctly (because there’s more opportunity for error)
- Note the * // ** — which indicate how much yardage you need (in Big 4 patterns)
- For a Napped fabric (obvious top/bottom) — one asterisk
- For non-Napped (no obvious top/bottom) — two asterisk
The Yardage Chart
Before approaching the yardage chart, have your size on hand (as picked out on the size chart.)
Example: based on the size chart, I range between 16 and 20, so I’m focusing on those three sizes.
Isolate out what specific design you’re focusing on to start breaking down how much yardage you’d need. For B designs, look at areas defined by the B, etc.
Continuing the example above, if the fabric I’ve found on Mood or at Joann’s is 45 inches wide… I’ll buy anywhere between 6.5 and 6.75 yards of fabric (!) If the fabric I’ve found is 60 inches wide… I’ll want to buy 4.5 to 4.60 yards, based on the size ranges 16 through 20 on the example pattern.
NOTE: If you’re a beginner, I would air on the larger amount. This helps make sure you have enough fabric to work with. If you’ve been sewing for a while, you might want to do less based on what you normally use. In my case, I’m short and have to shorten *all* my pieces, so I stick to the lower number.
Additional Materials by Size
Same considerations as above. Find your size range on the chart to determine how much material to purchase.
Once you know how to read a sewing pattern envelope, SO MANY doors are unlocked.
At this point you can work with all printed sewing patterns and reading PDF pattern information as well.
Knowing what you’re looking at, deciphering what the envelope is saying ramps up your sewing experience.
Many beginner sewing questions are answered on the envelope. Taking the time to read and analyze the information there goes a long way.
I highly recommend a related video regarding Beginner Sewing Challenges, linked below:
Sewing is a Journey all its Own, Learning the “Sewing Language” will Help!
I hope these tips and video have helped demystify some of the Sewing Language, so you can get stitching right away, making beautiful garments!