How do you read a sewing pattern? | Learn how to purchase fabric, cut, and read your pattern

How do you read a sewing pattern? | Learn how to purchase fabric, cut, and read your pattern


I'm Sarah, and today I'm going to talk your through the answer to "how do you read a sewing pattern?". If you are a beginner, please read this before you purchase your pattern, as if may help you choose the correct size.

Before you go to JoAnns (we recommend going when their patterns are $1.99 check your online deals page for when they have these) to buy your first pattern, or download one from our tutorials page. You'll need to understand how to pick the correct size, since sewing pattern sizes do not follow the traditional in store sizes. Likely you'll be buying sizes that seem much larger than your retail size. In reality sewing sizes just follow a different sizing method, and the numbers don't correlate to your usual size.



Prep work: Measure yourself.

For women the typical sizes you need are your full bust, waist and hip measurements.

  • Full bust:  Measure around the fullest part of your bust, Your measurement should be snug but not tight.
  • Waist. Measure around the smallest part of your waist line. This is typically around your bottom rib cage area.
  • Hip: Measure around your widest hip area. Typically about middle of your buttocks.

Write this down, I like to keep mine in the notes app in my phone, and I update it every few months as my size fluctuates a lot.

DO NOT VANITY SIZE YOURSELF. If you want the clothing you make to fit, you need to write down your actual sizes.


1. Choosing the correct size.

With your measurements in hand, you can successfully pick out a pattern. Read the back of the pattern and look for the size chart.

How do you read a sewing pattern when its Online?

Find the size chart associated with the pattern, usually its in the images or near the size picker.  Find your bust, waist and hip measurements on the size chart. Pick the pattern that matches closet to your size.

Using my own measurements here, You can see my sizes might range across multiple options. I'm a Medium or 16 in my Bust, a L or 20 in my Waist, and a L or 18 in my hips.



If I wanted to buy this pattern, I'd want to buy the 16-18-20-22-24 size because that matches what my measurements aligned to the size chart.

If you are in between sizes. You could buy both, but what I'd recommend is looking at how the pattern fits the body. If its tight in any region then optimize for that region first. For example, the pattern above is fitted at the waist, and looser at the hips. I'd optimize for my waist first, then bust, then hips. What I could do is ensure I get the 20 size for my waist, and cut that pattern, then take in the bust area a few inches (or grade my pattern) down to a 16 size.

Or, you can pick the largest size and buy that pattern, as generally speaking its easier to take something in than let it out. 

Now if you really want to be sure, you can always check Pattern Reviews, to see if the pattern runs large or small. A reason it would run large or small is if the pattern has a lot of ease built in and people making the pattern prefer less ease, or vice versa. Most the big pattern companies are consistent in their sizing across their patterns. Therefore, once you figure out your size in a brand, it'll typically remain that size.



How do you read a sewing pattern if its In the Store?

Joanns is crazy... First, pick out a pattern from the magazines on the tables, then find the corresponding filing cabinet. Then you'll find the paper pattern your looking for.



The sizes are printed on the pattern cover. Usually written in either a 6-8-10-12 format or a S-M-L format. You'll need to check the back of the pattern to figure out what size to buy. The sizes are listed on the FLAP of the pattern. This might be tucked into the pattern.

Find your Bust, Waist, and Hip measurement on the pattern (Blue underlines). It's okay if they span more than 1 size (mine do!). Remember which numbers you align to, and try to buy the pattern that aligns best to those sizes (Green Line).


For my example the first pattern has all the sizes listed on the front (Pink Box), so I don't need to worry about which one to buy. For the second pattern above, my sizes range from 14-18. And the size I bought (oops) only goes to a 14. I'd probably want to purchase the next size up in this pattern which would be a 16-18-10-22 size. Or I'd need to grade this pattern to be 2 sizes larger if I wanted to make it. 

 (The green box in the image notates the Pattern number, And the purple circles show where some of the Pattern variation markers are)


2. Find out how much fabric to purchase.

 To figure out how much fabric to purchase you need to know a few things first:

  • The size you plan to cut out.
  • And the pattern option you plan to cut out.
  • If you're going to make the pattern in a fabric with nap or a directional fabric. (which you might not know yet but that's okay)

 We've already figured out our sizes in the step above, so we know what number or letter size we should be looking for.

Now I need to pick out the pattern variation I plan to cut out. Looking at the front of the pattern there should be a few images, each marked with a Letter or Number. Each letter is a variation of the pattern you picked out and requires different fabric lengths, interfacing, or color needs.

When I turn my pattern over there should be a chart on the back (or if online in the images, or description) that lists how much fabric to cut by each size and variation.

First find your size in the top bar (Pink Arrow). Then Find your variation in the left hand column (Green Bracket). Then find where those 2 areas meet (Yellow Box).

You can see for pattern C. In the first example, it wants me to buy either 3 1/2 or 2 3/4 yards of fabric pending on the width I buy (45" or 60"). Since this is a US pattern I can be sure its in yards instead of meters.

Some patterns may list the fabric requirements in both, like the second pattern does in the light blue box, or the first pattern at the bottom where they list CM and Meters.

Interfacing or other notions: They will also list interfacing, or cording needs in the table (Yellow box). This first pattern asks for 1 1/2 yard of interfacing. Interfacing is either fusible iron on, or sew in. Both reinforce the fabric to make it stronger.

Please note most patterns will ask for more interfacing than you need, due to interfacing mostly being using in waistbands. Meaning, you'll have some leftover for your next project! I usually keeps a few yards at home and buy it when its on sale so I don't have to think about it when time to sew.

In the (Blue Bracket) top of the pattern they'll also list if you need buttons, And how many you'll need for each pattern variation.


Choosing a Fabric:

Now to the fun part. Looking at the top (blue bracket) of your pattern, you will also see listed types of fabrics that are recommended for this pattern. Most of these will seem foreign, but a quick google search or asking a staff member in the fabric store, can help you determine the best fabric to buy. If your shopping online, usually these fabric types are setup as filters you can turn on to help narrow down your hunt. 

You can also narrow your hunt by determining the "drape" or flowly-ness of the fabric you need. Or by the weight, if its summer you might want a lighter weight linen, versus fall, you might opt for a mid-weight cotton.

Look at the images on the front of the pattern as well, and see what qualities it has, does it seem thin or thick, does it drape a lot or is it stiff? Then try to find similar qualities in the fabric you choose.

Pay attention if the pattern has specifics on knits. Knit wear is a little tricky due to the amount of stretch you might need. Knit wear patterns typically include a gauge on the side to help you tell if the fabric has enough stretch.  If it doesn't you'll need to either find other fabric, or cut a larger size out to accommodate. Do not use a knitwear pattern with a non-knit fabric. You will not be happy with the results. (Although going the other direction non-knit pattern with knit fabric can work, but we don't recommend for beginners)


Fabric Width

The last thing to consider when buying fabric is Width. In the chart above, you'll see 45" and 60" listed. These tell you how much fabric to buy for the width of the bolt. Check the end of the bolt of fabric and check how long it is. Although typically its easy to "eye ball" it. The longer taller bolts in the store are probably 60", and the shorter ones are probably 42-45"/ Most quilting fabric bolts are 42" as an example.

If shopping online the width should be listed in the description or product details. Once you know the width buy the corresponding length. In our example above, 45" meant we needed 3.5 yards for our pattern.


Nap - What is it?

Some patterns might call out something called Nap. This is when a fabric has a directionality to it. Like Velvet, where you need to cut it a specific direction in order for the fabric to look correct. You can also use Nap fabric amounts for directional fabric, where you want the pattern to align a specific direction..

What do I do about it? Check if the pattern lists separate amounts for nap. In both examples above the pattern has ** or *** to indicate if the fabric amounts work for Nap or not.  But generally a good course of action is to buy more than you need if your fabric has a nap to it.


3. Find your pattern pieces


How do I read a sewing pattern after I bought it? Well first, pull out your pattern from the packet. First find the image that looks similar to the one above. It'll be on one of the printed paper pieces, or in the early pages of the PDF pattern. This will tell you which pieces to cut out from your pattern.

To read this you are looking for 3 things:

  • Your pattern variation letter (for instance C) to be beside the pattern name.(See underline letters above)
  • A piece that does not have ANY listed pattern variation beside it, which means it goes with ALL the variations.
  • Or a List that is specific to the pattern variation (see Belt D above)

If we wanted to cut pattern C out, we'd cut all the pieces out except 13. If we wanted to cut pattern A or B out we'd cut 1,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, and 12 out.

 Now open up those fiddle vellum patterns and start cutting out the ones you need. I recommend ironing on low them after cutting so they lay flat.


4. Find your layout Chart based on your fabric width & Pattern Variation.


First find the layout chart that matches your pattern variation (we're using C here) and your Size (depending on the pattern) and the width of your fabric (pink boxes). The layout diagrams will show you which direction to cut and how to fit your patterns on the fabric in an optimized way. But don't be surprised if you have to adjust a little bit.

The layout will typically show either folded fabric like in the examples here. Or a flat piece of fabric. It indicates which style by the FOLD / SELVAGES text. With fold being the center fold of the fabric, and Selvages being the edge of the fabric.

They will also show if you need to cut the interfacing out, and which pieces need cut.

The chart (blue arrow) should you if the pattern needs to be upside down or right side up.



4. How do you read a sewing pattern when I'm cutting my fabric?

You'll want to follow the Grain lines, stretch direction, and understand the typical symbols. Typically following the chart above will help you know which way to cut your pattern out. But the patterns also have some helpful indicators you should be aware of.


Watch our video short on reading the symbols.


Grain Line: (Orange arrow)

  • Grain line indicates which way the pattern wants the grain to go, the sumbol is usually a long line with arrows on both ends. This is typically a line that runs parallel to the Selvages (or bottom edges) of the fabric. It is what is sounds like, which is running with the grain.
  • Typically the gain line will be the least stretchy direction of your fabric.


  • If there is a line indicating bias instead of Grain line you'll line up the line at a 45 degree angle from the selvage edge. Cutting fabric on the bias gives it a nice drape and is more stretchy than woven fabrics typically are. A good example is when cutting bias tape.

Stretch Direction:

  • When dealing with knits, the pattern may have a stretch direction instead of listing a grain line. This is meant to have you align the pattern to the stretch-est direction. So that the most stretch is parallel to the line on the pattern.

Fold: (Blue Line)

  • When a pattern wants you to cut something on a fold. You'll see this symbol, a c shaped line with 2 arrows. It wants you to align the edge to a fold. So that you're cutting out a single piece, but it'll be mirrored along the fold line. Typically it's aligned to the center fold on the fabric. But in some cases it might ask you fold the selvedges towards the center and cut along the new fold.

Dots, Clips and Darts:

Your pattern likely comes with a key on the written instructions that has a bunch of symbols. Look for that to double check what each symbol means. If you don't understand it google the word they use to describe it.

  • Dots: Mark your dots with a washable marker, chalk, or baste with thread.
  • Clips ( V Shapes on edges ): Clip in or notch outwards your V shapes on the edge of the fabric.
  • Darts: (Big V shapes with dots) Are meant for you to mark the dots and line with chalk, or a washable marker. And the instructions will tell you how to sew together.



Hopefully with this guide your able to get to sewing faster, and answered your question of "how do I read a sewing pattern". Now you can choose and read your pattern more easily. We hope you have luck picking and sewing your pattern. If you have additional questions let us know below in the comment and we'll answer them!

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.

Featured collection