6 tips for using your first sewing pattern.

Six tips for using your first sewing pattern. When I say sewing pattern, I am actually referring to patterns for clothing. Patterns for clothing are historically called dressmaking patterns. These days indie pattern makers in particular are referring to patterns for clothing as sewing patterns. I think probably because dressmaking patterns sounds as though the pattern will be for a dress. Dressmaking pattern is a term that really covers all types of clothing from shirts to shorts for men, ladies and kids.

I think it can seem a little daunting when you open your first dressmaking pattern, to find sheets or a booklet full of diagrams and instructions that don’t make any sense. I have put together a few tips that might be useful if you are about to embark on your first dressmaking pattern adventure. If you haven’t already bought a dressmaking pattern, this first tip might be one to consider.

Dressmaking pattern levels.

There is more dressmaking pattern variety than ever these days with lots of independent pattern makers (me included) now selling their patterns. There is also the big four commercial pattern making companies that have been around for decades. These are Simplicity, Vogue, Butterick and McCalls. Many dressmaking patterns particularly the big 4, grade their dressmaking patterns into levels of ease.

Naturally as a beginner you will be drawn to a pattern marked easy. However I think this can sometimes be a little misleading. I found these two patterns to illustrate my point. Both these dressmaking patterns are described as easy, this maybe be true of both patterns. However the dressmaking pattern on the right shows a fitted bodice, a waist seam and buttons and buttonholes. So though this might be quite easy to sew, unless you are a perfectly balanced size that fits with the dressmaking pattern size you may find you need to do at least some fitting to achieve a wearable dress. Where as the dressmaking pattern for a kimono on the left would require very little fitting and therefore be a much better choice for a first dressmaking pattern.

Fitting is very much a part of dressmaking. Many people take to dressmaking so that they can wear properly fitting clothing that they perhaps can’t buy in the shops. However by choosing a loose or unstructured shape you will put less pressure on yourself for your first dressmaking pattern experience. You will be able to focus on construction methods and understanding the pattern terminology.

Work with woven fabric if possible.

Unless you are on a mission to solely make stretch garments I think its best to start with woven. There are quite different rules for working with each type of fabric. Stretch can be much more forgiving on fit and often quite simple to make. However woven is an easier fabric to handle as it doesn’t stretch and curl in the same way jersey fabrics do.


The first thing to get to grips with is the size. Its best to disregard what you know your size to be for shop bought garments. Unfortunately dressmaking pattern sizes can be a bit cruel. They are often smaller than ready made shop sizes. There are usually two sets of measurements in a pattern. The first set are your actual body measurements. The second set are the garment measurements. The garment measurements will have ‘ease’ allowed, this is the extra amount added over and above the basic body measurements for movement and to create the style.

Start by measuring yourself to find the closest body size to yours. You can then check how the appropriate garment measurement feels by holding the tape measure at the size stated for the style and size you have chosen.  Depending on the style the three key points to measure are bust waist and hips.

Consider making a toile.

A toile is a mock up trial run of the dressmaking pattern. Also sometimes referred to as a muslin. A toile is made in cheap fabric such as calico, the handle and weight really needs to be similar to that of the fabric you intend to use for the real thing.  If you are focusing on stretch garments you would need to use a stretch fabric ideally something with the same amount of stretch. You can read about how to find the percentage of stretch here.  Making a toile gives you a practice run at everything.  You can test out all the construction methods and also see how it looks and fits. Testing the pattern out like this will help take the guess work out and avoid disappointment when you cut into your real fabric.

Look for essential information

When you open your pattern you will be faced with a sheet like the one above, these are typical of the Big 4 patterns. Indie patterns tend to have a booklet like this one from one of my patterns. These will hold all the information you need to make the garment. As you gain experience you will learn to bypass some of the info as your knowledge will give you the answers. Sit down with a cuppa and read through the information and instructions before you begin. This will give you an idea of whats ahead. It may seem a bit overwhelming with to much to retain. It may be worth making a small checklist of the essential information:

The suggested fabric type.

This can often be the make or break of a garment. The dressmaking pattern will give you ideas of suggested suitable fabric types. For example if you are making a drapey cowl neck top the pattern may suggest viscose for a nice drape. If you have chosen a crisp cotton you won’t achieve a good drape.

The seam allowance used in the pattern.

Using the correct seam allowance will ensure you arrive at the size you have decided on. Imagine taking a 1cm seam allowance on a eight panel dress that should have been a 1.5cm seam allowance.  The dress will become 8cm bigger!  Generally the seam allowance is 1.5cm/5/8″ but its worth checking.

How many pieces of each pattern piece.

This can be useful if you are struggling with the lay plan. Some pieces may say cut 1 on fold while others may say cut 4. It would be a shame to cut it all out only to discover you have one sleeve and no remaining fabric.

Take note and learn about the grain line.

The grain line is key to the way the garment hangs and how the pattern looks.

Work through the process.

As you begin to work through the instructions you might find stages that you don’t fully understand. Try and work through the process so that you can see how it will work. The sooner you can understand what the process is achieving the better. Lots of processes are repeated in many different styles so once you have the nuts and bolts in your repertoire you will speed things up for the next time you need that skill.

I hope you find some of these tips useful. Good luck with your first dressmaking pattern, it’s great to be able to make your own clothes.




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Julia Claridge

I was about 6 or 7 years old when I had my first go on a sewing machine, it was an old hand crank machine that my mum used with her patients, she was an occupational therapist. I still vividly remember watching with amazement as the tiny perfectly formed stitches were created as I turned the handle. I Grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when buying clothes was less affordable and dressmaking was an answer to updating your wardrobe more regularly. My own mother was a talented dressmaker who made most of my clothes and my sisters clothes as well as a many for herself. I soon got involved with making my clothes, I loved the whole experience of picking out fabrics, trims and a pattern to create a new outfit, then going home to make a new garment or outfit. When it came to leaving school I visited a careers advisor who asked what I wanted to do next. My answer was ..Sew! Read more...

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