Arms Understanding Patterns

Commercial patterns contain a wealth of information to aid you in choosing and working with them. Knowing what kinds of information are provided and how to interpret this information will help you to choose the best pattern for what you want, to suit your ability level, and to make the process of working with the pattern easier and more productive.

Although you may occasionally encounter patterns that don't include some of the types of information discussed below, you'll usually find everything in the pattern catalog, on the pattern envelope, or in the instruction insert.

Artistic Renderings

Often the first thing you'll notice about a pattern will be an artistic rendering of the garment, usually shown worn by a person. These renderings will give you a general idea of what the garments are like, but they can sometimes be misleading. Upon close examination, you may find the figures depicted don't conform to human proportions. Alternately, the artist may have taken liberties in depicting the drape of the fabric, often giving unrealistic body to the garment. (Artistic renderings are found in the pattern catalog and on the pattern envelope.)


While not quite as common as artistic renderings, many patterns include a photograph of a model wearing the finished garment. These obviously have the advantage over artistic renderings in showing true human forms and fabric characteristics, but even they don't always give you all the information you want. Sometimes the garment is displayed in a way that makes it difficult to determine structural elements or details. The fabric used can also obscure certain details. (Photographs are found in the pattern catalog and on the pattern envelope.)

Line Drawings

While the artistic rendering and photograph can tell you a lot about a pattern, line drawings can often tell you as much or more. These drawings show the seam lines and major structural components for each of the garment options included in the pattern. They can be very helpful because they often clearly show details that are difficult or impossible to see in the photograph or artistic rendering. (Line drawings are usually found on the back of the pattern envelope or on the instruction insert. They're sometimes also included in the pattern catalog.)

Pattern Piece Drawings

Pattern piece drawings are line drawings of the shape of each pattern piece, and are accompanied by a complete list of all pattern pieces contained within the pattern. Examining these drawings can sometimes help you make out subtle details about the pattern that may not be evident in the line drawing, photograph, or rendering. For example, comparing the pattern piece drawings of two similar patterns can help to determine which is more closely fitted. (Pattern piece drawings are usually found on the instruction insert.)

Note: It's a good idea to compare all the above types of information to make sure they're consistent with each other.


While usually very short, descriptions can contain key information about the pattern. As examples they'll often mention whether a garment is lined, or they may point out details otherwise easily overlooked. (The description is usually found on the back of the pattern envelope, and sometimes also included in the pattern catalog.)

Suggested Fabrics

Most patterns will give a list of suggested fabrics. If you follow the suggestions, your garment should turn out similar to those depicted on the pattern. However, it isn't strictly necessary to follow the suggestions, and you can use different fabrics. But if you choose to do so, be sure you're aware of how your fabric differs from the suggested ones, and how this will affect the garment. Sometimes in the suggested fabrics list you'll find a statement such as "Not suited for plaids or obvious diagonals." This is used when there is some design aspect to the pattern that would cause these types of fabrics to be displayed in a particularly unappealing or unflattering manner, and should not be ignored lightly. You may also find a statement such as "For stretch knits only." This is used when the design of the pattern requires the stretch of a knit in order to fit properly, or even in order to be able to put the garment on.

When considering which fabric(s) you wish to use, consider the following:
   How well does the fabric drape?
   How much body does the fabric have?
   How weak or strong is the fabric?
   Does the fabric have a large or bold design?
   Does the fabric have a plaid or a diagonal design?
   Does the fabric have a nap or direction to the design?
   Does the fabric stretch?
   Does the fabric require special care?
(The list of suggested fabrics is usually found on the back of the pattern envelope, and sometimes also in the pattern catalog.)

Required Notions

Although usually very inconspicuous, you don't want to miss this list, which will include all notions necessary to complete the garment. As some notions can be rather expensive, they can significantly affect the total cost of the project, so this is something you'll want to consider when choosing your pattern. The notions list can also sometimes tell you things about the garment. For example, sometimes it can be difficult to determine if a garment incorporates shoulder pads. Referring to the list will answer this question for you. (Required notions lists are usually found on the back of the pattern envelope or on the instruction insert.)

Size Charts

Before you can purchase your pattern or supplies, you need to know which size pattern is right for you. It's very important to remember that your pattern size isn't necessarily the same as your off-the-rack garment size, and it can also vary by pattern manufacturer or even by individual pattern. To determine your correct pattern size look up your measurements in the appropriate size chart. Also be sure the measurements you use are accurate. If your measurements don't correspond exactly to a size, or to a single size, choose the size closest to them. Keep in mind what type of garment you'll be making when you make this choice. For example, if you're a size 12 in the waist and hips and a size 14 in the bust, then choose a size 12 for a skirt pattern but a size 14 for a blouse. If your measurements and/or the style of garment you'll be making are such that you can't choose a single size, it will be necessary to alter the pattern. (Size charts are usually found in the back of the pattern catalog, and sometimes also on the back of the pattern envelope or in the instruction insert.)

Yardage Charts

Yardage charts contain columns and rows for different sizes, garment options, and fabric widths. Once you've determined your correct size and which garment option you wish to make, you can refer to this chart to determine how much fabric you'll need. Don't forget to allow extra yardage in addition to the amount specified if you're working with plaids, stripes, large designs, napped fabrics, or fabrics that will shrink. If you're especially new to sewing, you may also want to allow an extra eighth or quarter yard of fabric just to give yourself a bit of leeway when cutting out your pattern pieces. (Yardage charts are usually found on the back of the pattern envelope.)

Finished Measurements

Some patterns include a list of finished garment measurements. Finished length measurements can help you to determine whether you'll need to lengthen or shorten a pattern to match your height or proportions. Finished width measurements, such as finished width of a skirt, can tell you how full the garment will be. Sometimes a pattern will even give finished measurements for bust, waist, or hips, which can tell you how tight the garment will be. If there is ever any doubt as to which pattern size you should use, all of these types of measurements can help you to choose the right size for how you want the garment to fit. (Finished measurements are usually found on the back of the pattern envelope, and sometimes also on the instruction insert.)


For each garment option a layout is given that shows you how to cut the required pattern pieces out of the required yardage. Unless you've chosen to use a fabric that would require a different layout due to nap or direction of design, the layout given is usually the best and most efficient. Sometimes several cutting layouts are given for different fabric widths or pattern sizes. In addition to the main fabric, layouts should also be provided for any secondary fabrics, linings, or interfacings required. The diagrams will use different colors or patterns of hatching to denote the different sides of the fabric, lining, interfacing, and pattern pieces. There should be an accompanying key that will allow you to interpret these colors or patterns. (Layouts are found on the instruction insert.)

Pattern Piece Markings

The pattern pieces themselves are labeled with a variety of information. The brand and pattern number allow you to identify which pattern the piece belongs to if it becomes separated from the rest of the pattern. The pattern piece number and name allow you to determine which part of the garment the pattern piece is for, and where it should be positioned in the layout. Often, a pattern piece will be labeled with cutting lines for multiple sizes. In this case, different patterns of dashed or dotted lines are often used to mark the different sizes. Sometimes seam lines are shown in place of or in addition to the cutting lines. If only seam lines are shown, it's very important to be aware of this, as it will be necessary to add seam allowances before you cut out the pieces. A variety of registration marks may also be found on the seam lines or cutting lines, or even in the interior of the pattern piece. Somewhere in the center of the pattern piece, a grain line should be marked, indicating how the piece should be aligned with the grain of the fabric. Some pattern pieces are also marked with cutting instructions or alteration information.


Lastly, when considering different patterns, don't neglect to review the instructions. In fact, it's a good idea to read them thoroughly before you purchase the pattern. In doing so you make sure you're aware of everything you'll be expected to know or do. If you encounter anything you're unsure of, you can ask a salesperson for help. Even if the salespeople can't help, you'll at least be aware there is more you need to know before you begin to work with the pattern.

With all of the above types of information at your disposal, you'll be able to make informed choices about which patterns you purchase and work with. Eliminating uncertainties and misunderstandings about the patterns you choose will then lead to productive use of your sewing time, and finished garments that are what you want them to be.

© 1999–2009 Jessica I. Clark
Permission to print a copy for your own use freely given. Please contact me for permission to reprint or distribute.

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