How to Read a Sewing Pattern [A Super Easy Ultimate Guide!]

In this article, you will learn the true definition of a pattern; the three parts to a sewing pattern; how to read the front and back of the pattern envelope; how to read the guide sheet; how to read the tissue pattern; and more…

I have a question for you…

Do you like puzzles?!

Because sewing patterns are essentially puzzles.

So if you do like puzzles, then you will take to sewing patterns like a fish that has been out of water for too long!

And if you aren’t crazy about puzzles, this article will make it suuper easy to understand patterns.

Now, if you are ready, let’s begin making sense of sewing patterns

First, The Definition of a Garment Sewing Pattern

A garment pattern is a starting template of a design.

The keyword to take note of in the previous sentence is…


In other words, when we buy a sewing pattern, it is the beginning and not the end of the design process as it relates to our body!

Now, that we’re straight on that point, let’s learn…

The Three Parts of a Sewing Pattern

Okay, we’ll be dissecting patterns from the Big 4 commercial pattern companies — Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity, and Vogue.

Although patterns from independent pattern makers and PDF patterns may use different symbols, what we learn here is transferable to them too.

There are three parts to a sewing pattern:

  1. The pattern envelope: front & back
  2. The guide sheet inside
  3. The tissue pattern inside

Taking the time to really understand the three parts of a sewing pattern is an important first step to sewing an insanely fabulous garment!

Let’s begin with the…

Sewing Pattern Envelope: The Front

On the front of every sewing pattern we will find the following information:

  1. Pattern company ~ for example, Butterick
  2. Pattern number ~ for example, B5748
  3. Size range ~ for example, 6-8-10-12-14
  4. Style variations ~ labeled alphabetically; for example, A and B
Dress Silhouettes - Completed Projects

And in the case of this pattern, on the envelope flap…

Standard body measurement chart for this pattern is located on the envelope flap. But is often found on the back of the pattern envelope above the yardage section.

Sew a Dress - Vogue 9237 - Step 1

The front of the sewing pattern envelope may also indicate if it is an easy pattern; if it is for Petites; or if it has other special sizing options.

Typically, easy patterns tend to have fewer pattern pieces and construction details.

However, just be warned that not all patterns labeled “easy” are actually easy. Sometimes, so-called “easy” patterns assume that you know how to sew! Ask me how I know this?!

Sew easy tip: Please ignore the photos and illustrations on the front of a sewing pattern, they’re often fugly and/or hiding important style details! Always refer to the technical drawings on the back of the pattern envelope for the truth.

And speaking of the back of the pattern envelope, let’s review the back of the pattern envelope…

Sewing Pattern Envelope: The Back

There’s a lot of really good stuff on the back of a sewing pattern that can be a great assist in choosing a pattern wisely and then successfully making a garment that fits YOU!

So, make it your business to spend some time here…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Here’s the information we’ll find on the back of any sewing pattern:

  1. Pattern number ~ for example, B5748
  2. Pattern description ~ Provides information about the silhouette, lining or underlining, closure, and other details that may not be visible in the line drawings.
  3. Yardage chart ~ Tells us how many yards or meters of fabric we will need for each view, based on size.
  4. Suggested fabrics ~ Listed are the fabrics that will yield a successful result for this design. The listed fabrics will have drape and weight in common.
  5. Notions section ~ thread, zipper, trim, buttons, interfacing are some of the most common notions required
  6. Finished garment measurements (FGMs) ~ These are the actual size of the garment after construction.
  7. Line or technical drawings ~ Reveals the true style details of the front and back of each style option. The style lines will reveal whether your fabric choice should have body or drape and how much!

Finally, this is a woven pattern. But if it was a pattern designed for knit fabric, it would include an all-important Stretch Gauge. This gauge allows us to determine how stretchy our knit fabric needs to be for this pattern to fit once sewn.

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Sew easy tip: The fabric we choose will make or break our project! In the beginning, we should stick to the fabrics on the Suggested Fabrics List.

Okay, are we ready to go inside of our sewing pattern?! Then, let’s get to it…

Sewing Pattern: The Guide Sheet

Now that we know how to read the outside of a sewing pattern envelope, it’s time for us to get friendly with the included guide sheet.

How each pattern company presents the following information can vary, but they all usually provide a wealth of information to help you create a successful project.

If you’re ready, here’s the information you are likely to find on the guide sheet…

Line or technical drawings of the included style variations…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Line and technical drawings of the individual pattern pieces and which view they are assigned to…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

If you want to keep it ultra-simple and easy, then look for patterns with four or fewer pattern pieces. Simplicity patterns usually tell you on the back of the pattern envelope how many pattern pieces are part of the design. For other pattern companies, you can remove the guide sheet and check this section.

Layout tips and fabric cutting layouts for each style variation, as well as lining and interfacing layouts if applicable…

How to Layout a Sewing Pattern

Sewing/General Information informs us of the seam allowance, how to read the fabric cutting layout instructions, and basic sewing skills required, such as clipping and notching.

Sew a Dress - Vogue 9237 - Step 1

A Glossary of sewing terms is also included. I usually find that this is a good place to look to find out what basic sewing skills you need to complete the selected pattern.

And, finally, the Sewing Directions. This is where you get step-by-step instructions on how to construct each style view. I recommend that you read every step. But know this:

Once you can sew confidently, you can deviate from the included instructions!

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Finally, let’s tackle the actual tissue pattern…

Sewing Pattern: Tissue Pattern

We’ll be covering pattern layout in another article. But for now, this is the least you need to know…

First, sewing patterns are drafted for the Right Side (RS) of the body.

Next, there are three categories of Pattern Registration Markings:

  1. those that help us fine-tune the fit of the sewing pattern to our body (fit markings)
  2. those that provide layout guidelines (grainline markings)
  3. those that aid in the actual construction of the garment (construction markings)

But before we learn about fit markings, let’s look at the central information section on a tissue pattern:

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Each pattern piece will contain the following information in this area:

  • Pattern company: for example, Butterick
  • Pattern number: for example, B5748
  • Pattern piece number & name (for example: #1, Bodice Front)
  • Pattern size range (for example, 6-8-10-12-14)
  • View assignment (for example, A and B)
  • Cutting instructions (for example, Cut 1 on Fold)

Also, it is a good idea to scan tissue pattern pieces for additional instructions, such as variances in SA at neckline or armhole from the standard 5/8 inch.

As you can probably see by now, pattern manufacturers try to be very helpful so that we sewists can bring a design to life.

Now, first up…

Fit Markings

There are three fit markings on a sewing pattern. And they are:

One, Size selection lines

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Most sewing patterns will assign a unique line style for each size. But not always.

Two, FGMs symbol indicates the location of bust, waist and hip lines and their FGMs for fitted garments. You may also see this symbol on a bodice…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

And, three, Adjustment (lengthen/shorten) lines allow us to lengthen/shorten the pattern piece as needed…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Sew easy tip: You can move this line wherever it makes sense for your body.

Next up…


Sewing is all about the grainlines on fabric, the grain lines on pattern pieces, and the grain lines on our body. Because a well-made garment is grain-perfect!

There are three grainlines:

  • Grainline (this line can have an arrowhead on just one end or an arrowhead at both ends)
  • Cut on Fold
  • Bias

Here’s an example of the Cut on Fold grainline…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

And here’s an example of the lengthwise grainline…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

And finally, the bias grainline…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

Sew easy tip: The grainline, cut and fold, and bias are ALWAYS parallel to the selvage.

Construction Markings

There are other construction markings, but have no fear! They are all pretty easy to remember. They are:

Notches are probably the most important construction marks of all, because they help us put the garment puzzle together.

A single notch indicates the front of a pattern piece or the side seams. A double notch indicates the back of a pattern piece. And a triple notch always indicates the center back (CB).

Here’s an example of single and double notches on a sleeve pattern piece…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern
Double notches on the left and single notch on the right.

And here’s an example of triple notches at CB…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

And here are some other construction markings you should know…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern
  • Button placement ~ is indicated by an X on the pattern piece.
  • Buttonhole placement
  • Circles, triangles, diamonds, and squares ~ are for matching seams and other miscellaneous construction details, such as pocket placement, zipper stops, gathering, clipping, precise matching, and more.
  • Darts ~ can be a series of dots or they can be very minimal with just a dot at the dart point and at each dart leg.
Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern
  • Hemline ~ the hem allowance is listed at the bottom of the pattern piece
  • Pleats, tucks, gathers ~ may be indicated by dots, circles, or squares.
  • Zipper stop ~ may be a circle or dot or an illustration of a zipper.

As for seam lines, they are not marked on multi-size patterns. Because that would be too messy and too confusing. But they’re there! Check out these circles…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

They indicate where the seam line is for each size. In this case, the seam allowance is 5/8 inch.

Sew easy tip: If a pattern contains only a single size, seam lines may be marked as a dashed line 5/8 inch inward from the cutting line.

Bonus Tip: There May Be More

Tissue patterns may also include additional instructions for hem allowance, alternate seam allowance, and neckline placement.

For example, like this notation on the back bodice pattern piece at the CB neckline…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

It could include alternate seam allowance instrutions for armholes.

Finally, there is always a hem allowance notation…

Ultimate Guide to Reading a Sewing Pattern

So don’t forget to thoroughly examine your tissue pattern pieces for these added gems of information!

The End

Well, there you have it!

You now know that a pattern is just a STARTING template of a design!

And that there are three parts to a sewing pattern: (1) the front and back of the pattern envelope, (2) the guide sheet, and (3) the actual tissue pattern.

And that the tissue pattern contains three types of registration markings:

  1. the fit markings,
  2. the grain line markings, and
  3. the construction markings.

Guess what?!

We’re ready to come to terms with how to duplicate a sewing pattern.

And remember…

Life is the ultimate red carpet event. Dress for it!

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