It has come to my attention recently that fabric shopping is like speaking a foreign language. I have worked in varying degrees at fabric stores for a long time, and before that, I was taught to sew by my mother and grandmother. However, not everybody has that background. While I’m sure this has been done before, I decided to create a series of posts for people who would like to get into retro sewing (or any sewing) but feel way in over their heads.
First up, here’s how to read a sewing pattern:
I went through my pattern stash and pulled out two patterns that are pretty standard on the back to get us started- Simplicity 8645 and Butterick 6094
The first thing you need to know about sewing patterns are that the sizes on the back on the envelope are not equal to the sizes that pre-made clothing comes in. For example, if I were to go to the store and buy a pair of pants, I would probably purchase a 6 or an 8. However, If I am going to sew a pair of pants, I would be a size 10 in most modern sewing patterns, and maybe even a size 16 in a vintage pattern. IGNORE THE SIZES. They are not important numbers. You need to go by measurements.
Let’s take a look at the back of the Simplicity tops pattern, Simplicity 8645. I circled my body measurements so you can see what happens:
Clearly I am three sizes. I’m lopsided! What’s a girl to do? Ignore them and look at the finished measurements:
Almost all patterns have a second section in which it lists the finished garment measurements. If it isn’t on the envelope it may be inside on the pattern instructions. Sometimes they even print it on the pattern pieces themselves.
Looking at the finished measurements you notice that it only lists the bust. Guess what ladies? It’s ALL about the BUST. When you ever have doubt in your size in any pattern that includes the girls, use that as your baseline. Everything else is WAAAYYY easier to adjust. If you are making pants or a skirt, the most important is the waist and hip measurements. If you are two different sizes, buy enough fabric for the bigger (probably your hips) cause you can adjust for the waist.
Okay so My bust is a 34-35-ish. (I usually err up because its easier to take in than to cry because your boobs are squished) So let’s trace that measurement back up to the sizes.
Boom. I’m a 10. Easy right? This does not mean that when I sew the pattern everything will fit me perfectly. People come in too many shapes for that. But it gives me a base to work with.
Okay so what happens when the pattern doesn’t have finished garment measurements on the outside?
Don’t panic. Let’s scope out the Gertie pattern, Butterick 6094:
Just so you know, I don’t advise opening up a pattern like this at the fabric store unless you have fully committed to buying it. It’s a jerk move. However, did you notice that I was a size 10 in both of those patterns? So once you figure out your body measurements, you are pretty safe to assume its going to be the same across the board on patterns. There might be a snafu occasionally, but its a good starting point.
Why do the pattern companies put all those measurements in there if they don’t apply? Well they do apply, to an averaged out measurement of what each size should be. That doesn’t always mean that you are the average. Also, it’s important to understand that you don’t want your garment to be exactly your body measurements- you need wiggle room. Pattern companies try to add that in for you, but they often add too much (up to 4 inches). The finished garment measurement is a good way to know how much room you actually have.
Also, if we look at the fabric requirements again for the Gertie dress we can see both my size and the size above and below me are preeetttty darn close on how much fabric you’ll need. When in doubt get an extra half yard, then crack that baby open at home and measure the actual pieces. That’s kind of like spell checking your paper before you turn it in. It’s not scary I promise, and its the only true way to know what size you’ll end up with. (And there’s only a little math). But since I flooded you with information now, we’ll cover that in another post.
One thing I highly suggest is that you measure yourself before you go shopping for patterns. Have it on a notepad or in your cell phone. BUST, WAIST, HIPS. The other stuff is important, but not as much so. And refresh your measurements occasionally, because if you are a human woman you probably fluctuate depending on diets, activity, and lady stuff.