Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Sewing patterns are a great tool for making your own clothes but there are so many out there it can be daunting to know how to choose the right one.
So I wanted to share 3 simple but key steps that I use when choosing sewing patterns to help you narrow down your search and pick the best pattern for you.
Step 1: Do your research
When trying to decide which pattern to start with it can really help to see if others have made it before you and if so, if they have any tips or advice on what fabric they used, how the sizing came out and any hacks or modifications they made.
One of the challenges with dressmaking is that you can’t try it on before you have made it, so the next best thing is to take a look at it on other people. The joy of the internet and the increase in people blogging and reviewing is that you can often find others that have made the pattern before you who are willing to share photos and sometimes tips about the pattern.
Search for the pattern name in Google and use the ‘images’ tab to see photos then if you see one you like click to see if it links to a blog where the creator may have shared tips on the fabrics they used, the sizing they chose and any modifications they may have made. Even if you see a version you don’t like it can be worth clicking through to find out more so that you know what fabric not to choose.
When looking at the photos, observe how well the finished garments fit even on the picture on the pattern itself. Is it pulling or baggy, does it hang well on different body shapes, do the fabrics used work well with the design? Even if you are a great dressmaker, if the pattern is poor it will be challenging to get a good fit. Unfortunately not all patterns are created equal and some definitely are more tested and better fitting than others.
Read the reviews of the patterns. There are lots of blogs out there where fabulous people have made a pattern and then given details about their experience of it - how well it fit them, how easy it was to make up, how true to size it was and any adjustments they needed to make. This can give you clues as to how easy the pattern is to use.
Step 2: Check the description/design details
If you haven’t made many/any garments before then one great secret is to pick patterns that play to your strengths i.e. don’t try to start with complicated design details like lots of zips, buttons, linings, pieces. Some of the most elegant designer garments are simple designs made from great fabrics.
Read the pattern description (usually in the web page notes if buying online, or on the back of the pattern envelope) and also check the ‘fabric suggestions’ section for ‘notions’ which will often tell you if you need zips or buttons.
Also check the front of the pattern as many will state ‘Beginner’ or ‘Easy’ on the front if they are designed for beginner level.
Things that make a garment more complicated are:
Lots of panels - if you can see that the design has lots of seam lines (check the technical drawings which are often also shown on the pattern) then it will have more pattern pieces and be a bit more challenging
Lots of pleats
Plackets at the neck or sleeve openings
Collars on stands
Fully lined garments
Step 3: Measure up
A common mistake that beginners make when dressmaking is to pick the pattern based on the size that they are in shop-bought (ready-to-wear) clothing. But just like in many shops, the sizing that they use for patterns can often be unique to that brand so picking a ‘14’ might not correspond to the measurements you are used to.
The secret to getting the best starting point for fit is to understand your own body measurements and use those to find out which sizing label will work best for you.
Three key measurements are
the bust (around the fullest part of the body at bust level),
the waist (ideally around your natural waist just above your belly button)
and the hip (the fullest part between your waist and knees often around 8-9 inches below the waist).
Using these measurements and comparing them to the ‘body measurements’ table for your pattern will help you pick the sizing that will work best for you.
My experience is that dressmaking pattern sizing labels are smaller than the equivalent ready-to-wear sizing labels i.e. in shops like Next or M&S I am a size 10-12 but using dressmaking patterns I use size 14. This is especially true for the older brands like McCalls (including Vogue), Simplicity, Burda and Butterick.
MINDSET NOTE: It is easy to get caught up in how we feel about the numbers. If you can then I would encourage you to let that go. These numbers are just a label so that we can work out which line to cut out on the pattern.
They have no other meaning than that. And you will feel much more confident and comfortable in a garment that fits well than in one that is too tight or uncomfortable. Besides you are making it and so if labels are important to you then you can sew whatever sizing label you want into your finished garment if you want to :)
Bonus tip - Choose multi-size patterns
As our lifestyles have changed over the decades so have our bodies. How we eat, work, exercise and dress to accommodate our lifestyle has also changed. As a result we don’t wear the same constrictive undergarments and our proportions are in many cases not the same as those that may have been considered ‘standard’ in the 1950s.
The way in which patterns are sized does still follow those ‘standard’ proportions which means that more often than not in my experience our bodies require a different size on the bottom than they do on the top.
The beauty of making your own clothes is that you get to choose what size you want to use for the top and what size you want to use for the bottom and you can mix and match within the same pattern and garment. So you can be a size 12 at the bust, a size 14 at the waist and a size 16 at the hips and if you use a multi-size pattern you can make it fit those different sizes at each part of your body.
So whenever possible I choose multi-size patterns because they give me that flexibility and the way that the lines are drawn for the different sizes on the pattern show you where the extra allowances are made.
If you’d like more information or help with using sewing patterns then join our Sew Much More Fun Facebook group where I’ll be running live sessions on how to choose, use and alter sewing patterns to fit.
Or if you are not a facebook user then sign up to our newsletter to get links of the replays that will be posted on this website.