Updated: Nov 17, 2020
When it comes to sewing patterns there are so many out there that it can be hard to know just from the pattern envelope which is the perfect one for your project.
When I started dressmaking I used sewing patterns from my mum's stash, diving into the contents without paying much heed to the envelope that contained them. But year's (and hundreds of patterns) later I now know that the innocent envelope actually contains a wealth of information and clues as to whether your garment will be a gem to treasure or another item on your 'learning experience' pile.
So here is my guide to what I believe are the treasures that the envelope holds and how to access and use them to your advantage.
This is probably the treasure I underestimated the most - the image on the front of the pattern. Many brands use photographs of the finished garment on a real person but some use sketches or technical drawings. I much prefer the brands that use the garment on real people as that tells me not only about the style of the garment but so much more.
When looking at the photo I am checking to see how well it fits the model (is it pulling or gaping), I observe the type of fabric they have used, I look at what style options (sleeve lengths, neckline options etc) that the pattern includes.
If the pattern doesn't look great on the model (and now that then it might be worth finding an alternative.
If there is no photo then see the bonus tip below on using Google to get more insight.
Most pattern envelopes or website pages will have a description of the garment. The description will give you more clues about the style. They may also give an indication of the level of experience e.g. for beginners/easy or for more advanced experience.
They will often describe it is has fastenings such as buttonholes or zips which you may want to avoid when you are getting started.
In the last example shown above for the Mock-wrap dress it explains that one version has a 'plunging neckline' whereas the other has a 'regular neckline'. If you are looking for a modest design then version A may not be the one for you!
The Size Range
Not all patterns cover the same size range. On the front of the pattern envelope or in the description it should give you an idea of the range of sizes that it caters for. Note that pattern sizing is not quite the same as your shop sizing so it is better to take your actual bust, waist and hip measurements and compare them to the sizing chart given for the pattern body measurements.
If you are using a multi-size pattern then you can pick from the different sizes for the different parts of your body e.g. a 12 at the bust, a 14 at the waist and a 16 at the hip for example.
Use the table and your own bust, waist and hip measurements to check that the pattern will work for you in the size range it offers.
The Fabric Suggestions
For each pattern there is usually a description of recommended fabrics. If you aren't confident in sewing stretchy fabrics then it helpful to avoid patterns that recommend use only with knit or stretch fabrics.
If it is a design that requires more challenging fabrics such as chiffon, voile, velvet then again you may choose to wait until you have had a bit more practice before tackling it.
Reading the fabric suggestions can also teach you the names of fabrics that you may not have heard of. The first time I found out about Bengaline was in seeing it on a pattern in the list of suggested fabrics. I was intrigued as at the time I hadn't heard of it so searched online to get samples. Now it is one of my favourite fabrics to work with.
The Technical Drawing
This is the sketch of the garment often shown on the back of the pattern envelope. It will give you clues about the finished garment e.g. if it has gathers or pleats or other design details such as buttons or zips. It will often also show the back of the garment. This can be useful to check to make sure there are no surprises like open backs or unusual design details.
The technical drawing can be really helpful if the sample used in the picture on the pattern is made with a highly patterned fabric. The patterned fabrics can make it difficult to see some design details such as pockets or gathers/pleats for example so checking the drawings is the best place to look for those clues.
The Finished Garment Measurements
Some patterns give some clues as the to the Finished Garment Measurements as a table for each size on the back of the pattern envelope.
When used in conjunction with the Body Measurements for the corresponding size it is possible to work out how much 'ease' has been included in the pattern. Ease is the difference between the garment's finished measurements and your body measurements.
Close fitting garments will have very little ease (between 1 and 4 inches or 2.5 and 10cm). So for example in the sizing for the Deer & Doe Magnolia Dress shown above, the size 38 body measurement for the bust is 34 1/2 inches (88cm) and the finished garment bust measurement is 37 inches (94cm). This means it is a fairly close fit at the bust with 2 1/2 inches ease (6cm).
However at the hip the body measurement for size 38 is 37 inches (94cm) and the finshed garment hip measurement is 49 1/4 inches (125cm). This gives 12 1/4 inches (31cm) of ease meaning it is much looser at the hip.
If we look at the style of that dress from the technical drawing we can see that this is reflected in the shape of the dress being fitted through the bodice to the waist and then flaring out to a fuller skirt.
But if the image on the front of the pattern showed the dress in a soft drapey fabric it may not be as easy to see that, so checking the measurements can be really helpful to give you a more detailed picture.
Bonus Tip - Google Search for images
If the pattern you have fallen in love with doesn't show a photo of the garment made up then don't despair. The next best thing is to find other people that have made it and see how it looks on them. (And generally I do this for all of the patterns I am considering buying.)
If you type the pattern brand and name into Google and go to the 'images' option you can often find someone that has made the pattern and taken a photo of themselves wearing it. Look at the fabrics they chose and how well it fits different body shapes and sizes.
Google Search for Reviews
With the explosion of sewing blogs it is now highly likely that someone will have made the pattern you are considering and written about their experiences with it. Curvy Sewing Collective, Pattern Review, Minerva Crafts and many independent bloggers have reviews of patterns which are really helpful. Use Google to search for reviews and you can also use these for ideas of patterns to try.
Hopefully that has helped you see your pattern envelope in a new light rather than just a bit of packaging to hold all the pieces in.
I'd love to know what aspects of patterns you find most useful or any tips you have found when choosing or using patterns so please let me know in the comments below!