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Sewing with Commercial Patterns…reading the package

This spring I’ll be doing a lot of sewing for our drama group using commerical patterns. I thought this would be a good opportunity to teach Phoebe how to work with commercial patterns. As I began her instruction, I realized just how confusing commerical patterns can be for someone with limited or no knowlege of them.

The pattern I will be photographing and referring to is Simplicity 4213. Not because there is something super special about this pattern but because I needed to use it to make one of Christian’s costumes. I’ll show other ones later but we’ll start with this one.

The major commercial pattern makers are Simplicity, McCall’s, Vogue and Butterick. All of them are laid out pretty similar so once you learn how to use one you can use the others.

If you look at older patterns – say 20 or more years older- you’ll notice that most packages have just one or two variations and one or two sizes. Not so anymore. It’s very nice that the pattern makers make such variety in one little package, but I think that it can also become confusing.

We’ll start with the front of the envelope. On the front of the envelope you will find…

  • a number in large type – on this pattern it is in the upper left had corner. This is the pattern number. When you are looking through those big books at the fabric store and find a pattern you like, this is the number you need to remember. Then go to the big drawers where (hopefully) the patterns will be organized by maker in numerical order.
  • size – this is a listing of the sizes this particular pattern envelope will make. Be sure that you check to make sure the size you want to make is listed here. For this pattern all sizes (XS – XL) are in this package. Notice the “A” next to size, if there were other sizes of this pattern available such as XXL then there would be a “B” next to size and then the XXL on the packages that contained an XXL pattern.
  • pictures of what the finished garment will look like.  These are great they give you a wonderful idea of what your item will look like. You do not have to use the same colors they do – this was hard for Phoebe when she was younger because she wanted what was pictured but you might not be able to find the exact fabric.
  • numbers or letters beside each picture.  These are usually the view. For instance, you might be making a dress that has an A and B view and the only difference is the length. For this pattern the numbers represent the actual pattern pieces. So if you want to make the lady costume you know you need all the fabric and notions for pieces 3,7,8 and 9.

On the back of the envelope you will find…

  • the pattern number
  • a drawing of the pattern pieces or view (on this pattern it is on the left hand side)
  • fabric suggestions.  One of the first things listed on the back is fabric suggestions. This pattern suggests Bastiste, Broadcloth, Crinkled Gauze, Poplin, Crepe, Raw Silk, Linen and Linen Blends. Now not all of these are going to give you the look you want. Go ahead and ask the nice ladies in the fabric store to help you find each of these kinds of fabrics so that you can decide what will work best.  I rarely stray from their suggestions. The manufacturer of these patterns wants you to be successful and they try out a lot of different fabrics to determine which ones work best. Also, some pieces require special fabrics and those will be listed also. For instance, in this pattern piece 12 which is a Roman soldier belt needs leather or synthetic leather. Extra fabric will always be needed to match plaids, stripes or one way designs.
  • notions list.  These are all the things you need to complete the pattern. First listed here is thread. Then each piece that needs something more than thread is listed. For instance, pattern piece 12 also needs 3″ length of 3/4″ wide Velcro, fifty six 1/2″ metal studs and glitter paint.
  • body measurements.  Yes, you have to take body measurements. Patterns are not sized the same as store bought clothes, although they have gotten closer over the years. It is very discouraging to make a garment and then realize it doesn’t fit, so just go ahead and take those measurements. Usually it is the chest, waist and hips that get measured. Measure around the largest part of the chest and hips and your natural waistline (usually where your belly button is).
  • sizes.  The size you use is determined by your body measurements. So find your measurements and then look down that column to find your size. All the information you need for your size in in this column.
  • how much fabric you need. So now that you know your size, run your finger down the column until you get to the view or pattern number you are making. I made piece #13. So when I stop at #13 I see that it says I need 2 1/2 yards of 45″ fabric. The 45″ means the width of the fabric. There are some asterisks after this and at the bottom of the envelope they are explained.
  • interfacing requirements is also listed here. Again, ask the nice ladies at the fabric store to direct you to the correct interfacing.
  • trimmings. Not all patterns have trimmings but this one does and they are listed here. It would have been great if this and the interfacing had been listed in the notions. This is why it’s important to read all of the back of the envelope.
  • Finished garment measurements. This is what the actual items will measure once they are sewn together.
  • *without nap  **with nap  ***with or without nap.  These tell you what the asterisks in in the fabric section mean. Nap refers to the pile on fabrics that are kind of fuzzy such as velvet, furs, suede and corduroy. Fabric without nap are smooth and fabrics with nap are fuzzy. Fabrics with nap will look different depending on how the light hits the pile and so you need to be extra careful in cutting out the pieces to be sure that all of them have the nap going in the same direction.

Now that we know what all that information on the envelope means, we can move on to what’s inside the envelope.

If you have any questions or helpful tips feel free to leave them in the comments.

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This post is linked to Barn Hop

Thanks for sharing with your friends!


Wednesday 22nd of April 2015

Thank you so much. I am a beginner at sewing.

Angi Schneider

Friday 24th of April 2015

I'm so glad you found this useful. It's an older article that needs some updating (photos, not content). I'm self taught sewer but feel free to ask me any questions. It's such a fun thing to learn.


Wednesday 25th of January 2012

Great tips, Jill. I mentioned in the body measuring part that patterns are not sized the same as store bought clothes.

You're right it is always better to start with something simple and not fitted to check the size.

Thanks for the tips, I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us.


Tuesday 24th of January 2012

Found you on the Barn Hop. I'm an advanced seamstress so I couldn't resist reading.

I would add one important note to this post. MANY times, the size you wear when you buy a garment off the rack is different from the size you wear when you make your own. (And isn't that aggravating when you go to three different stores, try on a size 10 in each, and it fits you three different ways?? Ugh!)

Anyone new to sewing might want to start with a simple boxier design to see if they, indeed, have a difference in their off-the-rack size vs. their home sewn size.