Beginners Guide To Reading a Dressmaking Pattern


Please note: there is an updated and improver version of this post here

If and when you decide to venture into the world of creating a garment to wear for yourself or a Santa suit for your pampered pooch this guide will hopefully answer some basic questions.  Many of us have learned how to use patterns and sew from a family member or a close friend, and there are many different techniques and shortcuts that people use to make it easier.  If however this is not the case for you, pulling out a pattern to create something special can seem very overwhelming. We hope this will help see you through your first simple steps and will make life a little  easier.

Fabric choice is important

When you choose the fabric you are going to use, pay close attention to the fabric repeat. This is the way the pattern or print on the fabric is laid out, for instance whether the pattern is large or small scale and also the direction the pattern is running. For instance if you choose a stripe that runs from selvedge to selvedge you may end up with a long skirt with horizontal strips, this may not be the look you’re going for so you may want to choose a stripe that runs the length of the fabric giving you a vertical stripe on your skirt.


Cutting out the pattern pieces

Many patterns will come with multiple sizes printed on them and you will need to cut along the same size line for all of your pieces or the result could be quite interesting.  Often you will also be instructed to place the pattern along the “grain line of the fabric“, this is to insure the stretch of the fabric is correct for your project.  The placement of the grain line on the pattern is indicated with an arrow along the pattern piece like this    arrow   and this will need to be placed on the fabric running parallel to the selvedge.

When using a manufactures pattern it will also give you information on how to lay your fabric out in order to be cut dependent on the size of your fabric.  This is generally the best method to follow as it usually makes the most efficient use of the fabric.

Some key information  to watch out for when placing pattern pieces before you cut :

1) How the fabric is folded (it’s usually right sides in)

2) Where the selvedge edge lies

3) Whether the right side side of the pattern faces up or down

4) Whether and the right side of fabric faces up or down

To determine these points look for a diagram that looks something like this in your pattern instructions


Looking more closely at the diagram above you will see that pattern piece (2) needs to be cut twice as it appears twice on the cutting diagram, once on the right side of the pattern and again on the wrong side (turning the pattern piece face down). Can you see where this pattern piece is shaded by the dots? This indicates the pattern piece should be laid face down on your fabric. This also shows us its on a folded piece of fabric, but not on a fold, so we will end up with four cut fabric pieces.  Pattern piece (1) is placed on the fabric fold so we will end up with only one piece of fabric that’s double the size and mirrored of pattern piece (1). Looking at the second diagram  pattern piece (4) shows us to cut it only on one thickness of fabric, once on the right side and once on the wrong side giving us two cut fabric pieces. Your pattern will also contain a guide and a key as to what all of these mean.

Some common pattern marking symbols  


Notches look like thissingle-notchdouble-notch       and often appear on the cut line as single or double triangles (they can be filled or unfilled triangles) and need to be marked on your fabric. Notches will be used to line up two or more separate pattern pieces when constructing your garment. If you have just 1 notch it will line up with another single notch on a separate piece of the pattern and 2 notches with 2. Notches ensure you are sewing 2 separate pattern pieces together at the right point so the garment has the right shape. The best way to mark pattern notches are to cut a reverse notch out of the fabric edge like this:


Fold Line

Fold-lineA fold line  marking looks something like this   fold-arrow  You will need to place the pattern on the fold line of the fabric so when the fabric piece is cut it will be one piece when un-folded a mirror image of itself. Do not cut along the fold!

Markings for construction details, such as placements or gathering

Often there are small circles marked on the pattern these can be open or filled circles like this circles and can indicate a dart position, button placement, bust lines, waist lines or where to lengthen of shorten a pattern. These need to be marked somehow on your fabric pieces and the quickest and easiest way is to use some dress making carbon paper, or you can mark by hand stitching some loose threads through the fabric that can just be pulled out after you have finished.


When we completed the cutting and transferring of the markings from this pattern piece we end up with a result below.  You can see we have our notches cut out  around the edge and have used thread markings for all our matching points and because we used the fold line you can see how we now have one piece of fabric.


We hope this will give you a basic foundation when it comes to using ready-made patterns, and take some of the fright out of it.  There are many different “tricks of the trade” out there but with trial and error you will find your own.

16 thoughts on “Beginners Guide To Reading a Dressmaking Pattern”

  1. So glad I found this. My mum bought me a cheap sewing machine (from Morrisons of all places) and some fabric and a dress pattern from you and now keeps asking how I’m getting on with it. She taught herself to sew and expects me to be able to do the same but truthfully the pattern looks quite scary. Thank you so much for explaining it, I might dig out an old bed sheet and have a go next weekend.

  2. A great site, thank you for explaining all these points so clearly and simply. Many sites I have looked up take for granted we all know this stuff! Thanks.

  3. Thank you for explaining so plainly. I looked everywhere to find out what the little circles meant – easy if it’s a dart, but it wasn’t. Now I know it’s a tailors tack – simple.

    Brilliant site thanks .

  4. This is great thank you.just started cutting out a dress pattern with a fitted (ish) bodice. I am on the size 12 lines and find the shoulder seams start as 12 nearest to centre front then same line is 14 by the top shoulder! There is still markings for the 12 but lower down so to stay on 12 would mean making a diagonal line-w.t.h??please help?x

  5. So glad that i find you all clearly explained i did wanted to know what it meant when they said pattern layout with broken line should turn face down .Thank you for your diagram.God bless your site .

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