Demystifying Dressmaking Patterns

Did you know that Patchworkers make really good Dressmakers?
Demystifying Dressmaking Patterns

With Spring now upon us it’s time to sort out those clothes that have been put away over the winter and possibly look at updating our clothes for the coming warmer weather. If you are already a Patchworker then you are already ahead of the crowd as you will not only have a ‘stash’ of fabrics at your disposal but also the accuracy required for patchwork is a ‘hidden’ asset as far as dressmaking is concerned.

What has come to my attention when speaking to people is their lack of understanding regarding Dressmaking Patterns and with that in mind I’d like to cover some things that seems to have gotten lost over the years.

I’ve decided to break it down into ‘chunks’ so that if you already know that bit you can just move onto the next bit which you may not be aware of.

There are 3 links included, to access them you will need to copy and paste them into your browser.


Whilst I don’t want to put people off with lots of numbers it is important to understand how the different manufacturers calculate their sizes and it is completely different from pre made bought clothing.

This is a really good chart and easy to understand.

There are different designations according to height and body size, for example, Misses & Misses Petite might seem as if they are the same. However the Misses sizing is for someone whose height is between 5’5” and 5’6” which means that the waist, armholes, shaping ( darts etc.) and any placement of patterns will be for someone around that height. There is usually a point in the pattern where it can be lengthened or shortened to accommodate individual body lengths but it is important to work out where you fit in the height range. I’ve chosen this one as it will cover the majority of people. The Misses Petite size ranges from 5’2” to 5’3” and there will be sizes for taller body sizes.

Once you have established where you fit in terms of height it’s time to look at the width. Here you have even more choices. The important thing to remember is to choose a size that covers your inches, there will always be something spare in a particular place but it is much easier to take a little more off a seam or a dart than to try to add something in. The sizes given are the actual sizes that the body you wish the garment to fit are, this is important! Where extra space is required to actually wear the garment , this is known as ‘ease’, they will already be added onto the pattern. In many cases you will find somewhere on the pattern a section called ‘Actual Size’ and this will match up with the finished size of the garment once is has been made.

For the more experienced sewers I’ve included this link which gives added information about body size and shape and fitting of patterns.

Please note that all pattern manufacturers are different, some continental ones do not include the seam allowance so be prepared for that.

There are also differences between European and US sizes so double check the sizes.

What’s in the Bag?

All too often, and I’ve done this myself, the pattern and the instructions are taken out the envelope and the Instructions are put to one side and forgotten about. Don’t do that! Take them out make yourself a cup of something and get a piece of paper to make notes on. Read those instructions and make note of anything that is or may be relevant to what you are doing. Including which of the pattern pieces you will need to complete your garment.

It is usual to give the cutting and layout instructions for 2 different widths of fabric. Mark on the instructions which one you will need to use and check that you have the correct amount of fabric for your garment. It can be all too easy to look at the layout for the other width of fabric part way through and then wonder why you’ve run out of fabric.

Another thing to take into consideration is the direction of the pattern or ‘nap’ of the fabric. At this point I won’t go too deeply into pattern matching but if you do get a piece with the pattern going the opposite direction it will stand out and will have to be re cut. There will be a tip on how to avoid this in a later section. The ‘nap’ as it is known is the direction of the surface of the fabric and is often associated with Velvet, do not assume that because you cannot feel any difference in the direction of the fabric that there isn’t one. Take two small samples of the fabric, and make a directional mark showing the top and the bottom as it is on the main part of the fabric. Now take them both to the daylight and turn one the other way up. Do they still look the same? If not there is a ‘nap’ on the fabric.

Now carefully unfold the paper pattern, there will be a lot of creases in it. Using a cool and dry iron all the tissue paper pages before cutting them up, this will be a lot easier than ironing just the sections you need after cutting them from the main pages.
There is a multitude of markings on the tissue and it is important to distinguish those which are relevant to you from those which are relevant for other sizes. Use a Felt tip pen to pick out all those relevant to your garment before you start cutting anything out.
A quick note on Multi sized patterns, these are those that will cover 3 or more sizes on one pattern. The temptation is to cut the paper pattern to the size that you require at this point in time. But if you cut off the other bits you will not be able to use the pattern again for the other sizes.

Fabric and Cutting

Unlike Patchwork, dressmaking fabrics are not usually washed beforehand. However, if using fabric that you have had for a while it may have accumulated dust or have a fold line which has been affected by the light. If this is the case gently wash the fabric then use a spray starch when ironing to give it a little more stability to cope with the cutting process.

Cut around the numbered pieces required for your garment leaving a little of the spare tissue around the edge
Using the Pattern Layout guide for your particular width of fabric and with the front of the fabric facing up start placing your pattern sections onto the fabric. Use a small weight to keep them in position while you are positioning the other pieces, a saucer or plate works well for the larger sections while small glasses work well for smaller pieces. There are all sorts of ‘gadgets’ and things that can be purchased for this purpose but I have used crockery for many years and my father before me and this has always worked for us.

When all the pieces are in place pin them into position and move the weights out of the way.

Begin by using a contrast tacking thread and large stitches, about 1” long, and sew around the outside of the pattern section on the cutting line of the size that is relevant to you.

Next the ‘Matching Points’ these come in two forms, either a square which may or may not be coloured in and are usually found in the middle of the pattern OR Diamonds, which can be single or grouped together in twos or threes. The Diamonds can be marked in chalk on the pattern but for the Squares it is better to use a stitch called a ‘Tailors’ Tack’ which loops through all the layers and can be cut to leave sections of the thread in each layer to be matched together later.

Below is a really clear link to how to make Tailors Tacks. It will help you later if you use different coloured thread for different sections.

Tailors’ Tacks are also used to transfer the markings for any Darts from the paper pattern onto the fabric.

Once all of this is done you can cut through any thread loops that show through the pattern and carefully remove the pattern sections from the fabric.

When this is done there will be a lot of bits of thread showing on the fabric and it is important to further distinguish what they all mean.

Where the outside stitching is will form your cutting line, take a ruler and mark with a chalk marker over the top of the stitching, remember to include your Diamond Markers. I also like to draw a line along the centre fold of any darts as a memory aid.

Now you can cut out all your pieces.

Assembling your garment

There will be detailed instructions on the order in which you need to assemble the sections and these will be different for every pattern. There are however, some things you can do to make it easier for yourself
Sew together all darts, pleats and other areas of shaping and press well.

Darts are always sewn from the seam edge to the point and the threads at the point are left long and tied together before being trimmed off. No Back stitching is involved.

Pay attention to any areas that are on a curve and will need re inforcing with tape, again do all these pieces before putting anything together.

Unlike Patchwork, the seam allowance, unless otherwise stated, is 5/8ths of an inch.

Pay attention to the stitch length on your machine as you may be required to alter this for different areas of the garment.

Take your time and enjoy yourself.

This has hopefully been a ‘getting you started’ read, there is so very much I haven’t included but that will come in other Posts later in the year.