Understanding sewing patterns: Sizes & Supplies

Once you’ve learned the basics of operating a sewing machine, the fun can really get underway! Printed sewing patterns have been available for over 150 years, and in fact the granddaddy of pattern companies, Butterick, has been producing patterns since 1863 when founder Ebenezer Butterick created cardboard templates for children’s clothing patterns – a huge help for sewing mums and dressmakers!

sample patterns

Why yes, I have made a snuggie! There are patterns for everything you can imagine…

Today’s patterns have come a long way since then and are designed with the home sewist in mind, but that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to understand! This is the first in a series of three posts that will help break down all the information, instructions, and teeny-tiny print that comes with modern patterns so that you can be as successful as possible when sewing at home.

Part One: Choosing the right size (and knowing how much fabric to buy)

Within most fabric stores, you’ll find an area filled with chest-high file cabinets, a table with a few chairs, and on the table – a stack of oversized pattern catalogs produced by the big sewing pattern companies: Simplicity, Butterick, McCall’s, and Vogue Patterns. These are known as the Big-4 in the sewing world and comprise the bulk of the home sewing pattern market. You may find additional catalogs and/or patterns by independent designers but we’ll save discussion of those for another day.

simplicity 1520The pattern catalogs offer a myriad of pattern styles from special occasion gowns to yoga pants and boxer shorts to baby dresses. Since I start with pajama pants in many of my beginner sewing classes, we’ll use this pattern as an example: Simplicity 1520. Looking at the front of the pattern envelope, you can see that it offers patterns for 2 lengths of pajama shorts as well as full length pajama pants. It’s not until we flip the envelope over that you realize how much information they manage to cram on there!

Here’s the back envelope view of Simplicity 1520:

simplicity 1520 back

Now… let’s break all that tiny print down into some manageable information! First off, with apologies to my multi-lingual friends, we’re going to ignore the right half of the envelope. Most of the pattern companies include French and/or Spanish translations of the information but since we don’t need that in this case, I’m just focusing on the English text.

simplicity 1520 back - sizes

Before purchasing a pattern, we want to be sure we’re buying the right size so I’ve highlighted the area of the pattern that indicates the sizes available as well as the body measurements that relate to each size. For this particular pattern, only one body measurement is used: hips. For adults, the hip measurement is roughly 7-9″ below the waist for adults. This is a standard measurement in the industry and may not be the fullest part of the body or correlate to where you consider your own hips to be. For pre-adolescent children it will fall between 5-7″ below the waist and in their case, it’s usually safe to assume the fullest part of their body can be used for a hip measurement. For some entertaining clipart and a more thorough overview of taking measurements, visit the Butterick Size Charts page.

(Side note – I’m working on two measuring videos – one for women and one for children and will post the link here when they’re available!)

Now, back to our pattern. For this example, let’s assume that we’re making pajamas for a teen who has a hip measurement of 36″. By looking at the teens/adults chart, we can see that size SMALL would be best. Trust your measurements and don’t simply guess based on what size appears on the labels of your store-bought clothing.

simplicity 1520 back - sizes small


Following the size SMALL column down, the envelope information tells us that we need either 2 1/4 yards of 45″ wide material or 2 1/8 yards of 60″ wide material. While it’s not usually necessary, I often find myself purchasing an extra 1/4 yard or so just to give me some extra wiggle room and to allow for shrinkage if I’ll be pre-washing and drying my fabrics before sewing. And it should be be noted that these are general guidelines so 42″ or 44″ fabric will require the same as 45″ fabric and 55″ or 58″ wide fabric will require the same as the 60″ listing. Many of the lovely lightweight cotton fabrics designed for quilters are perfect for pajama pants and most of those are 42-44″ wide.

Because who wouldn't want Doctor Who, Watermelon or Forest Animal Party fabric for their pajama pants?

Because who wouldn’t want Doctor Who, Watermelon or Forest Animal Party fabric for pajamas?

Speaking of fabric choices… the pattern envelope is helpful with that, too!

simplicity 1520 fabrics

Patterns will always list recommended fabrics on the envelope – usually right below a brief description of the pattern. The designers have certain fabric or fabrics in mind when creating the patterns so for the best results, I shop for materials based on their recommendations. Quilting cottons and flannels both make perfect pajama pants and would be my go-to choices in this case!

gutermann threadYou’ll also notice a line for Notions on the pattern envelope. This is where additional bits and bobs are listed that you’ll need for completing the garment or project. Thread might seem obvious but it never hurts to have a reminder! All-purpose polyester thread is great for most projects and my personal favorite is Gutermann Sew-All thread.  When in doubt, buy a second spool or choose a larger spool. It’s never fun to run out of thread before you’ve finished sewing your new clothing!

Last but not least, the elastic for the waistband was listed on a separate line of the envelope. In many cases, it would be listed with thread under notions but since there are both child and adult sizes in this particular pattern, it’s listed below the fabric yardage chart: 1 5/8 yard  of 1″ wide elastic.

So, to recap, here are the basic steps when choosing a pattern and materials:

  • Use pattern catalogs at the store to narrow down to the pattern and design you’re looking for (i.e. ball gowns vs. pajamas)
  • Review the options included within the pattern (i.e. pants vs. shorts)
  • Double check that your body measurements will fit the pattern size you are purchasing (don’t go by the size found in your closet)
  • Purchase the amount of fabric that is listed for your size (use the recommendations to guide your choice and buy a bit extra to be on the safe side)
  • Purchase any required notions while you have your fabric with you to make sure everything matches well (notions might include thread, elastic, zippers, buttons, ribbons, or more)

Next post will cover prepping fabric & patterns including layout of pattern pieces and getting everything cut out properly. And if you’re wondering about which scissors to use for that, take a look at this earlier post on sewing tools!


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