Day 13: Choosing a pattern

Today is Day 13 of 31 Days of Sewing School.

Now that I feel like we’ve laid a foundation of sorts by getting to know the parts of our sewing machine and hopefully feeling a little less intimidated by it, this week, we’re going to begin talking about patterns and fabric.

All of this is prep work. By the time we start sewing, I want you to feel ready, and you’ll have an education of sewing basics under your belt to carry you forward.

So if you’re feeling good about your machine, it’s time to start thinking about what you want to sew. And while playing around on your own is fun and can be quite productive as you get better at it, if you want to make something specific and precise, a pattern is the way to go.

Nowadays, I like to separate pattern options into two categories, traditional and modern (quilting and small projects aside). I personally use both, depending on the project. Let’s take a look at both of them.

Traditional patterns

Just picking up a traditional pattern brings back a flood of memories for me.

Sitting at the fabric store with my mom, pattern books splayed out on a big table, we would flip through to see all the clothing options modeled in magazine-style spreads.

We’d note down the pattern numbers of the styles we liked on a scrap of paper before heading over to the wall of metal drawers, separated by brand and organized by number and size, where we would find the one we were looking for.

My imagination would be going a mile a minute, designing combinations of fabrics and asking my mom if we could take the top from this one and the bottom from that one (that’s how we designed my wedding dress actually).

So when I say traditional pattern, I’m talking about the kind you buy at the fabric store– tissue paper pieces and a couple pages of instructions inside a paper envelope with the design sketched or pictured on the front. Garage sales or thrift stores are a great place to find vintage patterns.

A few tips

  • Don’t buy new traditional patterns if they’re not on sale. Stores like Joann and Hobby Lobby typically always have at least one brand on sale or offer coupons that significantly discount the patterns. Without a sale or a coupon, patterns have gotten quite expensive.
  • Over time, you’ll find out what brands fit you best and make the styles you like, then you’ll know to go in when those are on sale.
  • On Monday I will talk more about pattern terminology and I will also be sure to talk about how to read the back of the pattern this week, as that is a vital, if intimidating, skill to acquire.
  • Pattern sizing is not quite the same as buying store-bought clothes. Thankfully the patterns usually come in a range of sizes, but I tend to need to go up at least a size from store-bought to traditional pattern sizing.

Modern patterns

On the flip side, I use the term modern patterns to refer to online tutorials, downloadable PDFs and and patterns from sewing books. PDFs are great– I’m starting to download them and put them into Evernote so I can access the instructions on my computer, phone or iPad rather than having to print the whole thing out. (shown above: screenshot from my iPad of the Mayah pattern by Sew Sweet Patterns)

For the novice, many of these type of patterns feel a little less intimidating. They appear to be written by real people (grin) who actually use words we can understand for most part without a degree in Home Ec (by the way, sometimes I wish I could go back a generation and get a college degree in Home Ec!).

Many blogs offer free patterns or tutorials, or you can also find affordable (even cheaper than traditional patterns unless you catch those on a sale) ones on Etsy or elsewhere online.

These types of patterns will either offer precise equations to calculate fabric sizes based on your own measurements (such as, measure your waist and add two inches to that or something like that) to account for style and seam allowances, or they will offer a printable that you can print out to cut and use (or trace onto tissue paper).

I will be talking about cutting out patterns/fabric this week as well, so don’t worry.

What are you favorite types of patterns to use or browse? If you have any specific questions about patterns, be sure to ask them here and I will try to answer them in the comments or in a post.

About Nicole

Nicole can be found blogging at her lifestyle blog, and is the editor of Simple Homemade. She loves to read, sew, make ice cream, take pictures, watch baseball and go for walks by the beach with her hubby and three little kiddos. She loves anything handmade and is affectionately known as a bit of a hippie among family and friends.


  1. Nice to be here and see your post!


  1. [...] new to sewing, or at least to sewing with patterns, reading the pattern guide or the back of a pattern can be like trying to read a foreign [...]

  2. [...] you’ve chosen a pattern and figured out how to read the darn thing, the next thing you’ll probably want to do is [...]

  3. [...] modern patterns give you precise measurements so you can measure and cut your fabric without a pattern. If you are [...]

  4. [...] not break) your needles Day 11: Bobbins Day 12: Don’t get tense about your thread tension Day 13: Choosing a pattern Day 14: A few sewing links Day 15: Deciphering pattern terminology Day 16: Guide to fabric types [...]

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