An Absolute Beginner’s Guide: Choosing a Pattern

Welcome to my new series An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Sewing. I don’t claim to have all the answers but I will hopefully provide new sew-ers some with some ideas for your new endeavour – being an awesome seamstress. Every Monday I’ll post my thoughts on a given sewing topic and I encourage you to comment on the posts if you’ve got some advice too! So today’s topic? Choosing A Pattern

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Start Simple

One of the big pull factors for getting into sewing is the ability to make amazingly fashionable clothes and half the cost of buying them. The risk with jumping in at the deep end though is the bitter disappointment of spending $35 on a DKNY for Vogue pattern only to discover that the garment is very complicated to put together.

The Big Four pattern companies (Simplicity, Vogue, Butterick and McCall’s) all provide “sewing ratings” that rank the difficulty of making that pattern. There are four ratings – very easy, easy, average and advanced – so my advice would be to go with a very easy or easy pattern. You can also ask to read the instructions in the shop before you buy your pattern. Once you pick you pattern number from the look book ask the sales assistant for the envelope so you could look at the instructions while you’re standing at the counter. This will give you an idea of how many pieces the pattern requires as well as how many steps it is to complete the garment. Trust me this isn’t weird!

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Choose a Modern Pattern

Starting simple also means starting modern. It’s pretty hard to miss the 1950s vintage renaissance currently happening, particularly in the field of sewing blogs. But I would caution new sew-ers against learning to sew using vintage patterns. Vintage patterns instructions assume that the reader has a lot of sewing knowledge so it’s not uncommon to read instructions like “insert zipper” or “finish edges” without enlightening you with the details. You’ll be left asking but how? Most, if not all, modern patterns break every step down.

The other pit fall with vintage patterns is that they the vast majority of them only come in one size. Nearly every pre-1970s pattern, and even some 1970s and 1980s patterns will only have one size option. This means that it can be very difficult to grade up or down if your measurements aren’t exactly the same as their sizing charts. My experience of buying vintage patterns is that I’ve only ended up sewing the ones that are my exact sizing, the rest are untouched.

If you really want to learn to sew using a vintage patterns I’d suggest using the modern reproductions of Vintage Vogue Patterns. I presume they’ve updated the instructions for the modern seamstress – perhaps someone could confirm this for me?

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Try a Skirt

When you’re learning to sew the less pieces a pattern has the better. Skirt patterns usually have four pieces – the front, two back pieces and a waistband. This is important because it means it is easy to adjust if the sizing is not quite right by taking it in or letting it out down the side seams. If you sew an A line or circle skirt the only part that needs to be fitted is the waist which is even easier. Some good beginner patterns are Sewaholic’s Hollyburn Skirt and By Hand London’s Charlotte Skirt.. Next Monday I’ll be making some suggestions on choosing fabrics.

My final piece of advice on this topic – don’t go for trousers! Which patterns would you recommend for beginner sew-ers?

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11 thoughts on “An Absolute Beginner’s Guide: Choosing a Pattern”

  1. What a great idea for a blog series. I have been sewing for over 30 years and there isn’t a sewing project that I do that I have a question about something. Last year my oldest daughter decided to give sewing a chance and of course she wanted to participate in a vintage/or vintage inspired challenge. After much discussion, a few tears and a couple of arguments she finally agreed to choose a modern pattern for a vintage style apron. No button holes, no zippers, no massive pattern alterations and it came out great! It inspired her to continue to sew, and since then she had turned out several projects. She is hooked!

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  2. Great idea for a blog series! I totally agree about skirts as a really good option for beginners (after bags, the first item I made to wear as a child was an elastic waisted skirt and then at Tech, much later, we made skirts that opened in the pocket). Other options while trying to learn some techniques before tackling garments to wear “out” are aprons (can practice hemming etc and possibly patch pockets and making tubes for ties, as well as starting to understand the order of construction), pyjama bottoms (looser, not requiring much fitting and no need for closures like zips and buttons – just pick according to hip size and the elastic/ease may be enough to take care of the waist). If wanting to make a top, the Grainline woven T-shirt pattern might be a good option as it doesn’t require closures either although does have a sleeve.

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  3. Knit fabrics, any pattern calling for knits has a more forgiving fit in my experience. And what is it with the sizing on the big 4? I measure the pattern says make a size 16, in ready to wear I am a 10, but follow their advice and end up with things way to big so now just guess what size I should use!

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    1. Yes the big four do have a reputation for allowing too much ease (space to move) in their patterns. The easiest way around this problem is to do a tissue test by literally hold the tissue pattern against you and standing in front of a mirror. I this helps and I will cover this topic more in later posts 🙂

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  4. When I have started to sew I was aware just of Burda style magazine and even if I was sewing just the beginner patterns I was sort of frustrated by the results. When I have discovered the indie patterns, my sewing approach changed completely. I love the seam allowance are included and I don’t have to add myself for example. This is just my experience.

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    1. Hi there! I am so glad you’ve discovered indie patterns. They are very easy to sew with and make every step very clear. I have to say Burda is a difficult place to start because of all the tracing and adding the seam allowances! I own one Bruda mag but I’ve never sewn anything from it for the same reasons as you!

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  5. Hello! I’m looking forward to following your guide to sewing for beginners. I’m an absolute beginner when it comes to most aspects of sewing, especially making my own clothes! I’m super keen to improve my skills though. It wasn’t until I started looking at patterns I realised how different the sizing can be and really had/have no idea where to start. I’ve made one Wiksten tank, but i have a few issues with the size. I’m hoping to whip up a sorbetto top soon to try a different style and see how I go in comparison.
    Lou 🙂

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    1. Hi Lou, I’m glad you’re excited about the new series. Good pattern choices with the Sorbetto and the Wiksten Tank. Singlets are a great place to start learning because they don’t require too much fitting. Let me know how they turn out 🙂

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