The Power of Actually Understanding How to Use Paper Patterns

Ok, so you’re walking through JOANN Fabrics and they’re having a sick sale on patterns. You got a sewing machine for your birthday that you’re dying to put to use because for some reason they’re putting random words on clothes now and your closet needs a refresh, so you stop and take a look. You find the cutest dress pattern, speed-walk to the fabric and notions sections to get everything you need, and check out. Anxiously, you drive home daydreaming about how amazing that dress is going to look. You get home, get settled, pull out your pattern packet and take everything out. Your heart drops. What in the heck is that brown paper and what do those symbols mean??

Sound familiar? Fortunately, panelists May Hemmer, Diana Khoury, Alyssa Jackson, Bobbie Jo Nelson, and Mary Abreu have decades of sewing and teaching experience between them, and they know the ins-and-outs of where beginners get stuck while learning sewing. The most important thing they stressed at their Sunday panel at 11:30am in Courtland Grand Macon is that sewing is not an inherent talent and is a skill you have to build up – everyone starts somewhere. They had these tips for those starting at the very first heart drop of pulling out that brown paper.

  • READ THROUGH THE ENTIRE PATTERN BEFORE STARTING ANYTHING!!!!! This really cannot be stressed enough. Even once you get the hang of sewing, it’s imperative that you read the pattern before starting-you never know if a pattern deviates from the standards you’re used to.
  • Watch your sizing. The sizing you see on the pattern packets don’t follow the sizing of the clothes you see in stores. Know your measurements (have a friend help you take them) and pick sizing based on that. If you don’t find something that fits you with one size (as there is really no Standard Human), then you can Frankenstein a pattern by pulling parts from various sizes.
  • Build your projects from the inside out if your project has multiple pieces. Start with the pieces closest to your skin and move outward. For a suit project: undergarment → shirt → vest → jacket.
  • Wear the undergarments you’re going to wear with your project while you’re measuring (don’t wing it). If you’re planning on wearing a corset, petticoat, hoop skirt, or anything of the sort then make sure you get accurate measurements that account for those underclothes. A corset may seem like a nominal addition to under your clothes but measuring your sizing while wearing it will make all the difference in whether or not your piece fits.
  • Make sure to check the description of your pattern before shopping for fabrics. It will give you the most insight as to which fabrics will work for your piece, and give period-correct recommendations if you’re making a historical piece.
  • Get a cheap fabric to mock your project on. Doing this has multiple benefits: prevents wasting your more expensive fashion fabrics, is an automatic lining for your project, and saves time in cutting and piecing together. You can also use your mock project to see how a runway translated piece works-oftentimes they don’t translate well, and a ton of adjustments need to be made.
  • Research how beginner-friendly massed produced patterns are. Check the brand, look at the line drawing on the back of the pattern, and check review sites. If you’re just starting out, stay away from Vogue patterns. Simplicity, Quick-sew and New Look have step-by-step instructions so you won’t get tripped up trying to figure out how the pattern got from A to B.
  • For cosplay: zippers are acceptable. Don’t get stuck on wanting to be period accurate unless you absolutely need to be. It’s important to be comfortable and accurate period pieces just aren’t. Your cosplay will spark just as much joy if you’re comfortable and rocking a zipper than if everything is exactly spot on.

When asked about useful tools for beginners, the panelists offered these suggestions: a good quilting ruler, alligator clips, Swedish tracing paper, chalk pens, pounce wheel, and whatever you have in your kitchen. You don’t need a lot of fancy tools to be successful at sewing; a bowl can be used to create the curves of your sleeves and wax and parchment paper have proven to be quality substitutes for sewing specific papers. Be resourceful and save your money where possible (for example, ironing the wrong side of interfacing onto your paper patterns can give them longevity so you can reuse them).

Sewing from a paper pattern doesn’t have to be daunting. There are plenty of people who have been where you are and make excellent resources to aid in your sewing journey. Everyone can learn, it just takes patience, consistency, and practice, and eventually you’ll be whipping projects up like a pro. That paper pattern ain’t got nothin’ on ya. Happy sewing!!


Online: (audience member recommended)

( may be a good resource for when you’re more comfortable!)


Fundamentals of Men’s Fashion Design by Masaaki Kawashima

Fitting for Every Figure by Threads Magazine

In person:

Quilting stores – they’re not just for quilting!!

Community Colleges and Universities

Craft stores (personal shout out to Scraplanta!!)


Author of the article