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A Guide to Using Sewing Patterns May 17, 2019

Garment District, Manhattan
A Guide to Using Sewing Patterns, Manhattan, New York

Sewing patterns are designed to help amateur sewists create their own clothes. As helpful as these guides can be, though, you need to know how to use them correctly to have a final result come together, especially when piecing together the likes of spandex. From taking measurements to deciphering pattern markings and handling materials, here is everything you need to know to get started with a sewing pattern project.

Choosing a Sewing Pattern


To select a pattern in the right size, you need the measurements of the person who will wear the garment. Six key reference points dictate sizing, some of which you’ll need assistance to get if you’re taking your own measurements:

  • Neck & Bust: Measure at the base of your neck, where a collar would rest. Then, place the measuring tape around the widest part of your chest to get the bust measurement.
  • Waist & Hips: Measure at the smallest part of your torso—also known as your natural waist. The measuring tape should lie just below your ribcage by your bellybutton. For your hips, determine sizing at the widest point of your backside.
  • Front Waist Length: Start on your shoulder at the base of your neck and measure down to your natural waist, having the tape hit over the fullest part of your bust.
  • Back Waist Length: On your back, start at the base of your neck towards the center and measure to your natural waist.
  • Shoulder Length: Determine the length from the base of your neck, along the center of your shoulder, to the tip of your shoulder. If you have a hard time judging this dimension precisely, measure the shoulder seam of a shirt that fits you well.
  • Arm Length & Circumference: With your arm slightly bent, run the tape from the tip of your shoulder, along your arm, past your elbow, to your wrist. For sleeve size, assess the circumference of the fullest part of your arm above your elbow.

For skirt length, you’ll also need to measure from your natural waist to wherever you want the hem to fall. Similarly, pants and shorts will require you to collect an inseam length, measured on the inside of the leg from the crotch to your desired hemline. Armed with these measurements, you can match up to the size you will need by comparing dimensions to the ones listed on the packaging. Most sewing patterns will also offer multi-sized options, which contain multiple patterned lines—typically dotted, dashed, or solid—to cater to a handful of sizes. The instructions for the pattern will tell you which line corresponds to your size, which you can then outline with a highlighter to avoid any confusion.

Pattern Markings


Beyond the dotted and dashed lines of multi-size sewing patterns, there are a variety of markings that guide you while making the garment. Details like grainlines and fold lines help explain how the fabric should lie on the pattern while you cut it out, while other indicators give you leeway to customize the garment according to your specific measurements. 

The pattern will also include a marking that dictates which side of the paper is upward facing. Always double check that it is right-side-up before you proceed with any cutting, and try to use the highlighter technique on this side to further clarify the situation.

Stretch Profile

Some fabrics have more give to them than others. Spandex fabric, for example, is made to stretch and move with the wearer, while pure cotton won’t budge until blended with stretch material. Sewing patterns will usually offer suggestions for the fabrics that work best for the garment. Typically, there is also a test that asks you to take a sample of fabric the length of a black bar and attempt to stretch it to the length of the black bar plus an added white bar. If your material can manage to extend that far and return to its original shape, then it will work for the sewing pattern.

Ignoring this stretch test and proceeding with an inflexible fabric will result in a garment that is too tight or doesn’t fit at all because the pattern accounts for that spandex expansion in the sizing. If you’re set on using your material of choice with an ill-suited sewing pattern, you can try sizing up one to account for the rigidity of your fabric.

Using the Sewing Pattern

Preparing the Fabric

If your fabric is washable, give it a thorough cleaning to get any shrinkage or bleeding color out of the way. Once the material is dry, iron it to remove any creases, so it is flat and easy to manipulate. If you are working with spandex or another stretch fabric, follow care instructions diligently, as excess heat from a dryer or iron can destroy the elastic material. Once the fabric is smooth, lay it flat, and for spandex, let it rest so that it is at its neutral shape before you start cutting. Without resting the stretch fabric, the garment could turn out smaller than anticipated since the spandex didn’t have time to contract.

Cutting the Pattern

To assure you have the cleanest cut possible, it is often easier to do a rough cutout of the pattern just outside your sizing lines, so you don’t have to wrestle with mounds of paper as you trim with precision. If you are unsure where to cut, check the instructions for guidance, as some patterns will have multiple finishes to choose from. Once again, if you have a multi-size sewing pattern, a highlighter is a beneficial tool to assure you’re cutting the right line.

Once the rough cut is finished, similar to the fabric, you should press the sewing pattern on a low heat setting so that it is creaseless and flat. When you’re ready to trim, do not use your fabric scissors, as the paper will dull the blade, making cutting the fabric later more difficult. Instead, use standard paper scissors, and cut in small increments to weed out any possible mistakes.

Cutting the Fabric


Before lining up the material to the pattern, lay everything smooth on a flat surface to work out any wrinkles. Place the fabric as directed, keeping in mind its alignment with grainlines as well as which side of the sewing pattern needs to face up. Then, fold the fabric precisely at the line where you’re directed to cut on the fold. Pin the material to the sewing pattern to keep everything in place. For spandex fabric, it is essential that you do the pinning on the seam allowance. Pins will pierce and distort the fabric, so they should be placed on a portion of the material that won’t be visible in the final garment.

With everything secure, use a pair of sharp dressmaker’s shears to cut out the fabric using the pattern as a guide. If you come across a section that is more difficult to trim, use a pair of smaller, sharper scissors that offer more minute, precise cuts. Spandex is notoriously difficult to cut with a standard pair of sewing shears, but a rotary cutter can help you do the job without the risk of jagged edges. Its circular blade slices through fabric without stretching the material, leaving you with a more precise shape. Also, invest in a cutting mat with this tool, as it will protect the surface underneath from cut marks and keep the spandex in place as you trim away.

Transferring Pattern Markings

The myriad pattern markings mentioned earlier come into play as you cut the pieces of the garment. As you pin the fabric to the pattern, you will need to relay the markings onto the material by way of a fabric pen or small tacking stitches. This step is paramount to the quality of the garment, as it relays information about matching up fabric pieces and positioning elements applied later like darts, pockets, and gathered material. A best practice when using this guide is to keep your fabric pinned to the pattern until you are ready to use that piece. This tip gives you time to transfer markings intermittently instead of all at once and saves you any confusion after the garment is cut out.


Once you’ve found the perfect sewing pattern, discover your fabric of choice at Spandex House, Inc. With one of the world’s largest selections of wholesale stretch fabrics, you can sew up one in every color. To get your pattern project started with a few spandex fabric samples, give us a call at (212) 354-6711, check out our website, or visit our store in Manhattan’s Garment District today.

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