I got a whopping 24 hits on part 1 of this series, which was still about 5x as many hits as any other post I’ve made, so here’s the next part. I decided to start doing one item at a time, because I lack the attention span (on the weekend, at least) to write about 10 different tools. So for the next few posts, I’ll be talking about things that are required for most projects, but don’t count as “basic equipment”. Basically, these will be things that you’ll need to get for each project which will be specific to what you’re making, as opposed to “pantry items” like shears and a tape measure. This post focuses on the pattern itself.
Let me start by saying that having a pattern is not technically necessary for very simple projects, but it does make things easier if you may ever want to make another copy of the item you’re sewing. Having a commercial pattern is definitely not necessary, but again, it makes things easier. Especially if you’re a beginner. I’ve made exactly one thing without a pattern (a small bag that I use as a money pouch when I go to Renaissance Faire), and while it turned out OK, I’d be hard pressed to make another exactly like it without a considerable amount of work. I’ve made my own patterns as well; I made a bag for my disc golf discs last year, and made a simple pattern for that project (three pieces: front, back/flap, and gusset, and then I eyeballed the straps). Some day, if I decide to become an awesome tailor, I may even learn how to make my own clothing patterns (Google words like “draping”). But I still consider myself enough of a beginner that I’m sticking to clothes designed by other people, at least for now.
This is what a typical pattern envelope looks like when you buy it at a craft/fabric store. The front almost always features a photo or drawing of the finished project, the “pattern number” (which you’d find in the manufacturer’s catalog, and then use to find the pattern in the giant file cabinet at the store), and usually a sizing code of some kind at the top (when making clothes, be sure to check this; manufacturers sometimes make kid’s and adult’s sizes with the same pattern number, but a different size code). The back will generally have the rest of the sizing guidelines. Note that there IS a difference between “Sewing” sizes and “bought it in a store” sizes. When in doubt, take or know your measurements and check the table on the pattern envelope. The back of the envelope will also usually have fabric suggestions (moderately useful) and a guideline for how much fabric you need to buy (very important). Patterns sold in the US use avoirdupois measurements, so any numbers you see, unless they’re otherwise labeled, will be in yards (36 inches, or roughly the distance from your nose to the tips of your fingers when your arm is stretched out). Oh, and fabric/craft stores generally sell most patterns for below list as a standard practice, and they usually have sales at least every season, to clear out old stock, so unless it’s urgent you shouldn’t expect to pay full price for a pattern from a major pattern manufacturer at a fabric store (at least, if you’re patient enough to wait for a sale). As a personal example, one weekend last year Heather and I were at Jo-Ann during a big pattern sale, and managed to score nearly $200 worth of patterns for about $45. Including a tuxedo pattern that I plan on making once I’ve lost all this weight. I’ve frequently seen pattern sales go as low as 99¢ per pattern.
Inside the pattern envelope will (usually) be two things: the instructions, and the pattern itself. Sometimes the instructions are printed on the pattern, but they’re usually separate. Most patterns from the major maufacturers (Simplicity, McCall, Butterick, Vogue, Kwiksew, Burda) are printed on tissue paper, which is a huge pain in the ass because it’s so thin and flimsy. Think “pages of your great grandmother’s Bible” if you need a reference. I always worry about tearing pieces in half by accident. Sometimes, if you’re ordering a pattern from a small designer or off of the internet, it’ll actually be on heavy plotter paper. I love these, but since they’re usually 20 bucks a pop (or more!) and highly specialized for a specific costume or garment, I don’t order many. The instructions are usually on heftier pieces of paper. Which is good, because they’re going to be moved around, folded, unfolded, and generally manhandled (no pun intended) while you’re sewing.