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Conversational Threads

Rant on pattern instructions

becksnyc | Posted in Patterns on

As an advanced sewer, I hardly ever read the pattern instructions when I sew, unless it’s for constructing a complex detail I’ve not tackled before.  I’m ranting in behalf of all the NEW sewers out there.

1.  Why don’t pattern instructions update to use simpler, bulk-free construction techniques, like the ones often used in ready-to-wear?  Why still be giving instructions like a skirt waistband that is folded under inside and stitched by hand, when a single layer, selvage or serged edge that drops below the waistband seam can just be stitched in the ditch or topstitched?

2.  Why do pattern instructions/illustrations have this addiction to cutting out the “bulk”, say, at skirt vents, clipping princess seams all the way to the seam itself WITHOUT WARNING the poor novice that it will now be unalterable if it is too tight?  (Since I alter RTW for a living, I notice manufacturers often omit these steps and the garments lay just fine (thick fabrics or sharp curves excepted, of course)).  I teach also, and many newbie sewers come to me in total frustration that their garment cannot be tweaked–“I followed the instructions!”

3.  Why not just include bagging the lining instructions for lined jackets?  No wonder no one sews anymore!  The time-saving instructions are never found on the pattern sheets!

Anyone else wanna join my FRIENDLY rant?  Maybe some of the major pattern company designers are lurking or can be contacted with our top 10 suggestions?



  1. rjf | | #1

    I don't often read the sewing instructions but when I do, I have the same reaction you've had.  The waistband, in particular, seems really outdated.  I learned a great way to do waistbands from sewing men's trousers for a costume designer.  The first thing we did was put in the zipper and then the inseam from each leg and the side seams.  The crotch seam is still open except for the zipper.  The waistband was in two pieces and that went on next but left unsewn on the inside.  Now you can try the pants on and adjust for fit through the back seam and not worry about undoing the waistband.  Sometimes I stitch in the ditch and sometimes good interfacing and belt loops keeps the waistband in place.   Men's trousers don't often have the waistband sewn down on the inside. 

    Now I'm remembering the first thing I made in 7th grade Home Ec.  Red cotton pedal pushers, no zipper but an opening in the left front pocket and the waistband went from the inside front edge of the pocket all the way around and then buttoned on the left side.  It was disillusioning to discover neither my mother or the Home Ec teacher could make sense of the directions.  I'm not sure what happened to that project but it didn't discourage me from sewing, thank heavens.         rjf

    1. becksnyc | | #3

      Great instructions on men's pants.  Since I've opened about every seam in RTW men's pants over the years, I've tried to figure the order they are constructed, and what you said confirms and fills in on my observations.


  2. FitnessNut | | #2

    I hear you, I hear you!!! My personal beef with pattern instructions has to do with seam allowances...the automatic 5/8" that they all use. Why don't they do it like the industry and use variable seam allowances instead (or do they think we are too stupid to be able to follow it?) The industry uses 1/4" on all enclosed seams, thereby eliminating all that tedious trimming and grading. They don't have time for that in the industry - they clip curved seams and get on with it. I also learned in design school to understitch after any clipping but before pressing....just flattening with my fingers....my seams favour to the underside almost automatically, making the pressing job much nicer and easier too.

    As a skilled patternmaker, I haven't used commercial patterns for quite a few years. When teaching a beginner sewing class recently, I was shocked and dismayed to find that many of my students were having trouble fitting pieces together. After attempting it myself, we went back to the pattern pieces only to discover that they did not, in fact, fit together they way they should. A disaster in the making! It is amazing that anyone still sews anymore!

    I'm sure I could come up with other things to rant about, but these are just off the top of my head. I have a teenage boy doing a rant of his own in the background ; )


    1. becksnyc | | #4

      Amen on the variable seam allowances.  I remember seeing Nancy Zieman adjust all her seam allowances to save time and thinking, why can't the pattern maker do that?

      I also understitch everything that RTW does and it does make pressing a breeze.

      I've never gotten into the new computerized pattern programs, but I have draped and created patterns from my muslins.  I have altered patterns so far from the original that I may as well have made it from scratch.  I just wish that when I picked up a pattern from the store that it was a better base to start from.

      I just finished a pattern from a reputable company that didn't compensate for the bust dart in the length of the corresponding back piece.  In other words, when I sewed the dart, the back was the width of the dart longer.  DUH!  I couldn't believe my eyes!  What a simple mistake!  Are these folks underpaid? (Hope this rant doesn't hurt any diligent and gifted pattern makers out there...) I see pattern companies are merging, does that mean they are downsizing and sending their more experienced pattern makers packing?

      Does anyone know what the general developments in the pattern making industry are?  If there are valid reasons behind the drop in quality and the lack of modern methods, I'd love to hear them.


      1. TERISEW | | #42

        Now we wouldn't want all these pattern companies to lose their mystery would we? What kind of relationship would that be? :)

  3. JudyWilliment | | #5

    I gave up reading instructions years ago - as soon as I knew enough about basic construction to make it up as I go along. I just made a massive exception though, to make an Issey Miyake jacket pattern.  There were 5 pages of instructions, and I followed almost all of them, apart from the (very good, but not practical for my fabric) welt pocket instructions, which I discarded in favour of Claire Schaeffer's windowpane opening with welts sewn behind it.  (I'd only just borrowed her "High Fashion Sewing Secrets" from the library when I hit the pocket problem).  It was a total novelty to make a garment for which I needed instructions, and to find them very, very good.  

    I sew a lot from Burda WOF magazines and their instructions are best described as "brief".  A lot of styles are well within the capabilities of beginners, but the instructions (or lack therof) put them off!

    1. CTI | | #7

      Good rant and tips. I long ago shelved most patterns for many reasons, and gravitated toward things that minimize zippers because I don't find them all that easy. For a decade I sewed nothing but caftans, robes, ponchos, peasant shirts, wrap skirts, or similar. 

      My latest notion is an asymetrical reversible wrap skirt that has an easily adjustible (1" to 2") waistline, and a kickpleat which I think is very classic. I think the kickpleat might be nearly impossible for my experience, but I can dream. The reversible possibilities are endless (taffeta and polished cotton, satin and linen, etc.) but you might need a portable steamer to go from work to a dining event when reversing it. I wouldn't ever try anything so exotic, but a solid color and pattern on the reverse would work very well in my wardrobe. 

      This forum certainly has many creative people with equally creative ideas. I would love to learn of any sources you have gotten ideas from about wrap clothing.

      Edited to say I would try, but wouldn't make my first reversible, asymetrical, kickpleated wrap skirt using exotic materials.

      Edited 11/2/2003 3:54:58 PM ET by CTI

      1. bellefille | | #8

        Wow!!!  And all this time I thought it was my sewing, or my body that were the problem!  For years, everything I've sewn, I would try on, look in the mirror, and say, "I would never have bought that!"  After all that time, and expense, I still had nothing to wear.  But I would keep trying--DUH!   I have learned so much from reading this forum--I'm so thankful for you women out there who are sharing your knowledge with people like me with a passion for sewing, but no real knowledge.  I'm also starting to understand "Threads" articles more and more.  They always seemed a little over my head, but less so, now.  I've recently been sewing KwikSew patterns, and found the directions quite good, and the fit true to the information on back.  I haven't actually tried one for MYSELF yet, though!!! 

    2. becksnyc | | #10

      Miyake's excellent directions are because he is a fabric sculpture/engineer extraordinaire.  I wonder if he dictates the instructions to the writers or writes them himself?

      1. JudyWilliment | | #12

        Whether he dictates or writes them, he certainly creates them!  (And makes complicated construction easy to understand).  Yes he is a sculptor/engineer extraordinaire, and one of the very, VERY few original designers.  What he can do with fabric awes me.  I wore my coat today and had a sales assistant (in a fabric store too!) GUSH like you wouldn't believe over it.  Did my ego no harm at all.


        1. becksnyc | | #14

          I have admired his panache and style for years, but don't feel I have the body type for such an angular style.  Maybe I'm wrong?  Could a reubenesque woman such as myself wear Miyake?


          1. sarahkayla | | #15


          2. ShannonG4d | | #16

            Becks, you and I have the same concerns.  Some of the Miyake designs are best suited to someone shaped like a pencil!  However, there are several that work for more curvy shapes.  Most of the jackets will work.  For my body, bust shaping is essential, and the tops that have lots of stuff going on at the bustline just won't work; you cannot alter them to add bust shaping (darts).  If you haven't done Miyake before, start with the big swing coat (Vogue 1476).  It also has a great shirt, which is one of my favorites!


          3. becksnyc | | #17

            Thanks for the suggestion! 


          4. callie1 | | #18

            Even though the styles don't always suit me I learn so much from a Miyake pattern that I love to make them anyway.  They're so exciting because a lot of times you're not sure exactly how the whole thing will go together until you're done.  With regular patterns I only look at the directions to make sure I haven't forgotten anything.

          5. Judygoeson | | #19

            Callie1, I couldn't agree with you more.  I have only made one Miyake pattern for myself, but I have several other patterns and I really enjoy reading the instructions!  They do come together at the end!  It reminds me of my sewing beginnings, to wit:

            I had enjoyed my early instruction in Home Ec class half a century ago.  Later, when I was married, I decided to sew but really needed some additional help.  My mother-in-law had a neighbor, a retired home ec teacher who was augmenting her income by teaching sewing.  She told me to pick out a pattern.  I selected a classic "Villager" shirtwaist dress...long sleeves with buttoned cuffs, waistline seam(!), yoke with a single pleat in the back, buttoned down the front, convertible shirt collar, unpressed pleated skirt, AND the fabric I chose had an irregular stripe! She was thrilled that I presented so many opportunities!  I was thrilled that she taught me all those things!  I will never forget her parting advice...to choose a challenging pattern, preferably a Vogue, because while the style may appear difficult, the instructions are very well written, whereas some of the companies with "easier" designs might assume that the sew-er knows all the basics anyway and stints on the instructions.  This advice has served me well, and whilel I have not attained professional status as some of you have, I at least have a great deal of confidence.

            When I sew with my granddaughters I don't miss an opportunity to tell them this.

            Hmm, not much of a rant, is it?  I TRIED.

            Happy Sewing from JudyG 

          6. FitnessNut | | #20

            JudyG, I may be one of those "professionals" who has had the advantage of training in the field, but I cut my teeth on Vogue designer patterns. I started sewing with them while in university and it became obsessive during my twenties while working at an office job. I never used a simple pattern for anything. And I had very, very few disasters. I always found the Vogue instructions to be quite good. That background has served me well in designing clothing and making my own patterns....I firmly believe that sewing with challenging designs at an earlier stage helped me breeze through pattern and sewing classes in design school.


          7. becksnyc | | #21

            I totally agree on the Vogue designer patterns.  I use them more than any others and think they are the best!

          8. Judygoeson | | #22

            Hi, Sandy and Becks as well...

            Thank you, thank you for making me feel I have been heading in the right direction!  But now I have another question...have any of you ever tried the "new" small pattern designers, such as lafred, sewing workshop or brown paper to name a few?  Are their instructions good?  I would like to try one of them sometime.

            There is a company I am interested in...it is called Sensibilities (dot com) and it specializes in vintage styles.  I have a need to make a "Titanic" dress and I noticed that there were some instructions on the web site which seemed to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of admirable sewing...it even included pattern pitfalls and suggestions from users!  How could one go wrong?

            Oh, there I did it again!  Did not rant.  I think that between my Snow White experience and the rest of you enough has been said for now.  Your suggestions were excellent.  We must hope that someone gets wind of them and will follow up on them!

            Happy Sewing from JudyG

          9. FitnessNut | | #24

            Hi, JudyG,

            I haven't done any sewing with patterns from the smaller companies. I have a couple of Sewing Workshop ones that I bought for myself and haven't ever gotten around to making. (I don't seem to have much time to sew for myself these days....everything is for customers!) But I did look over the instructions and they did appear to be well-written. I think that this company in particular aims to teach more advanced skills. I haven't seen the Sensibilities patterns, but what you say sounds interesting.

            Even after 36 years of sewing (how did that happen?!), I still seem to find new ways of doing things. That's one of the things I like about sewing...it never becomes boring or routine. There is always something new to learn.


          10. ShannonG4d | | #25

            Judy, I have experience with about 20 different independent companies.  I've made tops, skirts, jackets, pants, and quilted items.  Some of the instructions are very good, and some are terrible!  Best to arm yourself beforehand with a good, step by step, how to sew manual, to get you through what isn't in the patterns.

            I have pretty strong opinions about what makes pattern instructions successful.  Since you are dealing with words and very few illustrations, the words must be clear and to the point.  Since you don't know the skill level of the user, the instructions need to be geared toward the beginner!  I know some of you will disagree with me, but think about this: an intermediate to advanced user will be able to skim through and find the instruction for what is unique about the pattern.  A beginner may need instruction in every step.  If the instructions are geared to the beginner, then all users are covered.

            I also think patterns should include not only the body measurements, but also the finished measurements of the piece.  I think we'd find much less in the way of disappointment if we knew that there was 10 inches of ease in the bust before we bought the pattern.  Using the words "loosely fitted" or "form-fitting" are somewhat helpful, but we need concrete numbers to make our job as end user more successful.  



          11. FitnessNut | | #27


            You are absolutely correct, on both counts!

            If I had a dollar for every time I measured the pattern to figure out how much ease there was.....well, let's just say I'd be sewing for myself right now and not for clients ; ) It simply makes more sense to print the finished measurements of the garment and not use terms like "semi-fitted" or "loose fitting" that mean different things to different people.


          12. callie1 | | #28

            Sewing workshop not only has very original patterns but also great directions as well.  I have learned many great tips by making one of their patterns.  It's not called Sewing Workshop for nothing.

          13. Judygoeson | | #29

            Dear Callie, Sandy and Shannon...

            Thank you all for your replies and suggestions.  I will certainly try a Sewing Workshop style that interests me.  Whenever I visit my family in the Bay Area of California I tell myself that I am going to go over to the City (San Francisco) and visit the Workshop.  I still haven't gotten there.  Too many grandchildren to play with!  And sew for.  If I do get there I will give my Gatherings friends a full report.

            Another pattern company I like is Folkwear, believe it or not.  Since I am also an embroiderer, I like to embellish clothes occasionally (lightly, of course) and I have quite a collection of Folkwears.  Now THERE are some good instructions!  They assume that everyone is starting from scratch and they lead you thru gently.  Just as you have said...the least experienced have good guidelines while the more experienced need only to glance at a new and unfamiliar technique.  My biggest problem seems to be the fit...I have to do a lot of re-arranging before I can begin to sew.  But that is not their fault...it's only my particular dimensions.  I have adapted some of the clothes (notably the Gaza Dress and the Walking Skirt) to everyday streetwear.  My sister wears the Cheesemaker's Smock and matching skirt to the office and everyone from the 2 year olds to my 88 year old aunt wears and enjoys the Prairie dress.  My next project is going to be the chemise for my 20 year old granddaughter. It has an interesting pleated effect I'd like to make.

            Speaking of my granddaughter, Vanessa...remember the rant a few months ago over the clothes "designed" by a young lady from Maine?  Well I showed the article to V and she intoned "No...no...nope...That one might be all right when she gets it finished..."  I took her out to dinner for agreeing with me!

            Happy Sewing from JudyG

          14. rjf | | #31

            "No...no...nope...That one might be all right when she gets it finished..." 

            I love it!  And that's from someone would should be a fan, I think.       rjf

          15. rjf | | #26

            I use to date a guy who worked for Vogue patterns and he would get me some for free.....well, I had to go square dancing but it seemed a very fair exchange.  I was a little miffed, however, because he gave me patterns that were two sizes too big.  Reading the messages here made me realize that part of the reason I liked them was the directions.  They were mind stretching but clear and the pieces fit together well.  Except for the princess style dress with twenty gores!  Missing the seam allowance by even to teensy bit meant it didn't fit properly.      rjf

          16. SewNancy | | #43

            I love the Burda mag patterns, and without seam allowances I can use 1/4 "  for enclosed seam and wider on sides etc.  But the instructions are absolutely useless, and add to that the type size is miniscule!  There is a jacket style that appears often with  a vertical bust dart ending at a welt pocket with the pocket mouth slashed that I would like to use, but have no clue how to do this.  Anyone out there have instructions please!? 


            Edited 12/4/2003 1:43:35 PM ET by Nancy

          17. JulieP25 | | #44


            Try making the dart first then slashing the fabric to make the pocket. jules

    3. Hansi | | #32

      So where do you find IM's patterns?  (Sorry, I forgot his name and can't see your post anymore.)


      1. JudyWilliment | | #33

        Vogue publishes Issey Miyake designs, but I'm almost ashamed to say that after raving about the fabulous instructions for the first one I made, I have to RANT about the latest one!  It was all going so well till I got to the (very unusually shaped) collar facing.  I happily followed the instructions for sewing it onto the collar, then it disappeared from the instructions, both written and illustrated, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out where it was supposed to go.  I checked about 50 times that I had everything where it was supposed to be (I did), and spent about two hours one night trying to figure out what to do with the wierd flap it made.  I posted here, Patternreview and Sewing World in the hopes that someone could help me, but in the end impatience got the better of me and I had another go the next day, ignoring the problem flap.  When I got further on (lining sewn in) it finally became clear what the flap was, but boy was I very glad it was late at night and I could swear freely since my kids couldn't hear!  I was very disappointed with the instructions, which were too brief.  I think only one or two more sentences were needed, maybe another match point on the pattern pieces, but it caused me trouble, and I've NEVER met an pattern I couldn't figure out.


        1. rjf | | #34

          That sounds terribly frustrating but weren't you glad that it wasn't your mistake?  A small moment of feeling superior......maybe it made up for the grief the pattern gave you.         rjf

          1. JudyWilliment | | #35

            You know, I hadn't thought of it that way, but it DID feel like I'd beaten an opponent in battle!  I am victorious!  I am smart enough to sew Miyake!  And I have a fabulous red jacket, which makes up for everything.


          2. ShannonG4d | | #36

            So, Judy, do we get to see a picture of this Miyake?

            I've wanted to make that jacket for awhile; even considered it for a mother-of-the-bride outfit.  Time constraints did not allow this, but I still want to make the jacket.  It's beautiful...one of the most elegant Miyakes I've yet seen.

            Do any of you read "Opera News"?  There's a gorgeous photo of Renee Fleming on the front of a recent issue wearing a fabulous pleated Miyake gown. 


          3. FitnessNut | | #37

            I'd like to see it too....please post us all a pic.

            It must feel great to have mastered such a difficult pattern. Pat yourself on the back from all of us.


          4. JudyWilliment | | #38

            I would love to show you a pic - I'm asking Santa very nicely for a digital camera for Christmas............  I did review the pattern on PatternReview to warn anyone else where I ran into difficulties.  It wasn't the pattern which was the problem - just the skimpy instructions.  I finished the jacket this morning, and I'm really pleased with it.  I left it sitting on my dummy, just so I can admire it for a few hours.  And because if I hang it in my cramped wardrobe it'll get crushed.  Now to persuade my beloved to take me out so I can wear it.  I think it'd be a bit dressy for taking the kids to school and kindy!


          5. bellefille | | #39

            Now you've all gone and done it!  I'm thinking I'd love to try this pattern!  Judy, would it be possible for you to supplement the instructions right here in this forum with those one or two additional instructions and the "marking" you talked about?  I don't think I'm as good at making up my own as I go along as you sound like you are!

            Linda in NH

          6. JudyWilliment | | #40

            Linda, the area I had problems with was the collar facing - after following the instructions for sewing it on to the collar, I was unsure what to do with it next - it didn't get another mention till the lining is sewn in!  Basically this odd shaped piece tucks up inside the collar to make it look like a stand-and-fall collar from the back, then gets sewn to the back neck seam.  The shoulder seam, which looks like it isn't long enough, gets slip stitched to the facing when the lining is in.  At the time the collar facing is sewn in, and the shoulder seams sewn, the collar gapes and looks impossible to finish, and the shoulder seam looks very uneven.  If you just carry on, it gets tidied up later.  This confused me badly, but had I known what I just described, the jacket would have presented no problems at all.  It's a very nice fitting shape too, which is surprising, given the lack of darts in it.  I reviewed it on PatternReview (http://www.patternreview.com) along with another lady, who has posted a photo.  I'd say go for it, and yell for help if you run into problems!


  4. SewTruTerry | | #6

    Becks I understand your frustrations all too well.  But I gave up on commercial patterns more than 10 years ago and only use them as starting off points.  I also used to work at a JoAnn's many years ago and there were a number of people that would come in ranting that the pattern didn't fit them at all and I asked them what their measurments were and they said they didn't know but in RTW they were a size ___  ( now just fill in any number ) so I guess you can see where I am coming from with this.  Also I would ask them if they made a trial garment with the pattern or if they had ever used this pattern company before and of course the answer is no.  I do understand the frustration of trying to follow the directions and they don't make sense.  I just finished a dress for my dsd for homecoming and had to make lots of changes to it at the last minute.  I have been sewing for more than 30 years and sew professionally for my own company.  It just goes to show you that with 100 people surveyed you will get 200 or more responses.

    1. becksnyc | | #9

      And I will HAPPILY compile these postings into a coherent letter and send them to each of the major pattern companies.  They should really know how we feel!  Especially should they be concerned with so many smaller companies eating into their profits as talented and fed-up sewer-designers start their own companies.

      Yes, some of the frustration is just sewer ignorance, but when complaints come from sewers with decades of experience, they should stand up and listen!


      1. FitnessNut | | #11


      2. rjf | | #13

        Shouldn't the pattern companies be checking these sites and other places to find out what people want in pattern directions?  That seems like a normal business procedure to me.  It wouldn't cost the big companies a big percentage of their budget to find out what users like and don't like.  And I wonder how many schools still teach sewing skills as part of Home Ec (as I used to call it) so the student had some experience before launching into a project whose difficulty she couldn't judge.  Now there's a can of worms.        rjf 

  5. Doris1149 | | #23

    Did this thread catch my eye! I just finished the first two garments I have sewn for myself in about twenty years. I was appalled at the poor directions in the Simplicity pattern I used for a robe and nightgown. I mentioned this to friends who sew-one stated that pattern companies now assume everyone who buys a pattern is a skilled seamstress. The other one states she hasn't bought a pattern in many years because of the useless directions-she gets patterns by buying old ones at sales.

  6. JeanEsther | | #30

    I'm not an advanced sewer, but here are my "rants":

    1) Why do the instructions tell you to cut out pieces with seam allowances, and then trim the seam allowances off (for instance, for interfacing)?

    2) I usually substitute instructions from favorite books rather than those in patterns for zippers, waists, and hems.

    3) I like the instructions in patterns by teachers--e.g., Claire Schaeffer, Sandra Betzina, Patty Palmer, Nancy Z.

    4) Some knit patterns say they have instructions for sergers, but then they don't explain how to do an inside corner. In fact, the so-called serger instructions are usually nothing more than a sentence saying you can use a serger.

    5) I've seen several patterns lately that say to complete other construction steps on a piece before staystitching curved areas, which would allow the curved area to stretch out of shape while you're handling it.

    6) Patterns for bias skirts don't tell you that some fabrics (such as rayon) need to be cut with extra wide seam allowances because of the extra stretching in length and shrinking in width once it hangs.

    7) I wish patterns gave you more information about what kind of interfacing to use where.

    1. JulieP25 | | #41

      Thank you for the great rant. I wish all of the pattern companies would use your suggestions.  Jules

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