dressmaking for beginners – sewing patterns and making stuff that fits

Dressmaking for beginners – sewing patterns and making stuff that fits

You don’t absolutely need to buy a sewing pattern to start dressmaking but it’s a good place to start. If you want to design your own clothes, it’s good to get a working knowledge of how patterns are put together. The best way to do this is to buy a commercial pattern or two and start sewing something.

Good sewing patterns for beginners

Look for a sewing pattern that says that it is ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ so you can be sure that there are no complicated techniques. Garments with just a few pieces that are fairly easy to fit together are ideal. The fabric you choose should be easy to work with, not stretchy or slippery, so a woven cotton is a good choice for beginners. See good projects to start with for more about this.

The big sewing pattern brands

  • McCall’s – lots of straightforward clothes patterns. The patterns all have difficulty ratings so you can filter your search results to just see the patterns that are Very Easy or Easy. There are two collections specifically for beginners: Easy and Learn to Sew for Fun.
  • Vogue – as you’d expect, Vogue tends to focus on sewing patterns for designer clothes. They aren’t all difficult to make though. All the patterns have difficulty ratings so you can filter your search results to just get the patterns that are Very Easy or Easy. Collections for beginners include Very Easy Vogue and Vogue Easy Options. Vogue is owned by McCall’s.
  • Butterick – another huge range of sewing patterns. Patterns all have difficulty ratings – again look for ones that are Very Easy or Easy. Two collections for beginners are Fast & Easy and See & Sew. Butterick has been owned by McCall’s since 2001.
  • Kwik Sew – another large range of dressmaking patterns, owned by McCall’s. Their beginner’s collection is called Kwik Start Lean-to-Sew.

Indie sewing patterns

As well as the big sewing pattern brands, there’s now a large number of independent pattern designers. Some of the best known include Tilly and the Buttons, Colette, Sew Over It, Sewaholic, and By Hand London but there are many others. The Sewing Directory has a huge list of independent pattern companies including where to buy their patterns in the UK.

Some indie sewing patterns are available as traditional paper patterns and some are digital PDF downloads that you print out and stick together yourself. They tend to be more expensive than big brand sewing patterns but there are some nice designs available. Look for patterns that are labelled as suitable for beginners. Some companies also offer video tutorials to accompany patterns.

Books and magazines of sewing patterns

An alternative to buying individual sewing patterns is to buy a sewing book for beginners that contains several different patterns. Sometimes the patterns are provided on tissue sheets (like commercial sewing patterns) and sometimes they are printed on a big sheet of paper and you need to trace off the shapes you want (using something like Burda dressmaking tissue paper).

As long as you like the style of clothes, then buying a book can be a good option as you get lots of information on techniques and it will work out cheaper than buying separate patterns. Some good books with easy-to-sew projects include:

The four books that accompany the Great British Sewing Bee also contain loads of sewing patterns. For example, The Great British Sewing Bee: From Stitch to Style contains patterns for 25 garments including dresses, tops, skirts and trousers. The patterns cover a range of difficulty levels but a few of them are suitable for beginners.

Finally, most monthly sewing magazines (such as Love Sewing) include free sewing patterns, many of which are suitable for beginners. Burdastyle Magazine is also published monthly and contains around 60 patterns in each edition but I wouldn’t really recommend it if you are just starting out as only a few of the patterns are beginner-level.

Free sewing patterns

There are hundreds of free sewing patterns available to download and print out. A couple of good places to start looking are Sew So Easy’s projects for beginners and SewingSupport.com. Because the quality of free patterns can be quite variable, I’d recommend using a purchased pattern for the first thing you sew. Many free patterns and tutorials assume that you already have some sewing experience so the instructions may be quite basic. To get started, it’s probably better to buy a pattern with more detailed instructions.

How to buy a sewing pattern

Where to shop

You can browse through books of the big brand sewing patterns in stores like John Lewis and local sewing shops. However, I find that the books are a bit overwhelming and prefer to shop online. All the brands have really good information available on their websites and you can take your time and check out the patterns in detail before deciding which to go for.

You can normally look at the back of the pattern envelope with all the critical information, the front of the pattern with a photo of the finished garment, and sometimes even the instructions.

There are now many online stores selling sewing patterns in the UK, but some good places to start include:

  • Jaycotts – Simplicity, New Look, Burda, Kwik Sew, Butterick, Vogue, McCall’s plus Tilly and the Buttons, Sew Over It, Simple Sew and Eliza M Vintage
  • Sew Essential – Simplicity, New Look, Burda, Kwik Sew, Butterick, Vogue, McCall’s plus Tilly and the Buttons, Colette, Sewaholic, Grainline Studio and some other indie brands
  • Backstitch – large range of indie patterns from different designers

How to pick a sewing pattern

When you are choosing a sewing pattern, the main things to look for are:

  • Something you like and think that you’ll wear (obvious really…)
  • A pattern that’s labelled as quick or easy or for beginners
  • Something you can make in an easy-to-sew fabric like woven cotton

You can also check out the pattern on PatternReview.com to see what other people thought of it.

Buying the right size of pattern

Most commercial sewing patterns have multiple sizes on the same pattern. Check your measurements against those on the back of the pattern envelope to make sure that the garment will fit. Sewing pattern sizes are not the same as sizes for ready-to-wear clothing so look at the actual measurements rather than the size number.

Sewing patterns are sold for a range of figures:

  • Misses’ patterns – for a well-proportioned and developed figure, about 5’6” in height
  • Women’s patterns – for a larger figure, about 5’6” in height
  • Girls’, boys’, children’s, toddlers’ and babies’ patterns
  • Girls’ plus patterns– for older girls
  • Men’s patterns

Most of the patterns you see for women will be labelled as “Misses’ patterns” – don’t worry about this too much. You can tweak the patten to improve the fit. It’s fairly straightforward to lengthen or shorten garments, and many patterns contain instructions for how to do this.

Understanding pattern markings and instructions

When you first open a sewing pattern, it can be a bit of a daunting experience. Because they generally have lots of sizes on them, there can be an awful lot of lines. Take your time! You can work out your size from the measurements on the back of the packet and highlight it on the pattern.

There will generally be an explanation of the symbols used. Sometimes the instructions can seem a bit cryptic – have a look at a sewing reference book to get more details of how to do the different techniques.

How to alter patterns so that they fit

One of the great things about making your own clothes is that you can adapt the patterns to fit you exactly. Most patterns show you where to shorten or lengthen them. You can also combine two sizes together by merging one size into another, for example if your top half is a different dress size to your bottom half.

Pattern alterations are generally covered in some detail in sewing reference books. If you want even more information, I’d recommend the books How to Use, Design and Adapt Sewing Patterns, Dressmaking to Flatter your Shape or Fit for Real People.

If you’re interested in learning more about pattern drafting and fitting through an online course, then the Craftsy class Design and Sew an A-line Skirt would be a good place to start.

What next?

  • How to choose and buy fabric
    Quick guide to fabric, good fabrics for beginners, how and where to buy, notions and haberdashery, preparing to cut out
  • Dressmaking for beginners
    Equipment and sewing machines, choosing patterns and buying fabric, books and courses, good starter projects, and where to get help and inspiration

If you have any recommendations or things you’d like me to cover in this guide to dressmaking for beginners, please leave a comment.