Sewing Clothes for Beginners: A Guide to Selecting Clothing Patterns

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You’ve been thinking about sewing your own clothes.

Now you’re ready to begin the journey of learning how to sew your own garments. That’s fantastic!

Your next step is going to be finding a pattern but which one(s) do you choose?

Selecting patterns is an important part of sewing your own garments and there are a lot of patterns available.

I want to help you make informed decisions on the pattern(s) you bring home, so I’ve developed a guide for beginner sewists to help in the pattern selection process.

This Beginner’s Guide to Selecting Clothing Patterns is based on my own experiences shortly after making the decision to sew my own clothing.

This plan of action will help you select patterns that feature style elements that appeal to you, are the correct size, and help you learn foundational elements of garment construction. You may even save some money, too.

A Little History

After a lot of thought and reflection, I made the decision to sew my own clothes. My next step was to figure out what to sew. I needed a pattern.

Wanting to get started right away, for my very first garment I went across the street to my mom’s house to look through the patterns she had compiled over the years.

I found a pattern in my size that I liked as well as some fabric. Using the knowledge and skills I had (with a little help from my mom), I constructed the garment.

Sadly, I was not happy with the results.

Determined to try another garment, Mom had many patterns I liked but none of them was my size. So, it was time to shop for a pattern.

When I was young, my mom made clothes for my sister and me. We would take a trip to the local fabric store, look through the pattern books and pick out the patterns we liked.

This was my plan as an adult. However, I was slightly concerned with being overwhelmed with all the pattern choices in the books, becoming paralyzed, and unable to make a decision. Or worse, selecting a lot of patterns for clothing I would never make or wear.

In addition, I knew some of the patterns would include sewing techniques that were above my current level of garment construction.

I didn’t want to fail before I even got started so I needed to plan carefully.

Determine What You Like in Your Wardrobe

Wanting to find success in making my own clothes, I knew I needed to be strategic in my pattern selection. Before I went to the fabric store, I thought carefully about the clothes that were already in my closet:

  • What clothes was I actually wearing?
  • Why did I like these clothes?
  • What clothes had I not worn in a while?
  • Why wasn’t I wearing these clothes?

To answer these questions I reflected on the following:

  • What kind of neckline did I like? V-neck? Rounded? High or low-cut?
  • What sleeves did I prefer? Sleeveless? Long? Three-quarter length? Cap sleeves?
  • Where did I like the waistband to fall? Above my bellybutton? Below it?
  • What skirt length did I like? Above the knee? Just below the knee? Middle of my shins? Ankle length?
  • What type of pant fit did I like? Relaxed? Fitted?
  • What about the cut of the pant leg? Boot? Skinny? Straight?
  • Was I wearing more pants, dresses, or skirts?

These are not all the questions you could ask yourself, but having the answers to these and similar types of questions will give you a starting point for selecting patterns.

When you sit down in front of the pattern books or start looking online, you’ll know what features you like your clothes to have.

This will be a way to filter the patterns and hone in on the ones that will be best for you.

Paper Patterns

There are two stores close to me that sell patterns – Hobby Lobby and JOANN Fabrics and Crafts.

Both stores carry paper patterns by big companies such as McCall’s®, Butterick®, and Simplicity®.

Every time I’ve been to either store, all patterns have been marked 40% off which is a pretty good deal.

For my first serious clothing pattern shopping trip, I chose to go to JOANN’s because they have more drawers of patterns which means a larger selection.

When I got there I discovered all Simplicity® patterns were currently on sale for $1.99!

Then I found out that the week before all McCall’s® patterns had been $1.99 and the following week all Butterick® patterns would be $1.99.

I learned that the $1.99 pattern sale was only an in-store sale and not on-line. Also, these pattern sales are offered several times a year.

While 40% off is a good deal for patterns, $1.99 per pattern is way better. It’s worth it to find out when patterns go on sale.

No pattern stores near you? Search for beginner sewing patterns online using your favorite search engine and the following phrases:

  • Simplicity Learn to Sew
  • Simplicity Easy to Sew
  • Simplicity Jiffy
  • Simplicity Super Jiffy
  • McCall’s Learn to Sew
  • McCall’s Very Easy
  • Butterick Very Easy
  • Butterick Easy

Identify Patterns that Help Develop Sewing Skills

Pattern books are typically organized by the type of clothing: tops, dresses, pants and skirts, jackets, etc.

Once you select a pattern, you’ll find instructions in the pattern envelope that include information such as:

  • Illustrations of all the pattern pieces
  • Cutting layouts
  • General sewing directions
  • Sewing directions specific to the pattern

The thing is, many sewing directions are written for someone who has knowledge and experience in sewing garments.

Thank goodness, not all patterns are designed with this assumption!

Within each of the clothing types in a pattern book, there are some patterns that were designed to help you develop sewing skills necessary for clothing construction. In addition, there are other patterns that have simplified directions or are quick to complete.

Since this is a Beginner’s Guide to Selecting Clothing Patterns, I’m only highlighting the types of patterns that would help someone who is new to sewing garments.

SIMPLICITY® PATTERNS

Simplicity® has the following types of patterns geared toward beginner sewists:

Learn to Sew

The patterns in the Simplicity® Learn to Sew category focus on different sewing skills. These patterns are designed, written and illustrated for people who are learning how to sew.

Simplicity® Learn to Sew patterns feature multiple skills in one pattern.

Simplicity patterns Learn to Sew basic skills

Some Learn to Sew patterns focus on basic skills such as:

  • Sew a skirt
  • Sewing in a zipper
  • Cut a pattern
  • Sew a patch pocket

Other Simplicity® Learn to Sew patterns focus on a particular type of fabric like knits. The skills taught with this type of pattern could include:

  • Apply a sleeve band
  • Use elastic to stabilize gathers
  • Make a turn-back casing
  • Sew with stretch velvet
Simplicity patterns Learn to Sew knits and trends

Another type of Simplicity® Learn to Sew pattern may focus on a current trend and include sewing skills like:

  • How to apply a stretch lower band
  • Apply a stretch neckband
  • Apply patch pockets
  • How to sew a dart in a raglan sleeve

Easy to Sew

The Simplicity® patterns labeled as Easy to Sew have simplified construction details. However, there is an expectation that you have some knowledge of basic sewing vocabulary and skills like staystitching and understitching.

Simplicity Easy-to-Sew patterns

Jiffy and Super Jiffy

Simplicity® also has patterns labeled Jiffy and Super Jiffy.

Simplicity Jiffy and Super Jiffy patterns

The Simplicity® Jiffy pattern is described as “simple to sew using 3 main pattern pieces.”

The two Simplicity® Super Jiffy patterns in the photo above have one main pattern piece.

Having a limited number of pattern pieces will help you focus on the skill of laying out each piece on the fabric without being overwhelmed by a whole bunch of pattern pieces.

On the front of two of the patterns, it says there are no zippers, buttons, or snaps. Not having to include any closures in the garment, it will be able to be completed in less time than a garment that needs one of these items.

McCALL’S® PATTERNS

McCall’s® has the following types of patterns geared toward beginner sewists:

Learn to Sew

McCall’s® Learn to Sew patterns are designed for the beginner by having easy to follow, step-by-step detailed instructions.

Learn to Sew by McCall’s® helps beginners learn sewing techniques and how to handle different types of fabrics. Some hand sewing may be involved.

McCall's Learn to Sew patterns

The McCalls’s® Learn to Sew patterns include multiple tips in one pattern such as:

  • Sew a faced neckline
  • Machine stitched hems

Very Easy

McCall’s® Very Easy patterns are for sewists who have very basic sewing knowledge. Easy-to-sew fabrics are recommended and the designs have limited construction details, with minimal hand sewing and fitting required.

BUTTERICK® PATTERNS

Butterick® has a couple of categories of patterns that support beginner sewists.

Very Easy

Butterick Very Easy patterns
Butterick® placed the pattern level on the back of the envelope. All the Very Easy patterns were identified as Fast and Easy on the front of the envelope.

Butterick® Very Easy patterns are identified as having simple construction details with minimal hand sewing and fitting. In addition, most of the Very Easy patterns only have five main pieces and recommend easy-to-sew fabrics.

Easy

Butterick Easy patterns
Butterick® placed the pattern level on the back of the envelope.

Butterick® Easy patterns are designed for sewists with basic sewing knowledge. Easy patterns include more sewing details than Buttrick’s® Very Easy Patterns. Also, some hand sewing and more fabric options are included.

Know Your Body Measurements

Once you have identified the patterns you are most interested in, you’re ready to make a trip to the pattern drawers and begin to pull the patterns you’re most interested in.

Pattern drawers for McCall's and Kwik Sew

While there is a lot of information on the pattern envelope, at this point in the process you need to pay attention to the size.

Most patterns include multiple sizes, but you want to take home the pattern that includes your sizes.

Patterns can include multiple sizes
The Simplicity® pattern 8922 includes sizes 14-22. The McCall’s® pattern 7322 includes sizes XS-S-M. (This info is covered up by the Butterick® pattern.) The Butterick® pattern 6457 includes sizes 6-14.)

If you’re selecting patterns made by major pattern companies such as Simplicity®, McCall’s®, and Butterick®, there should be a size chart on the envelope.

A size and measurement chart should be on the envelope
The Butterick® and McCall’s® patterns have the size and measurement chart on the envelope flap. The Simplicity® pattern has it on the back of the envelope.

IMPORTANT: Chances are your ready-to-wear clothing size will not be the same size you wear in patterns. So you need to know the measurements for specific parts of your body.

Off-topic but noteworthy: Do you see the price on the patterns in the picture above? Can you see why it is beneficial to locate pattern sales before making a purchase?

Taking Your Measurements

To make sure you purchase the correct pattern size, you need to know your measurements for certain parts of your body.

Grab a tape measure, strip down to the undergarments you normally wear, and take the following measurements:

  • High bust – directly under your arms, straight across the back, and above the bust
  • Bust – around the fullest part of the bust and straight across the back
  • Waist – Tie a narrow piece of elastic around your waist and let it settle naturally at your waistline. Measure over the elastic.
  • Back waist length – Keep the elastic around your waist from the previous measurement, measure from the most prominent bone at the base of your neck to the elastic at the natural waistline.
  • Hip – around body at the fullest part, usually 7-9 inches below the waist.

Body Measurements and Pattern Sizes

If your measurements all align with one size, you’re one of the lucky ones.

Many people have body measurements that fall in multiple sizes.

I’m one of those people. These are my pattern sizes according to my body measurements:

  • Bust is a size 12
  • Back waist length is a size 10
  • Hips are a size 16
  • Waist falls between a size 14 and 16

Selecting the Right Pattern Size

If you’re thinking, “Greeeaaaat, what size do I get?” I found the following guidelines in a measurement guide from Simplicity®:

  • A pattern for dresses, tops, jackets, and separates – Use the bust measurement. However, if you have more than a 2 1/2″ difference between bust and hight bust, select your pattern size by the high bust measurement.
  • A skirt or pants pattern – Use the waist measurement. However, if your hips are two sizes or more larger than your waist, use the hip measurement.
  • Between two sizes? – Select a smaller size for a closer fit or if you’re small-boned. Select a larger size for a looser fit, or if you’re large-boned.

PDF Pattern Companies

There are many independent companies and designers who sell PDF clothing patterns online.

For many PDF patterns, after you purchase the pattern you will need to download, print, and assemble the pattern.

I believe the same considerations explained about paper patterns could be used when selecting PDF patterns from online companies.

You may need to contact the independent pattern companies and designers directly or read reviews if it isn’t clear what sewing level is required to construct the garment.

Rebecca Page Patterns

In March of 2020 I became a brand ambassador for Rebecca Page, a company that offers beginner-friendly, and easy-to-use PDF patterns.

As a RP Brand Ambassador, it’s my responsibility to:

  • choose and sew one pattern every month for ten out of twelve months
  • write a review
  • send in pictures of my final garment
  • share my make in the Rebecca Page FB Sewing Group.

In return, I receive the pattern at no charge and a credit to be used for future patterns when I complete my monthly responsibilities.

You can read my pattern reviews on some of my makes and see if they are the right fit for you.

Pattern reviews for my Rebecca Page makes:

One of the things I really like about Rebecca Page patterns is the support of the private Facebook group community.

If pattern directions don’t make sense to you or you get confused with a particular technique, you can search the private online community for an answer or post your question directly to the group.

Someone will answer. They are super supportive and encouraging.

Next Steps

You now have the information you need for a successful pattern shopping experience.

First, you thought carefully about the clothes in your closet and have an idea of what you like and don’t like in your current wardrobe. This will help you focus on patterns that have features you like to wear.

Second, you know doing some research to find out when patterns are on sale can save you some money.

Third, you’re aware that some paper patterns are geared toward beginner sewists and help build and develop garment construction skills. You can look for this information in the pattern books so you don’t end up with a pattern that is for an advanced sewist.

Fourth, you’ve taken measurements of your body and know it is important to purchase patterns that match the corresponding sizes.

Fifth, you know there are options to paper patterns in the form of PDF patterns that can be found online.

Armed with the knowledge gleaned from this Beginner’s Guide to Shopping for Clothing Patterns, you’re now ready to go pattern shopping!

Note: This post was written on July 20, 2019 and updated on January 15, 2021.

Let’s Connect

My main goals are to support, empower, and inspire you to discover the joy of sewing.

Need help or have questions on this project, pattern, or tutorial? Send me an email at nicki@theruffledpurse.com and we can work together to get it figured out!

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