Introduction: Making a Dress Using a Commercial Pattern or Learning the Language of Sewing

About: I'm "retired", and now have time for all the creative things I've done since I was a child. I especially like anything with texture.....fabric, wood, glass, stones....even rusty objects. I have a LARGE fabric…

Not everyone can, or will create their own sewing pattern. Many people just want to know how to sew something wearable, using a commercial pattern. I teach beginning sewing to adults (for the most part) through our school district's Community Ed program. Most of the people I teach have never sewn a garment before, and find following the commercial written instructions the most difficult part of the whole sewing process. As with most industries, sewing/garment construction has it's own language. This tutorial will walk you through selecting a pattern, fabric, and a few shortcuts thrown in for good measure, as I help my Granddaughter make her first dress.

I am assuming that you:

  1. Have a sewing machine in good working order
  2. You are familiar with the features of your machine
  3. EITHER have your machines owner manual or have the ability to look it up online if needed
  4. Are able to sew straight seams

Step 1: Select Your Pattern.

1. First you must have a clear idea of your body measurements in order to
determine what size pattern you will need.......purchased ready to wear is NOT always the same size as pattern sizing.

There are several good YouTube videos that will show you how to take body measurements.

Be sure to use a fabric type tape measure (Pic #1 not a metal's not flexible enough) may also use a long piece of string or yarn to wrap around your waist (etc) then measure the string/yarn IF you don't have a flexible tape measure

Write those measurements down (or enter them in your Smart Phone).

2. Determine your level of sewing ability. Be honest! This is my Granddaughter's first dress (but she has made headbands, a tote bag, and pillows). This is a very simple dress with no zipper or set in sleeves. IF you are new to sewing look for a pattern that says it's EASY. There is no reason to frustrate yourself, as you learn.

3.. Check out the pattern catalogs at your local craft, or fabric can also look online at the respective pattern company websites. I suggest Simplicity to start with. Simplicity patterns here in the US are written in both English and Spanish (some others also in French and/or German). Their instructions and diagrams are fairly complete.

4. While still looking in the catalog determine IF the pattern comes in multiple sizes in 1 envelope, and which size YOU will need. This is where the list of your measurements comes in. Most stores in the US are self service, so now that you found a pattern you like, go find the pattern.

5. Find the drawer with the Pattern Company you're using (Simplicity) then find the Pattern Style #, and finally the size pattern you need.


Step 2: You Found a Pattern......Now What?

NOT all patterns are suitable for all fabrics. I'm sure you have a 'look' in mind, and maybe even a fabric already picked out, but let's STOP, and do a little research.

1. Somewhere on the pattern envelope (maybe the flap). There will be a list of FABRICS suitable for this pattern. On this envelope it's the top heading. Generally IF a pattern is suitable for knits (with stretch) it will not be suitable for woven fabrics like broadcloth, brocade, linen or denim (with no stretch) and vice versa. IF the pattern you selected is not suitable for the type fabric you want to use, either pick a new pattern, or a new fabric type This is VERY important! Your project will NOT fit correctly if you choose the wrong fabric......believe me

2. Look at the different style OPTIONS available, and choose which options you want to use. We will be using option 'B' with the plain hem edge (it's much easier, plus she likes it better).

Step 3: Choose Your Fabric.....The Tag on the Bolt Tells All

Now that you have a pattern, and have researched the best kind of fabric for that pattern, select your fabric. Once you find a fabric you like. Take a look at the tag on the end of the BOLT (that's what all of this fabric wrapped around cardboard is called Picture #1).

(picture #2) It will tell you:

  • Fabric this fabric? 100% cotton, silk, wool polyester etc. OR if is it a blend?
  • Care it machine washable, OR do you have to hand wash, OR dry clean?
  • Price per yard
  • SOME will tell you the width of the fabric on the bolt.....some will not, but the sales clerk will be able to tell you

IF there are 2 or more fabrics that will suit your pattern and that you like, compare the care instructions, and finally compare the price (make sure you look at the display where you found the fabric......the fabric MAY be on sale) Make your selection.

Take your fabric selection to the cutting area. Ask (if you're not sure) for help determining the amount of fabric you will need. For this dress we're making size 6 (Eur 32) and we're making option 'B'. The fabric my Granddaughter chose is 45" wide, so we need 2.5 yards of fabric (blue). we will also use contrasting fabric for ties and binding so we also purchased 17/8 yd of that fabric (cream).....she wants her dress to look like the picture on the pattern.

Step 4: Don't Forget Your NOTIONS.....Whatever THEY Are

On every pattern (usually on the back of the envelope) there will also be a list of NOTIONS (on this envelope it's the second heading from the top). Notions are things like thread, zippers, snaps, elastic......basically anything that you need to put your project together that is NOT fabric.

You will want to buy these items now, especially if you need to match the color of your fabric.


IF you need a zipper pay attention to the TYPE of zipper the pattern says you need. There are several types of zippers.

  • general (all purpose)
  • separating (for jackets)
  • metal (used for things like jeans)
  • plastic
  • nylon
  • invisible

plus others I'm sure

Next pay attention to the LENGTH of zipper the pattern says to buy.....all is not lost IF you can't find the correct size zipper. Buy a longer zipper in the correct style and can cut off the excess. For this dress we did NOT need a zipper.

Step 5: Supplies You Will Need

Alright you've found your perfect pattern, and fabric. You've purchased your notions, so what else do you need?

  1. Sewing machine (in good working condition) with manual (if possible)
  2. Iron
  3. Straight pins or something to use as pattern weights
  4. Scissors
  5. Marking chalk, pencil, or soap sliver
  6. Tape measure or other measuring device
  7. Seam ripper(YES, you Will need this)
  8. Pattern, fabric, notions (thread, interfacing)
  9. Not pictured: ironing board

Step 6: Which Pattern Pieces Do You Need?

Inside each pattern envelope there is (usually) a page or 2 of directions. Pull these out, and keep them will use them a LOT!

Once you have selected which style option you want to make (we're making option 'B') You will look at the list of pattern pieces and determine which pattern pieces you need to complete your project.

NOTE**** After each pattern piece number, there will be the NAME of that piece, and in which option(s) it is used (see pic #2)

Select the pattern pieces you will need.....I circle the piece number making it easy to keep track of which we need. They are not necessarily printed in order on the tissue paper

Unfold the tissue paper patterns and roughly cut (to separate) the pieces you have identified as the pieces you will use. We will be using pieces 1-7.

IF you are more talented than I am you may wish to carefully refold the unused pieces, and reinsert them into the envelope. OR do what I do, and wad them up and put them into a gallon sized zipper type storage bag (pic #3)


Step 7: Why the Heck Do I Care About the General Direction Page?

Welllll, you may not YET, but you can get a lot of useful information from this area.Pic #1

It will tell you:

  • what width seam allowance you will be sewing (MOST US commercial patterns for garment construction used a 5/8" seam allowance......HOW that ever started is beyond me.....dumbest thing ever IMHO) The term SEAM ALLOWANCE is the area between the raw edge/cut edge of your fabric and your stitching line (pic #2). BEFORE you sew I suggest you measure (on your machine) from where the needle point is, to the right side of the needle 5/8" and place a piece of masking tape (pic #3)..I like using the colorful Painters Masking Tape (this is purple)...or IF you have an open arm on your machine you might use a rubber band (see pic #4) to mark the seam allowance.
  • what symbols mean on the actual pattern pieces
  • how to make adjustments (if necessary)
  • how to mark your fabric
  • how to cut and sew (unless otherwise noted you will sew with RIGHT sides of the fabric together)

MOST Importantly it gives you contact information for the pattern company. IF you get stuck reach out for help.

Step 8: Laying Out Your Fabric/Pattern

Start off by Putting a line through the style options you did NOT choose. Then see if there are different options for layout depending on what width of fabric you bought and circle the one that matches the width you purchased. Picture #1

*****Before you go any farther IF you are using a solid colored fabric (like we are) where it is VERY difficult to tell the RIGHT side (the pretty side, or the side that everyone will see) from the WRONG side (the inside of the garment). The RIGHT side is the side that we looked at on the bolt, and is facing us as we take it from the bag. Place a piece of masking tape or a safety pin on the WRONG side before totally unfolding the fabric. Later we will mark each piece so we don't get confused.......sometimes it makes a HUGE difference that you might not see until you wear the garment......again believe me :-)

Following the layout instructions for your option of style and the width of your fabric, FIRST look at how the diagram shows the fabric. In MOST cases the fabric will be folded in half BUT NOT NECESSARILY in the direction that it was on the bolt or that it just came out of the bag. In picture #2 you see that the fabric is folded with the WRONG side of the fabric facing out. We KNOW this because on the instruction sheet in the legend it SHOWS us in that the white side of the fabric (in the diagram) is the WRONG side (inside), and the shaded side is the RIGHT side of the fabric....the part everyone will see.

We also see (still in picture #2) that the fabric is folded with the SELVAGES at the TOP and BOTTOM of the diagram....that means that for THIS pattern we need to refold the fabric in order for it to look like the diagram....the WRONG side of the fabric facing out and with the SELVAGES at the top and bottom. We also see the CROSSWISE FOLD noted. As you lay the fabric and pattern pieces out make sure you match the diagram.

(From Wikipedia: A selvage (US English) or selvedge (British English) is a self-finished edge of fabric. The selvages keep the fabric from unraveling or fraying) The Cut edge is where the fabric was cut from the bolt (see picture #3....sorry it's upside down)

Continuing with picture #2 we see that MOST of the pattern pieces in the diagram are 'white' but a couple are shaded gray.....WHY? We see in the legend (on this pattern) the pieces that are 'white' have the printing facing up (so you can easily read the printing) and the gray or shaded pieces are turned with the printing facing down to the fabric.

Step 9: Securing the Pattern: Pins OR Weights?

You are probably familiar with securing the paper pattern with straight pins. It certainly holds the paper pattern in place. The proper way to use pins to secure your pattern piece is to pin WITH the cutting line (or horizontally) so that when you are cutting your pins will not interfere with your scissors. Pin just inside the cutting line, so that when you cut, the pins are on the pattern attaching it to the fabric NOT on the scraps you'll be throwing away. (See picture #1)

Picture #2 shows different commercial pattern weights. These are heavy little objects that you can just plop down onto your pattern to keep it on the fabric just until you've finished cutting. You may also make your own weights by super gluing nuts or washers from the hardware store together.....or use cans from your cupboard. IF you choose to use weights be sure to place 1 straight pin through the pattern to hold it to the fabric until time to sew.

Step 10: BEFORE You Cut

As you see in picture #1 each pattern piece has LOTS of NOTCHES which are 'V' shaped marks (or triangles) alone or in multiples, arrows, lines, circles, and maybe even squares or black dots. These all mean something on your pattern.

Picture #2 You probably will see an arrow on at least 1 pattern piece that is at an angle. This pattern piece (as shown on the layout diagram) needs to have that arrow parallel to the selvage. Place the paper pattern piece on the fabric as shown in the diagram. DO NOT pin it in place yet. Place 1 pin in the arrow (about midway) then with your tape measure measure from one end arrow to the selvage....make note of that length. Then measure from the other end of the arrow to the selvage. Those 2 measurements must be the same....if not adjust until they are. Now pin the rest of the pattern in place (or use weights) leaving the pin on the arrow in place.

Picture #3 shows the most common marking.....the single NOTCH ('V' or triangle) . You may see 2 notches, or even 3 or 4 notches grouped together.

Double check that you have your pattern pieces on your fabric just like the diagram. Make sure IF you have a piece that is supposed to be placed on the CROSSWISE FOLD that it is exactly on that fold.

Step 11: CUT

This is by far the scariest moment of garment construction.....cutting!

Take a deep breath and grab your scissors. Cut each pattern piece (and the fabric it's attached to) and leaving 1 straight pin in fold and set aside.

You may throw away any of the scrap pieces of tissue paper at this point. Do not throw away the pattern pieces, keep them attached to the fabric. Keep any larger scrap pieces of fabric. You will want to have these to 'test' your sewing machine stitches on.

Once you have ALL of the pattern pieces cut, double check that you do indeed have all the pieces you need. We needed pieces 1-7 plus 2 pieces also cut out of interfacing

Now is the time to mark all of your pattern pieces, or cut your notches. We also needed to mark the WRONG side of each piece of fabric with a small piece of masking tape......this will make sewing SO much easier. We marked the dots, or circles on the top piece of fabric for each pattern piece, then to make sure the second piece was marked in the same place we pushed a straight pin through the mark on the pattern. We marked (with chalk) where the pin came out the other side.

Step 12: SEWING: ....almost

Each commercial pattern has it's own set of instructions that are unique to that particular pattern, HOWEVER there are a few instructions that are common to most patterns in each category (dress, tops, pants etc). We already determined that a 5/8" seam allowance is what we will be sewing (It is the MOST common seam allowance used in commercial patterns in the US)

BEFORE sewing test your sewing machine, by sewing on a scrap piece of the fabric you are using. Be sure to double the fabric since you will be sewing 2 layers at a time. By sewing this sample you will check:

  • That the machine and bobbin threaded correctly, with the correct color of thread
  • You will measure the seam allowance
  • That your stitch length is correct (a mid length)
  • Make adjustments as needed

Step 13: Finally.....SEWING!!

When sewing a dress, top, shirt, jacket etc usually the first step is to match the shoulder seams (front piece(s), to the back piece(s) at the top of the shoulder) with RIGHT sides (the side everyone will see) facing each other. That way the seam will be on the inside of the garment. (this is where it is helpful if you marked the wrong side of your fabric) (pic #2)

Match any notches or marking (you will read this instruction in the directions) PIN the pieces together with the head (top) of the pin going ACROSS your seam line. It will make removing the pin as you sew much easier......NEVER sew across a pin. It can break your machine's needle, jam your machine or at very least dull your needle. (pic #3)

After matching the notches on the shoulder and side seams my Granddaughter sewed those seams with the 5/8" seam allowance. She back stitched at the beginning and end of each seam (for 2-3 stitches) to 'lock" that will keep the stitches from loosening when you continue to work with those pieces. (pic #4) is the reverse, or back button on my sewing machine.

Next we took those pieces to the ironing board and pressed the shoulder seams and the side seams OPEN using the iron set on the correct temperature for the type fabric we are using. My granddaughter (like many) didn't see the reason we needed to press the seams open. You do this step (unless instructed otherwise) so that as you sew across these seams in future steps it keeps the fabric smooth and keeps the excess thickness to a minimum. (pic #5 is from another project that shows up better)

Step 14: Interfacing???

Waaaay back when we were buying our fabric and notions, we saw we needed INTERFACING......what the heck is that, and WHY do we need it?

Interfacing is generally a woven paper product that you can buy by the yard or pre-cut in a package. It is used to add "body" (or thickness) to things like facing (thus the name interFACING), collars, and cuffs. There is now FUSIBLE interfacing (which is what our pattern uses) where you fuse the interfacing to the facing (in this case) by ironing to melt the little glue dots (see picture) onto the fabric. You will cut the same pattern pieces from the interfacing as you did from your regular fabric. Then FOLLOWING THE DIRECTIONS for fusing the interfacing on the brand of interfacing you chose.....ours said to use a rayon setting on the iron, and to only press (place. and hold the iron then lift, and move to another NOT move the iron around) for 10 seconds. Once the whole piece is fused and cooled, trim off any pieces of interfacing that hangs over the edge.

We fused the interfacing with the glue dots facing the WRONG side of the facing pieces before we sewed the shoulder and side seams of the facing pieces. We followed the directions and pressed the seams OPEN.

Step 15: Edge Finish on the Facing

Before we could proceed on OUR pattern (you may or may not have similar instructions) we needed to "finish the cut edge" of the facing pieces (that we had just finished sewing together). The GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS told us that we could just zig-zag the edge (that would not be sewn) OR we could fold the edge under 1/4" and sew.

Zig-Zagging was the easiest, so my Granddaughter did that (pic #1).......BUT was unhappy with the way it looked, so we left the zig-zag and with the iron turned under a 1/4" edge and I stitched it down......she was DONE for the day! LOL

She was happy with the results. (pic #2)

Step 16: Attaching the Facing

Again, this is the next step in OUR pattern.....your directions may be different

According to our directions on this step we will sew the facing onto the dress with WRONG sides together. This is IMPORTANT to be able to visualize the finished dress, since this is the opposite of the way we generally sew (with right sides together)

We matched the shoulder seams, side seams, arm holes and neck edges, and once again we place our pins ACROSS the sewing line, so it will be easier to remove the pins as we come to them while sewing.

NOTE: If your machine has the NEEDLE DOWN feature (it leave the needle in the down position whenever you stop sewing) this is a great time to use it (or any time you're sewing long seams or seams with curves). By placing the needle in the DOWN position whenever you are going to stop sewing it enables you to raise the Presser Foot, yet not have your fabric shift out of position. IF your machine does not have this automatic feature, simply position the needle down by hand before lifting the presser foot.

The directions tell us to sew with a 3/8" seam NOT the usual 5/8" seam. We are using a L-O-N-G stitch length (basting stitch) and contrasting colored thread (in this case RED). We will remove the basting thread later and by using some other color (any color) it will make seeing/removing it much easier.

WHEW now my Granddaughter was able to put this part of her dress aside

Step 17: Sewing the Contrasting Binding and Trim

When we cut out the contrasting white trim fabric. My Granddaughter wanted to know WHY we put those pattern pieces at an angle on the folded fabric. The reason is that even though the fabric we chose is NOT a knit (that stretches) IF we cut the fabric on the BIAS (basically meaning cutting on the diagonal of your fabric) that fabric CAN (and will) stretch to fit around curves, like armholes and necklines (you've heard of Bias Tape......we're making our own).

My Granddaughter changed out our top and bobbin thread for off white thread in each. and now she'll sew the ties, neck and arm hole binding. (pic #1)

Once again she follows directions and matches up NOTCHES, pins edges, and sews. For the arm hole binding she press the seams open like she did earlier, and set them aside while she sews the ties. The directions say to sew the ties with a 3/8" seam allowance (with RIGHT sides together). She pins and sews. She use the needle down feature, and when she comes to the small dot near the square end she lifts the Presser Foot, and (with the needle still in the fabric) PIVOTS the fabric to make a 90° angle, and finishes sewing the short end (back stitching to lock the seam in place)

She trims off the corner before turning the ties. (pic #2) She then follows directions and pins the ties in place, matching dots

Step 18: Attaching the Neck Binding

Once again we are following the directions for the pattern my Granddaughter is sewing....your pattern directions may not be the same.

IF a dress, top, shirt etc does NOT have a collar, and is NOT fully lined then it more than likely will have FACING. The facing is fabric that is sewn to areas like the neck and armholes to give a finished edge to those areas. It may be sewn directly on, then turned to the inside, OR in the case of my Granddaughter's dress be sewn to the inside and finished with a bias binding. The advantage of using the binding (beside being a nice fashion touch) it also keeps the edge of the neckline or armhole laying smoother.

First the instructions say to iron under (to the WRONG side) a 1/2" fold on the neck binding piece. While she is at the ironing board she will also press under a 1/2 fold on both of the arm hole bindings and set them aside.

With RIGHT sides together my Granddaughter matches dots on the edge of the binding without the fold, with the shoulder seams on the dress, and pins the binding in place. She then sews a 1/2" seam (back stitching at the beginning and end of the seam.....making sure she does NOT sew over pins) You can see how she sews over the red basting thread....that's OK the red thread will be removed in a bit.

Step 19: Sew the Arm Hole Binding

With RIGHT sides together pin the edge of the binding that is NOT folded to the arm hole opening (basted with the red thread). Slightly stretch and sew using a 1/2" seam allowance.

NOW for the fun part.....removing the RED basting thread. Find the ends of the red thread, and taking 1 of the threads GENTLY pull until it breaks.....I like to make a game of it and see IF I can get the fabric all gathered up and pull the whole thread out in 1 piece......My Granddaughter was not as easily amused and didn't take much pleasure in removing the red basting thread as I did, so I took over. Once the thread breaks turn the fabric over and pull the red thread from this side until it breaks, then go back to the first side. IF the thread has been caught in the regular seam it may need to be cut . Using your SEAM RIPPER tool (picture #3) CAREFULLY cut the red thread ONLY. Once all the red basting thread was removed my Granddaughter returned to sew the binding in place.

Step 20: Top Stitch the Binding in Place

I would suggest pinning the short edges of the arm hole facing in place PRIOR to folding and pinning the binding in place (pic #1)

Then turn the fold on the binding OVER the cut edges of the arm hole (to the inside) and line the folded edge up just SLIGHTLY beyond the stitching line (the fold needs to cover the stitching line) pin in place (pic #2) on the OUTSIDE (right side) of the dress.

Sew on the OUTSIDE very close to the seam. This will also catch the binding on the inside. By pinning the facing down first it reduces the risk of catching an edge in the binding. My Granddaughter grew frustrated with this, so I stitched it down.

Now to finish the neck edge binding and ties.. My Granddaughter followed the instructions (after removing the red basting threads) and turned the neck binding to the INSIDE (just like the arm hole binding), and pinned it in place (on the OUTSIDE) just beyond the seam line. She sewed VERY close to the seam, removing the pins as she went. Once that was complete, she turned the ties to the front and stitched over the binding where the ties are to reinforce them.

Step 21: The LAST Seam..... and the Hem

WOW the dress is almost finished. My Granddaughter (by this point) KNEW she needed to pin the back center seam together (with RIGHT sides together), matching notches. Once pinned she sewed a 5/8" seam allowance taking care NOT to sew over the pins. She back stitched at the beginning and the end of the seam. Finally she pressed the seam open. Once she had finished the last seam, she decided she didn't like the look of the raw edges on each seam, so together we decided she would turn the edges of each seam under and stitch like she had done to the facing edge (pic #1)

Wearing the shoes she plans to wear with her dress, she tried on the dress so I could pin the hem. You need to have a helper when pinning the hem. Stand on a FLAT table or chair if possible, so the hem is at your helper's eye level. I used these nifty little clips, but most people will use pins. pin in several places.

Remove the dress and measure the amount of fabric turned up for the hem. Once you have the hem straight iron a fold in place.

For this hem we only want a narrow 1/2" hem so I removed all EXCEPT 1 inch of the excess fabric (folded up for the hem).....use your tape measure so you keep this straight and even (pic #2). Once you have cut the excess fabric off, and you are left with only 1 inch, fold the cut edge of the hem INSIDE matching it to the fold line you have already ironed in....Iron again (pic #3). Now all you have to do is top stitch the hem in place and you're done

Step 22: What Do You Think?

Now you're ready to sew your own garment. Thank you and please remember to vote

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