Sewing 101: Picking your first pattern and material

retrochick.JPGIvy says:

The very best time to go buy your first pattern is when they’re having a hot sale. Simplicity and McCall’s patterns go on sale frequently at the fabric stores I go to- JoAnn’s and Hancock Fabrics. Don’t take any kids with you if that’s at all possible- you want some time to sit and peruse slowly through the patterns. There are a few things you want to look for.

First of all, is it your size? Your size in patterns is not the same as your ready-to-wear size. Generally, your pattern size is about 2 sizes up from your RTW size, but not always. Check the back of the pattern for measurements. Also, be sure to check the measurements of the finished garment against your own measurements. There will be ease* built in to the pattern. Depending on how much ease is built in and how you want the pattern to fit, you may need to go a size down even for your regular pattern size.

The next thing you need to look at is how hard the pattern will be. For your first pattern, you will most likely want to avoid things like tightly curved seams, pleats, buttonholes**, gathers, and darts***.
Finally, look at the type of material the pattern requires. Stretch knits can be hard to work with, as are any kinds of material that are slick like satin or silk. Denim and fleece can be thick and your machine may hate it. Anything you can use a nice cotton material is your best bet. Besides the fact that cotton is usually fairly inexpensive, it’s very easy to work with.

It seems like I’ve written a whole lot of “don’ts” here, but you can still find lots of patterns that fit the bill here. Try a nice A-line or gored skirt, or a pair of bed pants. For my first pattern, I made a 4 gore skirt with a zipper (zippers seem hard, but are fairly easy), Burda 8427. I managed to lose the instructions after I cut the pattern out and still got it together halfway decently. I skipped the fringe on it, because I hate stupid fringe on anything.

The second thing I made was McCall’s 2101. This is where I should have checked the ease- the size I made ended up being HUGE on me. If I hadn’t used a sheet that had cowboy boots, sheriff stars and pony heads on it, I could have given these to my husband. Fortunately, they’re drawstring so they fit me well enough for bed pants. If I had cut out a smaller size, I would probably be able to wear them out somewhere. They went together very easily and quickly. So easily and quickly, that I thought, “I need something harder.”

Enter my triumph and my Waterloo:


That’s McCall’s 5233. They claim it is an easy pattern, but I’m nearly bald from ripping my hair out over it. The problem is first, that the directions are fairly unclear about how to do the sleeves. I spent 2 hours trying to figure out what they meant before just putting the sleeves together in a way that made sense to me. I don’t think I did them right, but they look okay, so whatever. That wasn’t even the hard part, though, the hard part was the collar. That’s why I say no tightly curved seams up there. It was just harder than it needed to be. It turned out pretty well, though, and looks cute on me, and fits perfectly, so I can’t complain too much.
If you’re having a tough time picking out a pattern, leave me a comment and let me know, I’ll be glad to help!

*There are two kinds of ease- wearing ease and design ease. Wearing ease is how much space your body needs between you and the clothing to be comfortable. Industry standard is 2 inches at the bust, 1 inch in the waist, & 3 inches in the hip. Design ease is where the design has more space than necessary for comfort, for style’s sake.

**This is depending on how hard it is to make buttonholes on your machine. Some people’s machines have a nifty one-step buttonhole. Mine does, but it’s still complicated so I have avoided buttonholes so far.

***Darts are actually not that hard. But for your first pattern, it might be better just to get used to the sewing, since darts are the very first thing you have to do if they are in a pattern, and you don’t want to deal with a puckery dart as the very first thing you sew.


  1. Peggy on February 7, 2008 at 5:23 am

    I wish you had been my 7th grade sewing teacher. We had to make a wrap skirt (it was the 70s!) and picked out our own patterns. The one I chose had gathers all around and it came out terrible. My mom spent a few hours fixing it the night before I had to wear the hideous thing to school. It was that skirt and a pair of terry cloth shorts that somehow came out three sizes too big that completely soured me to sewing. I really wish I ha stuck with it so I could at least do basic alterations.

  2. Caitlin - Bridgets Flame on February 5, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    I’m inspired.

    Next stop…the fabric shop.

  3. Alison@This Wasn't In The Plan on February 1, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    For my first sewing project, I had a friend who knew how to sew come to the fabric store with me to help me pick out a project.

  4. Amy on February 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Thanks for all of these great tips, Ivy. After I am through with my class for my projects, I am looking forward to getting some patterns and trying to make something. I love A-line skirts so that will probably be a project that I can work on.

    You did a GREAT job on your sewing projects. Very inspiring, girlfriend!