Sewing with patterns

Working with digital versus paper sewing patterns

You’re all set to start filling your wardrobe with handmade items. But how do you use a sewing pattern? These are the 5 most important steps to take into account.

1. Choosing a pattern: pdf vs paper patterns

2. Choosing the right size

3. Tracing the pattern

4. Pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric and adding seam allowance

5. Cutting the fabric and sewing

Choosing a pattern: pdf vs paper patterns

Choosing between a paper and pdf sewing pattern

Types of patterns

Thanks to the ever growing success of sewing over the past decade, you can find an increasing number of sewing patterns online or in your favorite fabric store. There are pattern magazines, indie patterns published by independent designers like myself, Dutch patterns and patterns in English or French. They’re available either on paper, as a pdf file and some of them are published in both a paper and a digital version. You probably know what to expect from a paper pattern, but a pdf? What is that exactly? How does it work? Why would you choose this option?

Just like with any regular paper pattern the digital pattern does not only contain the instructions but also the pattern itself. In contrast to the paper version, however, you store the pattern on your computer. If you want you can print the instructions, but if you’re happy reading from the screen, there is no actual need to. Of course, you do have to print the pattern sheet.

Starting instantly with only the size you need

One of the major benefits of working with a digital pattern is that you can get started right away. Suppose you run into a wonderful Odile :-) on a Sunday morning, and you think it would be perfect for that dinner party you’re attending later that evening… With a digital pattern that’s definitely feasible.

As soon as you complete your purchase you instantly receive an e-mail with a link that allows you to download the pdf files. You do not only receive an A4 print-at-home version but also the large format A0 file that you can have printed in a print shop or fabric store. The A4 print-at-home version consists of multiple pages that need to be put together. Stick the pages together using the markings on the pages to create the full-size pattern sheet. Cut out the size you need and you’re good to go.

An extra – and if you ask me the biggest - advantage is that most digital patterns offer you the possibility to only print the size you need. This means that you can tape the pages together and immediately cut the pattern pieces. This way can you skip the tracing. Almost all Zonen 09 patters have this option and in the instructions I tell you step by step how to use it and how to make sure that the pattern is printed correctly. Easy peasy, believe me.

Free automatic updates

Whenever a pattern gets an update, e.g. after correcting a mistake or when Zonen 09 gets a new brand identity you’ll receive an update, automatically and free of charge. Say what?! As Zonen 09 is now going through the process of applying the new brand identity to all existing patterns, it means that you can expect an update as soon as the new version is ready to go.


And to conclude my praise for digital patterns: they’re indestructible! Heavy used pattern sheets can easily tear at the folds, get wet or simply look unappealing after a lot of handling. Pdf files are for life!

Choosing the right size

Choosing the right sewing pattern size

Before you start you need to know which size is the perfect one for you. With every pattern comes a size chart. The instructions will tell you which body measurement is the most important one for that specific pattern. Take your measurements and compare them to the size chart to determine which size you need.

For tops, the chest or bust size is the most important measurement. Measure the bust at the fullest part. Measure all around the body (total circumference). For bottoms, the hip size is the most important measurement. Measure the hips at the fullest part, this is usually around the seat. Ideally, you should be measured wearing only your underwear. The tape should be a bit snug. Not too tight, but not too loose either. You should be able to put two fingers behind the tape, but no more than that.

For more information on how size charts are created and how they relate to the fitted measurements, please check this page.

Tracing the pattern

Tracing the pattern

When you have decided on the size, it is time to trace the pattern. In case you only printed the size you need the only thing left for you is cut out the pattern pieces. If you have printed the complete pattern sheet and you still want to copy other sizes, then take out the tracing paper and a pencil.

Place the tracing paper over the pattern sheet and trace around the outline of the pattern pieces you need, based on the selected size and version. You may not need to trace all pattern pieces, the instructions will tell you exactly which ones you need. Add notches or markings along the outer edge (markings are specific indications on a pattern piece, e.g. the exact location of where to add a pocket). When that’s done you can cut the pattern pieces from the paper.

Depending on your specific body measurements or the measurements of the lucky one the item is designed for, you can make alterations to the pattern. Alterations that can be useful are mentioned in the instructions. If you want to make some modifications, do it now before cutting the fabric.

Pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric and adding seam allowance

Pinning the pattern pieces to the fabric and adding seam allowance

Prewashing and collecting your tools

The paper pattern pieces are good to go, you have your fabric laying before you on a workspace that is big enough and friendly to your back. Ideally, you prewashed the fabric. If you didn’t, press it using a lot of steam. Most fabrics, and definitely cotton mixes, have a shrinking percentage that can have a huge effect. If possible, always wash the fabric in order to prevent your garment from shrinking after its first wash.

Pattern: check. Fabric: check. What else do we need before cutting the pieces from the fabric? Make sure to take your pins, tailor’s chalk, seam gauge, tacking thread and fabric scissors. If you have one, also take a set square or omnigrid ruler. Got everything? Then let's do this!

Taking into account the grain and print

Taking into account the grain line and print

Put the fabric down and fold it in two with the right sides touching. If you’re using tailor’s chalk, the lines will appear on the wrong side of the fabric. It is extremely important that you respect the fabric’s grain. Put the grain line, which is indicated with an arrow on every pattern piece, parallel to the selvage edge.

If you use fabrics that have a vertical pile, like velvet, or fabrics in which the print direction should be taken into account, it’s equally important that all pattern pieces are cut in the same direction. This way the direction of the pile is the same for all pieces and it also guarantees that all your flowers are growing towards the sky 😁

If you use a striped or checkered fabric, make sure that for the pieces that are stitched together later on (think side seams, inner leg seams…) the bottom edge of each pattern is positioned on the same line in your fabric. This way chances are that the lines will neatly run across the seams.

If the pattern pieces indicate to ‘cut on fold’ it means that 1 edge (often the center front or center back) of the pattern piece must be lined up with the fold. This way you’ll get a perfectly symmetrical pattern piece. Magic!

Pin the pattern pieces to the fabric in an efficient way, but make sure that you leave enough space to add seam and hem allowance to every piece.

Adding seam and hem allowance

Adding seam and hem allowance

Now that all pattern pieces are pinned to the fabric take out the tailor’s chalk and add seam and hem allowance according to the instructions. Standard seam allowance is usually 3/8” or 6/8” depending on the type of seam. Hem allowance is usually 1.2” or 1.6”.

In any case it’s good practice to follow the instructions that come with the pattern. If you decide not to follow them it might become painfully clear at a later stage that the designer had a certain way of working in mind that was not yet clear to you this early in the process.

Cutting the pattern and assembling the pieces

Cutting the pattern and assembling the pieces

You may by now have gathered that sewists are badass go-getters and that a DIY project is often hard work and not just about sipping some wine while stitching some pieces of fabric together. We’re almost ready with the preparations, but there are two more things to do before you can get started. Luckily the end of this phase is in sight!

Cutting the pieces from the fabric

 Cut the pieces from the fabric

Easy peasy, right? Cut on the chalk cut line. Try to cut as accurately and precisely as possible. Fortunately, you didn’t have that wine yet 😉

Copying the markings

Copying the markings

Markings are small indications on the pattern piece that hold a lot of information on how to cut the pieces and sew them together. Notches show how to join the cut pieces together. Lines in the curve of an armhole show you where to align the sleeve cap. Dots can indicate the position of a pocket. Darts show you how to fold the fabric. You get the gist. Don’t skip this step as markings are absolutely essential.

You can transfer the markings with tailor’s chalk, pins, tacking thread, or for notches by snipping the fabric (give a tiny snip, don’t weaken the seam allowance). I prefer a combination of snipping and tacking. I snip the seam allowance of knit fabrics for which I first assemble the pieces and only afterwards finish the seam. I use tacking thread to indicate markings that are in the middle of the pattern piece (e.g. the dart point or release point for slits). I also use it with fabrics for which I first finish the edges with a serger. If I snipped them, I wouldn’t be able to find back the marking afterwards.

Hallelujah... it’s time to start sewing!

I bet you can hardly believe it, but it’s true: this is the moment that you can really start sewing. You’ll probably have to apply some fusible interfacing at a later stage and remember to press each and every seam as you sew it. Don’t let it spoil your fun. You’ll be so happy if you look at the result. So now then, finally the moment you’ve been waiting for: take your instructions and enjoy!