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I cannot tell you how totally out of my depth I felt when I first using paper patterns. There were SO many markings, and directions, and terms that I was clueless about. That first project took me a REALLY long time to complete—like months. Seriously. A lot was going on that year, so I make no apologies!

When I finished that bag, I realised I had learnt an enormous amount and felt confident to tackle some more complex projects (lined dress with princess seams anyone?) I’m guessing you’re still a bit daunted by working with paper patterns so let me hold your hand while I guide you through some of the basics. Before we get started, please read my post on preparation and make sure your fabric is washed and wrinkle-free.

Let’s dive in, hey?

Trace your paper pattern

I always wondered why copying a paper pattern was so important, and to be honest in some cases it’s not. However, when you've got multiple patterns printed and overlapping on one sheet, or multiple sizes you really need to trace your pattern out. Look, I know tracing a pattern is tedious but one day you’ll thank me. Probably when you've made an enormous pair of pants and want to make them in the correct size without having to make another trip to purchase a pattern that you've already bought but need to replace because you cut out the wrong size.

There are so many ways to trace out your pattern, and I've tried a few of them. You can buy Swedish tracing paper, which can be expensive but has a better drape than regular old tracing paper and is helpful when adjusting fit. You could also try sewing tracing paper, which is just like normal tracing paper only in large sheets, but it can also get a bit expensive. I used to use cheap and cheerful sew-in interfacing, and that was great because it stuck to my fabric and didn't shift when cutting out my pieces (hooray for accuracy). However, it could be stretched easily, and therefore inaccurate—boo! At the moment I use super-cheap no-brand baking paper. I just tape lengths together so I get a piece wide enough for each pattern piece. I use a 9B lead pencil to trace with because it’s really soft and dark. It draws beautifully on the baking paper, and is really easy to erase if I fuck it up make a mistake. The paper doesn't stretch and doesn't have any folds in it, so it’s cheap AND accurate—awesome!

Craftsy on my laptop

Above: This little guy makes a great pattern weight and accompanies me on many tracing adventures!


Tip: don’t use a permanent marker when tracing out patterns. It bleeds on the paper, bleeds through to the pattern and onto the expensive dining room table. And then you have to whip out the hairspray and quietly attempt to remove the marks while your husband is watching some crappy man-movie and wondering where you are. Yup, learn from my mistakes, people!


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Above: Ever wonder what those tiny triangles are for? Well they're for matching up your pattern pieces correctly. There are two ways of marking these. The above method takes time, is fiddly but there's no snipping into seam allowances. 

Copy the triangles, and all other pattern markings

There are two schools of thought with those little triangles. Firstly, add them as a little piece that’s in addition to the seam allowance. Secondly, cut a tiny 3mm clip in the seam allowance, but be careful not to clip right to where the stitches go (or beyond). Personally, I love clipping into the seam allowance. I find it more accurate, quicker and easier, which means I spend less time swearing. Adding tiny little triangles onto my seam allowances is just fiddly and pisses me off, so I prefer not to do it. But each to her own, I say. Either option is ok so do what works for you.

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Above: I love marking the triangles by snipping 3mm into the seam allowance. It helps me cut out my pattern quickly, is less fiddly and I think it's very accurate too. 

Cut out your newly traced pattern

I know you read my post about essential sewing tools, right? You particularly took note of using fabric shears only on fabric, right? No? That’s ok. Go get yourself a cheap pair of scissors from the supermarket and use them for cutting out your paper pattern pieces. Off you go, I’ll be here when you get back 😉 Whatever you do, please oh pretty, pretty please do not use your good fabric shears on paper, otherwise I will cry.

Lay out your paper pattern pieces on your fabric

Lay your laundered and ironed fabric nice and flat. I use our very large dining room table, but others use the floor. Just make sure the surface you use is clean. Use the pattern’s instructions to determine if you should keep your fabric flat, or folded. If it’s folded then it’s most likely folded right-sides-together but do check this on the instructions.

Make sure all your pieces are on-grain, or placed on the fold if they need to be on a fold. If you have a single pattern piece but need to cut 2 or cut 4, then make sure there’s enough room to fit them all.

There are a few ways of ensuring your paper pattern pieces don’t slide on your fabric when you’re cutting. I used to pin my paper pieces to the fabric, and you can totally do this too. I’m just a bit lazy and find this method tedious. It also introduces some inaccuracy because the fabric has small ‘bubbles’ where the pins are inserted. I now use some heavy metal ornaments as pattern weights to hold the pieces down, and a rotary cutter to cut the pieces out. So quick, easy and more accurate. Just take your time and be very, very careful when using a rotary cutter—those suckers are SHARP!

Cut out your fabric pattern pieces

Again, there are just so many methods of cutting out fabric pieces. As mentioned above, I prefer using my rotary cutter but you might find using fabric shears suits you better. That’s ok, do whatever works for you! Take your time and keep your fabric as flat as you can when cutting. Also, it’s important to keep the paper pieces with the fabric pieces after you cut them out because we have one more step to do before we’re done.

Add all those stupid markings to your fabric pieces

Oh gosh, I really hate this bit. I really, really do. It’s so tedious and boring and some days I’d much rather do housework than add all those fiddly markings, but gosh—it’s so damn important! All those weird markings mean something: dart positions, gathered stitches, seam allowances, button holes, centre back … my list could go on. In fact, I think I will write a post about what the most common markings mean.

There are a few ways you can add those markings to the fabric pieces. You can use tailor’s tacks, which are pretty cool, quick and accurate; you can use pins and chalk/water-soluble pen to mark them; or you can use a tracing wheel and special sewing carbon paper. I like this last method, but each has its place and is useful in different situations. I recommend having all the tools necessary for each method because it’s nice to have options. That way you can mark your darts with tailor’s tacks, mark stitching lines with a tracing wheel and carbon paper and mark the start of gathering stitch lines with a pin and chalk.


Above: Used with carbon paper especially made for dressmaking and your tracing wheel will be your new best friend. (Ok, I might need to get some *actual* friends!)

And that’s it! You can separate your paper pattern pieces from the fabric pieces now—finally! Working with paper patterns can be the most tedious part of sewing, although I’m finding it more and more meditative these days. I hope you do too!


I struggle with adding all those fiddly markings right at the very end. Do you have any steps that you struggle with? Do you have any tips that make those steps less of a struggle, then share them below!   

You might also like to read some of my other posts written to help sewing newbies. They include preparation, essential sewing tools, sewing tools that are nice to have and resources I can't live without. Happy stitching!

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