Sewing: Simpler to Intermediate Pattern work

Ira Socol (@irasocol on Twitter) and I had a brief conversation yesterday about sewing machines in his school. They’re resident in the library, and I gather that anyone can use them — but a student has to check them out, and then find expertise among the adults in the building to use them, or use various YouTube and other online tutorials to use them.  Someone apparently made a full suit (pants and jacket) out of Doritos bags, and that’s awesome. They can also be used to make simple composition-style notebooks, too (and you can use the guidelines on grimoires to make your own Maker’s Grimoire with such notebooks, too.

The upshot of my conversation with him was that I’d provide some links and photos of patterns that are easy costume pieces and teach strong elements of sewing with a machine effectively.

And the challenge with this is that a lot of good sewing involves learning to sew long, strong seam-lines; and that a lot of things that students might want to make, everything from prom dresses and tuxedos, generally require a) lots of fabric and b) lots of skill and c) lots of good oversight from adults.


I’ve grouped this collection into six sections or parts: Reminders, easy bags, easy costume pieces, intermediate bags, intermediate costume pieces, and resources.

1. Reminders

  • For every 1-3 minutes you spend at a sewing machine, you’re probably spending 3-5 minutes at the ironing board.  Washing and then ironing your fabric ahead of cutting to remove sizing (chemical additives to stiffen the fabric) and to pre-shrink the fabric is ideal; not every school can afford or manage this step, though.
  • A fair of good fabric scissors is essential for cutting patterns; but a rotary cutter and a green rotary cutting mat is even better.
  • In schools, each student should start with a new or newish needle; and replace a needle after every four hours of sewing. Sharpness matters.
  • Any project can be made with scraps, or with a panel of scraps, simply by sewing scraps together in an appealing way. This tutorial on boro, which means “tatters” in Japanese and boro-like effects using strips and scraps is an example.  I often make quilt “record squares” by starting with a muslin square of a given size — say six and a half inches square — and then sew scraps to that and then trim down to the desired size indicated by the original muslin square. Another example of patchwork/scrapwork is here.
  • IT IS A GOOD IDEA to back scraps with more solid fabric, though, so the project doesn’t fall apart; at the same time, don’t squash together too many layers in one place.

2. Easy Bags

The easiest bag is a simple drawstring bag.  Here’s a couple of YouTube tutorials:

You can also make lined drawstring bags this way, in any size, by using a “turning” method.

The “Grete’s Basket” design is another thing that I think early sewists should master.  The basket is the right size for a folded Fat Quarter (a quarter of a yard of fabric, or roughly 18″x22″).  Essentially this is two rectangles of cloth, with their bottom corners cut out, to make a rectangular ‘basket’ or ‘cubby’ — which likely fits a kid’s locker, or can be adapted into a bag with handles (by lengthening the sides/tops) possibly with top-stitched pockets.

The next thing kids should make is probably a pencil case with a 9″ long zipper. You can use a 7″ long zipper (and you can buy 30-100 polyester zippers of either length for under $20 online, or probably less through a wholesaler. Zippers are not something to buy as one-piece items.

Almost-last, a semi-quilted bag like a komebukuro, which is simply two cross-shaped arrangements of squares of any size sewn into a box, and eight button-holes for a draw-string (or eight loops tucked into the top of the bag).

So — here’s a set of bags that can be used to demonstrate competence with a sewing machine, and to provide a basic curriculum.

  1. a drawstring bag of some kind,
  2. a lined drawstring bag, to demonstrate turning and ironing as skills
  3. a “Grete’s Basket” for storage and to learn how to make other kinds of bags and baskets like wine bottles
  4. a pencil case with a zipper
  5. A Komebukuro or square bag with buttonholes or top loops for a pull-string.

3. Easy Costume Pieces

I promised Ira a chance to think about loaning out patterns.  Patterns for clothes are tricky because Costumes are Clothes. I think it’s important to emphasize that point — all costumes are in a very real way, actual clothing — and most things that we think of as “costumes” are assembled in the same way and using the same construction methods and techniques as things that we think of as “clothes” — only quality of fabric and hand-sewing techniques change.

With that in mind, I’d like to recommend the following patterns as being great places to teach the assembly process for garments.

These are arranged roughly in order of complexity.  At the top of the list, you don’t have to worry about “matching dots” or “matching notches” in patterns exactly… and at the bottom of the list, you really kind of do, with more precision required at each level.

  • McCalls M7525 — the tunic or upper (I think it’s a haori in Japanese, but it’s hard to tell) is a beginner garment, the hakama or pants are intermediate-to-advanced.
  • Simplicity 4213 — Staging Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat? Or Julius CaesarAnthony and Cleopatra? Timon, Prince of Athens? You’ll notice how far I’m trying to stay away from this costume collection’s obvious intentions, which is some version of the “Passion Play”.  But all of its pieces could be adapted to Shakespeare or “A Funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.” None of the pieces are hard AT ALL.
  • Simplicity 5840 – This is a tunic, a weird tabard/chest piece, and a cloak design, as well as a belt.  None of the pieces are difficult; some of them are replicated or paralleled by designs in the two earlier Japanese designs mentioned.  No one is likely producing Star Wars as a high-school stage play yet, but the tunic in particular is well-suited for a lot of things, including (in heavier fabrics of bright colors and with some medieval-looking trim, and leather belts instead of this sash design) some Viking-era coats for a performance of “That Scottish Play” by William Shakespeare.
  • Simplicity S8862 —  a basic pattern for four types of stuffed animal.  I’ve made the bear a trio of times. Anyone who makes all four is well on their way to understanding how a stuffed animal pattern works, and can begin designing others. You can start or end with any of the four; they’re essentially the same aside from ears and tail.  You can get a lot wrong in designing a stuffed animal pattern at first, but this is the basics of building a stuffed body, including the weighted pouch inside so they sit properly (which I still haven’t gotten right).  However, once a sewist has made the head of a stuffed animal, they’ll be able to modify that pattern-theory into a hat or a bag or a funky purse.
  • Simplicity S8318 — In general, Asian-inspired clothing, particularly Japanese clothing, is very well-suited to beginning sewists.  I’ve made this tunic a few times, still struggling with the pants (called hakama). The tunic can be extended to ankle length for something that resembles a Han-era Chinese robe.  In general, a lot of the patterns and style were formalized during one of Japan’s “dark ages” periods, and haven’t altered much since.  So if you know how to make one basic design, you can produce any of the others.  I don’t think the pants here are much easier than the hakama in McCalls M7525.  There aren’t many musicals or plays set in China or Japan in the high school repertoire other than Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, but between this and M7525 above, you could outfit an entire cast.
  • Simplicity 4923 — contains a shirt, breeches, a vest, and a pirate/18th century coat design that are all suitable for beginners-to-intermediate.  I’d start with a) the coat, which is ironically the simplest of the pieces, then b) breeches, then the c) vest, then the d) shirt (shirts are hard to get right!).
  • Simplicity H0186 — On the one hand, it’s dumb to need patterns for tabards and cloaks; they’re more usually produced using geometry than measured paper pinned to measured fabric. If you’re making just plain tabards and cloaks, you could move this way up to the top of the list.  HOWEVER, this pattern does a good job of teaching complex appliqué work, and you could use this pattern to outfit a full suite of Capulets and Montagues for a Romeo and Juliet production, or any of Shakespeare’s history plays, provided you were willing to sacrifice costume-era authenticity and go for something more Dark Ages to Gothic/Medieval era.
  • Simplicity 0203 — I don’t know that this set of coats, jackets, vests and sashes was ever historical.  This was a set of dwarf costumes from the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit movies.  I think they’re sort-of poorly designed pieces, myself, but I also didn’t like how I fit in them when I was done making some of them. That said, they’d add to a high school theater company’s sense of “nobleman” or “important person” on stage when made in the right fabrics.

4. Intermediate Bags

I only have one intermediate bag, the omiyage.  This is not so much a complex design as a difficult one to do well; it does require a lot of short, patient sewing and a lot of attention to detail.

5. Intermediate Costume Pieces

When we get into intermediate sewing, things get more challenging.

In general, you’ll find that Simplicity patterns are easier than McCalls, and McCalls and Butterick are about the same in terms of complexity, and Burda is more challenging than any of the three other companies.  Vogue patterns are the most complex that I’ve seen in general use, although there’s a company that produces patterns for historical and tribal garments from around the world, called (I think) Folkwear.

The key insight to bear in mind is that the more complex the pattern, the more pieces it has. The more pieces it has, the better the garment will fit the wearer. The more willing the sewist is to adjust the pattern pieces based on the known size of the final wearer, the better the fit.

As before, things are arranged in order from less challenging to more challenging.  I’ve tackled pieces here before my skills were ready for them in some cases, and the resulting garments… were not wearable. I learned a lot from them, but no one should be embarrassed by having to wear them in public.  At this point, “matching dots” and “matching notches” isn’t just a good idea — it’s required. It’s also a good idea to go through the pattern with a more experienced sewist, or to make a muslin “sloper” ahead of time so that you know what the tricky bits are, or both.


  • McCalls M7003 — This is a late Victorian/early Edwardian or Dickensian suit: vest, pants, and 3/4 coat. The coat is the most complex, and includes a process for a garment lining, as well as the construction of a pointed and notched collar.  Tough stuff. Tricky, and well worth the effort to get wrong once or twice and learn from the mistakes. This pattern teaches the construction of darts, which are an important component in fitted garments of various sorts.
  • McCalls M7585 — This is a fancier version of the pirate/enlightenment-era coat that you find in Simplicity 4923, above in the Beginner section.
  • Butterick B6339 — This is a collection of vests, mostly Edwardian to modern. The critical skill to learn from this is a set-in pocket, which can be transferred in technique to M7585, Simplicity 4923, and a lot of other patterns.
  • Simplicity 4059 — this is short and long versions of the Renaissance doublet.  Both versions are challenging, but I tackled them earlier than I tackled anything else on this list, and my long doublet is quite nice.  One of the solutions here is sleeves that were designed to be detachable (as in much Renaissance clothing), as well as a lot of use of bias tape, embroidery tape, and soutache to replace more historically-accurate elements. Getting the extras right (buttons, trim) transforms this garment in a lot of ways from iteration to iteration.
  • Simplicity 3519 — In various forms, this is a medieval-style to Romantic-era style “poet or pirate or bandit” shirt, suitable for Robin Hood plays, lots of Shakespeare, and more.  It is definitely harder than most things that I’ve made, and I’m not keen on wearing my results in public yet.
  • Simplicity 8528 — Fair warning, I haven’t actually made any of the garments of this pattern. But this is a modern suit-jacket, a modern pair of pants, and a modern shirt, along with a skinny tie pattern.  The suit has an interlining, as well, and the package has lines for sizes 34 to 52 — so it’ll fit everyone between a skinny-ish teen boy … and me.  If a student can do this pattern well, two or three times, they’re likely ready to tackle a Vogue suit pattern, like V8890 or V8988
  • Butterick 3072 — again, a fancier version of Simplicity 4923, with more pieces and more complexity. I think the Breeches in 4923 are better than the breeches in this pattern — closer to historical accuracy, and with a better/tighter fit to the sizes.  Adding pockets to this was a real challenge, but I adapted the pocket-style from the pants in McCalls M7003, above, to the waist of these. It was tricky, but it can be done.  However, this pattern provides a pattern for a tricorn hat, which may be adapted to a bicorn hat suitable for Napoleonic-era costumes; and for a droopy flat-brimmed hat like Ben Franklin; and with some modification of pattern, a pointy witch-style hat or Harry Potter-style Sorting Hat.

6. Resources

A few words about women’s garment patterns.

I’ve not included many women’s garments in my collection of patterns for learning to sew.  Partly that’s because there are many more resources for women to discuss both patterns and their ease of making them — and partly because most of the women I know who sew, sew women’s garments and costume pieces — and so my goal has been to specialize in making men’s clothes and accessories rather than women’s, to diversify the local market and skill-set within my community.

However — among the few women’s patterns that I have, I’ve noticed a few general observations. These are generalizations — they’re not true for every pattern. But they are true for many patterns. 

  1. Women’s garment patterns usually have more pieces than a parallel male garment.
  2. The more tightly-fitted the garment — bodices, corsets, cleavage — the more mastery of sewing techniques you have to have, and the more careful you have to be about marking notches and dots, and matching them in the final version.
  3. The more flouncy the garment — the more folds and ripples — the more precise you have to be with techniques like gathering and smocking. These are not impossible to teach yourself, but they require a lot of patience, and a lot of things can go wrong: the thread can snag or break, you can lose your markings and notches as the fabric is stressed, and so on. Stuff goes wrong.
  4. Men’s clothing choices over the last 5 centuries have moved to emphasize sameness; women’s emphasize difference. As a result, women’s clothing patterns often have more options built into them — View A, View B, View C.  The sewist thus has more choices to make about design all the way along: at the beginning of construction and in the middle and at the very end of garment assembly.  Beginners are not always good at making these choices (and neither are us intermediate sewists-becoming-tailors).
  5. That sameness-difference problem in a different light: the two extremes of women’s clothing, flounce to fittedness (large and flowing garments all the way to very tight) means that you can make a garment to a standard pattern — and it may not fit.  Hips, bust, chest, waist — we humans don’t come in standard sizes or shapes.  So you can’t assume that the basic outline of the pattern on the paper is exactly right.  I’ve made the “right sized garment” for women three times so far, and found it’s the right size on paper, and the wrong size on the person who asked me to make it.  So a lot more adjustment goes into women’s clothing at this point, and this means learning much more tailoring.
  6. This shouldn’t discourage the enterprising sewist from trying to make a dress or a skirt or whatever — but if you’re starting from a beginner’s knowledge base, it’s worth asking for advice, or using one of the simplest patterns (the Japanese-style ones, like M7525 or S8318 in particular) in this list as a starting point for learning how to read patterns…. and then tackle a more complex pattern.
  7. I think the only real solution is to buy some costume patterns, generally starting with Simplicity patterns which have fewer individual pieces and less-complicated directions (possibly based on the shows your school is doing in its theater program this year), and learn to make some boys’ patterns and some girls’ patterns.  And maybe one of my readers will write a similar guide for women’s patterns.

Some books…

You can send a school in a lot of directions by the quality of the How-To shelf next to the sewing machine.  Here’s some of the books on my shelf for sewing:

  • Patterns for Theatrical Costumes by Katherine Strand Holkeboer.  Anything from 1915 back to ancient Egypt has a place in here.  You need one of those old-style projectors, though, that can project on a big sheet of paper from a pair of pages in a book.
  • First-Time Garment Fitting: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Sarah Veblen.  This is a challenging book and I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.
  • The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant: Common Garments 1100-1480 by Sarah Thursfield.  Patterns, but also a way of thinking about garments in terms of geometry rather than measured patterns.  Very useful in some circles like LARPers, theater performances and more.
  • The Pattern Making Primer by Jo Barnfield and Andrew Richards. Another challenging book, and one I still don’t entirely ‘get’.  This is the book for taking the patterns I’ve shown above, from the realms of Costume, into the realms of real clothes that you’d feel happy about wearing on days other than Halloween.
  • Costume 1066 to the Present by John Peacock.  Human beings have looked more or less the same, and worn tops, bottoms, and accessories for 100,000 years. This book is for England, but I wish there were a similar book for Russia, for west Africa, for east Africa, for North and South America, for India, for China and Japan: costumes roughly grouped by decade for a thousand years would be awesome!!!!!!
  • The Tudor Tailor by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies.  If your school wants to have a Shakespeare Theater program with a costume program to match… this is the book for you.
  • Pattern Magic by Tomoko Nakamichi.  Nakamichi’s book doesn’t have any full patterns.  But this shows you ways to alter patterns in order to introduce extraordinary changes in what fabric does.  This book blows my mind every time I open it.
  • Mother Pletsch’s Painless Sewing (with Pretty Pati’s Perfect Pattern Primer) by Pati Palmer & Susan Pletsch
  • Son of Hassle-Free Sewing by Joan Wiener and Sharon Rosenberg.  These two books are holdovers from the early 1970s.  Mother Pletsch is suitable if you want to look like a fashionable office girl in 1972.   Son of Hassle-Free Sewing and the original Hassle-Free Sewing are more suitable if your high school is planning on staging Hair and the Age of Aquarius.


So… There you are, Ira.  A complete education in sewing from basic work to intermediate work in costume… and some guidelines and resources on how to move from the most basic things into advanced tailoring for the really ambitious student.

Good luck!

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  1. Are you familiar with pattern tracing and tissue fitting? It might be especially useful in a library setting, where you’re reusing patterns and working with lots of body types.

    Pattern tracing is tracing a sewing pattern and chopping up the copy. Doctor’s office paper is a good weight for it. It’s very freeing to know any mistake can be fixed with tape or another tracing.

    Tissue fitting is pinning and trying on the pieces of paper before you cut the fabric. This lets you get a sense of whether the size you cut will fit, and you can make adjustments to the copy or trace a different size. They say pattern sizes are just mathematical averages, and nobody’s body exactly matches a pattern. They always need adjusting. Since it’s a 3-D form, one adjustment affects the rest of the garment.

    The Love To Sew podcast interviewed Melissa Watson, who updated her mom’s classic book on tissue fitting. I’m afraid the book is aimed at women. I seem to recall Watson, or another author, saying they’d tackle men’s fit in roughly the same order. The interview should give you a sense of the basics.

    I tissue fit the torso on everything now. It’s saved me from a few really poor fits and a couple styles that I discovered I hated once it was 3-D and not a picture on an envelope.

    • I haven’t tried tissue-fitting yet, and I’ve been reluctant to go that deeply into it, because my own body goes through both outliers of that mathematical bellcurve, and never seems to settle in the middle part. But I’ll listing to the interview on tissue fitting in the next ew days, and see if I get some sense of how to do it, why, and when.

      That said, I really like the idea of fitting the torso on a bunch of things first, especially on women; I have a dress design that I started for L., that doesn’t fit her and isn’t likely to fit anyone else either. Discouraged, I gave up because I don’t know that I want to waste the time to finish making it. But maybe I should anyway.

    • I’ve not had a chance to look through it, really. It’s probably pretty good — currently used copies are running $861.63, though, so I’m not likely to stick my nose in it any time soon. 🙂

    • Do they throw in a serger with the paperback version? :-O

      I’m seeing them new for $50Canadian in our $Big_Chain_Bookstore for hardcover.

    • I don’t believe you get a serger, no. 😀 Ironically, you can get the hardcover in the US for $11.95, used, through Amazon. So someone probably realized there’s a gold strip accidentally sewn into the paperback binding…

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