Clever Charlotte

Charlotte's Sewing Studio Basics: Getting Started with Your Pattern


So you’ve bought your pattern, selected your fabric, thread and notions, and you’re ready to go.  If you find yourself saying, "Now what??", then you've come to the right place.

Misc. Patterns
Misc. Patterns

Our goal with Clever Charlotte is to produce patterns that a novice sewer, with some basic sewing experience, can complete without heaps of frustration. To help novices gain confidence with our patterns, we wanted to some provide some basic tips that will help you begin the process. Remember, prior to starting your project, you should read all of the instructions for your pattern.

Below are some helpful topics relevant to the start of your project--before you sit down at your sewing machine.  Along the way, we’ve added links to even more detailed help from some of our favorite sewing sites.  Look for other tutorials on our blog under Charlotte’s Sewing Studio Basics.

Trace Each Pattern

Each Clever Charlotte pattern comes in a range of sizes. While you can cut out the original pattern in the size you desire to make, we recommend that you trace the pattern pieces instead. This will allow you to preserve all sizes of the original pattern pieces in order to make other sizes in the future.  For tracing, any semi-transparent, lightweight paper you can find will work.  We really like paper vellum because it is much more stable than tissue paper (which can tear very easily and disintegrates quickly if comes into contact with water).  Paper vellum also is easy to mark with most types of pens and pencils and can be folded up and stored away for use again and again.  We sell sheets of paper vellum in our shop for your convenience.

In addition to the tracing paper,  you’ll need a pen (felt tip works the best on paper vellum) or pencil and a straight edge.  My favorite ruler is a clear gridded quilters ruler that is 18” long and 3” wide.  We also recommend having on hand masking tape to tape the tracing paper to the printed pattern.  For this, the blue painters tape sold at hardware stores (and Target, I just discovered) is great because it is so easy to remove without tearing any paper.


Working on a large, flat, and smooth surface (a wide tabletop or a hard floor), spread out the pattern pieces and lay the tracing paper on top.  Secure the tracing paper with masking tape if you wish to prevent the pattern from shifting while tracing.

Using your pen or pencil, trace around the lines that correspond to the size you wish to make.  Copy the straight lines with a ruler whenever possible.  For curved edges, trace along any straight portions of the curve first with the ruler, then connect to the two sides by freehand drawing.  Be especially careful with curved edges since the “nesting” of the various size pattern pieces can make it difficult to distinguish between sizes.  You’ll see that we’ve used different line markings for each size to aid in differentiating between them.  You may also want to mark both the end points of each curved segment first, then connect the two points.

After tracing the outlines of each pattern piece, transfer any notches, fold lines, grainlines and other markings (such as pleats, buttonhole placements, zipper markings, etc.).  Next, label each piece with the name of the pattern, the specific pattern piece, the traced size and cutting instructions (e.g., Finch Top, size 8, Back, Cut 1 of Main and Cut 1 of Lining).


Finally, trim away the excess tracing paper around each pattern piece, preferably using regular (non-sewing) scissors.  Be sure you have traced all of the pattern pieces required to complete the garment so you don’t end up frustrated that you are missing a major piece after you begin sewing!  Next, prepare your fabric. 

Prepare Your Fabric

Before cutting your fabric, be sure to wash the fabric in a manner appropriate for the fiber content to accommodate any fabric shrinking before you sew the garment and to remove any sizing from the fibers.  For cotton fabrics, we usually pre-wash and dry them on a high temperature to get all the shrinkage out before cutting.  In the case of wool and silk, laundering may require washing by hand or a trip to the dry cleaner.  If you have any doubt about a fabric’s content, test wash a small scrap piece (6”x6”) before laundering the entire piece to test its reaction to the process.  Some silks, for example, may take on a sueded texture after being machine washed—which may be just fine with you. Once laundered, make sure to press your fabric to remove all the wrinkles.

Read up on pre-washing various fabric types.

For woven fabrics, the lengthwise and crosswise grainlines should be more or less perpendicular to one another. However, if you notice the fabric skewing to one side or another (“going all wonky,” in technical terms) you may have to “true up” or align your fabric before cutting out your pattern. Sometimes this just means tugging one side of the fabric at an angle to bring it back into the true grain, but other steps may be necessary.  See this helpful article for help in these situations.

Now, let’s work on the laying out the pattern.

Pattern Layout

In the instructions for each Clever Charlotte pattern, we have provided you with a suggested layout guide to minimize the amount of fabric needed for each garment, taking into consideration the number of pieces needed to be cut from each pattern piece and the direction of the grainline (or in some cases, the fold lines).   Our layout guides assume you are working with a fabric that is “with nap” — which means that we have laid out the pattern pieces so that all of the pieces in the final garment run in the same direction.  This is important if you are working with either of the following:

  1. napped fabrics (such as a velvet or corduroy, the fibers of which run smoothly in only one direction), or
  2. directional prints (that is, all fabric pieces will need to run in the same direction).

Often you will be working with a fabric that does not have a nap or a directional print.  In this case, you will likely be able to lay out the pattern pieces in a way that requires less yardage, so you should bear that in mind when buying fabric and laying out your pattern pieces.  On the other hand, fabrics with obvious diagonals or stripes may require more fabric if you will want to match the pattern at the seam lines.

For more on cutting out and sewing with napped fabrics, see this helpful article.

Each Clever Charlotte pattern piece is marked with a double-ended arrow like this: <------------> This line represents the grainline of the fabric. (For pieces with a fold line, the fold line also represents the grainline.)  It directs the sewer how to position the pattern piece on the fabric before cutting to ensure the appropriate drape and fit in the finished garment and to align any pattern or print on the garment.

When you begin laying out the pattern pieces on the fabric, align the grainline on each pattern piece so that it parallels the finished edge of the fabric (known as the selvage). After years of sewing, one gets pretty good at eyeballing this alignment but for the novice you can use a ruler to measure from the grainline to the selvage. Each end of the grainline should be the same distance from the selvage of the fabric.

When laying out a pattern piece on the fold line, the fabric should be folded parallel to the selvage.  Again, you can check this by measuring across from the folded edge to the selvage edge.  Don’t rely on the cut edge to get a true grainline fold, however, since the that edge could be unevenly cut.Once you have all the pattern pieces positioned on the fabric, secure them to the fabric using straight pins.

Need more help with pattern layouts and considerations?

Cut the Fabric

Cutting the fabric carefully true to the pattern dimensions is the most important part of sewing a garment. Once you cut, there is no going back (unless, of course, you purchased more fabric). We highly recommend you take your time with this step—you may even consider taking one day to cut out the pattern and starting with the sewing the following day. This may help you to slow down and think about the cuts before you make them.

See this article for more advice on cutting out patterns accurately, including a discussion of rotary cutters and fabric scissors.

Once you’ve cut out your pattern pieces, don’t remove the paper pattern just yet.  First, you have to transfer any important markings to the fabric. 

Mark the Pattern Details

Marking the pattern pieces is also a very important step and we recommend completing it before you remove the paper pattern from the cut fabric.  Depending on the type of marking, you will need to transfer it to either the right or wrong side of the fabric. You can use a water soluble pen, which washes away easily from most fabrics, usually by lightly rubbing with a damp cloth (always test it on a swatch of your fabric first!) and makes a clean, precise mark.  Using a hand needle and thread is another way to increase your accuracy in transferring a marking, such as buttonholes and pleats.  Thread marking is a great way to mark fabric on its right side due to its fool-proof removal.  Other tracing methods include a tracing wheel and dressmaker’s tracing paper (which works like carbon paper) or tailor’s chalk.

Below is a list of the common markings in Clever Charlotte patterns that you will need to transfer and suggested methods for transferring each to your fabric.

Pattern Notches
Pattern Notches
  • Notches = with your fabric scissors, clip into the seam allowance, either once (single notch) or twice (double notches); be careful to only snip part way into the seam allowance (generally, about 1/4”-3/8"”). Here is what the
Button-Related Markings
Button-Related Markings
  • Buttonholes and Buttons = mark using the thread marking or a water soluble pen on the right side of the fabric.
Pleat-Related Markings
Pleat-Related Markings
  • Pleats = mark the open and closed circles using the thread marking or a water soluble pen on the right side of the fabric.  (If you are using a pen, I like to draw a connecting line between the paired pleat markings to help you remember which markings go with which; otherwise, refer back to the printed pattern piece when sewing.  Also, the pattern instructions will help you to figure out which way to fold and crease the fabric.)
Belt Loop Marking
Belt Loop Marking
  • Zipper Stop and Belt Loops = transfer the indicated line to the wrong side of the fabric using a water soluble pen, tailor’s chalk or tracing paper.

See this article to read more about transferring pattern markings, including through the use of thread marking, {or} check out this series of video tutorials.


Once you’ve prepared your pattern pieces and cut out and marked your fabric, you are ready to turn on that sewing machine!

Happy Sewing!