So you’ve decided to make a bag. You have your fabric all picked out, but what are you going to make? Over the next 2 weeks we will look at the terms used around patterns and the cutting out of the various pieces to make your bag.

Pattern Terms

A pattern is a set of instructions which walk you through making something, while pattern pieces are the shapes you need to cut out in order to sew them together and make your finished bag.

Pattern Types

Tissue Paper Patterns

The most traditional type of pattern which people are familiar with usually come from the Big 4 (Butterick, Vogue, Mcalls and Simplicity, including New Look and Burda) They come in an envelope with large pieces of paper containing directions and some drawn step by step diagrams, while the pattern pieces are printed on enormous and unwieldy sheets of tissue paper. From an economic point of view this is the cheapest way to provide printed patterns to the end user, but as an end user – wow, I sometimes feel like I’m wrestling with an octopus, and that tissue tears pretty easily! One of the other downsides is that they print absolutely every piece needed for the pattern onto the tissue paper, even if they could easily be cut with a ruler, eg a straight strap or a rectangular bag side. If you’re going to make one of these patterns, evaluate how much of the tissue pattern you need to cut out, and how much you could actually do by measuring bits of fabric in order to preserve your sanity. Finally, remember how you unfolded that tissue because refolding it is a black art.

Printed Paper Patterns

For those designers who don’t have the big tissue printing machines available to them, the next best option is to try and print the pattern pieces on large sheets of copier-type paper. These independent patterns come with a printed booklet or set of stapled sheets, often containing photographs alongside each step, which can be much easier to follow than the drawn diagrams of the tissue paper patterns. Some are printed in colour, and some black and white, while some may opt for a colourful outer and black and white inner. Independent designers have very low margins on their printed patterns – printing costs are high, and have to be done in bulk, and it is usually the designer and/or their family who folds it up and stuffs it in its plastic hanging bag so they tend not to have a pattern piece for things that can be measured out and cut.

PDF Patterns

The environmentally friendly option is the PDF pattern which can be downloaded to your chosen device and carried around with you to the shop to choose your fabric/notions, your cutting table and then your sewing table. With so many people these days having tablets and laptops, they provide a lifeline to those that can’t get to shops that stock the patterns they would like, or perhaps those who take a sudden notion to make a thing at 3 o’clock in the morning. These patterns can be fully in colour and images/diagrams zoomed into if needed. If pattern pieces are needed, the end user will need to print them out, and given that the average user has a printer restricted to A4/Letter sized paper, may require a bit of judicious sticking together with selotape. The good news is that if you spill your coffee over it, the baby pukes on it, or the dog walks his muddy paw prints all over it, you can always print a new one!

Book/Magazine Patterns

Books and magazines are pretty much a mix of the above options – the directions are in paper format, but to get the pattern pieces you often have to copy pages in the publication or to download and print them separately. They are by far the cheapest way to get hold of a bunch of patterns, however, due to page limitations, they tend not to be as complex as individual patterns are and can have less in the way of step by step photos and/or diagrams. Again this comes down to printing costs and the fact that no-one wants to lug around a pattern book that rivals War And Peace in size nor pay the associated costs.

Pattern Text

There are a common set of things that are generally mentioned at the start of a pattern, or if they come in an envelope, some appear on the back of that, as well as a few things that appear on the pattern pieces.  Below we’ll take a look at a few of them:


The requirements section of a pattern details what you will need in order to make the pattern up. Using the envelope below as an example, here’s a few things to take note of:

  • ‘Views’ is terminology used by the commercial pattern companies to refer to the different versions that there may be in the pattern. What this can mean is that there are 4 or 5 completely different bags, or there are several variations on the same basic bag, or in the case above, the bag is part of a set of other things.
  • If there are multiple ‘views’ in a pattern, make sure you consult the supply list for your ‘view’ – in commercial patterns this is often in a table format on the envelope, sometimes split into an English section in imperial measurements with a French section in metric, while for other patterns it may be on the back of the booklet, or for PDFs may be found on the web page where you bought the pattern as well as on an inside page.
  • Look carefully at the suggested fabrics and work out if what you were thinking of using will work. If this is one of the first bags you’ve made, try not to go too off-piste with your choices compared to what has been recommended – for example if it says an outer fabric of quilting cotton that then gets quilted to a layer or two of batting, plus duckcloth on the back, that can’t just be changed out for quilting cotton alone, you would need to bulk it out to a similar weight, so for example by adding fusible woven interfacing and fusible foam to it. Equally, if it suggests quilting cotton plus woven interfacing, don’t try a direct swap of the quilting cotton with a heavy home dec weight fabric and throw in some foam to make it stand up better, you may find yourself suddenly with more layers than your machine can handle at some seams.
  • Don’t skimp on your supplies. If you’ve spent plenty on gorgeous fabric for the outside, don’t get the cheapest interfacing you can find, it’s a truly false economy (see last week’s post for more info on interfacing)

Pattern Markings

You may find a bit in your pattern that asks you to transfer pattern markings when cutting out. Commercial tissue patterns often come with an array of triangles and circles to transfer, usually as markers to match things up. Where the triangles appear you are meant to cut a little triangle opposite it (so don’t put that bit right up against the edge of your fabric ;o) ) while the circles are usually an indicator of where a seam will meet or something needs to be added. The Sewing Loft has a great guide to commercial pattern markings which you can find here.

On other patterns you may find things such as centre line markings to match up, or placement marks for things such as bag handles. To transfer these markings which are in the middle of a pattern piece I usually get a pin and stick it through the mark on the pattern piece into the fabric, then gently lift the pattern piece up enough for me to be able to get in underneath with a marking pen to leave a mark where the pin went into the fabric. For fabrics that can’t have pins stuck in it, such as faux leather, it involves a bit more creative folding of the pattern piece so I can mark the location

Seam Allowance

Seam allowances are a very important part of a pattern to note, and it should be clearly marked in the pattern information somewhere. A common seam allowance used in bag making is 1/2″, but for those that are used to quilting, they may expect it to be a quilter’s standard 1/4″, while for those used to commercial clothing patterns, they may expect the standard 5/8″ there, however the reality is that it could be anything the pattern designer has thought up so it’s always best to check. Another thing that is important to check is that the seam allowance is actually included in the pattern pieces, there are some patterns where you need to add your own seam allowance before cutting.