pattern grading 101: part one

A common question I find in my inbox is “how to I alter the size of a pattern?”. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time I’m sure you’ve seen me discuss the idea of pattern grading. But what is pattern grading, if you’ve never run across it before (or maybe you have and it’s still just a somewhat confusing concept)? Grading is a method of sizing a pattern up or down in size. This can be done manually using paper and rulers, or is now often done on computer programs (most often by the larger companies, since these systems can be pricy for the home sewist). Because you aren’t tied to the size on an envelope, this is an especially useful skill to have if you work with vintage patterns. But it’s a good tool to have in your sewer’s bag of tricks period, as it has many uses.

Throughout this series I’ll be going over both common and basic grading techniques, as well as breaking down how to grade some more complicated styles. We’ll be using the old fashioned, paper method, since that is most available to everyone. It is my hope that this series will be a clear overview of basic grading to get you started. I’d like to be upfront and say that this is not going to be hugely comprehensive (there are textbooks for that), nor do I know every grading technique. I have been grading using this method for the past 10 years, and have picked up some tips through study and developed my own ways of approaching it. But I feel that for the home sewist, this is perhaps the easiest method to grasp.

Please note this is not a sew along—it’s just a series. You do not have to follow along as I post these (though you are welcome to!), but can refer to them in the future when needed. These posts are rather spread out because they are time intensive to put together, and I want to give myself enough time to give them some polish and cover as comprehensively as I can (within reason) the topic.

  • Paper – I use exam table paper, since it’s both transparent and cheap. This is the most important part of grading: having transparent paper. Because you’ll be tracing your original pattern, it makes life a lot easier. Another option is to use a non-fusible, lightweight interfacing (such as the gridded interfacing sold at JoAnns). Or you could use Swedish Tracing Paper. Though because of the cost I don’t recommend that for the actual grading, but perhaps tracing your final, master pattern on to. The bonus of using this is you can also pin it together to create a sort of fitting muslin (though it does not drape quite like fabric). In a pinch, large sheets of tracing paper can be used. From personal experience: don’t try tissue paper, it will only end in tears.
  • Rulers – A variety of rulers and measuring tools is always handy for grading patterns. I generally rely on my gridded ruler (2” wide by 18” long with markings every 1/8”–commonly found in the quilting section of fabric stores) for the actual grading. A ruler that goes into even smaller increments (1/16”) would be handy too. I also keep a hip curve and yardstick on hand for tracing patterns.
  • Pens, Pencils, Markers – Fairly self-explanatory. Sometimes I find having fine-tip markers in a few colors useful when differentiating between grading lines.
  • Scotch Tape – A must for adding extra paper underneath when grading up, or overlapping when grading down. You’ll go through a lot of this, so be prepared! (I like clear tape only because you can see through it. You can use opaque tape, but it’s a personal preference.)
  • Cutting Surface – I use my trusty cardboard cutting mat, but a self-healing mat will also work. I tend to pin the pieces I cut apart into my cutting surface in order to keep them from wandering/moving. So this isn’t a must, but makes it easier.
  • Pins – Just regular, straight pins (as I referenced above, I pin the pieces into my cardboard mat).
  • Your Measurements – Having a sense of what size category you fall into is very useful when grading for yourself. (Admittedly, I tend to “cheat” on this and just grade to the pattern size that I know I fit into, and then make my personal fitting alterations. Generally I’ll be assuming you are doing the same for the majority of the series, until I get into uneven grading in the July 6 post.)

I want to note here that while grading is a wonderful, highly useful skill, it does not take away for the need to further fit your pattern to your own body or making a muslin for some more complicated designs. As with anything that involves alteration, I always recommend double checking the fit before cutting into your garment fabric.

That sums up the supply list and next we’ll be moving on to actual grading! I plan on not only showing you through photographs, but a series of illustrations as well. Grading up a pattern size is perhaps the most common request I receive, so that will be first (with grading down following shortly behind—it’s a very similar technique though!). My hope is that by sharing this technique with you, it’ll open a whole new world of sewing skills and possibilities!

June 6, 2012 · 52 lovely thoughts
posted in sewing · tags: , ,

Kelli June 6, 2012 at 06:32

Thank you so much for doing this series. I have been trying to find an online source for this for awhile, but couldn’t find one. I will definitely be following along.

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Paula June 6, 2012 at 07:10

My thanks as well. I recently acquired a small stash of vintage patterns that are a size or two too small. The next day, you mentioned that you would be doing a series on pattern grading. Kismet! :) I look forward to the series and will be following along.

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Gail June 6, 2012 at 07:13

Wow, Casey, this looks like a fantastic series and I’m really looking forward to reading each post. Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing your knowledge and time to bring us this information!

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Gina June 6, 2012 at 07:27

Can I just say this is much needed! I am so glad you are doing this because I know it will be complete and easy to understand! This should clear up confusion for many folks who sew for themselves and need help grading a pattern. I’ll be printing up these posts for future use. Thank you Casey!

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Heather June 6, 2012 at 07:43

I am so excited about this series! My grandmother recently gave me a bag full of her old patterns, and many of them are too small for me. I’m sure your series will give me the courage I need to dive in! :)

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charissa June 6, 2012 at 08:35

Oh Casey, your timing is fantastic!
I’ve just ordered a couple sewing books (including the BurdaStyle one you did a dress for!) and have been trying to psych myself up for summer sewing — this series would be a wonderful companion to my planned projects. Thanks! : )

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Michelle @ If Toys Could Talk June 6, 2012 at 08:50

Thank you, Casey, for putting this wonderful series together. I’ve been hesitant to buy vintage patterns because I don’t know a thing about pattern grading. Hopefully I’ll be feeling much braver after reading your tips! :)

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jeanine June 6, 2012 at 08:56

I can’t wait! This is something I’ve always been interested in trying but haven’t the first idea about where to start! I have tons of vintage patterns that are a bit too big that I just haven’t had the heart to get rid of yet…now maybe I can actually use them!

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Stephanie/SwoodsonVintage June 6, 2012 at 09:05

Yay! Can’t wait until the series is complete and I can share it with customers who convo me asking about changing pattern sizes if they buy from my shop.

I’m curious how the exam paper compares to sketch paper… I want to start learning how to draft and don’t want to get stuck with a giant roll of paper I don’t like working with… the sketch paper is cheaper but maybe not as see through. Hmm!

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LBC June 6, 2012 at 09:13

I finally broke down and started grading patterns. Oh, my word! Changed my life! It’s almost magical how well it works, and I’ve had terrific results even on slightly oddly-cut dresses (I ordered the wrong size range of the Wearing History Art Deco dress and had to grade the bodice of View 1 down a size, and lengthen the dress an inch and a half above the waist and another inch or two below). I don’t want to sound hyperbolic, but it has honestly been one of the most empowering things I’ve learned in the past . . . I don’t know how long. (Don’t get me started on how learning to sew has rescued me from a lifetime of fighting with clothes and body image; I could go on all day).

I will second your recommendation of the quilter’s ruler. Anyone who sews anything on even a semi-regular basis needs at least one of these. And it needs to be a clear one: Being able to measure stuff with the ruler laid over it will be useful more often than you think. It also needs to be long (I think mine is 25 inches? I forget) because pattern pieces can be big. I’ve been using butcher paper from the homeschool supply store but I may look for exam room paper; I think the rolls might be a more manageable size, too.

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Seraphinalina June 6, 2012 at 11:03

What a great idea. I have a bunch of my mom’s patterns from when she was younger and we may look a little similar but my body is not from her side of the family. I have never needed a padded bra and I think I was in middle school when I last had a waist like hers was. I have taken a stab at some of the really simple patters with success but it will be great to read a little more about it.

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Elizabeth June 6, 2012 at 11:13

So glad you are doing this series!!! I have lots of vintage patterns I’m itching to sew but alas they are to small! I bought some books on how to adjust patterns but honestly they are a little boring. I was so happy to see that you were going to do this series because I know it will be very helpful and interesting. Thanks!

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Rachel June 6, 2012 at 11:31

I have been excitedly awaiting this series- I buy the vintage patterns I like and tend to ignore sizes (whoops!) so grade a LOT. And not always well… lol so I can’t wait!
I’d love it if you included a booklist too!

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Claire (aka Seemane) June 6, 2012 at 11:36

Great series idea Casey :) !
I did a post last year on my blog with some handy grading links: Making The Grade – How to Score an “A” in Pattern Class

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Jane June 6, 2012 at 11:49

Casey, I’ve been waiting for somebody to do a comprehensive set of posts on pattern grading forever. THANK YOU! I just happen to have been the lucky recipient of a few vintage patterns recently that all need grading up, so this will be invaluable ;) Hoorah! X

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Rebecca/Wannabe Seamstress June 6, 2012 at 12:35

I am so, so excited for this series! I have about 550 vintage patterns, but tons of them are a size or two too small.It’s time I learn to grade them! I was wondering, however, how long does a roll of the exam paper last, or about how many patterns can I grade from a roll of it?

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Hallie June 6, 2012 at 12:36

What wonderful reference this series will be! Thanks for taking the time to explain this to those of us who have no idea how to do this!

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Roxy June 6, 2012 at 13:19

Ooo! I’m very much so looking forward to this series!

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Kessem June 6, 2012 at 14:39

This is great! I can’t wait for this! very interesting!
This is definitively going to be book marked for later use. THANK YOU!

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Amy June 6, 2012 at 14:47

Thanks for putting this series together. I’m looking forward to learning more about pattern grading.

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Ywea June 6, 2012 at 15:25

Thank you so much for doing this series. So helpful :D

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Nancy / To Boldly Sew June 6, 2012 at 15:28

What a great idea for a series – this is going to be so so useful. Thank you!

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Jessica June 6, 2012 at 16:07

You are such a wonderful teacher, Casey. I love how thorough, detailed, and insightful you are, while at the same time making even the most novice of sewers (*shyly raises hand up in the air*) feel comfortable and like we really could attempt grading without waking up in a cold sweat at the mere thought of doing so. You’re awesome, my dear, and so are your stellar sewing tips.

♥ Jessica

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Melissa June 6, 2012 at 16:49

YAY – I am so excited about this series!!! My cousin recently gave me over 100 vintage patterns that are all too big. I bought a book about grading, but it just left me going “Whaaaaa????” :-P . I know you will do a great job at explaining it. Can’t wait! =D

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Jenn June 6, 2012 at 19:16

Excited to follow along with this Casey! I just hit a pretty nice jackpot of vintage patterns, and bought anything I liked without getting too worried about the size. I am hoping I have learned enough now that I can enlarge them to fit. Your timing couldn’t have been better– thanks!

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Lisa Suit June 6, 2012 at 20:25

Yay! I have been anxiously awaiting this series!! :) Thank you so much!

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Dana June 7, 2012 at 01:21

Thank you so much Casey! This is great. I just recently bought a couple awesome vintage patterns but they are too small for me. This is perfect timing. :)

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Helen Made June 7, 2012 at 02:15

Thanks for doing this Casey – it’ll be so helpful. I do some (very) basic pattern alteration, but it’s always goof to hear another person’s methods for doing things like this!

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Sarah June 7, 2012 at 05:05

A great idea for a series, thanks for doing this. I am yet to try grading but would really like to so any advice would be very welcome.

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Sophie (monbouton) June 7, 2012 at 10:04

thanks a lot for sharing this information! I will be following it very closely because vintage patterns I like are hardly ever my size :) You’re doing a great job!

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Lholy-chan(Anomori) June 7, 2012 at 13:12

Thank you very much for doing this series! I can’t wait to know more about grading. For now I’ve always sticked to vintage patterns that were close to my size, it will open new possibilities.

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Tasha June 7, 2012 at 13:44

I’m so excited for this! I’ve also been thinking of getting some exam tracing paper, and this seems like the right excuse to do it. I’ve only done a bit of drafting and grading (grading up a super basic top, drafting a collar from your scalloped collar blouse tutorial, maybe a few other small things), and I know I was kind of winging it with the paper I used. I’ll really enjoy this series!

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Kristen June 7, 2012 at 15:45

Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I’m especially looking forward to the uneven grading cause I have a long torso that according to the numbers on various pattern/sites is WAY off in Wonderland. It’s 14/16 everywhere else and them BOOM! 34! WAT?!

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Nancy June 8, 2012 at 06:26

looking forward to this series. Thank you very much

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Megan June 8, 2012 at 11:26

So excited about this!!

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Sunny Buick June 9, 2012 at 02:32

I can’t wait for the rest of this series! I have a vintage pattern for a Susie Wong dress that is a couple of sizes too small. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

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Straight Talking Mama June 9, 2012 at 03:56

Can’t wait for the rest of the series, I’ve been sewing for a long time and have always graded but never properly and I do have problems with fit sometimes, so I look forward to moving my ability forward. My biggest problem is that I’m short & small with a large bust which seems to throw patterns out terribly!

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chie June 9, 2012 at 18:48

hi casey! this is a great series. im excited to follow along! xo

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Heather June 10, 2012 at 23:59

I cannot wait for this series! I’m at a point in my sewing that I find myself thinking that if I could only make that vintage pattern larger or smaller. I am truly thrilled about the pictures as well. I am a very visual learner. Thank you, in advance!

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Helen June 11, 2012 at 03:22

I’m so glad you are doing this! I have looked at numerous posts about grading but it still baffles me.

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Megan June 11, 2012 at 07:26

I’m so excited that you are doing this. And the timing couldn’t be better. I just acquired a box of at least a hundred vintage patterns at an estate sale over the weekend and none of them are come close to being the right size for me. Can’t wait to get started!

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caroline June 13, 2012 at 08:59

I am very very much looking forward to this. I love to sew shirts for hubby, but over the years his neck has expanded to 18+ inches, which none of the pattern companies seem to make a pattern for (besides, he really likes the pattern I used years ago) — so I will really be looking forward to “uneven” grading as the neck area needs to expand but not the rest of the pattern. Thanks for doing this!!

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Portia June 17, 2012 at 06:22

Casey, thankyou so much for doing this! I have a huge stash of vintage patterns that I love but have been considering getting rid of because they are not even close to my size. I think I shall be holding off for a bit now, and following this series with interest!
Thanks again!
Px

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natalie June 20, 2012 at 01:59

Thanks casey for taking the time to hand down the much coveted grading knowledge. Ta

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Sew and smile October 20, 2012 at 09:30

Hi Casey is this the same idea for pants as well?

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Care to comment? Thank you ever so much for taking time to share your comment! Although I try to answer questions, I am not always able to respond to each comment individually. But please know that I appreciate from the bottom of my heart every comment I receive!

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