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So you’ve downloaded a pattern from the Internet, or maybe you’ve bought a pattern packet but you don’t want to cut it up, or the instructions are not-so-great. Here’s how to handle it.

Paper selection

You need to decide what you’re printing on. If you’re going to be cutting out the pattern and tracing around it, you probably want cardstock. If you’re going to be tracing the pattern onto freezer paper or iron-on adhesive (see below), regular bond paper is fine.

If you’re using an inkjet or other non-heating printer (no lasers!) you may be able to run freezer paper or adhesive directly through the printer. Cut an appropriately-sized piece out, make sure it’s as flat as possible, and make sure you have the non-coated side facing the right direction. Just don’t run it through a printer that warms the paper, or you may “iron” it onto the internals of the printer.

Size selection

Next you need to figure out what size you’re printing. If the pattern is A4 but your paper is US Letter, or vice versa, you may need to override your printer to be sure it prints at 100% - or if the pattern goes off the edge of the page when you do this, at least be sure that you are reducing every page by the same amount. Don’t forget to adjust things like safety eye sizes and seam allowances if you have to reduce a pattern.

Figuring out the size of a graphic

If you’re printing a non-vector graphic (a JPG, PNG, GIF, etc.) rather than a PDF or SVG, it can be even more challenging. Let’s use Runo’s dolphin as an example. Although it doesn’t say how large to print the GIF at, there’s a scale on the image.

Measuring the scale

I’ve opened it in GIMP, increased my view percentage to 400%, and used the selection tool to mark the scale - it’s 190 pixels wide. That works out to 38 dots per centimeter, or about 96 dpi. Set print settings to that, or calculate that at 660x920 that graphic should print at 17.37 centimeters wide (660/38) - 6.84 inches.

Figuring out seam allowances

If a pattern doesn’t explicitly give seam lines it can be hard to figure out exactly what, if any, seam allowance is given in a pattern. If you can’t tell from tutorial photos, cut out a pattern and “dry fit” it. Match the edges of pieces together, especially where a curve meets a straight line. If the edges of the pattern are exactly the same length, chances are good (but not guaranteed) that it’s a seam line. If they don’t, try matching at a 1/4” or 5mm seam allowance point. If course, if the pattern assumes you’re going to gather or ease a curved seam, all bets are off.

Look for blunt corners, especially at sharply pointed pattern pieces. That’s usually a sign of seam allowances, and that the seam will come to a point at or very near the edge of the cut-off point. But many patterns assume you’ll clip the corners after you sew, so sharp points don’t guarantee a seam line.

Worst case, sew a muslin - a test piece in a very cheap fabric such as muslin - before committing your real fabric.

Printing oversized patterns

But what if you want to print an A4 or tabloid-sized pattern on US Letter at 100%? Some printer drivers can handle this all on their own, in which case you’re set. More likely you’ll need to do some manual adjustment, though.

If it’s a GIF, open it up in an editor like GIMP and just select a paper-sized chunk of the pattern. Copy the selection, paste it into a new graphic, figure out your DPI and print. Repeat until you’ve printed all the pattern, remembering to allow some overlap so you can match the puzzle together accurately.

If it’s a PDF or SVG, open it in a vector editing program like Inkscape. Set your document size to your paper size. Now grab the pattern, and drag it so that the document outline covers a corner of the pattern. Print (or export to a PDF and print from that), drag the pattern so a new section is in the printing area, and repeat. Again, allow overlap. If you’d like, drop a few stars or other reference shapes on the part that’s going to overlap to give you something more specific to match up. Just remember to move the reference shapes along with the pattern.

Printing oversized example 1

Printing oversized example 2

Transferring the pattern

Always assume a pattern is made to be used on the “wrong” side of the fabric. That’s the side without fuzz, for pile fabrics, or the side with the sticker, if you’re using craft felt - there’s usually little to no difference in felt sides but it’s always best to be consistent in your choice. Flip the pattern, not the fabric, to mark reversed pieces.

I prefer to transfer the seam line rather than the cutting line, especially for hand-sewing. If you’re machine-sewing and you transfer the seam line, make sure you’re very consistent in cutting your seam allowance width since you won’t be able to see both seam lines when it’s in the machine. If you’re cutting felt, the seam line usually is the cutting line, so the point is moot.

If you transfer the cutting line, or if the seam line doesn’t show through the fabric, you can use a very fine-point felt-tip, even a permanent marker - unlike garment sewing, nobody is going to see the seam allowances once they’re turned in. Otherwise, sewing stores sell disappearing markers specifically for this purpose. (Hint: in a pinch, even a “permanent” marker is generally alcohol-soluble, though it can be hard to get the pigment to spread out enough to disappear. Sometimes you can salvage a disaster by rinsing the fabric in rubbing alcohol.)

If the fabric is too dark for marker to show up, try tracing it with chalk. If you don’t have a sharp chalk pencil, regular blackboard chalk works too - just carefully rub the side of the chalk around the edges of the pattern, like you’re making a crayon rubbing. You can do this on either the pattern’s cutting line or the seam line - but chalk rubs off easily, so be gentle with your chalked fabric so you don’t lose your seam lines. Transfer and cut one pattern piece at a time or your last piece’s chalk may disappear before you get to it.

Be especially careful with stretchy, knit-back fabrics - the marker or chalk can tug some fabrics out of shape easily. Hold the pattern down tightly at the edge close to where you’re tracing.

Lastly, if marking the fabric just isn’t working, print the pattern on lightweight paper and pin or weight it directly to the fabric. If the lightest paper your printer will take is still too heavy, trace it onto tissue paper - the pattern-making kind tears less readily than the gift-wrapping kind, and you can usually find bins of out-of-style, uncut patterns for pennies in secondhand stores.

There are a couple of other methods to use for small, precise pattern pieces, usually on felt. They will work only on fabrics that present a very smooth surface for the sticky stuff to “grab” - good felt, calicos, etc. Open weaves or knits don’t do well. High-pile fabrics that flex a lot at the edge of the iron can also pose a problem.

Freezer paper method

Trace the seam lines of your pattern onto the non-shiny side of freezer paper. Cut roughly around the pattern piece(s), and iron them onto the fabric. Test small samples of the paper and fabric to find a setting that will attach the paper without melting or scorching the fabric or paper. The paper won’t bond tightly, especially to synthetics, but if you’re careful it will hold well enough to allow you to cut the fabric/paper sandwich. When you’re done, just peel it off. You can even re-use the freezer paper bits.

Iron-on adhesive

If you’re making an applique piece, your adhesive will work just like freezer paper except, of course, it will bond better.

Cellophane/scotch tape method

Print your pattern on lightweight paper, and cut it out. Punch holes in larger pattern pieces, and put tape over the holes to stick the pieces down to the fabric. Tape smaller pieces, and any stick-out-y pieces of larger patterns, to the felt. Then simply cut around the patterns, through the tape as necessary.

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