While tracing sewing patterns may seem really obvious to you, most of us haven’t traced anything since elementary school. The first time I tried to trace a sewing pattern I was left perplexed and wondering if I was doing it right.
In this article...
So, I decided to cover all the instructions there are to know about tracing patterns in this post so you’ll be filled with confidence next time you pick up your pencil and pattern paper.
What is pattern tracing?
Tracing sewing patterns is a technique used to transfer the garment of an original sewing pattern to another piece of fabric by tracing it.
The same pattern markings are copied onto pattern paper with a coloured pen, fabric pen or marking roller.
Why trace a pattern?
By tracing a sewing pattern rather than using the original, you can reuse it time and again so you can make the same garment in a different size. It also allows you to add any embellishments or make any design tweaks such as adding different shaped sleeves, or changing length of pant legs.
There are a few other reasons why you should only ever trace a sewing pattern from now on:
Firstly when we cut into a sewing pattern, it presumes we’ll only ever need one size garment. While that may be true for you, most of us are multiple sizes over our lives.
To trace a sewing pattern keeps the different sizes on a multi-sized printed pattern intact for later. If you find that you fluctuate in size, it means you can use the same pattern to make the fabric garment again.
I had the great idea to gift pattern pieces and fabric to my sewing friends if they complimented something I made from an original tissue pattern.
Homemade trace sewing patterns make the most wonderful gifts, but you may not be the same size as your friend which is why we trace sewing patterns.
When you transfer patterns, you have a copy that you can play around with, whether you want to create fitted adjustments to your individual body shape on a pattern piece when you sew or add your own embellishments.
When you trace a pattern you aren’t causing any damage to the original so you can reuse it repeatedly. As the original (unless it’s a PDF pattern) isn’t being handled as much, it will stay intact.
NOTEThis is particularly helpful if it is a delicate tissue pattern or a vintage pattern that could be passed down to future generations.
If you have a pattern that includes several sizes and the pattern pieces are overlapping, you can transfer those pieces repeatedly.
We all know that practice makes perfect! Tracing a sewing pattern from tissue paper will help you to practice this process before you trace the pattern onto your fabric for the final cut. Even tracing the pattern out once will help limit mistakes.
If you need some easy patterns to trace, here’s my collection of bag sewing patterns.
TIPIf you have bought and downloaded multi-sized PDF patterns that you have printed out at home, you may not need to trace a pattern as you can print it out in different sizes when you are ready to sew.
What is pattern tracing paper called?
There are no rules on what pattern paper to use for sewing patterns, so choose what works for you. You want a fabric that the tracings stay on during all sewing, and that are easy to fold up to make it easier when you cut and sew fabrics. Some options are:
Swedish Tracing Paper
Bonded textile (Swedish tracing paper) is very strong for paper patterns – about as strong as a dryer sheet. It can be stitched on to make toiles and it won’t tear or curl at the edges. It will not disintegrate under a spiky tracing wheel when you create new pattern pieces, or with repeat pins or tailor tacks sewn through.
I like to use big rolls of baking paper for convenience as I always have a roll in the house for cooking. This can be quite slippery, but the pencil is transferred onto the baking roll easily.
Another alternative is to use a non-translucent paper, such as brown paper. Brown paper is very sturdy making it a good choice for patterns you will reuse a lot. I also find that a roll of brown paper is more economical than other options.
You lay the pattern on the top of the paper, trace the pattern with a tracing wheel, then go over the indentations with a pencil.
If you don’t know how to use a tracing wheel, you can read my guide on how to use tracing wheel.
What paper to use for tracing sewing patterns?
The selection of fabric used for pattern tracing is far and wide – technically you can use any type of paper for pattern tracing. You can use brown or butcher paper, artist tracing paper, medical exam table paper, lightweight flip chart material or dot fabric, to transfer a pattern onto before sewing.
How to trace a sewing pattern?
To trace new pattern pieces onto freezer paper or parchment paper is relatively easy, as long as you follow some simple tips and instructions.
When the original pattern and parchment paper have been prepared you trace around it in the correct size, making sure there is a seam allowance usually between ⅛” – ½” in size.
Things you’ll need
There are some things you’ll need in the set up of tracing your pattern.
The sewing pattern needs to be as flat as possible and be pressed with an iron to smooth out any creases for an accurate trace.
For those of you who don’t have a sewing pattern yet, here’s my collection of sewing patterns for beginners.
Whichever tracing paper or tissue paper you decide to use, make sure it’s also flat and pressed.
You can use a table, a cutting mat or the floor. Just make sure it is completely flat for accuracy when you trace a pattern.
It’s really important to have perfect visibility of the pattern you are tracing and sewing. Working in a well lit room or close to a lamp will help you to trace a sewing pattern accurately. Eventually you could invest in a tracing light box.
Pencil is a good starting point to make the first scores when copying the sewing patterns.
An eraser is useful on standby just in case you make mistakes making the new patterns.
Fine liner or marker
I prefer to use a finer pen for the final outline when I trace a sewing pattern. You can also keep the marker out to transfer the new pattern onto the fabrics used for sewing.
Weights are essential to hold the pattern flat. You can use weights from kitchen scales, or any household objects that will help to pin down. Some people prefer to use tape but be careful when pulling it off as it sticks very well to most fabrics.
As you are cutting through material for the pattern, you need some paper scissors to assist you at the end.
Steps for tracing patterns
These steps are for using a transparent paper over the top of your sewing pattern. If you are using a non-translucent pattern you can follow the same steps, but place the pattern on top and make markings using a tracing wheel.
Press the pattern with an iron
To get a perfectly traced pattern you need to start by making sure the pattern itself lays out nice and flat. If it’s crumpled, give it a press with a cool dry iron to smooth it out.
Lay out and prepare the sewing pattern
If you’re using a multisized pattern you might find it useful to highlight your size first. This does really help you to see which line to trace. Go over each line in a coloured pen and don’t forget the markings such as notches, grainline arrows and gather points too.
Lay flat and apply weight
Lay tracing paper onto the fabric top and secure everything down with either tape or weights. I used to use little shot glasses as they were a good weight yet small enough to be moved easily without causing any tears.
RECOMMENDATIONI recommend that you avoid using pins here as they can make the pattern rise up slightly and thus change the shape that you’re tracing.
Using a light pencil so you can erase any mistakes, start by quickly dotting the corners every couple of cm or so on any curve of the whole pattern.
Then add in the markings – notches, cutting lines, fold lines, and grain lines. Make sure to include the correct seam allowance suggested by the manufacturer.
Check nothing has shifted and all your markings are in the right place. Now join up the straight lines and corners with straight rules and join the dots on the curved lines with a curved ruler or French curve ruler –or with a steady hand if you don’t have a rule.
Remove sewing patterns
When you remove the pattern piece, weights and carbon paper, you should have a nice outline of your pattern piece. Once you’re happy that your lines are accurate you can go over them in a pen to mark the pattern clearly.
TIPUsing a finer pen in the final tracing will help to keep the pattern more accurate.
Then carefully using a rotary cutter and mat or some sharp scissors carefully cut out the pattern and away you sew!
Finally, you can label your pattern pieces, so when you find them in a few months in your pattern storage, you know all the information about them and how to use them! You can write the name of the pattern on each piece, how many pieces there are, the size and fitting or design etc.
For additional tips on tracing patterns, watch this video below.
In a pinch, any fabric will do to trace a sewing pattern alas having the right tools (which does include paper) makes the job much smoother.
Do you have any tracing tips of your own to share? What have you traced and cut out recently? I’d love to know in the comments below!