Sewing Pattern Symbols & Their Definition

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lessons helps unlock the code of symbols found on sewing patterns. With the most common symbols explained, and some instructions that combine symbols, students will be ready to tackle sewing projects in no time.

Decoding the Pattern

So you bought the perfect fabric, got a sewing machine, and picked out a pattern for something you want to make. Unfortunately, when you took the pattern out of the package, you realized it was covered in strange symbols and many different kinds of lines; some solid and some with dashes or dots. Luckily, those symbols are fairly standard across the sewing and pattern industry. Let's take a look at the most common symbols, what they mean, and how to use them when sewing!


Lines are the most common symbols on a pattern, highlighting the edges of each piece you need to cut from your fabric. However, different lines mean very different things.

Four line examples

  • Cutting Lines: These lines indicate where to cut the fabric to match the shapes on the pattern. They are solid lines and easy to identify. For patterns offering multiple sizes, you may see several cutting lines, each with the size printed on or near the line to help ensure you always cut the correct one for your size.
  • Pattern Adjustment Lines: Another type of solid line you may are pattern adjustment lines. These allow you to make a garment longer or shorter based on your needs. These run across a piece and usually appear as two parallel lines. The space between the lines depends on the degree of lengthening or shortening required.
  • Fold Lines: When cutting a symmetrical piece, patterns often recommend folding the fabric in half and cutting. When unfolded, the fabric forms the desired shape, takes less cutting time, and guarantees perfect symmetry. A folded line looks like a cutting line with breaks along it. You align the fold line with the folded edge of the fabric, leaving no extra space.
  • Stitch Lines: These lines are far less common in contemporary patterns, but they have a use which we will see in the next symbol. Stitch lines are lines made of dashes. You can tell the difference between a fold line and a stitch line by the length of line segments. Fold lines use longer dashes while stitch lines use shorter ones.

Three lines from patterns

  • Fold and Stitch lines: One of the only times you will see both fold and stitch lines used together on a pattern occurs with pleated garments. This directs you how to repeatedly fold the fabric and how far along the fold you need to stitch.
  • Center Front and Center Back Lines: These lines help during the fitting process of garment production, before sewing the pieces together. Once the fabric pieces, with the pattern still attached, are pinned together, you need to drape the garment on a form or a live model to ensure it fits correctly. These lines help ensure that the center of the garment properly aligns with the center of the body. You can identify these lines because they look like Morse code, using dashed with a dot in between them.
  • Grainlines: These lines are extremely important to creating a properly fitted, well-constructed garment, but to explain them, we first need to understand some basics of fabric weaving. If you look closely at any piece of clothing you are currently wearing, you will see the cloth is woven from two sets of parallel threads. In one direction, running parallel to each other, you have the warp threads which are stronger than those going the other direction. The threads running perpendicular to the warp thread, while parallel to themselves, are the weft threads which are weaker. Warp threads stand out more when looking closely at a piece of fabric so you always want them running the same direction when the pieces are sewn together. This is where grainlines help. These lines, with an arrow point on each end, should align with the warp threads and run in the same direction.

Non-line Symbols

Lines are not the only symbols you will see on a pattern. Let's look at some of other markings you need to know.

Notches, Buttonholes, and Buttons

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