The first thing you'll notice is a large, usually 4-digit number and a basic drawing of the garments included in the pattern. We'll use the pattern I'm currently working on as an example: Simplicity 2172. Each company (Simplicity, Butterick, Vogue, Laughing Moon, etc) will assign a number to each pattern that is unique to their own company. Much like in Highlander, there can be only one Simplicity 2172. If you look up Vogue 2172, however, you'll find a completely different pattern.
|You like my outfit? I made it myself!|
|Objects in drawing may not appear to scale.|
Other information that may jump out to you is the number of pieces included in the pattern. This tells you how many pattern shapes are included in the envelope - not how many "pieces" are in the ensemble (i.e. a 3-piece-suit could have a skirt, jacket and shirt which could consist of upwards of 20 actual pattern pieces). A sneak peak at one of the directions pages included in the envelope will give you a numbered diagram for all of the pieces - more on that later, when we delve into the mysteries of pattern directions!
The rest of the envelope back is taken up with the yardages chart, and while it may be intimidating, most of it is superfluous information! Hooray! Due to labeling laws requiring products in Canada to contain both English and French directions, half of your pattern may be incomprehensible to you (that is, if you took Spanish in high school like I did). The other half should have English words you recognize, like "fabric" and "notions" and "nap." If you're anything like me when I started sewing from patterns, "nap" meant "yay I can sleep for an hour before I have to go to class" and "notions" meant "those crazy ideas my friends and I have when we're staying up really late and haven't been taking naps to deal with our sleep debt." Oh, hark at the babe, such innocence and ignorance!
|I'll take my fabric with nap, please!|
The great thing about modern patterns is that they will give you a choice of fabrics that will work well with your pattern. In the case of 2172, Simplicity recommends broadcloth, calico, taffeta, and gingham, with organza for the ruffles. You don't have to restrict yourself to the suggested fabrics, but you may want to leave experimentation until you've got a firmer grasp on how different materials and weaves perform. The pattern will also tell you what notions (or "hardware") your pattern requires - basically, the thread and things other than fabric that you'll need to put your pattern together. Buttons, hook & eye closures, and zippers are all really common for garments; and various kinds of boning or horsehair may be required for very tailored or formal pieces.
|Not this kind of horse hair.|
The rest is fabric yardages (or, how much fabric you need to buy, measured in yards; 3 feet = 1 yard), and this is where it can get tricky. The chart is broken up between each garment included in the pattern. For example, our Simplicity 2172 has a section for coat, bustier, and skirt. Each section will list a kind of fabric, and you follow it over to the column lining up with your pattern size to find out how much of that fabric you need. The facing - or "fashion" fabric, which everyone will see on the outside - is usually simply listed as "45" or "60". Fabric comes in different widths, and the amount you need depends on how wide your fabric is; the narrower the fabric, the more yards you'll need. 45" and 60" are both pretty common, but you may also see 54" or other oddball widths depending on where you're shopping or what kind of fabric you're looking at. The asterisks indicate whether the fabric widths take into account the nap or not. You wont really need to worry about this unless you're using a fabric like velvet or velour, where the "nap" refers to the threads that stick up to make the fabric fluffy. If you are using a fabric with nap, you may need to buy extra yardage, so you can cut your pieces out all along the same "grain".
When I'm getting ready to go fabric shopping, I like to re-write the chart so that it contains only the information I need - my sizes and yardages. Then I add up all the yardages for each garment so I know how much of each fabric I need for the entire project, and write that all down. I find it way to easy to get confused while shopping, and many stores get grumpy if you try to return the two extra yards of that 40% off silk you bought but don't need. Measure twice and cut once applies here! Or rather, double check your numbers, and be nice to the cutting table clerk. Those shears are sharp!
|Not cool, dude.|
The bottom of your chart may include finished garment measurements - what your measurements will be while wearing the garment), but I mostly ignore this part. I've never really had to know how big my bust is in a particular shirt, but if you're mixing pieces from different patterns (such as might happen in costuming), you may need to know if one layer will actually fit under another.
And there you go! Now you know how to read the back of a pattern envelope! It really isn't so bad once you get used to it.