Pattern Instructions, the Japanese Way

click for a solid article on how to use a pattern. for beginners.

I often find that the biggest hurdle for new sewists who want to learn to make wearable garments is the pattern instructions.  It’s frustrating to me because I know the newb mistakenly decides it’s their own fault the pattern doesn’t work for them.  No, it probably isn’t!  Most instructions are written in a very particular (…some might say outdated) style and vocabulary, using questionable or difficult-to-master techniques and often omitting important steps like pressing or finishing a seam.*

The only patterns I unreservedly recommend to students and say “just follow the instructions and you’ll be fine” are Colette and Oliver + S.  Kwik Sew (why the spelling, KS?) usually provides fairly decent instructions, as well.  The “Big 4” patterns fall at the lower end of my preferences, especially for a novice sewist.   And naturally, Burda with its brief wording-in-translation comes dead last.

Of course, for most garments an intermediate-to-advanced sewist might not even look at the instructions.   I tend to skim, referencing back for any interesting design details.  (Once again, my only exception is Colette and Oiver + S.  I get excited when I buy one of those patterns.  The first time I open one up I always think “Ok, Liesl/Sarai, what can you teach me today?” then carefully read through the instructions.) It’s my guess that most other experienced sewists are the same, which means pattern instructions exist primarily for those who are relatively new to sewing.


A few years ago, I spotted a Japanese crafting instruction sheet for the first time.  It was for a sweet little purse to be made up in class.  I was delighted!  To me, the little diagram made perfect sense and I don’t even read Japanese.

click for article on using Japanese sewing patterns

Since then, I’ve discovered more to like about Japanese sewing patterns. How great is this diagram?  It’s a “once over” of the construction process, with the seams numbered.  I like this because it would permit me to scan the dress and understand how the designer put it together.  From  there I can decide if I need to read more in depth, or not.

Click for another excellent article helping to de-mystify sewing with Japanese patterns…

I really, really like that.

From The Cute Book, by Aranzi Aronzo

Remember how I said I think poor/scary/unfathomable sewing pattern instructions turn people off from sewing?  I love these instructions from Aranzi Aronzo- they make me want to dig out every piece of felt in my stash and madly stitch up little mascots.  It’s cute, friendly, and clearly presented.

By the way, if you haven’t been there, check out the Aranzi Aronzo website. Too fun.

So, as I work on a not-too-secret project that eats into my blogging time, I’m inspired by these useful and friendly instruction sheets out of Japan.   The instruction sheets from Sweden, however, remind me that some words are necessary.  Diagram-only instruction sheets from Ikea inspired this parody:

click for interesting article about the cognitive side of content….

I’d like to hear some venting about bad instructions, and props for good ones.  Also, do you ever sew with Japanese patterns?  What do you like?  Do you have a favorite book/designer?

Read more about using and sourcing Japanese crafting books at Label-Free, Craft Stylish, and get inspired at French-language/Japanese pattern sewing group blog Japan Couture.

*Yes, yes, sure, it “goes without saying” to press and finish seams, but when you’re first starting out sewing it doesn’t go without saying.  It’s confusing, figuring out where to finish and why and when and which way to press a seam.  It really, really doesn’t have to be.


  1. I’ve never tried a japanese pattern but I agree that Burda are the worst. I’m surprised I didn’t give up sewing after the intense frustration of making a blouse, the second thing I ever made. I love the Ikea instructions parody too, made me laugh :)

    • Hehehe. I love buying stuff from Ikea so we can put it together (once my husband and i had a race to see who could finish their bedside table quicker… it was a tie.)… I’m glad you didn’t give up on sewing! Those kinds of setbacks early on can be really demoralizing…

  2. those links are great. I have been trying to sew my first garment from a Buderick pattern (a robe, so not really rocket science) and it has been slow going. The first problem was that either the fabric shrank dramatically during the wash or it wasn’t as wide as it was supposed to be, so the recommended layout did not work. Now all I have to do is assemble it, but I have been procrastinating greatly. Hopefully with all this help, I’ll finish it this weekend :-)

  3. Oh, I’m laughing! The parody on the pictorial instructions is hilarious. My brother and I were just discussing such instructions today on the phone as we spent much of Christmas Eve after Miss Chloe went to bed constructing toys. The worst was the scooter which came with a message from Santa that he wasn’t that talented on Christmas morning. We managed a baby change centre a kitchen and something or other else. Nathan’s sister in laws partner who is a guru with bike things still struggled with the scooter Christmas night. Nath was however excited to report today that he got the tricycle that Georgia (four day old niece) bought for Chloe (big sister) together in one go despite his lack of sleep this week!! There were words in these instructions.

    Onto the patterns. Even as an exchange student with little Japanese that I had initially, sewing patterns that I glimpsed and cookbooks looked helpful. Such a shame that I didn’t have the budget to buy more books! I would have to say though that Simplicity is now making ‘learn-to-sew’ patterns and some of my year 10s were very successful in working from these this year. It is such a shame that not all of their pattern instructions are as well written as the ‘learn-to-sew’ ones are or otherwise we would have a much bigger variety for school. I must invest in some Oliver and S!

    The bunnies are cute. Perhaps Lilasaurus would love one??

    • Yes- someone else pointed out The Cute Book to me recently and I ordered one for Lila’s first crafting book… I figured she’d be really into the little mascots, and they’d be simple enough for her to learn a bit of handsewing… She used to sit on my lap while I sew, help cut, etc, but I think it’s time to actually start teaching her to make something.. :)

  4. I wouldn’t say that it “goes without saying” that you have to press and finish seams. My first garment had no pressing and no finishing because the directions didn’t say anything about it! Even after getting on the seam finishing bandwagon, I resisted pressing for a loooooong time because I hate ironing and nobody explained why it was so important. Oy, the way you learn things when you are self taught.

    I really like vintage patterns. Often they have helpful things like tips on modifying the pattern to fit, examples of techniques such as seam finishes and button holes and even the marked seam allowance (which is great if you need to grade/draft away on the pattern.) They have the numbered seams going on too.

    Sew alongs have really been what taught me the most about proper garment construction and I’d recommend them to beginner sewers. The reworded directions, construction photos, a real person to ask questions to, technique tutorials and sometimes even videos are priceless!

    I’d love to take classes from a real person but the most exciting class I’ve seen offered around where I live is a pair of draw string pj pants and I’m way beyond that now. lol. Maybe one day I’ll bite the bullet and try an online class!

    • Yes, that was my point… That finishing and pressing aren’t always included in pattern instructions because it “goes without saying” but that many many people who learn to sew don’t pick that up… Which leads to low-quality sewn garments. :)

      I like vintage patterns, too… Often they have a nifty way of attaching a design detail, etc… But sometimes the way they tell you to do something is the worst way possible…

      Sewalongs are amazing…

      A good teacher can make drawstring PJ’s fun and interesting and informative… ;) But I think you’re right, you’re past that.

      • I only really got into sewing when I got an overlocker – because then I could just pre-serge the pieces and not have to think about finishing. Otherwise, it was just too scary, because I couldn’t find any sensible information. I’m trying to learn other ways to do things, now, and I’m planning on getting the Colette book and working my way through it as a training manual with bonus garments in it! If you didn’t learn at your mother’s knee, there’s a lot that ‘goes without saying’ that needs to be said!

  5. Burda instructions may not be very good (especially for newbies) BUT I really like how they put the seam numbers on the actual pattern pieces for you to match up. Sometimes those cool modern patterns don’t always look like they have a sleeve, but really do, so the numbering helps. If only they would reference the numbers in the instructions too… I ran into this problem with My Image recently. Sometimes you just can’t figure out which way is supposed to be up!
    Also, those cute book mascots looks super cool!

    • Yeah, I never understood why you’d number a pattern and not refer to them in the instructions. Doesn’t make much sense to me…

      I know! I’m not the biggest toy maker, but I’m thinking I might get started making a few for Christmas presents… (Yes, the dreaded C word, but it’s easier to start early!)

  6. I have only used one Japanese book, Umami no Nuno Baggu (cloth bags). Despite a few years of classes, my Japanese is not good enough to read the instructions–which consist mostly of the more “advanced” Japanese–Kanji (Chinese) characters. But most of this doesn’t matter at all. The diagrams and tech drawings are pretty good. I only ask my husband to translate when I’m curious about what the author says about material notes and such. Hmm, looking at the book and its great photos again, maybe I should make another bag soon…

    • OoooH! Sounds fun. :) I don’t speak Japanese… I know… Mushi mushi, Domo Aragato, Hi, and Kawaii. But that won’t even help me order soup in a ramen house, so… ;)

  7. Those diagrams on the Japanese patterns remind me of early 1930s McCall patterns. It kind of just shows you everything together, and if you’re familiar with sewing it’s enough to get the job done :)
    On the other hand, I think most modern pattern instructions give you TOO much information. It can make the instructions confusing. My opinion is that sewing books and sewing instructions are supposed to compliment each other. If I want technique, I’ll look it up in a book. In instructions little tips are nice, especially if it’s a period or vintage technique, but I don’t expect it to teach me how to sew.

    • Yes, there’s definitely a balance between the two.. If for no other reason, then because you only have so much space on an instruction sheet! The over-explaining usually gets to me because I have to sit and read a huge chunk of text and process it without knowing if I even need to, but I don’t dare skip it all entirely lest I miss some important detail.. I like detailed instructions with a basic heading for people like us, and then the chunk of text etc for those who would like a little more explanation….

  8. Funny, I actually love IKEA instructions! I think they’re actually very clear. I am also a fan of LEGO building instructions, though, so maybe that’s why.

    I’ve never used Japanese patterns, but I’ll echo the Burda instruction frustration! When I first started sewing I only used the free downloadable patterns from their site, and was always confused about what I was supposed to do! I like how a lot of vintage patterns include helpful inserts that are like little lessons on say, fitting pants, or finishing seams, or matching plaids. Even though I don’t have any intention of sewing a particular pattern, if it’s a “Learn to Sew” pattern with an insert, I’ll get it anyway for the lesson.

    • I love Ikea instructions, too… And lego. :) But I had to represent the other side of the issue. hehe. So to speak.

      Good to know. I like learning new stuff too… Like… Marking a foldline near a raw edge using a basting stitch, then pressing along the basting. Makes total sense, but I never did it until I saw it in an Amy Butler pattern…

  9. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be stumped by patterns instructions so it’s harder to be empathetic about what less experienced sewers go through.

    Everyone grumbles about Burda magazine instructions but really, they are very good. An experienced industrial machinist told me their methods of construction are the closest she’s found to commercial production, so I surmise that how they tell us to put a garment together is both speedy and reliable. I also find that the English translations are very good, and make sense. This is no small thing – try reading the instructions from the My Image magazine for comparison! And here’s another mystery – when you first read through them you just can’t imagine how the garment will come together. But once you sit down with the garment and do each one step by step quite mysteriously the whole thing appears!

    Best of luck for your new project – I am very excited for you. When I first read you hint a while back I thought you must be pregnant again. In a way you are, but with a pattern baby.

    • Mary Nanna, a lady of your expertise and understanding will have no problem with Burda instructions, and I agree that they’re very logical and nicely thought out in terms of steps. But they’re really scary and difficult for someone who is learning to sew or is even intermediate and wanting to sew Burda. Their drafting is quite good, too, which kind of makes up for the instructions…

      Sigh… I know exactly what sentence made you think that, and I wrote “No, I’m not pregnant!” but then deleted it… ;) Lila is a sweet girl, but she’s enough for us right now.

  10. Here in the Netherlands the sewing magazines (knipmode, burda, my image etc.) have no images. When I started sewing a year ago, the instruction made no sense to me whatsoever. Because indeed they were using all these words I didn’t know, even in my own language. I often wished for a sewing dictionairy :) Luckily there was my sewing teacher to help!

    When I went on holiday to the US and bought some sewing patterns there, I saw the pictures and they were so helpfull. They also made me stop reading the instructions and mess up a couple of time but that’s a different story :)

  11. I think I have the same Japanese pattern book you referenced, and copied out of a friend’s different kids book too. I like some of the adult ones but they generally run too small for me. Trying to figure out pattern pieces, and step by step instructions is really challenging… I have a hard time focusing I guess, but haven’t made a single thing out of it yet. So lame. “It not you, lovely Japanese pattern book, it’s me!”

    Outside of that I find generally smaller pattern companies have the best instructions, by far. Broadly speaking, in my experience I’ve found Vogue seems to assume a higher level of experience, and Butterick the least, with the other two in the middle.

    I missed your super secret project… now I wanna know what it is! :D

    • Yes… I think it’s easier to change or do something differently when you’re a small company… You’re lighter and unencumbered…

  12. I love Japanese instructions! Diagrams are my favorite–no verbiage to confuse anyone. Put this here, put this here next, it’s so simple and really helpful to see how things are constructed. This style of instructions simultaneously gives you the big picture and the broken down parts. That’s one thing I don’t like about traditional guide sheets…you do one thing, then the next and you can be 4 or 5 steps in before you realize that something is utter nonsense.

    I have one Japanese book for kids (NY Kids’ Style v.1), and I use it more than anything. The styles are great, the drafting is amazing and you get awesome clothes at the end of it. I made a lined jacket from it for my oldest when he was 1 and now #2 wears it and it’s funny but he puts it on and stretches out in the sleeves, admiring himself. I always joke that he feels the quality and love in that jacket.

    Burda’s instructions are awful, but their diagrams are usually pretty good (and their drafting is really consistently good). Even in the magazine–the numbered seams in the mini diagram at the start of a pattern can really help you out of a tricky construction dilemma. They’ve saved my bacon more than once. Sandra Betzina’s instructions are also absolutely fantastic. She’s so generous with her knowledge, and she truly wants you to be successful. It makes me forgive her for 5/8″ SAs. If her patterns were just a bit more youthful, I’d chew my nails to stubs for the next of her patterns to come out.

    • Yes- I like the “big picture/small details” approach too. I’ll have to look out for that kids’ book, sounds very very useful!

  13. I have a copy of Mrs Stylebook and would really love to make something from it but find it a little daunting. This post is super helpful, thank you, and makes the whole thing a little less scary.

    • Yeah! I’d love to see what you’d make from it… :) The name of the book made me smile, and when Iooked it up the styles are just lovely. Go for it. :)

  14. My husband would love that article about cognitive content. He is writing some articles about learning styles. I’m definitely a visual learner, and have a few Japanese sewing books and they make perfect sense to me! It makes me laugh, though, to remember our first Ikea experience–a bed frame–that took three days, several bottles of wine, and a lot of speculation about how the Swedish learn.

    I’m wondering if more people are learning their primary sewing skills from sewing patterns (or from the internet) than used to be the case, and this is why patterns need to change their instructional approach (as Colette came right on the scene doing, being so geared toward today’s learner). I learned to sew from hands-on–mom and school–and then used the patterns like Vogue, Butterick to understand more technique. Not that the patterns were always comprehensible then but there was at least someone nearby who could help. (I definitely remember them telling me to press seams…) I think the same goes with Burda… there are so many talented European sewists who grew up developing technique from Burda, but probably learned the basics from another seamstress?

    • I think maybe it’s just more people are learning to sew… When I was a kid, and even as a teenager, sewing was kind of “weird.” Know what I mean? I couldn’t have imagined sewing and the internet as it is now…

      Perhaps more people pick up a sewing pattern and want to sew right off the bat? It seems to me that in general, people used to learn sewing basics at home or at school, but I don’t think that’s the case for most people anymore… It’s interesting..

  15. I’ve really only sewn with the big 4, and I generally find the instructions good enough, and often really helpful. But then, I learned how to sew at a young age, so I knew about a lot of the basics; I’m not sure how they’d be for someone brand spanking new at sewing.

    Actually…I just got my first non-big 4 pattern a couple months ago, the Colette Peony. I should really try making that up soon to see the difference. I’m afraid it’ll ruin me for the big 4 though. :D

  16. I just finished another Sewaholic pattern, and I think Tasia has a good balance there with not too much instruction, but enough to get you where you need to be. I’m a very literal person, and I love instructions and always use them, but there’s a point where to much is confusing, like you said. And I know for me, I absorb the little tips I see on everyone’s blogs, and then I can refer to specific tutorials or posts for more help if I need it, or just cruise along if I don’t. I referred to your stretch Clover posts last week when I was working on my Thurlows. Thanks, btw!

  17. It seems to be time to stop lurking as I have been giving this issue some thought lately. I think you are on the right track with the big picture/small details approach. It’s a bit like having an executive summary. My preference would be for an order of construction (either written or the way it is shown in the picture above from the Japanes sewing book) and then to have detailed instructions that you can also refer to. Using the same numbering so it is easy to see which step of construction you are up to and what the techniques/detailed instructions are for that step. I quite like detailed instructions as I will usually learn something from reading and following them, or there is enough information to work out that I would like to sew it differently. However, I find that it is confusing having a lot of information that is not always easy to get to (fold out sheets – where are they meant to sit on my sewing table?). The best way around this for me is to write up a list of the steps I am going to do and then only go back to the instructions when I need to.

  18. I have two Stylebooks (Mrs Stylebook?) and yes, I love how I can understand the diagrams without knowing any Japanese! In fact, I drew myself a little guide for several Japanese signs the meaning of which I drew from the diagrams… My sister was greatly amused by that.

    It seems bad pattern instructions are a German thing. Burda’s not worst; that prize goes to the vintage sewing magazines I have in my hands because those have basically NO pattern instructions. And the same goes for my mom’s East German pattern magazines from 70s and 80s – they only have VERY brief instructions on the Czech pettern sheet; who knows what was in the original. Burda still rocks compared to that. And since this model is what I grew up with, I was amazed when I got my first vintage Butterick and Simplicity’s…
    Although in the vintage department (still talking about German patterns), I think it’s because back then, nearly everyone had a sewing instruction book at home. My mom certainly did.

    I like knowing the order of construction, yes, but I also like knowing of ways to go around that if I do something wrong or don’t like the order given… Which is, I think, where diagrams of the sewn-up garment may help.
    And for seamstresses with bad 3D imagination (not my case, but there are people like that out there, like my sister), I think it would be very helpful if the seamlines on the pattern pieces were numbered according to the diagram. Or, like I did with my PDF pattern, numbering the corresponding “points”. Notches are not enough, IMHO. does that make sense?

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