How to Trace Sewing Patterns

I distinctly recall my first purchase of a Burda World of Fashion magazine (which by the way, is now BurdaStyle magazine). I remember falling absolutely, insanely in love with a dress (that I have yet to make) on the front cover of the magazine and purchasing it up real quick like. I got the magazine home and started flipping through the endless pages of photos of all the patterns in the mag and thinking, “Gosh, this is amazing! All these patterns in one magazine.” I remember when I found this really big sheet of paper at the end of the magazine that had lots and lots of lines all over it and then it hit me like an anvil that those were the actual pattern pieces. There they were all nested like a hot mess on top of each other, and there I was completely horrified at the thought of having to trace one off. This before I even knew that they didn’t have seam allowances to boot. This is not to say that I don’t actually appreciate these types of patterns, I do – especially as they have become more popular in sewing books that come with patterns – its just that I wasn’t educated on how to properly trace a pattern. I had never traced off a pattern before and the idea really perplexed me. For starters, where in the world would I find paper that was big enough? And what would I do then? Just take a pencil and start outlining my size? And what if there were something like 12 – 15 pattern pieces? And then I have to add a seam allowance too? It felt really overwhelming and I think, to someone who has only ever worked with Big 4 patterns (Simplicity, McCall’s, Butterick & Vogue) and just cut your size from the tissue, you might think the same thing.

Today I wanted to show you two ways to trace off a sewing pattern. Both methods work for tracing off patterns that come nested on one big sheet of paper and those that come in an envelope too. If you are asking why you would want to trace off an envelope pattern, rather than just cutting out your size, I would say that choice is up to you.  If you feel that its a pattern you’ll keep in your stash forever and want to wear again when you’re 40 but at the moment, you’re 25, trace it because its almost guaranteed that you’re body will change as you age putting you in a different size bracket. If not, don’t trace it and just cut your pattern size from the tissue. Ok? Ok.

Method #1
I’ve tried many methods for tracing off a pattern, so as one who is always looking for the latest and greatest in pattern tracing technology (ha ha!) I’ll show you my two favorites. First, let’s start with the less expensive. To trace in this manner you’ll need three elements:

Layout your pattern with the piece you want to trace facing up. Lay the medical exam paper or paper of your choice on top of the pattern and then lay down a few heavy objects (like cans of food or pattern weights) or pin the trace off paper to the pattern so the papers don’t slip and slide around. From there, start the tracing game. Trace off your size, with the aid of the ruler (seriously, this is a TON easier with a ruler), label your pattern piece and if needed, add the seam allowance. Adding that seam allowance is made only about 1000 times easier with one of those 2″ x 18″ gridded rulers. In addition, you’ll use that sucker for so many other things, its not even funny. Get one. You know you need it. By the way, I have 3 because I loose these puppies all the time and having more than one makes it a bunch easier to find at least one….

Method #2 – Sunni’s favorite method of all time!
This is the best, easiest, coolest method on the face of the planet, for tracing off a pattern! If you’re in it to win it, and save yourself a butt-load of precious time (because who has that in abundance these days), you need the following:

  • Paper – again, my favorite is medical exam paper, but for this method any paper will really do ya.
  • Waxed Tracing Paper – this stuff is fabulous, amazing, the best thing since sliced bread and anything else you can possibly imagine.
  • Double Tracing Wheel – this is a FREAKING GODSEND when it comes to those Burda magazine patterns that need a seam allowance because this little doodad will trace off and add the seam allowance in one. fell. swoop. You can also use a regular old tracing wheel too, so no pressure or anything.

You’re going to make a little trace off sandwich here. First, lay out the tracing paper with the waxy side up – by the way, the blue and red are the best for this sort of thing. Then lay your paper of choice on top of that. Add your pattern on top of that and slap down a few pattern weights and you’re good to trace. Take your tracing wheel and start a tracing yo. That’s right, I said, YO! No pain. Less time consuming and well, less mental and emotional trauma. In addition, of you don’t have concerns about the fit, you can actually use this method directly on the final fabric. Or you can use this method directly on muslin too. Whatevs. To make the sandwich with fabric, I lay down the fabric first with the wrong sides out, then the tracing paper face down on the fabric, then the pattern.

A word about tools for this method. I sell all the tools here for doing both methods in my shop. You can find that stuff here. The wax tracing paper is huge and will last a long time – like years. The medical exam paper will last quite a long time too it being 75 yards and all. The double tracing wheel is so cool! Here’s some up close shots, just in case you were curious as to how this works. It works by repositioning the pegs that have the actual wheel on them. You can reposition them to any width from 1/4″ to 1 1/4″.  Or you can just use one peg and ditch the other one if your pattern has seam allowances already. Whatever.

If you’re newer to tracing off sewing patterns, I truly hope this little tutorial has helped give you a few options to think about. There’s always more than one way to skin a cat, and knowing that is half the battle. So there you go. My two favorite ways to skin a cat, I mean trace off a sewing pattern. In addition, because I feel SOOOOOOO passionately about this subject, I made my first ever video. I hope you like it. It will give you a quick and dirty action packed run down of what I’m talking about here.

Don’t use either of the methods above? How do you trace off a pattern?

  • Alexandra - At the risk of sounding like a TOTAL geek, I actually trace EVERY pattern I have, unless it’s a ‘print at home’ one. I HATE doing it, but I can’t seem to give it up. I definitely need to have another try with wax paper and tracing wheel though, as I know it would be quicker!ReplyCancel

  • Maggie - I have always done method one for tracing, but now that you have shown me method two, I clearly see what I have been missing!! I am going to need to get myself one of those double-wheeled tracing tools and the waxed paper asap!ReplyCancel

  • LadyD - I use greaseproof paper/baking parchment I buy from 99p shop. I’ve always used it as an alternative to tracing paper. I find it quite sturdy.
    I don’t have a tracing wheel. how do you know if a pattern has seam allowances or not?ReplyCancel

  • Penny - I am like Alexandra and trace everything – mostly because it is skating attire for DD and she is growing, growing, growing. However, this year I have set a goal to sew at least one garment a month for myself and I cannot stand big box patterns. Yes I can get them quite inexpensive, but I just love the originallity of the smalll pattern companies – so method 2 here I come.ReplyCancel

  • Francesca - I love the idea of the double tracing wheel – I’ve been sewing since I was a teenager and at that time in Malta there were only Bura and Neue Mode mags so you had to trace patterns! What I learnt from my aunt – the only family seamstress – was to use greapseproof paper and trace off the pattern after ironing the Burda sheet. Then I’d lay it on the fabric and cut round calculating seam allowances – i.e. eyeballing them. Most stuff worked. I also used carbon (tracing) paper for marking darts/ And notches everywhere else. I have gottne spoilt using US patterns with their inbuilt seam allowances and even though I still buy the Burda sometimes it seems such a hassle now I haven’t made a Burda item for yonks. This double tracer and your method sound great. Thanks for this.ReplyCancel

  • Jennifer - Thank you! Wonderful article.ReplyCancel

  • Kessem - Thanks for this!
    To be honest I always have issues with trcing the notches and so on to the fabric rather tracing the pattern – do you have any tips for that?
    Thanks Sunni!ReplyCancel

  • Jenny - I don’t usually trace unless I know that I have to make many adjustments and if the pattern cost more than $2.99!
    I am eyeing the wax paper for my next purchase from your shop :) (which will be very, very soon)
    I use good ole computer paper to trace and tape to my patterns – I just learned I have to do FBA’s on my fitted patterns.ReplyCancel

  • Allynara - I use method one on all my patterns: you never know what you want to do with the patterns in the future. I used to transfer my traced pattern onto the fabric using your second method, but as I made a couple of clothing using the same pattern, the darts and stuff started falling out of the pattern or leave gaps. And I’m just not the girl for gaps and such. So for me, I prefer method one, over method 2, even though method 2 is faster and less time-consuming. It depends on how long you want your pattern to last.ReplyCancel

  • linB - I confess that I do not trace: I use the tailor’s method of “weight the paper, fold back and cut to mirror the line.” Preserves the entire pattern without the need to trace, but you have to be confident in your scissor skills.ReplyCancel

  • Jen - I use a variation on method #2. I use tissue (gift wrapping) paper and soft pencils to make a tracing of the pattern pieces from the magazine sheet or printed pattern. Colored pencils work well, or a marker that doesn’t bleed through too much. Then I use the double tracing wheel and the carbon/tracing paper to transfer the markings + seam allowances on to the cloth. (If I am using a knit though, I often just omit the seam allowance marking and do it by eye at 1/4″ or so.) I like this method because, especially with Burda patterns, an accurate and precise seamline in so important.
    ~JenReplyCancel

  • Amanda - I trace everything! Lol, and i actually enjoy it; its like zen; becoming one with my project ^_^ I use the first method but i REALLY like your adjustable double tracing wheel, and have been meaning to try the wax paper method for some time :) ReplyCancel

  • ShanniLoves... - Thanks you so much for this post!!! Currently I use freezer paper and a pencil and I have to be in very good lighting because it’s hard to see the pattern. I’m going to give the old tracing wheel a try once you get some more in your shop!ReplyCancel

  • Qui Pardue - I’ve used a similar method to #1, using baking paper and sharpies. But, I had no idea double tracing wheels existed!! Those are awesome for adding seam allowance. Might just have to get one. Your video is adorable, love the music. Thanks Sunni!ReplyCancel

  • Riet - aha! you showed me a shortcut I never thought off (stupid me). Almost always sewing with Burdastyle patterns, I used to trace with the first method you showed. Than I would add seamallowence with the double tracing wheel and waxing paper. How good to know I can do it all at once! yeay and thanks a lot.ReplyCancel

  • Mainelydad - I’m totally hooked on a product called Swedish tracing paper. It’s sort of like a lightweight Tyvek. Translucent and very durable. You can actually sew it to make a fitting muslin, although I’ve never tried it. I add the seam allowances with a 6″ sewing gauge ruler, which is very conveniently 5/8″ wide. I slide the ruler along my traced line and mark the seam allowances. This is not as efficient as your double tracing wheel method, but it’s another way to do it.ReplyCancel

  • crystalpleats - I admit to being a tracer of any type of pattern. The safe route – totally my personality! But I will admit here to owning an embarrassingly large collection of Burda mags and never have sewn even one item from any of them! Granted, I’ve sewn very few garments total, but that really needs to change. I guess I need to go shopping in your store and get to work on one.ReplyCancel

  • Sarah - I also trace everything. You never know when you might want to make it again, plus I can scribble my alterations all over the pattern without worrying about it.ReplyCancel

  • Ebony - I love that video! Typically I trace nearly all my patterns because it relieves me from the anxiety of worrying over ruining the pattern as I make adjustments to it. However, I HATE the extra work of tracing them off. Looking at what quick work you made of things with your wax paper I’m convinced that I need to try upgrading my method.

    Questions: Could a girl use that wax paper to transfer markings to fabric? Maybe a girl wouldn’t want to, seeing as it’s wax and all… But this looks just like the paper I’ve seen Kenneth D. King using in his Craftsy class, which he uses to mark the garment fabric. Also, I, like Mainelydad, am on the swedish tracing paper band wagon. Would you think I could use the wax paper just as easily with that stuff?

    Thanks for your post!ReplyCancel

  • Emily - Love the video!ReplyCancel

  • Lynn - I do something similar to method 2. However, my sandwich goes like this: Thick plastic, pattern, tracing paper (waxy side down), paper. The thick plastic (sort of like clear shower curtain) protects the pattern from ripping, and by switching the tracing paper and paper your pattern is a copy instead of a mirror image.ReplyCancel

  • Sunni - @Alexandra – I’m now on this bandwagon too! I must be a geek too (totally not a bad thing). I’ve messed up way too many sewing patterns with my slashes and dashes and such. Much better to keep it all intact, in my opinion.

    @Maggie – Totally worth it! Oh my gosh, its totally worth it!

    @LadyD – I used to use parchment/baking paper too, but the only kind I can find doesn’t tape well and I definitely intend to slash and spread and such, so the parchment paper isn’t the best option for me. I was onto wax paper for awhile too, but I can’t write anything on that – though it does tape well. For me, the medical exam paper is the best! I can write on it and it tapes well too.
    Also, a sewing pattern should always denote, somewhere, what seam allowances it has. You can usually find it somewhere in the instructions, like in the beginning in all that mumbo jumbo with the crazy illustrations. I know, I don’t read that either.

    @Kessem – With notches I usually snip into the fabric. With other markings like darts, I use chalk pens. I can definitely do a tutorial for all of those things too if you like.

    @Allynara – I couldn’t agree more! You never do know what you’ll want to do with a pattern in the future. Much better to trace off. For really loved patterns, you can add fusible interfacing to the back of the pattern and it will last much long and be much more durable.

    @linB – I’ve seen this method too! A great alternative if you still want to preserve all the sizes.

    @ShanniLoves – More will be in the shop this coming Thursday! Sorry to sell out so quickly!

    @Riet – So glad I could show a shortcut! Believe me, I’m always on the hunt for how to do things easier.

    @Mainelydad – I confess, I’ve heard nothing but awesome things about swedish tracing paper and have yet to try some. Will definitely give that a try soon. Thanks for the tip!

    @Ebony – Yes you can! I like to use the red, white or yellow wax paper for fabric because it can be permanent on some fabrics (but if its on the inside of the garment, it usually won’t be seen anyway). But it works oh so much better than carbon paper! You can actually see the markings on your fabric! Ha! There’s also so much you’ll find that you’ll use the tracing paper for. Its crazy. It works on many different types of mediums.

    Thanks for all your awesome comments everyone! Let me know if there are any more questions!
    xoxo, SunniReplyCancel

  • Gail - I love these tips, Sunni! I always trace my patterns onto Swedish Tracing Paper with a pencil, and while I love the stuff for patterns I use over and over again, I’m starting to feel like it’s too costly for a pattern I might just make once or twice. I’ll be waiting too for more double tracing wheels to be stocked in the shop, and then I’m hoping to get the whole shebang!

    Loved your video too!ReplyCancel

  • Cherie - Love your video! Thank you very much for taking the time to make it and explain how to trace off patterns.ReplyCancel

  • Laura - Okay, why have I never thought of the tracing paper? Genius!ReplyCancel

  • theperfectnose - I trace using the Clover double tracing wheel and carbon paper. Except I put the Carbon paper Carbon side down on between the pattern sheet (top) and craft paper (bottom). I have tried photocopying the pattern sheet and sticking the copies together then cutting around it using 1 cm stickey tape to form the seam allowance. I’m not into cutting and pasting tho’ so I only did that once or twice XD I use Clover white ‘carbon’ for tracing details onto fabric (same wheel as above).
    It’s great that you’re stocking the Clover wheel, when I first searched for it (three odd years ago) no one stocked it in Australia and eventually I found someone on ebay uk XD All my older traces are done with an smooth tracing wheel and look like sh*te (it was a crappy thing from dritz that broke within a week. Carl hack-fixed it with a little screw and some wire) XDReplyCancel

  • Heather - I have not yet delved into the world of Burda, but I sew a lot of Ottobre for my girls and I imagine the pattern sheets are quite similar. In the past I’ve always used Method #1, but man have you made a case for #2! I use architectural bumwad (tracing paper) myself, but I have a lot of it at my, um, disposal at work. :)

    I don’t trace Big 4 patterns. They are cheap (in the US) and I have far more than I will ever sew up. So I cut them up with zero guilt!

    Off to check out your shop….ReplyCancel

  • LLBB - great work with the video, Sunni, I really enjoyed it!ReplyCancel

  • Melanie - I use my French Curve when tracing out patterns. The curves are exactly that and make it easy to get it just right.ReplyCancel

  • Melanie - Kessem – I use the Clover Hera marker for getting notches and darts from the pattern on to the fabric. The crease lasts long enough to get through the construction process, and since it is just a crease, washes out.ReplyCancel

  • Miranda - Okay. I need to get me some of that tracing paper right now! I trace everything these days, but by taping it to my sliding glass door or squinting through the exam paper to see the lines. That stuff looks awesome!ReplyCancel

  • Tutorial: Tracing patterns from a pattern magazine | Sewing Patterns - [...] Pattern magazines and books will often print multiple sewing patterns on one sheet of paper.  It’s an efficient way of providing the printed patterns, but in order to use them, you’ll need to trace the pieces you want to use on to another sheet of paper.  The visual impact is a bit overwhelming, with solid lines and dashed lines and dotted lines all overlapping.  Once you get past the eye glaze, it’s actually not that big of a deal.  Sunni from A Fashionable Stitch will walk you through it with two methods for tracing patterns.  Go to her tutorial. [...]ReplyCancel

  • Debbie - I, too, trace nearly all of my patterns because I sew for myself (thyroid issues cause my size to fluctuate), 2 little girls who like everything the same, and a sweet little boy.

    As for the paper, I tried using tissue paper, but no matter how careful I am, it tears on me. So, I found that fabric that brides use to walk on down the aisle and it works beautifully for me. As I’m a thrifty person, I usually wait until after June to really hunt for that stuff in thrift stores (after the bulk of summer weddings..(O:).

    I love that you have the larger sized wax paper…I’m totally going to buy that and the double tracing wheel, too. My Neu Mode patterns don’t have a seam allowance and using that will certainly help..a lot! Thanks for the wonderful ideas, I definitely will put them to use very soon.

    Have a wonderful day,

    Debbie…(O:
    >ReplyCancel

  • Kay - Cool! I used to be a method 1 tracer… your method 2 is very easy and more accurate! And add a double tracing wheel to that, it’s ingenious! I’ve seen double tracing wheels that are permanently spaced but I like the one you showed, which can be used for a variety of seam allowances.

    Thanks for sharing your methods and tools, Sunni! Love the video tutorial!ReplyCancel

  • VictoriaR - Thanks for the tutorial. I trace when I have to, but not all my patterns. (I especially loved the music for the video.)ReplyCancel

  • ladykatza - So, I use method two but I add one other step, I use a highlighter to highlight which one I’m tracing. Since you can get a million different color highlighters now you can even use a different color for a different pattern on the same page. It makes a WORLD of difference, I don’t get my eyes crossed nearly as often. And if you are tracing through paper (when are you getting more exam paper in???), that’s so much easier too.ReplyCancel

  • Kathy - Awesome post. I shared it with friends. I love to sew Ottobre and use Swedish Tracing paper but I am going to have to try Method #2 next time I run out! Very cool!ReplyCancel

  • ZoSews - I am a converted tracer! Everything is traced, I’m obsessed! Love that double clover wheel and the waxed paper. I didn’t realise you could use the waxed paper on you fashion fabric though!ReplyCancel

  • Claire - I use the first method you described with Sewdish paper, it’s quite convenient, but I have to say, I am very impressed by the double tracing wheel method. That’s a really great tool for Burda pattern. I have to decipher one soon, I fear the moment to copy the pattern… So thank you for sharing this amazing tip, it’s awesome!ReplyCancel

  • Sandra - Thanks for the heads up. I recently purchased a Burda Magazine (while at the fabric shop) specifically because I like a few of the patterns included. I had done a bit of reading on the internet about tracing methods and was about to embark on Method 1, mainly because I already have all supplies at my finger tips. Yours is the first blog that I’ve read that compares both – so I might just need to go on a little shopping spree for the tracing wheel and paper! Thanks again for the useful information.ReplyCancel

  • Marloes - I also always trace all my sewing patterns… What if I cut out a size to large or small and can’t correct it afterwards… Before I bought the envelope patterns, I used to use a magazine like Burda for my patterns and I was surprised to find patterns which had included seam allowances.
    We have pattern tracing paper around here, we can just get it at the bookstore. I just use a pencil to follow the lines and once it is done and it doesn’t have seam allowances I just add them on the fabric by cutting around them. I have a small guide for that.ReplyCancel

  • Rebecca - I use banner paper and a window. There are large 70′s windows in my apartment and I just tape the pattern and then a section of the roll to the window. It works great. I then add the seam allowance using a little gadget that has seam allowances on it. I line up the one I am using to it and then roll my pencil along the edge of the pattern. I do copy all of my patterns because I also have ruined many. There is something so liberating about modifying a pattern to best fit your body.ReplyCancel

  • Friday Link Love « Design Lived - [...] How to Trace Sewing Patterns from A Fashionable Stitch She presents two methods, one of which was the life-altering idea I saw in BurdaStyle’s book using waxed tracing paper. Demystifying Sewing Patterns from Tilly and the Buttons I’ve been teaching friends how to sew here and there. This is a great refresher on what information you can glean from a pattern envelope and its innards. Draft at Home Patterns: A How-To from A Few Threads Loose I just saw a brand of these advertised – The Lutterloh System. It’s an interesting idea. Has anyone out there used it? Sounds like she has a couple of patterns like this for download in her shop too. Fact or Fiction? Each Pattern Company is Different from All Style and All Substance Good information for those who switch between pattern companies. (Don’t we all?) Knitting at Tess Designs! from Rhinestones and Telephones Another sweater I am in love with – maybe this one more so. (Source: ravelry.com via Sarah on Pinterest) DIY: Tea Dyeing Silk and DIY: Coffee Dyeing Silk from Miss P Surely I have a article of clothing or two that could benefit from overdyeing. Hmmm… Peplum Top Refashion (Tutorial) from Merricks Art I have a dozen t-shirts that look like this if I have one. I really need to try this! *You* need to try this… And now I’ll go back to weeding through my 130 unread blog posts in between setting up my sewing room and finishing the sweater I’m knitting. So many good things, so little time! [...]ReplyCancel

  • Carolina - im doing that exact same blouse!ReplyCancel

  • McCalls Patterns - Great tips and tricks! This information helps me a lot! Thanks for sharing :) ReplyCancel

  • More vintage pattern tips and my muslin progress | Lucky Lucille - [...] I highly recommend reading Casey’s Vintage Pattern Primer and tips for tracing vintage patterns to help you get started. Sunni also has a great post on different methods for tracing patterns. [...]ReplyCancel

  • How to Grade the Kelly Skirt - The Finished Garment - [...] a few simple modifications. If you have never traced a pattern before, I suggest you read “How to Trace Sewing Patterns” by Sunni on a Fashionable Stitch. There are also some good photos of the process [...]ReplyCancel

  • Gem - Hi Sunni – I’ve been using the first method you’ve listed but I just ordered some wax paper from your shop so I can try the second method. The idea of tracing directly onto my fabric is thrilling. I have a question though: if I want to make a pattern multiple times, will using the tracing wheel over and over on the original pattern (whether tissue or stronger paper) be detrimental? At that point, would you recommend just sucking it up and tracing a paper copy?ReplyCancel

    • Sunni - @Gem – Hi Gem! You could do that but you can also apply fusible interfacing to the back of your pattern. Apply it just like you would with fabric, except don’t use steam or water and it can make your sewing pattern last a lot longer. This way you don’t have to trace off a pattern after you’ve used it 6 or 7 times (or more, depending on how destructive you are with tissue paper – I’m fairly destructive!). This is my favorite thing to do for favorite sewing patterns that I sew with a lot.ReplyCancel

  • Gem - Thanks Sunni! I will definitely try that!ReplyCancel

  • Angela Bowman - Well I am sold on the whole tracing paper and wheel method! And such a great video. Heading on to your online shop. Thanks!ReplyCancel