20 Tips for Writing Good Quality PDF Patterns

I love that there are so many indie pattern designers around these days. Modern day sewists are really spoiled for choice! You can find patterns and tutorials to suit any taste to make almost anything you want.
A lot of bloggers who like to sew are turning to designing patterns as a way to explore their creativity and earn a little income from what they love to do. It’s always great to see an idea you have in your head come to life! It’s even more exciting when you see other people making them too!
I have one pattern for sale, The Big Tote Bag and another pattern in the works. Does that make me an expert? No, but I have used a lot of PDF patterns…some are great, some are terrible! If you’re thinking of writing a pattern, I’ve put together a list of tips that will make your pattern easy to read and understand which will make your customers very happy indeed!

1. Use a plain, easy to read font. Sure, they look boring, but they are nice and easy to read! Save the fancy fonts for your cover page. Also, align your text to the left, not centred. Centred text alignment takes more brain processing and is slower and harder to read.

2. Group your steps into logical sections. This can be tricky, but the more prototypes of your pattern you make, the better idea you get. Think about things like grouping some topstitching together so that you wont need to be changing threads so often.

3. Number each step. If anyone ever needs to email you with a question, it’s much easier for them to say ‘I’m lost on Step 5 in Section 2′ than ‘I’m trying to insert the placket and I don’t understand the bit where you fold it through’. Numbering your pages also helps.
4. Clearly lay out each section. Keep it ordered neatly with the steps next to their photos and leave a bit of white space between each step. The white space makes it easier to read and is handy for adding annotations.
5. If you’re using abbreviations, make sure you use the full term the first time or list them in a glossary. Just because you know that RST means ‘right sides together’, it doesn’t mean every one does.
6. Include hyperlinks to techniques. These can be helpful where you don’t want to explain a technique or you feel it should already be known by the user.

7. The more prototypes of your item you make, the better your pattern will be. You may find a better way to do something the next time you make it or you may pick up a simple mistake in your instructions or pattern pieces. Also read your steps as you are sewing through. Read every word! You’ll be amazed what you pick up, missing words, extra letters…all these things that our brains fill in for us, especially when we’ve read something so many times.

8. If your pattern includes printable pieces, make sure you include a printing test square. This square can be measured up so that the user knows the pattern has printed out the correct size. Many times I have printed out a pattern, stuck it together, cut out the paper pieces and then thought, I should check the test square, and guess what, it was wrong! Thankfully I hadn’t cut into my fabric. A quick reprint, making sure no page scaling was set in the options and my pattern was perfect! If the test square wasn’t there, I would have no idea if my pattern was wrong and would have wasted my time and fabric making something that was never going to fit.

9. Include full size pattern pieces. There is nothing more annoying than printing out a pattern and then realising the pieces need to actually be printed at 200%. I don’t even know how to do that!
10. Make sure your pattern pages will print on both A4 and US Letter sized paper. These papers are different sizes and there’s nothing worse than printing it all out to notice that the sides (or tops) are chopped off and your pages are useless. Also remember that you can’t print all the way to the edge of a page. Keeping your pattern pieces within 19 x 25cm (7.5″ x 10″) should ensure that your pattern pieces will print on most printers.
11. Include grainlines and notches on your pattern pieces and a pattern layout diagram in your instructions! These are one of the things you find in the Big 4 patterns that are missing from a lot of PDF patterns and they are so helpful!

12. Put your pattern name and logo on every pattern piece if you can. It’s so frustrating finding a rogue pattern piece on the floor during a clean up and having no idea which pattern it belongs to.

13. Include a large format/copy shop version of your pattern. I’m so excited that designers are starting to include these with their patterns. For just a couple of dollars you can print out the pattern at the print shop…no aligning and sticking taping of pages needed! Also, this is more personal preference, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to overlap pattern pieces. The beauty of a PDF pattern is that you can just cut the pieces out of the paper and not bother with tracing. But when the pieces are overlapped (the lines of one pattern piece go over/intersect another, think burdastyle or ottobre) then it needs to be printed out many times or traced off the PDF).

14. Use contrast coloured thread when stitching. It makes your seams and stitches much easier to see in any photos. I have used white thread with blue fabric in this tutorial. Much easier on the eyes than a matching thread colour.
15. Choose your fabrics carefully. On some fabrics the right side and wrong side look the same, which can make your instructions confusing. Try and pick a fabric with an obvious right and wrong side. Patterns on fabric can also make photos and instructions confusing. Fine stripes can be a real problem.

16. If you feel your photo may not be quite clear enough, feel free to add arrows, lines or notations to help get your point across. These can be done in fancy programs such as Adobe Illustrator or even just in MS Paint. You can see how much easier the image above is to understand with some measurements on it.

17. Use lot of pictures! Many people prefer to learn visually and they can make some confusing instructions crystal clear! You may also find that diagrams and drawings are better than pictures in some cases.

18. Test out your instructions by printing them in black and white. I also print mine out ’2-to-a-page’ (at 50%) to make sure that they are still easy to understand when small. If they look good like this, then you know they will be easy to read if someone prints them out b&w (I only have a black and white printer at home) and also if viewing them at a reduced size on a mobile device.

19. Make your pattern cutting lines different. And not just a different colour, but patterned too. Making each line style different  makes each size easily distinguishable when printed in black and white, not just colour. There’s a great example in the test square photo above.
20. Get the pattern tested!! I cannot stress this enough. Your instructions make make complete sense to you, but could be very hard for someone else to understand. If your pattern is simple enough that you don’t think the pattern itself needs testing, at least have the instructions proof read by someone who knows how to sew.
If you’re after an in depth course showing you in great detail how to create PDF patterns using Adobe Illustrator, then I can recommend Lauren’s course over at Pattern Workshop. It’s very comprehensive and Lauren has a great teaching style.
Alright, that’s enough from me… Have you got any tips to add? Anything that drives you nuts in PDF patterns??


  1. says

    Excellent tips, I agree 100% with all of them. As a pattern user I want to enjoy sewing a pattern, not feeling constantly frustrated by something missing/wrong/not tested.

  2. Ros says

    I often find pictures are missing for really tricky steps, where the maker has probably been unable to photograph the step as they are using two hands to actually make the item. Take time and get someone to photograph it for you – those steps are the ones we really NEED the photos of! Great list – I agree wholeheartedly with every point!

  3. Natalie @sewoutnumbered says

    Such a great post Abby! Many of these tips can be translated for writing tutorials as well. I’m not really at the pattern making writing stage yet but would love to someday! :)

  4. Lauren says

    Abby, this is such a comprehensive list and a really great post. Your tips can be applied to patterns and tutorials alike, and give us all a lot to consider. Thank you!

  5. Veronica says

    I would also recommend that designers put the seam allowance in a bigger and bolder text not only in the general info part of their pattern, but also at the very beginning of the pattern assembly instructions! I don’t know how many patterns I have tested or sewn that I have to search and search to find the seam allowance!

    • says

      This is a really good point Veronica, it can be very frustrating trying to find if a pattern has seam allowance or how much seam allowance it has.
      Thanks to the professional training I had years ago in dressmaking & pattern-making I learnt to add all sorts of information to every pattern pieces [except very small piece, then I add it to the side] including seam allowance, that way the sewist doesn’t have to go searching for this information, especially if there are some piece that don’t have SA & some that do.

  6. steff says

    I agree with all of these! I actually just was talking with someone about other things I wish were ‘standard’ like line drawings, the option to just give measurements instead of printed pieces for bindings and cuffs, listing what pages to print for what style/sizes, and give pleat/pocket marking as well as buttonhole spacing and elastic lengths. I’m surprised how few of the patterns I have have all of these things! I’m also surprised how few people use hyperlinks to techniques like you mention — I also wish video was more common for tricky steps :)

  7. Mirjam @ dekawear.blogspot.nl says

    Thank you for these tips! I’m now learning how to draw patterns by hand and want to make PDF patterns, later. So these tips might become handy ;)

  8. Charity says

    This is a very good list! Thank you. =)
    I would add the following: 1. Either have symbols to match up or number your pages! If your printer print things in a random order or your kids get a hold of the pages it can be horribly difficult to figure out what goes where. 2. Make it easy to find what seam allowance is used! I hate having to re-read a pattern several times just to find the seam allowance. And 3. Mark placement for things such as buttonholes, pockets, and plackets.

  9. jenna says

    numbered pages is great too! It’s the worst when you drop the instructions and have to try and reorder them all.

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