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Drafting Japanese Sewing Patterns

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One of my favorite Japanese fabrics is Nani Iro by Naomi Ito.  I first discovered it on a trip to Japan last May.  Imagine my thrill when I first started working at Purl and discovered that we carried it too!  I have been (im)patiently waiting for the past few months for her new line to come out, and I wasn’t disappointed.  On top of a beautiful collection of fabrics, Naomi Ito has put out a book, Nani Iro Pattern Book, with patterns using her fabric. Nani Iro is a double faced gauze fabric, which lends itself nicely to loose, flowing pieces versus highly tailored clothing.  None of the patterns have zippers, and only a few have button or hook enclosures.

Drafting a pattern from a book in a foreign language can be intimidating!  But, don’t worry, Japanese sewing and craft books are very straightforward once you get started.  I rarely read the instructions and follow the pictures when sewing.

Almost all of the Japanese sewing books are set up the same way.  The beginning features photos of the clothing, followed by written/picture instructions, and end with a full-size pullout pattern page.  Although many of the patterns are usually fairly simple, I would recommend these patterns for an advanced beginner or intermediate sewer, as many techniques are not explained.  The sizing of the patterns runs small because Japanese women tend to be petite.  For the most part, the patterns run from a size 0 up to around a size 6 or 8.  Just like any other pattern, I tend to do some resizing of my own to match my own size.  Also, Japanese patterns tend to have less shaping than Western patterns.  You may want to add darts or waist shaping if you prefer. The measurements in the patterns are all metric.  Keep this in mind when you are measuring yourself and the patterns.

I have tried many kinds of techniques for copying patterns, and I have decided that my favorite is using trace paper and pencil.  Trace paper is easy to get at any art supply store (I use a 24” roll) and the patterns fold up small for easy storage.  However, you can also use pattern paper with a tracing wheel and transfer paper if you would like a more durable pattern.

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The pattern page can be overwhelming with its many crisscrossed lines, but it’s a great solution for fitting in so many patterns in one page.  First, find the pattern you want to make on the pattern page.  Usually each pattern has its own letter. Look around the edges japanese.jpgof the pattern page to find the pieces. This is where it gets confusing!  There are different kanji characters for front and back, as well in this case, adult and child.  These are the kanji you will need to know. I like to think that the kanji for front looks like a house, and the one for adult looks like a person standing.  If you look at the top of the the page above, the first pattern piece is for pattern "P" and it's the back piece.  The next pattern piece is for the front of "P".  The next one after that is the pattern for "E" (adult) and it's the front AND back piece. Figure out which pattern to copy and label your piece.

I'm working on the back piece of pattern "P".

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Using a ruler for the straight lines, carefully copy the pattern onto your tracing paper.  Sometimes it’s easy to accidentally copy the wrong line, so if your pattern piece doesn’t look right, check to see if you’ve copied correctly.  Don’t forget to copy any pattern marks!

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Here is the completed traced pattern piece.

One of the most important points of drafting Japanese patterns is to keep in mind that seam allowances are NOT included in the pattern pieces.  You will have to add them after you’ve traced the pattern.  This is done both for saving space on the pattern page and to keep confusion to a minimum when figuring out which lines to trace.

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Here is one of the layouts for a pattern in the book.  You can see the seam allowances on the pieces that are on the fabric layout drawing.  If there is no number given, the default seam allowance is 1 centimeter, but you can use whatever number you feel comfortable with (1/2 inch, 5/8 inch, etc).  When there is a measurement given, use that number.  Usually hems and special construction have a larger seam allowance.

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Using a ruler and pencil, draw in your seam allowance.  I like to measure about every inch or inch and a half and play dot to dot with the lines.

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Once you’ve finished drawing in the seam allowances, the pattern is finished!  Cut your pattern piece out.  When actually making the article of clothing, I can usually figure out everything through the drawings in the instructions.  This is where experience helps; if you’ve sewn clothing before, the techniques are very similar.

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I hope this tutorial has inspired some of you to start drafting your own patterns! --Mari

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36 Responses to Drafting Japanese Sewing Patterns


  1. Concha says:

    This is great help, thank you so much! I’d love if you kept sharing your experience of “Japanese sewing”… I own several zakka books but dressmaking is so much harder!

  2. Jacqui says:

    This is how I’ve been copying out the patterns too but since I came up with it on my own I’ve had a lurking suspicion I might be doing something wrong! Glad to see I’m not. I had hoped you’d have a fabulous Japanese gadget for drawing in the seam allowances because I _hate_ that job! Sometimes I tape two pens together so their points are exactly say 1cm apart and simply retrace the original line but it’s not very flexible for those deeper hem allowances etc. and the second pen doesn’t always leave a good line.

  3. Pam says:

    Love the dresses and the tutorial. I am a huge fan of Japanese patterns and use a very similar technique to make my copies. I use either a compass to mark my seam allowances. Makes the process go very fast and when I’m done tracing out the pattern to make it more durable, I use a light weight iron-on interfacing.

  4. Sandy says:

    Thanks for the tutorial. I feel a little braver when I consider using the japanese clothing pattern books. Still intimidated but a little braver to try. Please keep these tutorials coming.

  5. elsa says:

    This is very useful, especially the translation of japanese characters… thank you!

  6. peanut says:

    Thanks for the tutorial. I’ve copied out English patterns (to save the originals) but never something in Japanese – it will make a difference knowing how to tell the front from the back. Instead of tracing paper, I often use cheap cotton-poly fabric in a light colour. It is sheer enough to see through for copying and sticks to your fashion fabric in a handy way when you’re cutting out your pieces. I can’t wait to try one of these patterns – they always look so comfortable.

  7. Max Daniels says:

    Ditto – many thanks for the tutorial! I just ordered this book and some Nani Iro after speaking with you yesterday. I’m curious about the pattern piece above – why doesn’t the armscye (is that the right word?) have a seam allowance?

  8. Larissa says:

    THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. my wonderful friend Robyn gave me a beautiful Japanese Girls Style book with so many cute patterns, and I unfolded them the other day and went into mental lockup. This is so timely and gives me the needed courage to proceed. Love your blog.

  9. June says:

    Do you know what U.S. sizes the womens’ patterns go up to? One of my pattern books showed a women’s pattern but the largest size was very small?

  10. Emily says:

    I am guessing on Max’s question about the lack of seam allowance on the armscye. The construction diagram seems to show bias tape binding on around the armscye and neck, so there isn’t a real “seam” that needs to be accounted for in cutting the fabric.

    I’ve been so tempted by Japanese clothing books, and checked some out of my local public library. Those lack the pattern page. I’ve been a bit daunted by the idea of drafting a pattern from a little drawing with just measurements when they have curves, darts, etc. that make the guesswork more complicated (maybe that could be a future tutorial). Beautiful sense of style that makes me want them all!!!

  11. Sadie Horton says:

    I just bought the book and some fabric. I could use some help in determining the sizing for the pattern. On the pattern layout pages there are clearly two sets of measurements specified for S/M/L – does anyone know what they are for? (chest, hips, etc.)

    thanks!

  12. mari says:

    Hi Sadie!

    I don’t know which specific pattern you are looking at, but the first measurement on the adult patterns is the finished bust (or waist for the skirts) size, and the second is the finished length of the dress (or skirt). Happy sewing!

  13. Jenn says:

    What a great tutorial! The Japanese designers have such an uncanny ability to distill down design to its most simple and elegant.

    I understand that some newer Japanese pattern and craft books are slated for English translation – I can’t wait if that’s true! But it is also fun making the connections between our language and the Japanese language.

    I hope you’ll share more tips in the meantime.
    Jenn in Kansas

  14. ron says:

    Thanks for the tutorial but I have one question, when the seam allowances are different say for the back is 1.5 and the sides are 1, Do you actually sew at the two different seam allowances? 1.5 for the back and the sides at 1?
    I think I was using all 1cm seam allowances even when I measured out 1.5.

  15. mari says:

    Hi Ron!

    You do sew at the two different seam allowances. I’m not sure which pattern you are sewing but usually the different seam allowances are for facings, hems, or other special constructions.

    Good luck!

  16. Sadie Horton says:

    I was a bit stumped finding the three pieces I needed for the J pattern (the tunic that is featured on the cover) until I realized that the neck facing was made by copying the edge of the bodice piece….

    I’m ready to cut out the fabric and will post up after I’ve tacked the task of sewing the pattern together using the pictures!

  17. Nahma says:

    Hello, I would love to obtain the pattern book.
    Would you please let me know if there will be additional books “Nani Iro Pattern Book by Naomi Ito” available?

  18. purl bee says:

    Hi Nahma,
    We have more books on order but sometimes they take awhile to arrive since they’re coming from Japan. If you’d like to be notified when we get more in, go to the link below and send our website an email. They’ll let you know as soon as they arrive.
    thanks!
    http://www.purlsoho.com/purl/contact

  19. ella says:

    I am happily practicing my Japanese characters for “front” and “back”. I just bought the “Stylish Dress Book” in the same line and I’m so excited.

    Question, though. I am confused about the sizing. Anything you can tell us to illuminate? I would normally be a 10.

    Thanks for such a great tutorial.

  20. Shellyfish says:

    I’m so thankful to have found this post – thank you so much for the great info! I just received the “Stylish Dress Book”, and want to dive in, but wasn’t sure how. This is going to be very helpful information! Merci!

  21. She's Crafty says:

    Thank you SO much for this post. I recently bought a Japanese pattern from Purl Patchwork because it was exactly the style I wanted and thought I’d be able to figure my way through it. That was until I opened the packet – yikes! I’m feeling calmer now, and am so grateful for the knowledge that seam allowance isn’t included – very good to know!

  22. ana says:

    Hello Mari,

    thank you so much for your time, dedication and love making this helpfull tutorial!! It will be a BIG help!!!

  23. robyn says:

    Thank you so much for the very useful tutorial. I am in the process of cutting out a children’s pattern from a Japanese pattern book and am a little stuck on the bias fabric and facing information on the diagram. Do you have any useful tips or translations? They have an image with 4, 3cm wide pieces for the bias fabric but no length for cutting the bias fabric …?
    With thanks
    Robyn

  24. Nancy LaRocque says:

    I’m thrilled to find this entry! I’ve been searching for nearly 30 for instruction on Japanese pattern drafting. I took a class in Japan when I was stationed there (Misawa) in the Navy. What a great class that was! We had a Japanese teacher, no book, except for a blank book in which to draw the pattern we were drafting. There were special tools and notions, none of which I’ve ever seen in the U.S. These classes were so good, Navy wives were turning out designer-quality uniforms for their husbands. The starter class was for men’s clothing–shirts, vests, etc. Through our pattern drafting teacher, we discovered a brand new machine: the serger, which had not come out in the U.S. (Brother brand). I couldn’t imagine using more than a 2-thread, so that’s what I bought. That machine still fires right up, 30 years later. I used the same blades for 15 years; the machine was made in Japan.

  25. Cristy says:

    Wow! I am so-o-o-o glad to have found the Purl Bee! This tutorial has given me the feeling that I just might be able to sew these amazing Japanese clothing pieces! WHY are there no American companies that publish patterns with instructions for making such simply beautiful, magical clothing??? I plan to read all of your tutorials on this subject and others. What a wonderful place this is–I’m going to bookmark it right now! Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here!

  26. Rosalind says:

    Those front and back symbol translations just saved me :-) Thanks!!

  27. Kim Cee says:

    I adore Japanese pattern books and am so glad you were generous enough to share your great way for us non-Japanese people to decipher them. Your kindness is much appreciated! Domo arigato!!!!!

  28. Nessy says:

    Hello – I have just discovered these pattern books and am totally in love with the garments they contain! Thanks for your tutorial – I was kind of wondering about seam allowances and things and you've helped no end – and with the character translation! Thank very much! Why don't we have pattern books with this quality of garments and style in English? When you think of all the “icky” patterns that come through the regular pattern companies you wonder what the heck they are thinking! Thanks again so much! xxx

  29. Tj says:

    @Jacqui-Clover (Japan) have an adjustable double tracing wheel (.5-5 cm_ that you can roll along to create a seam allowance.. I use Carbon/copy paper to copy the pattern onto another piece of paper BELOW the actual pattern and set the wheel to 1.5 cm apart. Hope that helps.

  30. Queen of Mayhem says:

    It's pretty interesting how the japanese patterns are layed out. It's VERY similar to how victorian era patterns were layed out. The were usually all put on one page and over lapped. Sometimes a pattern started on part of the page, went off, and ended up at the other side just to fit!

  31. Sai says:

    Thanks Mari~
    I have recently ventured into using a japanese pattern, and of course I was confused because my japanese knowledge is limited. After using google translation website, I still couldn't figure out comepletely what is what. This is such a good tip about the seam allowance. Many thanks once again!

  32. Tj says:

    The easiest way to trace seam-free patterns and add a seam allowance at the same time is to use a double tracing wheel and carbon copy paper. The double tracing wheel has two wheels (you can adjust the distance between them to whatever amount of seam allowance you want) and you just keep your craft paper or a newspaper below the pattern and sandwich the carbon copy paper between (carbon side touching the craft paper). Then go over all the lines you need with the double wheel and viola you have a perfectly traced pattern with instant seam allowances included. Clover sell double tracing wheels and carbon copy paper is easily availble on ebay and in indie craft and stationary stores.

  33. laurence says:

    Merci, merci!
    Il fallait bien une géniale et généreuse Américaine pour aider une petite Frenchie à décrypter un patron japonais! Merci beaucoup
    Laurence

  34. baekdoe says:

    thank you so much for this! it's so helpful. i've looked longingly and confusedly at Japanese sewing books i bought on a whim and now i think i can figure them out with your help!

  35. lephuong says:

    how can I download the pattern?

  36. purl bee says:

    Hi Lephuong-

    This pattern is not available for download- it's actually from a book (linked above) that we no longer carry.

    Thanks for writing in!

    Molly

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