Levelling Up – Thoughts on Pattern Difficulty Ratings

I listen to Love to Sew podcast religiously. As soon as it comes out and shows up in my podcast app, I am tuning in. I think both Helen and Caroline are very special ladies and I really enjoy their company in this podcast form. A few episodes ago, it may have been an episode with Heather Lou from Closet Case Patterns, the ladies mentioned pattern difficulty levels and touched on the idea of jumping into patterns that scare you and “just doing it”. This thought really resonated with me and over the next few weeks as I kept thinking about it, I decided that I want to put my two cents in and write a blog post on this topic.

I started sewing with Burda Magazine patterns. Growing up in Russia I was exposed to Burda as pretty much the only source of patterns and sewing inspiration. Flipping through the pages of Burda magazine was my favourite past time when I stayed at home sick. I started sewing as a teenager and by that time I was pretty familiar with technical drawings and the pattern difficulty rating system Burda uses.

For those unfamiliar with it, Burda magazine uses what I call a Circle System. The easiest pattern in Burda magazine is half a circle and the most difficult pattern is four circles. Pretty much anything under two circles is considered more or less easy. A two circle pattern is a bit more difficult and three circle is even more challenging. For example a skirt with a zipper would most often be rated as two circles and a coat pattern could be anywhere from three to four circles, depending on the design.

It must have been my mom who told me about the circles and I do not think she has ever explicitly said that if I want to learn how to sew well I need to start with easy patterns and progress to more difficult ones. But somehow I had this idea that if I am to become a good seamstress I simply must progress upward only and level up my sewing skills that way. I remember feeling that I almost need to pass some kind of exam or earn some kind of merit on a lower level before I can even think about trying the next level of difficulty. I didn’t know what that would entail exactly, but I anticipated that I will KNOW when it happens. Just like when you meet “the one”, I expected the skies to open up, a column of light to come down on me and sewing angels to start singing while accompanied by a melodic roar of sewing machines. This is when I knew I finally will be able to graduate from a half circle to a full circle pattern.

There were two problems with this. Not every issue of Burda magazine had even one half circle rated pattern, let alone two or three for me to continue honing my skills like a good little seamstress I was. If I was to follow this line of thinking and only practice patterns within “my level” I would most certainly mess up my fabric, waste everyone’s time by going above my level and spend the rest of my life living in a cardboard box under the bridge. I wasn’t sure whose time I would waste and which bridge would become my homestead, but I really didn’t want to risk finding out. The other problem was that super easy patterns were plain and quite frankly patterns classified as two circles seemed more fun. And I ogled three circle patterns like an awkward teenage boy checking out his crush but who is too afraid to make eye contact and say hello. No, I simply had to work my way up, the proper way. Who was I to challenge the system with my radical ideas? Sewing police would surely get me.

Then I did unspeakable. I skipped a level and went for a whole two an a half (!) circle rated pattern. I can hear you guys gasping as I type this. I know, if I ever become an outlaw, this is surely where my downfall has started. But did the sewing police come and arrest me? No. Did the sewing angels visit me with bobbins and scissor sharpeners? Nope, they didn’t. Did I waste anyone’s valuable time? No, not unless you count my time. And to be honest if my cardboard box under a bridge has a sewing space I would still be happy.

Folders upon folders of instructions to my Indie patterns…

So what happened? Well, I decided to trace a shirt pattern I chose for my first sewing offence onto white fabric with a black ink pen. A really old pen as well, but not the kind where it is so old it’s dry and therefore barely visible. But the kind where it has been used long enough so that the ink comes out thick and messy. I then went ahead and put this shirt together the best I could using what sometimes seems intentionally baffling instructions that Burda Patterns provide. I didn’t finish the shirt because I couldn’t figure out how to attach the collar. And halfway through assembling the shirt I realized the ink from the pen would never come out. Essentially what happened is I messed up. But I was so happy! Sure I would never wear the shirt out in public, but I learned things! Things that would take me long time to learn have I pursued my original course of actions of trying to gradually level up.

The thing is, there is no one looking over your shoulder, watching you sew, quietly evaluating your skills and marking it all down on your sewing report card. It doesn’t happen. If you are waiting for a sign from above that you can finally try a slightly more difficult pattern, guess what, it is not coming.

Life is not linear, neither is sewing. Would you expect yourself to only sew four circle patterns once you have those mad sewing skills? Well, you would have a lot of coats and wedding dresses and if that is your thing then go for it. I can only speak for myself here, and I tend to go all over the place with my sewing. One day I will make a super easy scarf or a shirt. Maybe a pair of underwear. Then the next day I will want to make a coat and then a bra, or maybe a swim suit. I wouldn’t want to limit myself to just one difficulty level of patterns. This would really limit my creativity and I want to let that baby soar.

Cascade Coat by Grainline in progress. Note Misha’s paws in top right corner. She really likes to help out.

I don’t think of pattern difficulty levels as such anymore. I think of them as general guidelines. Only a clue that will give me a couple pointers about a project before I start working on it. There are a few things that I consider without explicitly thinking about them. Is this a project that I need to make a muslin for? Do I need to only muslin part of the pattern? How long would this take me to make? Can I make it in a couple hours? A day? Should I break this project up in chunks? Do I need instructions? Do I need to read the instructions? Do I need to read the instructions before I actually start sewing? Is this a project I need to start in the morning when my mind is fresh? Or can I work on it after a day of work? Should I drink wine when I am working on this? Or would tea be preferable? Pattern difficulty level is not a barrier that is meant to keep you out until you prove yourself worthy of it. In my mind it is a guiding light that is meant to encourage you and help you figure out what you will need to succeed with this particular project.

So I urge you not to let self limiting beliefs discourage you from trying new and exciting patterns you’ve been eyeing that seem just a tad out of your comfort level. Go ahead and try them. Mess it up. Take online classes if that is your thing. See how others have done it. Learn new skills. Try again. Take this experience  with a light heart. After all in order to become great at something we need to fail at it first. We learn better and achieve a deeper level of understanding and appreciation when we struggle and mess up a few times. Because when you finally get it on your n-th try it will be worth it. And guess what, when you think you’ve finally got that hard pattern figured out and made “the perfect” thing, next time you make it it may be even better. Don’t wait until you think you can make something perfectly. Perfection is a kill joy and as someone once said “the pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement”. Let go of unnecessary self imposed limitations and let yourself and your sewing soar.





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  1. I really enjoyed reading your sewing herstory – it’s so true about these sometimes arbitrary rankings. I’ve been guilty to avoiding patterns because they are classified as a higher level of difficulty than I believe I’m ready for! Sometimes it happens that more difficult rated patterns are easier than others rated as ‘beginner’ – there are so many variables! I might, for example, love the challenge and look of an invisible zipper (often rated intermediate) but shy away from yokes which are on many beginner patterns. What is hard for one might be fun for another so don’t judge or shy away from a pattern identified as “intermediate” when you would classify yourself a beginner.

    1. Thank you! Yes! It’s amazing how without anyone explicitly saying or even thinking, we will make these assumptions that result in self-limiting beliefs.
      Well, I think it is two fold. I don’t believe that you should force yourself to try harder patterns if you don’t really feel like it. Because if you start forcing it there is a chance it won’t be fun. And we gotta keep it fun! But if you are wondering about it but find yourself questioning your ability, my take is that just doing it is the way to go. In the end we just have to listen to ourselves and go from that!
      I agree! It’s so interesting how certain things are deemed of different level by various people! You are so right, there are so many other ways to judge a pattern difficulty than by just it’s rating.

  2. Love this post Anya. The line about pattern level not being a barrier to keep you out is such a great way to put it. I’m generally a dive in and have a go kind of person as I learn by doing (and sometimes failing) but I’m definitely guilty of telling myself I’m not ready for some things. At the end of the day though all sewing is just sewing one bit of fabric to another and we take it a seam at a time we can do anything.

  3. Really interesting post Anya and I agree; these guidelines are useful indicators in themselves but, like you, I found myself waiting for that moment when the clouds would part and the booming voice of the sewing god would declare that I’ve paid my dues and could pass through the magic barrier and level up!!!! 🤣 In reality it’s more ablout pushing through the pain barrier and making almighty mistakes and learning, and progressing, from them isn’t it. Yes, you’re right, Sew whatever you fancy no matter what level it falls into…just, perhaps, toile the mistakes away first!!! Xxx

  4. Level, schmevel!! Or so I like to say. Couldn’t agree more with what you say here, as it applies not just to sewing but life in general. If you never push the boundaries, if you never push yourself, you’ll never know what you’re capable of!


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