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How to use Japanese Sewing Patterns… if you don't speak Japanese!

Sitting in the car waiting for my daughter at The Japanese Language School in Philadelphia gives me plenty of time to check out all of those super-stylish Japanese moms.  I love their chic, simple mode of dress and have spent a great deal of time coveting those gorgeous clothes. This style of clothing has a very simple silhouette, loose-fitting, and comfortable looking.  These ladies look effortlessly amazing.   I knew there had to be patterns to make them somewhere, but Vogue, McCall’s, Butterick, et al,  just did not have anything like what I was seeing.  Then I made a trip to San Francisco and while my daughter looked for Kanji books, I set off in search of patterns.  BINGO! There they were, and they had a few selections in English.  Japanese patterns are sold in book form.  Each book that I saw had a complete “wardrobe” with several different tops & bottoms, as well as dresses.  The books contain full size patterns, but here’s the rub, ALL of the pattern pieces are printed one on top of the other requiring you to trace the pattern pieces as needed for your selected garment.

The two books that I have tried were in Japanese.  I do NOT speak Japanese but I was able to use these books without too much difficulty.  The hardest part is finding the pattern pieces that you need, tailoring to your size, & then tracing them.  I would not recommend that you attempt using a pattern in Japanese unless you either: A. speak the language or B. you are a fairly experienced seamstress.  Adjusting the pattern to fit you (unless you are both petite & a size 2) can be a challenge. I am 5’9″ tall and wear a size 8.  I needed to do a fair bit of enlarging & lengthening the patterns to fit me.  Knowing how to adjust sizes without distorting the garment requires some knowledge.  Both of my pattern books had great illustrations for assembling the garments, so “no English” was a “non-issue” as I have a good understanding of how to construct a garment.

Finding the pattern pieces needed for my selected projects was made much easier by the fact that they used Arabic numerals & Latin letters in addition to Japanese on each piece. I have no idea why.   If this had not been the case, it would have been quite a headache as the pieces are hard enough to find as it is with them all printed on top of each other! You need a sturdy paper for tracing your pattern pieces.  One that will hold up to being written on & pinned through multiple times.  I bought a large roll of vellum from a retired architect at a yard sale for a couple of bucks some time ago & this proved to be the perfect thing!  Vellum is very expensive but you can buy rolls of tracing paper for a more reasonable price:

Locate your pattern pieces, adjust for size & trace.  You will likely need to add a seam allowance, as I did.  There were no markings such as “notches” on my patterns so I added my own to help me know which were front & back pieces.  There were no “dots” for matching-up pieces so you are on your own.  You also need to be able to recognize when a pattern piece needs to be placed on the fold.  My patterns did have directional arrows for placing on the grain of the fabric.   Now you are ready to get sewing.

The ladies whose clothes I have been admiring seem to dress in all linen or cotton fabrics, of course it is summer.  I chose 100% linen for my garments.  I am just mad for linen.  It is the most comfortable thing you can imagine and has an earthy, natural, look regardless of the color or pattern.  Sure it wrinkles, but in these silhouettes you will still look great.  If I could, I would wear nothing but linen,  and I would sleep on linen sheets… if they didn’t cost a fortune! japanese patern project #1

My first pattern book was a special gift from my daughter who bought it in Japan.  All of the patterns are for tops and all of the tops are made from a SINGLE pattern piece.  The front, back & sleeves are all cut in a single piece & then folded to make a top  with side seams… two straight lines.  I am calling this the “origami method of sewing”.  You will see a demo of one of these patterns in my second photo “project #2”.  I wish I had made one of the tops with sleeves so that you can see how that works.  Since mine is sleeveless I had sew shoulder seams too. I found this pattern to be incredibly easy to construct, however resizing this pattern was a bear!  In order to change the size I resorted to splitting the pattern into two pieces, thus putting it into a more familiar format.  Sadly, this took away the fun of using one piece & required sewing of an additional seam.  If you are tiny you are all set!

I bought one of my pattern books from sweet Nobuko’s Esty shop: Japan Lovely Crafts. Her listings include photographs of each garment found in the pattern book. She is a great vendor to deal with & ships things out very quickly. If you don’t live in a city with a Japanese book store Nobuko’s shop should be your first stop:       She also sells fabric and other craft items.

Japanese patern project #2

I bought another Japanese pattern book on Amazon.  They sell books that have been translated to English.  However, their listings only show the cover, not pictures of all the garments. When the book arrived I was very disappointed that I did not like any of them.  I have seen Japanese sewing books that are translated to English in Japanese bookstores in Japan Town In San Francisco and at the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, NJ.  But you have to admit, being able to read the directions does take some of the adventure out of the process.


  1. katdazzle on August 5, 2013 at 4:24 am

    Is that what you were wearing when we came over for pizza?

  2. iris on August 5, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Love these… I just got my sewing machine out again … feeling inspired! THANK YOU !

  3. christymaurer on August 5, 2013 at 8:24 am

    These are fab Sandito!!

  4. nobuko on August 5, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    Sandy, thank you so so much for your sweet comment on my little Etsy shop 🙂 I’m so happy to hear that you love the pattern book and had no problem using the patterns in Japanese (*^_^*)
    If you have any questions, requests + suggestions, please feel free to contact me anytime!
    I’m always happy to support + help you ♥
    Arigato + have a super happy day!

  5. Eva- Maude White on July 12, 2014 at 5:15 am

    Thanks for that ,but how do you manage the “no seam allowance ‘ in Japanese patterns ?

    • smalamed on July 12, 2014 at 8:11 am

      Eva-Maude, I add it when cutting out the pattern. It may not be an even 5/8″ all the way round. In areas where there is more precise “shaping” such as darts, neck lines, and strong curves the cutting lines often merge closely together at those points. If you are un-sure leave more seam allowance…. you can tailor/adjust to fit when you are putting the garment together…. there is no un-doing a mistake if you cut it too small 🙂

      TRY IT! Most of these patterns make pretty loose/easy fitting garments with are more forgiving

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