NOTE: This post explores the cost of clothing from a purely monetary perspective. The social costs of sewing are not addressed in this blog post.
When I was born, my mother told my dad that if he would buy her a sewing machine, she would learn to make clothes. Her plan was to use me as a guinea pig, I guess. How much can an infant complain about ugly, poorly made cloths, after all? He agreed, and she got the sewing machine. Thus began a childhood filled with handmade clothing, courtesy of Mom.
Mom Learns to Sew
My grandmother on Mom’s side didn’t know how to sew, which was unusual for the time. Born in the early 1920’s, it was common for young girls to learn how to sew early on. By all accounts, my grandmother was somewhat spoiled, and she never learned to sew. According to Mom, however, my great grandmothers were excellent seamstresses. Her sister is also excellent, and was even when they were very young. I guess that even though it skipped my grandmother, it was in Mom’s blood to sew.
And sew she did! It didn’t take her very long to get to the point where the things she made were beautiful. She made my clothes all the way through high school. At one point during my teens, I asked if I could just buy my clothes. She gave me the amount of money she would have put toward making my clothes. After a trip to the mall, I’d spent all the money and came back with two shirts. It didn’t take me long to ask her if she would make me some clothes. That pretty much taught me that the best thing to do was let her make my clothing! And it gave Mom her favorite story to tell about me.
Years later, I would wish that my mom would still make my clothing, but by that point it was far too late. She’d moved on to quilting, and doesn’t even sew for herself these days. Still, I remember how many clothes I had and the quality of them.
Is Sewing Cheaper Than Buying?
Back when Mom first started sewing for me, it was definitely cheaper to sew than to buy clothing. Back then, someone could save tons of money by sewing for themselves and their family. These days, the question isn’t so easy to answer. If you want the easy answer, it would have to be, “It depends.”
Mom started sewing just as the home sewing craze was beginning to die down. While sewing was a popular, and necessary, skill up until that time, fast fashion was on the rise. Blue jeans, the 1960’s version of the uniform of the middle class, were not easily duplicated at home. Easier to purchase instead of make, jeans heralded the beginning of the decline of home sewing. And by the 1980’s, when designer clothing and excess abounded, home sewing was considered something only the poor would do.
Consider the movies of the time. Pretty in Pink comes to mind. Molly Ringwald’s character upcycles a lot of her clothing, and she sews. She lives with her unemployed father, and thus, has to sew to have clothing. She’s ridiculed for her handmade creations, or at the very least, looked down upon, by her classmates.
These days, however, it’s unlikely that people are going to sew to save money on clothing. Fabric prices have gone up substantially in the last few years, and clothing prices have come down. WAY down. I’m not going to address that here now, though I may in the future. Let’s just leave it at, after doing some research, my heart and my mind tells me that for me, sewing my own clothing is the best choice.
Why People Choose to Sew
When you ask someone why they choose to make their own clothing, or some of their own clothing, you’re likely to get a wide array of responses. They can range from sewing being a person’s creative outlet to ensuring good fit to style. I can’t pinpoint one reason; they all have a certain appeal to me. One thing is certain though – when you make your own clothing, it’s unlikely you’ll run into someone wearing the exact same outfit.
Give five people the same pattern, and they’ll return with vastly different garments. The choice of fabric, cut of the pattern, embellishments and other style choices means that each one will be different. Even if you give those five people the same pattern and fabric, they will still come back with different garments. A pattern isn’t set in stone; it’s more of a guide, and the end product is limited only by a person’s imagination.
But the best reason I have for sewing is this: I enjoy it. I like knowing that the items I make will last far longer than anything I can buy in the store. And if something happens to it, I can usually fix it (barring an issue such as bl
each). If a seam pops open (not likely, but it happens) I can just go to my sewing machine and fix it. I choose the quality of the fabrics I use, so I can have a cheap t-shirt for doing things like housecleaning. Alternatively, I can use that same pattern to make a t-shirt out of expensive fabric to wear for date night.
I can buy a t-shirt from Walmart for $6, but say that I spend $12 on a couple of yards of knit fabric to make myself a t-shirt. I pay another couple of dollars for a pattern that I can use over and over again (I buy most of my patterns when they’re on sale). Even if I buy a pattern from an independent and pay $10, I’m ok with that. Thread is another $3-5. So I’ve paid about $15 for my t-shirt, and it seems like a no brainer to just go buy it.
But, the t-shirt I make will last for many years because I chose a decent quality knit when it was on sale. The t-shirt from Walmart will fall apart within a year, probably more likely six months. If the Walmart shirt has to be replaced over the period of three years with one of a comparable quality three or four times, while the shirt I make lasts for five years without being replaced, the clear choice would be the shirt I made.
And the idea that the shirt I made would last for five years, or more, isn’t far-fetched at all. It’s pretty common actually. I had clothing that my mother made me when I was a senior in high school clear up until the time I had my first child eight years later. Even then, I didn’t get rid of it because it was worn out, I just couldn’t fit in to it anymore. Things like t-shirts, and classic button down blouses rarely change in style.
More Expensive Shops Aren’t Better
Making your own garments really pays off when you start talking about higher end goods. A bargain shopper can find great prices on high quality fabric online, which translates in to lower costs for the finished garment.
Take for example this sheath dress from Nordstrom. While the sleeve is a little different (and that can be modified), this McCall’s pattern is similar enough to make it work. There are a number of patterns that would work, but this will do for our example. I found fabric suitable to make this dress ranging in price from $12 a yard up to $30 a yard. For View A, one would need about two to three yards of fabric. If the fabric you choose is $12/yard, the dress would cost about $40, including thread. At $30/yard, the dress would run around $90, around the same cost as the one on Nordstrom’s website. Still, you’d be getting a better quality garment that’s exactly the way you want it.
For Nordstrom, the $88 price tag on that dress is fairly reasonable. And it’s cute. But how many others will be wearing it around the office?
There Are Other Considerations
Like I said, I’m not going to get in to the social conscious aspects of sewing, but they exist. I plan to address this in a future post, because there are things about the fashion industry that bother me deeply. I will say here, though, that if everyone was better informed, there would be far less waste and a lot more “making do.”
While sewing may not be less expensive than buying cheap good, remember this – cheap goods are cheaply made. They use materials that are lower quality and their construction is not as good as what you get from a handmade garment. Personally, I would love to see a re-emergence of tailor made clothing and such, though I don’t believe that will ever happen. But if you have a sewing machine, or are sewing curious, try making a few garments for yourself. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy the process.