Twenty years ago most fabric stores carried a large variety of fashion fabrics so that the home sewer could, without too much effort, make clothes for herself/himself and the family for less expense than buying the same ready made clothes from stores. Since that time most fabric stores have converted themselves into craft stores that carry mostly printed cottons for quilting with much less stock in fashion fabrics. Another big change is that the price of good fabrics has risen while super cheap ready made clothing discount stores have proliferated to the point where asking if making your own clothes is worth it is a damn good question.
I would like to point out that whether it is economically worth your while to sew your own clothes depends on quite a few factors. It is possible to save money sewing your own, but these are the main factors which must be considered:
What do you spend on your clothes now?
What is your sewing skill level?
What fabric resources do you have available to you?
What do you spend on your clothes at ready-made stores? If you are buying designer clothes (and most people I know are not), whether at full price or discounted price, you will obviously be able to save a tremendous amount of money making your own. Designer patterns are available to those with the sewing skill to use them. Most of us, I’m willing to bet, buy our clothes from more mid-range companies from department stores (looking for sales), or we scour the racks at places like Ross hoping for $5 shirts that fit. If you are buying from heavy discount stores you are the one most likely to be saying that there is no way that sewing your own clothes can save you money.
Pricing it out (the average cost of a home made shirt):
Most decent fabrics cost between $7 and $15 per yard. The average shirt takes between 2 and 3 yards of fabric. Working with averages we can estimate the cost of making your own shirt: 2.5 yards x $11.00 = $27.50. You must also figure on thread. An experienced sewer generally has enough thread that it doesn’t need to be included in the price of every project, but let’s say you need the thread. That’s going to cost you between $3 and $5, depending on the brand and spool size. So let’s just stick with averages: $27.50 + $4 = $31.50
A lot of shirts require buttons and not everyone has a huge collection of them on hand, so you must figure the buttons as well. You’re likely to spend between $1 and $10 on buttons (depending on whether you go for the discount type of simple button or fashion buttons) so let’s say you’re going to spend an average of $5 on buttons. That brings your average home sewn shirt up to $36.50.
However, unless you’ve been collecting patterns for years in all different sizes (or know how to make your own), you will need a pattern too! Patterns vary widely in price from $1.99 to $30. So let’s add that onto our average home sewn shirt cost: $36.50 + $16 = $52.50 Wow, that doesn’t seem like a bargain when most of the shirts you can find at Ross cost less than $20. So why would you spend your time and resources sewing your own if you’re not saving anything, and might in fact, be spending more to make your own than to buy ready made?
Cost cannot be looked at solely from the dollar perspective. This is true for many things. When you’re considering home economics you have to consider quality. The reason why designer clothes are so expensive is not just to gouge label-loving losers (a common belief, not shared by me) but because the quality of the fabrics, the care and time taken to make the fit of the clothes exquisite, and the attention to details in construction which make a garment last for years longer than their cheaper counterparts all go into the cost of designer clothes.
If you haven’t ever tried on or touched a designer garment, you should do so just to understand the difference. I have rarely bought designer clothes but I have tried them on and examined them closely. Details such as bound button holes, linings, tighter stitching, and enclosed seams all contribute to a garment that you can pass down through generations if it’s taken care of. You will not find such care in design and construction in any shirts that cost less than $50. Either the fabrics are cheap and will pill up quickly (or tear), or the stitching is shoddy and comes undone with too much wear.
The home sewer has control over many of these factors through her/his skill level. Using shorter stitch lengths, back-stitching, seam treatments, and fabric quality are all factors that you have control over. You can also custom fit a garment at home if you take the time to take your measurements and adjust your pattern accordingly. If you do fittings before you’re finished you can make the waistband fit properly which is not a service you get when shopping at J.C. Penny. You can make a $52.50 shirt seem like a bargain if you make it something that will last like a designer investment.
Although I have used average prices to illustrate the cost factor here, there are many ways you can cut down on the cost of your home sewn clothes. It depends on what resources you have available to you in your area, or what you can find on line. Shopping for fabrics on line is not always wise when you are buying fashion fabrics unless you are buying from a familiar seller whose quality (in general) you have confidence in.
Here are some ways you can cut down on the cost of making your own clothes:
- Use coupons: I am generally not a big fan of coupons but JoAnne’s Fabrics frequently has 40% off coupons available for non-sale fabrics. This can be an incredible boon for when you wish to buy costly wool blends, linens, or knit fabrics. I sign up for their flyers and have used their coupons many times.
- Locate a discount fabric store: bigger cities often have fabric stores dedicated to “end of run” fashion fabrics, or “end of bolt” fabrics. These are often at a good price. Smaller towns lack the industry that makes these stores likely to crop up, however, if you are visiting a big city near you, do a little research and see if you can find one.
- Buy by the bolt: this is not generally possible to individuals but always ask if there is a whole bolt discount. A bolt comes with 15 yards, generally. This is worth buying if you buy something like a heavy cotton twill for making shorts, skirts, pants, or jackets. You can probably get 5 garments out of a bolt. One example of an online store that sells fabric to anyone by the bolt for a 40% discount is the Fabric Depot in Portland Oregon.
- Buy undyed fabric. I know of only one source for this: Dharma Trading in San Rafael California. The quality varies on their fabrics from decent to excellent. The catch is that they come only in white/natural (a couple of them come in black) which means you will have to dye them yourself which is a cost, to be sure, and takes more time, but the price of their silks make it worth considering as an option.
- Buy patterns on sale: most pattern companies such as McCall’s, Vogue, and Simplicity, have periodic sales on their patterns- often for 40% off. Most of the stores that carry them will have at least one of those three on sale at any given time. Sometimes you will see patterns on sale for $1.99.
- Copy patterns from friends: copying patterns from friends is a great way to save money on patterns. You will need pattern paper to do this well, but it’s worth it. Do not cut out the pattern size you need, just lay the pattern pieces underneath the dot paper and trace the size you want including all the piece numbers and markings and notches.
- Thrift stores: you can find good fabric, notions, and patterns at thrift stores but you need to be aware that patterns are often not complete and are already cut out to a specific size. Sometimes it’s worth taking the chance for the huge cost savings.
- Save buttons from old clothes: Buttons used to be so costly that no shabby garment would meet its resting place in the hearth until the buttons were removed and saved. If you find you have to retire a favorite shirt or coat- save the buttons. You can use them again! I have (thanks to a favorite online friend and a local antique store) a very nice button collection. I also buy buttons I like in different sizes when they are on sale.
Using the tips I’ve shared above I can make shirts for myself for as low as $10 a shirt, but at a higher quality than I can buy from a store.
When it comes to home economics it is important not to find yourself unnecessarily spending $10 just to save yourself $1. It is easy to get swayed by cheap prices of products and services offered by stores like Walmart. I once bought a pair of pants at K-Mart for $15 which seemed like a great bargain at the time but when I put them on the next day they ripped within the first two hours of wear! The fabric they were made of had no tensile strength which means that it was probably made of cheap short fibers. I didn’t save myself $20 by not spending $45 dollars on a better pair of regularly priced pants, I WASTED $15. Period.
It is telling, in my opinion, that while cheap clothes from deep discount stores have come and gone through my dresser drawers and closet ruthlessly fast over the years, the clothes that I still have, that are still in perfect wearing condition, are the ones I have made for myself.
We encourage questions here at The Farmhouse Finishing School, so if you have any, please speak up and we will do our best to answer them!