Is Making Your Own Clothes Economical?

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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!

15 thoughts on “Is Making Your Own Clothes Economical?

  1. Tracey

    I would also recommend refashioning clothes you already have that have gone drastically out of style or don’t fit anymore. Creativity may be required, but it definately saves money!

    Reply
  2. stitchy1

    That’s a good point Tracey- but I think it might be offered up as an alternative to actually sewing new garments, perhaps in another home economics article. I think the main thing here was to compare what sewing from scratch costs with buying new garments. I think buying thrift clothes is still a great money saving option too but I have yet to find stuff in my size that isn’t awful.
    I love the input though and am so happy to see you here!

    Reply
  3. alison

    As someone who sews most of my own clothing, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. I have always needed to consider the economical side of things, and since my size and shape are not well served by readymade clothing (I’m short and “full figured” with narrow shoulders – I hate having the armhole halfway down my arm), I have gradually added to the percentage of my garments that I make for myself.
    One thing that can make sewing for yourself or family members less expensive is to use the same pattern several or many times. Once you have adjusted a basic pattern to fit you well, it is not too difficult to add variety to it in simple ways. I have a basic blouse pattern, two simple dress patterns, and it is really easy for me to change sleeves, collar shapes, or other kinds of details and not have it look like I’m wearing the exact same thing.
    Sewing your own “undies” is really economical, and can be done quickly even if you don’t have a fancy machine or a serger. I’ve been making sports bras and matching panties for years and even with buying new fabric and notions it is a lot cheaper compared to the plus size alternatives.
    There are a number of online fabric sellers that will send you a swatch of the fabric that you are thinking of buying, not all will, but some do, and it is usually free or for a very minimal charge.
    The one thing that is not mentioned in your article, which is the other big reason why I sew rather than purchase, is that many of the workers who make the garments that are sold so cheaply are treated really badly. I do not wish to support that kind of thing, so prefer to have perhaps fewer garments, but ones that I know that the seamstress (me) is free to take a bathroom break when needed and is working at a safe rate of speed and under good conditions. I once worked in a small garment manufacturing shop as a young woman living in Boston, and it was a terrible job, even with the safeguards we have here in the USA. Did you know that even here, garment constructing jobs are exempt from paying minimum wage? They can pay “piecework” which is a per garment price. I was an experienced sewer even then, but I almost never was able to sew garments fast enough to make anywhere near minimum. I never complained after that if something bought readymade was poorly done, because I knew how little time the stitchers had to do the work…
    (Sorry for the rant, but I felt it needed to be mentioned)

    Reply
  4. ToilingAnt

    Ack, no mention of the glories of second-hand clothing? :-) I love to sew, but don’t have the time to sew my entire wardrobe, so Goodwill fills in quite nicely, and very affordably. $5 there will get me a much better garment than $20 will at Ross.

    Reply
  5. alison

    If I could ever find something at Goodwill that fit and was not made of nasty polyester, and didn’t look like some scary refugee from a bad sitcom, I’d happily buy there. I go to Goodwill for kitchenware, and sometimes nifty vintage furniture, but if you are a “big” girl, most thrift store fashion is not much help

    Reply
  6. French Knots

    To reduce the cost of fabric I have recycled pretty,old sheets into nighties for my daughter and also keep an eye out for adult clothes that can be cut up to give enough fabric to make something new. Usually not enough to make a garment for me, large size needed.

    Reply
  7. stitchy1

    Alison- thank you for the link. I will check that site out.
    You have all made some very good points. I wanted to keep this post strictly as a comparison between sewing new clothes from scratch and buying new clothes off the rack because in my twenty years since going to fashion design school this is the question I most often hear people ask about sewing your own clothes.
    I think there are at least two more posts I can write easily about saving money on wardrobe costs using some of the points you’ve all brought up. I am only beginning to build content here so there’s a TON of ground to cover. You are all going to keep me on my toes I can see and I’m going to need to keep pace.
    Today I just posted a project to reuse a men’s shirt.
    I will also start building a list of links that will be useful and related to this blog. Just keep checking back because improvements will be small but frequent.
    I love all your comments!

    Reply
  8. Angela (Cottage Magpie)

    I share the issue with thrift store clothing. I’m six feet tall, so it’s nearly impossible to find clothes that fit, even if I buy retail. But I do try, especially when I don’t have time to sew (or money to buy fabric).
    I will say, though, that the place I’ve found the biggest cost savings is in sewing children’s clothing. For example, a homemade pair of shorts for my nearly-six-year-old can be had from anywhere from $1 to $3, and even at thrift store prices that’s hard to beat. So I’m doing more of that.
    Love this new blog! Keep it coming! I’m a huge fan.
    ~Angela :-)

    Reply
  9. Bea

    I read this with interest – thanks for doing the calculations. One of the other reasons for making your own clothing is that when you live in an isolated area like I do – in Canada’s North – you just don’t have access to larger size fashions so I learned to sew – thanks to my home economics teacher – and have continued doing so. Love to sew and quilt. Thanks for the information

    Reply
  10. Audrey Star J

    I just read this article, after looking up on Google about making clothes from scratch. I was just thinking about it–online is another place to find free patterns–everything seems to be online, heh.
    Also, material isn’t nearly as expensive as you listed I didn’t think. Of course, I was just carousing WalMart, so maybe it’s not best quality.
    I don’t even know how to sew yet, heh, & don’t own a machine, so I’m really starting from scratch!
    Oh. And one more reason people make their own clothes–modesty.
    thanx for this article!

    Reply
  11. stitchy1

    I based my prices on averages rather than the cheapest you can find. I also don’t believe that sewing your own clothes is worthwhile if you use the cheapest quality fabrics which don’t last very long- if you’re going to all the trouble to make your own clothes you want the quality to be outstanding in every way so that they will last longer than anything you could buy. Cheap fabrics (and Walmart doesn’t sell any real quality fabric) have a much weaker tensile strength. I base this knowledge on not only what I learned in fashion design school in which we learned about fibers and the manufacture of fabrics but on 28 years of sewing with every kind of quality of fabric.
    But these are choices for each of us to make individually. I am simply putting on this blog the best of my own knowledge to offer people who want to learn urban homesteading skills the greatest chance of success and satisfaction.

    Reply
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  13. Fala Cedar

    This is a great post, Angelina! I agree, many times it’s the handmade stuff that lasts forever. The clothing in mainstream stores now is so cheaply made, it barely lasts a trip through the washing machine.

    Personally, I’m coming at this from the angle of a person who loves vintage styles. Back in Olden Tymes, I used to be able to find all sorts of perfect vintage dresses at the bins for a couple bucks, but all of the good stuff has been absorbed into collections and shops and a dress that used to sell for 10.00 will now fetch hundreds of dollars. The other thing with vintage is fit is a crapshoot, of course. Instead of dropping a ton of money on a fragile vintage dress that will probably not fit correctly, I can get myself a pattern, spend a few bucks on muslin for the mock-ups, and then make the finished dress for far less than a genuine vintage dress would cost. So, yeah, I definitely think it can be economical, depending on how you approach it and what sort of garments you’d really like to add to your wardrobe.

    Reply
  14. Grace Burks

    I agree modesty is a good reason to sew for yourself. I also find it hard to find durable dresses solid colors. I have known how to sew for 35 years but still find it difficult to fit clothes right. I have saved money making window coverings.

    Reply

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