Well, can you?
This week I watched a money-saving programme on Channel 4 called The SuperScrimpers. It’s full of dubious tips like coating your lashes with baby powder in lieu of mascara, putting foil behind your radiators, and freezing lime wedges to put in your G&T (a good tip, but money saving? A lime costs about 20p!)
Anyway, this episode had a group of girls learning to sew. It’s about 35 mins in, if you want to watch it. They were all complete beginners who were scared of the whole idea, and it was lovely to watch them learn how to create something from nothing (in this case, cushion covers from old scraps of fabrics and unwanted clothes).
But is sewing really a money-saving activity? I don’t think so, and here’s why:
Firstly, the fixed costs. You’re going to need a sewing machine, which will cost at least £100. Yes, you can get them cheaper, or second-hand and refurbished, but it depends how much time you have to hunt around.
Secondly, the equipment. You won’t get far without an iron and an ironing board. You need tools – at the very minimum scissors, a seam ripper, a tape measure.
And the more you sew, the more stuff you will accumulate. That’s because sewing is an activity where new tools make a big difference.
This is in sharp contrast to other crafts like knitting or embroidery, where start-up costs are minimal. Yes, you can spend hundreds of pounds on cashmere yarn or silk thread, but the basic skill is in your hands, and is free to learn. With art, it’s the same – it’s your ideas that matter, whether you have a full Lanvin-designed Caran D’Ache set, or a single pencil.
But in dressmaking, there are things that you just can’t do without the right machine or tool. And the more professional the sewing, the more specialised the machine. Clothing companies can afford to spend thousands on, for example, a piece of equipment that only makes buttonholes. In home sewing, we have to use a mixture of work-arounds, substitutes, and make-dos.
That’s before you even get into the costs of fabric and notions to make garments, which can add up. (If you’re interested in this aspect, check out Zoe’s blog – she only sews with second-hand or repurposed fabric)
Where sewing can start to make financial sense is in comparing like for like. Karen did an interesting cost break-down of the beautiful coat she made, comparing it to what she could have paid for something shop-bought. For me, making my own clothes only becomes worth it when sewing something that I literally cannot buy in the shops.
For instance, I can’t buy dresses that hit me at my natural waistline. I can’t buy shirts and blouses in non-polyester fabric, that fit my long torso. In financial terms, the sewing machines and equipment I’ve already bought are Sunk Costs – irrelevant to future decision making. And on that basis, I do save money by sewing. I recently made myself another Sorbetto top out of fabric scraps from my birthday dress, embellished with lace and pearl buttons from my stash (another sunk cost). I love it and you could say it was entirely free.
But that doesn’t change the fact that that sewing is a privileged activity. You need time and money to devote to it. It has a sharp learning curve, and you won’t be able to knock off that Prada silk dress after an hour’s workshop, maybe not even after 5 years of practise.
Because sewing is intimidating. It’s difficult! It involves expensive machines with very sharp moving parts. People don’t know how to do it any more, so you can’t just ask your mum or gran to show you how to put a button back on a coat (why do you think all those new London sewing cafes are springing up? They make money from running super-basic ‘sew a hem!’ style courses)
You might notice I’ve left out any mention of non financial benefits, which is deliberate – I wanted to consider the purely cost-based implications. My contention is that sewing is not a money-saving activity in today’s world, with Asda selling a three piece suit for cheaper than you could buy material to make it.
If I was a millionaire, with enough money to buy whatever I wanted, to have my own amazing fabric printed, to commission tailors to custom-make me perfect dresses….would I still sew? I think so, but that’s a whole other discussion, and this is long enough already.
I think that sewing does still have a cultural echo of thriftiness, a ‘Make Do and Mend’ nostalgia. That’s probably why it was included in the Channel 4 programme, which was appropriately a bit of a rag-bag all round.
I’d be interested to know what others think. Do you save money through sewing? Is quality more important to you than cost? And would you put foil behind your radiators or is that a money-saving step too far? (personally it just reminds me of this 90s plot-line on Eastenders)