Can you save money sewing?

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.

Image from mycompedium.blogspot.com

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.

Van Gogh used to draw in pencil on the back of envelopes. Image from vangoghgallery.com

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 some reason, nobody is making replicas of Bette Davis’ wardrobe in Now, Voyager

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.

Although if I could get hold of this fabric I would definitely give it a try 

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)

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20 thoughts on “Can you save money sewing?

  1. Dianne August 27, 2015 / 2:41 PM

    I know it can be expensive but so can everything! I have never taken a class in my life, my mum would struggle to sew a button on and yet I bought my own machine at 16 when I started work. I taught myself using dismantled clothing, cheap fabric and lots of fun. You don’t need every tool going or a pattern for everything, you can re purpose. I am using a pattern at the moment but it was on sale. I am on my third machine not bad after 27 years of sewing and thousands saved.

  2. zaiahshay April 8, 2015 / 4:07 AM

    Sewing is a great investment and this post has the potential to deter people. You can get a really cheap sewing machine online. I purchased my first machine on Ebay my second on Gumtree. You can purchase super cheap fabric to practice and with regards to time. If sewing is your passion and you love it as much as me, you will find the time. I’m up at 4.am sometimes earlier sewing. You can do it

  3. helen December 1, 2013 / 8:23 PM

    A bit late to the party here…. but anyway, I’m early 40’s and back when I used to sew a lot of clothes as a teenager in the late 80’s is was cheaper than buying and plus I could have something unique. This last year I’ve really got back into making my clothes and it’s not about saving money anymore as when you add up the cost of fabrics and trims it’s not that cheap. The thread alone on a denim shirt I have just made cost over £8 then I had topstitching needles and denim needles to buy. I wouldn’t spend £30 on a dress for my 6 year old but have just spent that making one – but then none of her pals have a skater dress with Russian dolls on.
    Great post!

  4. Jade@How to Sew a Dress February 1, 2012 / 10:50 AM

    Aside from saving money, the other advantages to sewing your own clothing is that you can create styles in colors not available on the mass market, and make your look as individual as you like.

  5. Chuck January 28, 2012 / 10:06 PM

    Interesting, honest stuff. I’d want to make my own clothes for the design side but obvs (as well as not really being able to master a sewing machine) I have no idea how to design patterns! X

  6. lizzylikescake January 28, 2012 / 9:51 AM

    Awesome post. I was saying exactly the same thing when I watched the prog!

    Obviously the whole ‘does sewing your own clothes save you money’ issue is a complex one but the prog does have a very questionable approach to money saving. My thought was that if you want to save money just go without a new cushion cover!

  7. Nicoleneedles January 27, 2012 / 9:55 PM

    You make some interesting points, but I can’t say I agree. There’s no way you could buy, or have made for you, clothes with the attention to detail and equivalent fit, or originality of home made clothes. I’ve made coats for £50 that have lasted me for YEARS, and a coat of equvalent quality would cost at least £200. I see what you mean about the initial outlay for machines, scissors, etc, but compared to what people spend on X boxes, mobile phones, trainers, or even jeans, it’s really not much, especially when you consider these things don’t last, either from a quality or fashion point of view. And machines have actually become cheaper; a good second hand machine set you back £100 about 20 years ago. A decent machine today (say an Elna from John Lewis) is £145. Yes, you can get a load of cheap tat from Peacocks or Primark, but that’s what it will look like when you wear it. And yes, it can be hard, but isn’t anything that is ultimately worthwhile?

    • yesilikethat January 27, 2012 / 10:24 PM

      Hi Nicole – I think you’re right, but I wanted to highlight the specific costs of sewing as opposed to the vague ‘make do and mend’ ideal that seems to be held by the general public/media. I think the reality is much more interesting and complex. It is a hobby that requires a big outlay in time and money in order to reap rewards (which I personally think is a good investment)

      I want to write another post about the benefits of sewing, of which the key one is, as you say, quality vs quantity, and the idea of comparing like for like (as the big retailers put it).

  8. Kerry January 27, 2012 / 8:00 PM

    Ah, that old chestnut of ‘it’s cheaper to sew your own clothes’. You’re right that the initial outlay of quality tools isn’t cheap. These days I find it hard to believe that anyone sews their own clothes because it’s cheaper. I probably spend the same amount on sewing as I used to do on clothes per month – and now I have clothes which are better quality plus a brilliant hobby into the bargain.

  9. CamberwellGal January 27, 2012 / 5:31 PM

    I have sympathy with both the views expressed here. I started sewing, being a peniless grad student at the time, with an awful lot of weddings to go to. Navy blue with white spot cotton Coffee Date dress was a lot less money than something suitably tidy and wedding appropriate.

    I still do find that sewing saves me money, but perhaps not directly. While you can find very cheap things in Primark, some very useful, but most not, I can make things of better quality than that for less, up to a point. This has the effect of restraining my consumption of garments full stop; I can’t sew that fast (not enough time!), and I think twice about buying things if I think I can make things better, myself. Knit dresses I find useful for work, hitting the right level of smart casual, teaching comfortable, bike friendly, and find that a couple of meters of cotton-mix knit (£3 (love Brixton!)-8 or £10) plus a pattern means the come out in the £13-25 range. A lot less than the last £60 one I bought in Monsoon (all this doesn’t mean I don’t buy RTW!). …But the net effect is less consumption (better environmentally), and less spending.

    Getting round to sewing is a different matter all together!

  10. busyellebee January 27, 2012 / 5:16 PM

    Oh I wish I could shake your hand! Brilliant post :).

    When I was at school, we were given the task of comparing the cost of shop purchased curtains with home made ones. After hours and hours of dedicated research, I worked out that it was, at the time, slightly cheaper to buy ready made than to make them. I was given a B+ instead of my usual A grade, because as my teacher wrote on my school report, I “should have used cheap fabric”. Yes, not ‘cheaper’ fabric, but ‘cheap’ fabric! To me that would have been a false economy!

    Thankfully, she didn’t put me off making my own clothes and soft furnishings.

    In some ways, it can be a saving as you said, but most people sew because it is a fun, creative hobby, or because of specific need, not just to save money. It is a bonus if you do, but not the sole reason. Nor should it be.

    Like you, I find it difficult to source nice, well fitting clothes in the stores. Yes I save money as I can alter hems myself, but I enjoy making my own clothes and that is my motivation for doing so 🙂

  11. leahfranqui January 27, 2012 / 4:16 PM

    I know I save money sewing, but that’s not why I started doing it. I have to say, though, I really admire Zoe for her re-purposing and try to emulate it whenever possible. I use sheets and old linens, but it’s a lot easier in the summer when everything can be cotton. In the winter, I need wool, and so I buy it. But I think when I consider the environmental costs and the true cost of human labor that that 5 dollar shirt can’t possibly be covering, I’m happy with the exchange. Because if I’m privileged enough to be in a place when I can make my own clothing then I think it’s worth the extra cost.

    I also don’t really buy new clothing any more other then undergarments.

  12. Andrea January 27, 2012 / 3:11 PM

    It is interesting to reflect on how my great-grandmother made clothes for her family because they couldn’t afford any other option, but, as you say, sewing today is much more of an investment up front, and people do it for many other reasons than saving money. I think part of what’s different is that now there’s an accessible abundance of cheap clothing in all the malls and big-box stores due to shifts in manufacturing processes and taking labor to developing countries. That was the whole point: to make clothing more affordable for the consumer! Even using deeply discounted or secondhand materials, my basic handmade skirt will still cost about the same (if not more) as something similar I could find at Forever 21. Not to mention all the “necessary” tools I must have to make anything: serger, buttonhole foot, invisible zipper foot, rotary cutter and mat, French curve, pattern weights, etc. Even with all that, my quality of sewing is still not up to snuff with most RTW, though I’m working hard on getting there.

    In the end I sew because I like the technical process and I enjoy creating something with a practical use. I try not to let myself feel so guilty investing money into a hobby I love so much.

  13. prttynpnk January 27, 2012 / 3:05 PM

    It always makes me laugh when people will stroke something they just found out you made and wistfully say, ‘Oh, I wish I could sew, I’d save so much money’. Sewing is a creative outlet, not a way to economize for the average sewist. It’s an expression of art, not thrift, fortunately or unfortunately- depending on your view.

  14. Jane January 27, 2012 / 2:38 PM

    Really interesting post – glad I’m not the only one who thought the mascara/talc thing was a bit dubious!
    I’ve more or less stopped buying clothes from shops now, only buying things I can’t make like shoes, cardigans etc and I’ve definitely noticed I’m richer but I’m probably not doing the sums properly. On the plus side, I try to make 2nd garments from leftover fabric whenever I can, and my charity shop fabric buys have given me a jacket, dress and top for about £10. On the minus side, my recent Renfrew top cost me nearly £20 in double knit and I noticed a very similar top in Primark this week for £2.99…. You’re right though, the more you sew, the more expensive tools and gadgets you acquire (like £200 overlockers!) and I can’t seem to stop buying patterns recently…. or vintage buttons…. or anything gingham… As Lauren from Lladybird says on her blog, “I am a 26 year old Nashvillian with a stupid expensive sewing hobby”! x

  15. didyoumakethat January 27, 2012 / 2:29 PM

    This is another excellent blog post. It is a privilege to sew, and I’m aware I’m very lucky to have been able to buy a lot of the equipment I now own. I think your point on time is a good one. My time is precious. To sew, I use up my evenings, weekends, or annual leave. There are many other things I could be doing with that time, so patterns that don’t work or include unnecessary time-consuming fuss drive me demented. I can be doing better things with my time, you know – thanks for wasting half a day of my annual leave! But to return to the topic (!), sewing can sometimes save you money and sometimes not. You just have to roll with it. A discerning and scrupulous Sewist, like So Zo, can make it really pay. But, for me, the experience and novelty of working with some really lovely fabrics is a bit part of the pull, also.

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