Can You Save Money by Sewing? #1

(#1 because I could talk about this from a whole bunch of angles…and probably will. I’ve been sewing since I can remember  and I’ve worked professionally doing  everything from custom one-of-a-kind to mass-market volume apparel production. I’ve “costed” factory lines down to the fraction-of-a-penny per item, and I’ve overspent on gorgeous fabrics for myself  that never got sewn into anything ….yet.)

If you are a sewist, you’ve probably been asked (or just wondered yourself) if your “hobby” saves you money.  Simple question, complicated answer. It depends on how much your time is worth, how fast you sew, where you source your materials, etc.  Much also depends on which projects you choose to work on: are you mostly mending.  altering, or creating? Are you sewing for yourself, your family, or paying customers?

Do you ever get requests to “copy” a ready-to-wear item? Often people who don’t sew are under the impression that this “saves” money. Usually it doesn’t, because most RTW is mass-produced in factories where technicians have perfected the art of streamlining the systems…and where sourcing agents purchase their raw materials in bulk volume. Personally, I don’t bother home-sewing apparel that can be manufactured reliably with a lot of robotic machinery (bras and jeans come to mind) yet others find those same categories quite fun and creative to make. My favorite “saving money” apparel category is dresses: since they are generally made in small volume (because styles change every year) the Cut-Make-Trim cost in factories is relatively high for dresses….so there is usually some “home economics” here.  (“Home-Ec” classes in school were originally meant to teach students how to economize by sewing and cooking at home; these days the focus is on creativity….after all, you hardly save money making pizza at home when the chain restaurants are buying ingredients at wholesale.)*

*Edited to add this: my reader Karen commented she does indeed save money with at-home pizza (plus she gets her boys to make it!!).  This has inspired another blog post….stay tuned!

Recently I’ve been asked several times to copy* a VERY popular flower-girl dress that you may be familiar with if you’ve attended a rustic wedding, barn wedding, or beach wedding in the past few years.  It has the perfect “vintage” vibe, the popular ivory color, and fits any body type because it’s a float dress,  cinched in with a ribbon sash. The identical dress is available at retail prices ranging from $39 to $69 from several websites plus at least four different Etsy shops. Two of the Etsy shops have the same name for it (the “Original Charlotte”) and one shop has sold many thousands of this style. It’s also available at wholesale prices as low as $10 (5 for $50) from Asian import sites:

alidh

(*Why? Because sometimes a size is out-of-stock and needed by an event-date….or because the customer wants a longer length or a non-sheer bodice)

I never copy somebody else’s designs outright (although I’m always open to using inspiration to create a new design), but for this particular dress I’ve resorted to explaining  WHY it can’t be made affordably in a home studio:

  • FABRIC: although one Etsy seller describes this dress as being made of “English tulle” (a very expensive and difficult to find cotton bridal veil fabric) in reality it’s made from an inexpensive polyester, in a weave that isn’t readily available in the retail fabric market (ie: home-sewing stores). (How do I know what the fabrics are?  Because customers have sent me this dress, bought at various Etsy shops, to have me make slip-liners; the dress is extremely flimsy and see-through. ) The under-layer is a semi-sheer poly pongee, and the very-short lining is a loose-weave cotton muslin.  I’m familiar with these fabrics from my production days, they are manufactured in Asia and shipped directly to garment factories: they never reach fabric stores in the West.
  • TRIM: in order to maximize the effect of the lace, this dress is made with small areas of lace fabric yardage at the bodice, cap-sleeves, and at the hem. Possibly the original style was designed with a border of lace trim at the hem, and to save pennies that was substituted with lace fabric yardage, cut into strips. Lace trim would have a scalloped edge, and this lace fabric is cut straight across: it’s not even hemmed. I can’t imagine a home-sewist designing a dress with a chopped-off lace-yardage  hem, however in a factory this is a penny-saver. By the yard, 3″ wide lace trim costs maybe 20 cents wholesale….compared to 60″ wide lace fabric which might be 2 dollars a yard, but it can be sliced into 20 strips @ 3″ = 10 cents.

hemmlace


A note about penny-saving in factories: those pennies multiply, because of the way costing is calculated from manufacturing cost, to wholesale price, to retail price. A savings of 25 cents in materials or CMT (Cut-Make-Trim: putting the garment together) translates to 50 cent at wholesale which is again doubled to $1 at retail. When a retail store-chain is trying to keep a price at a certain level (let’s say they know $39.99 is an attractive price for a certain category), they negotiate with the factory to save pennies in fabric quality, yardage, finishing techniques, even labels and hang-tags. A design originally sketched to have 7 buttons might get costed down to 5 buttons, and trimming that was meant to circle the neckline is often cut back to front-only.

Moving on to production: a big reason that factory-made garments are so (relatively) affordable (the mark-up is the killer…more on that in a minute) is because they are constantly looking for faster, more efficient, mechanized methods for each step in production. For example:

  • HEM: the cotton liner skirt is serged off at the hem, the underlayer lace strip is simply cut off raw to create the hem, but the sheer outlayer has a “fishing-line” hem, made by threading nylon into a rolled-hem. You can do this at home, but it’s tricky to feed in the nylon by hand.  In a factory it’s mechanized: a dedicated machine is set up for just this one task, with the  workers doing the same process all day long, day after day until it becomes super-efficient. The fishing-line does give what is otherwise a limp dress some volume. (Side note: the dress doesn’t look anything like the modeled photos when unpacked from shipping….there’s a reason that some Etsy shops advise to “steam upon receipt”.) Bottom line is that what can be done in seconds by a factory, could take you lots of time and practice to do at home, for a single garment.

hem

  • SLEEVES: these are narrow-hem serged, you can do this at home….if your overlock has  rolled-edge capability (mine takes forever to switch over)

Capture

  • NECKLINE: another technique that is tricky to do at home, and super fast-and-easy in a factory with the right machine to cut volume bias tape  and sewing machine attachments set up for volume production. The neckline is finished with bias tape over lace fabric.  At home this requires cutting your own bias tape from the dress under-layer fabric, plus the stitching is slippery and requires patience, careful stitching, maybe lots of pins. Factories don’t use pins: a dedicated machine is set up with a bias-binding feeder to fold the bias over the fabric edge and edge-stitch it in place within mere seconds. Your home machine may have the same attachment, but do you have it set up all the time? It’s a nuisance to set it up for one dress.

Now down to the costing: can you save money (or even match the current retail price) making this?  Let’s look at the numbers:

  •  You can buy this dress RETAIL  for $40 to $70 at many online shops
  •  Those shops can buy it for $10 WHOLESALE PRICE from direct importers
  •  $10 WHOLESALE means the the FACTORY COST is probably $5
  • Based on my own factory experience, I estimate the MATERIALS COST is about $3
  • Subtract that to get the CMT (Cut-Make-Trim) of about $2
  • (This means the  sewist gets about 50 CENTS, the retailer about 50 DOLLARS).

Even if you could locate these fabrics locally, and had already invested in industrial machinery and the attachments for speed binding and fishing-line hemming, what about the value of your time?  When cut in multiple layers and stitched in volume, and each worker doing only one task repetitively, this dress takes about TEN MINUTES to make. (This type of synthetic garment gets zero pressing during construction, it gets a quick steaming before bagging).  How long would it take you to make a single one for the first time? If you’re like me, most likely the same as the factory SAMPLE maker: 1 per day.

What about you?  Do you save money sewing? Does it matter to you if you don’t?

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28 Responses to Can You Save Money by Sewing? #1

  1. Elle C says:

    Thank you for this incredibly fascinating post. Wow.

    I do sew to save money, my husband and I both work in a nursing home, and cotton scrubs cost more than I am willing to spend. I can make a scrub top for as little as $4 instead of the $50 that is the usual price for a 100% cotton top (which is all I will wear). Yes, my time is worth something, but I also sew so that I don’t kill people. My happy place is in front of my Bernina. Keeps me sane.

  2. karen says:

    Very educational! I worked in the garment industry in the Philippines for a couple of decades and have also sewn most of my life. I also live in a country where you can have clothes made (“copied”) quite cheaply so I often have this conversation. When I sew for my self or loved ones, it is a hobby so I don’t compute labor so I do save money especially as I can buy fabrics quite cheaply here. But I am often asked if I would sew for other people and I always answer that to make it worth my while, I would have to charge prices that would not be worth it to them. People really don’t understand the difference between the time needed for factory made and for garments sewn individually , and made to fit an individual body.

  3. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Yes it’s quite different to sew for family (a “labor of love”) than to sew for customers. And sewing one piece at a time, especially if correct fitting is required, is an entirely different process from factory production. I imagine that most people have never seen a garment factory! PS: Lucky you, to live in such a warm and beautiful country!!!

  4. Sarah says:

    So interesting! I would say most likely no, it doesn’t save me money, except if I’m making a garment with a luxurious fabric (which is almost never, ha!). One time where I felt that I’d even come close to even breaking even was making a silk maxi dress – but of course I didn’t factor in my time! We all have our reasons for sewing, and I think to save money is the least of our goals. Having said that here in Australia ethically produced clothing made on-shore is pretty hard to find, and costs accordingly, so a cotton tshirt I saw in a shop in a pretty coastal town for $90 that I copied turned out to cost me significantly less in a linen knit from a pattern I’d made many times before – illustrating your point that efficient production is ultimately what saves money! Really enjoying your blog especially your trouser fitting info!

  5. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Totally agree on the difference using high-quality fabric makes! Why waste your precious time sewing bad quality fabric? Not only are you not adding much value, but the frustration of manipulating junk fabric…not worth it! Saving money is secondary for me, if I’m making for myself: I’m more concerned with fitting my pear-shape, and also creativity. When sewing to sell, I’m far more conscious of price….but I’m so glad to be away from the mass-production business…..I love being able to splurge on as many buttons and as much trim as I feel is appropriate to the design. Isn’t it funny how simply using one pattern several times increases your productivity so much? It makes me wonder why I buy too many patterns….

  6. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Yay for Bernina! Best investment I ever made, way back in design school. I’ve wondered about making scrubs: everything I see in retail is poly-cotton (also I see them for sale in the strangest places…like Staples?!). Wouldn’t most people prefer cotton? Have you thought about selling them? Or would that make sewing not fun anymore. Your job must be very high-stress….nice to have sewing as an outlet!

  7. Austragirl says:

    I sew to get styles and fit that suit me. I don’t save time or money but I do get garments that fit. Plus it gives me lots of pleasure to develop my skills and produce garments that make me happy.

  8. Pauline Wright says:

    Thanks for such an informative piece. I guess by the time we have bought our fabric ‘stash’, tools, equipment etc etc we don’t save masses of cash, but we do end up with individual garments that fit, when we can’t find what we want in the shops. That is worth a lot to me!

  9. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Absolutely, Pauline, there are many benefits other than financial….but sometimes I have a difficult time convincing my husband of that! Maybe it’s a “guy thing”….men’s apparel is more consistent in size (U.S. pants labelled 32/31 actually have a 32″ waistband and 31” inseam)….whereas women’s clothes change patterns so frequently that fit is often compromised for timely stock delivery to shops. When time is tight, the final sample fitting is usually signed off by the Tech with a note to “C&P”: correct-and-proceed. And if those fit corrections aren’t actually made? Too bad, production has proceeded! No wonder sewists prefer to perfect the fit at home!

  10. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Amanda, will you speak with my husband please?? I have a difficult time explaining this to him at times! There can be a huge gap between the practical and the artistic aspects. Just as you can’t very well compete monetarily with the pizza shop in town, since they buy ingredients wholesale and make mass quantities, it’s still quite pleasurable to make a homemade pizza for the joy of it (and to get exactly the toppings you love!)

  11. JustGail says:

    The only time sewing saves me money is when I’m mending, usually jeans. If I were sewing to save money, I probably shouldn’t be buying fabric and stuffing it in the closet unsewn. Even with making quilts, if saving money were the only reason, I’d be hitting the flea markets, as you can buy lovely vintage ones for less than new foreign made quilts.

    I sew garments to get better fit, since the RTW options for tall plus-size women’s clothing is darned near non-existent, and what little is available seems to be poor quality for what they charge. I think you *can* save money by sewing if you make your own versions of designer garments that cost several hundred dollars, mostly for the designer label, not so much for quality of fabric or workmanship.

    I sew other items, like my car seat covers to get fabric I liked, not to save money. The fabric cost nearly as much as completed seat covers, but they are not brown, black or camo, which is all I find in stores.

    In short, I mend to save money, I sew to get the fit or look I’m after.

  12. Lena says:

    I’ve looked at an etsy shop selling “The Charlotte”- if I read your text, it’s 100% clear to me that this etsy shop is just a reseller, not a maker.
    It’s so sad that etsy doesn’t stop these retail businesses, ruining it for everyone.

  13. Mina says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post! I am only a novice, but my mother has sewn for 40+ years. Lots of matching outfits for me and my sister… Neither my mother nor I would say that sewing saves us money. It’s a hobby, something we enjoy doing that as a bonus enables us to make clothes that are unique and suit our tastes and form. My mother has a bit of a firmer budget for fabrics than I do, because she is afraid of ruining and wasting expensive fabric. I prefer to get a more high quality fabric and if I end up ruining it… well, that will be an expensive learning experience. On the other hand, my mother has a much larger stash than I do!

    In my experience, people don’t tend to think of sewing as a money-saving hobby. Maybe because people are aware, even just a little, of the conditions in which cheap fashion is made and realize you can’t possibly compete with that here. I also knit and knitting, on the other hand…! So many people who have NO concept of how long it takes to knit a sweater, or how expensive natural fibers are. It’s strange that there’s such a difference in perception between the two crafts.

    Side note: I only just discovered your blog and I am going to read EVERY page. You have some very educational posts here. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and expertise!

  14. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    It’s sad, isn’t it? Etsy does not “control” seller’s items, but they do have very clear guidelines as to what constitutes “Handmade, Vintage, or Supplies”…and even if they don’t have experts on staff in every category (who would be able to spot the mass-production items in a split second), they could easily figure out by the numbers what cannot be physically handcrafted by one person. What Etsy HAS done is require that all shops write up an “About” page, explaining how the maker learned their craft, what their inspiration is, where they source materials….not every detail of course, but something to give customers an idea of where their purchase is coming from. And yet some sellers write the absolute minimum, with vague references to “discovering my creative side” or “finding my outlet”, etc. And then they proceed to import mass-manufactured product and list it under the “Handmade” category. In the long run, it’s terrible for the reputation of Etsy, and by association, for ALL Etsy sellers.

  15. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Hi Mina! Thank you for reading, and for sharing your thoughts. And thank you for reminding me about the differences one generation can make (which gives me another idea for a blog post…about how much fabric you should buy…hmmmmm). I love to hear that many people enjoy sewing for the sheer creativity and craft of it, with the bonus of a delightful and useful end-product. Maybe it’s when you somebody NEEDS to make a profit, that the stress comes into it? I do agree that the public living far from factory areas is learning more about what happens in mass-production. But they are also accustomed to such relatively low prices in the shops..I wonder if they make the connection? In the U.S. over 95% of our Ready to Wear is imported, and studies have shown that most customers don’t bother looking at the Country Of Origin in their clothes. Now of course knitting (and to a lesser extend crochet, because for most people crochet is faster), that’s purely a “labor of love” in my mind! How anybody can sell hand-knits and make a profit, I don’t understand…unless they find that elusive customer who “gets it”. A friend of mine grows alpacas, shears the wool, spins it and dyes it herself, and knits it….I’m constantly amazed!!

  16. Angela says:

    For husbands or partners who need convincing of the “savings” of sewing your own, it’s helpful to compare apples to apples. Could I clothe myself in RTW for less than the cost of sewing materials and time? Yes, definitely. But could I clothe myself in one-of-a-kind, custom fitted clothing in my favorite colors and fabrics for less than my material + time cost? Probably not!

  17. Barbara says:

    I do not sew to save money, but that is a side-effect of my hobby. I refuse to buy the shoddy products that are for sale today, but I also refuse to pay hundreds of dollars for garments made of better-quality fabric. Am I the only person who has noticed that a camisole is now a required under-garment? Because the fabrics in RTW garments are so threadbare…. I live in Canada, and even some of the fabrics available at our chain fabric store are better quality. So, the net is that I end up saving money when I sew the things I like in the the quality that I like.

  18. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Hi Barbara! Yes, I was shopping with my daughter and noticed how sheer the teeshirts and blouses were when she said “But everybody wears 2 layers!”. I don’t remember it being necessary to wear 2 shirt layers when I was her age, but nowadays the fabrics are so flimsy that she needs a camisole AND shirt over her bra. I know from working in retail that the shops do try to keep the prices low, but often that means cutting corners on fabric quality and yardage (making items shorter and tighter)….but eventually it backfires if you need to purchase 2 items, or if your purchases fall apart after a few washings from shoddy fabrics and/or workmanship. So it’s a total “win” for you, if you enjoy sewing as a hobby, and at the same time save money AND get the quality you want!

  19. Marsha says:

    I absolutely save money by sewing. But I rarely make garments from scratch. I’m fortunate to have several thrift stores near my home and I frequently find clothes made with quality fabrics that I then alter to fit. Some items are simply missing a button(and frequently have spares sewn in an inner seam) or have a hem that is falling out. Sometimes I need to adjust the length or take in the side seams. Most items I buy cost less than $5 and take me 15 minutes to 2 hours to repair or alter. The key for me is knowing my body shape and choosing garments that won’t need extensive alterations.

  20. Karen says:

    I know when I sew that I am not saving money or time, like most of the commenters above. Sometimes I can’t even claim that I am getting a higher quality garment or better fit! Still, I persevere…

    Regarding your pizza analogy, I do find that making homemade pizza is cheaper than even the cheapest take-out, especially since I am feeding three teen boys. They like it better, too, even though they are in charge of making it themselves. :)

  21. Kristie says:

    Saving money is an unintentional consequence of my sewing addiction. Dresses are my vice. I have 4 favorite dress patterns that I am constantly remaking and restyling for everyday, work, and church also a 5th pattern that I use for special occasions. I so love every step of the dress making process from choosing fabric to sewing french seams.
    Great post!

  22. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    I should probably revise the pizza analogy to include the value of time lol….my husband is constantly reminding me that I tend to overlook the value of labor (including this blog haha). That’s awesome that your boys make dinner: they will be VERY popular roomates/partners/husbands! As far as sewing, I also tend to “forget” the unwearable mistakes, although if you learn from them, isn’t that an investment? I can rationalize almost anything! Thanks for reading Karen!

  23. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    An “unintentional consequence”, I love that! Dresses may be your vice, but they are fantastic as money-saving sewing projects because you really do save more on them than you do on garments that are manufactured in massive quantities (teeshirts, undies, basic pants, most mens-wear). I would love to know what your go-to dress patterns are! When you “love every step” of what you are doing, it’s pure joy. My grandmother felt exactly the same way about sewing! Kristie thanks for your comments, you’ve inspired another blog-post….

  24. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Marsha, that is brilliant!It’s amazing that some items get donated for lack of a button (as you said, that might be on the inside seam, but maybe nobody bothered to look…or can’t sew a button). You are probably getting “the pick” of some great items that others overlook, because they would need to pay the tailor at a dry-cleaners for fixing the hem that’s falling out. Did you know that some thrift stores get more clothing than they can use, and whatever doesn’t sell by some color-coded date gets sent overseas, possibly for recycling into rags for insulation? You’re helping in so many ways by rescuing these clothes and giving them a new lease on life.

  25. Sewing Jan says:

    I know I’m not saving money by making my own clothes. I do it because I love to sew and I can make clothes to fit me, in a style and colour that suits me. Pear shapes are supposed to be the most common figure type – but clothes manufacturers don’t make for us.

  26. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    I totally hear you, I’m a pear as well….if the shoulders and waist fit, the hips are far too tight. I’m so happy to hear that people like you love to sew and are not obsessed over saving money!! Clothes that fit = priceless.

  27. Shelley says:

    I have never had a rtw fit in the shoulders the way sewn can. Before there was petite sizing everything needed hemming since nobody was 5′. ; ) I also just like making stuff in colors I like. Petite plus is still lacking in rtw, – size 16 won’t work from the waist down and no dress ever hits where it’s flattering. I also like the mental challenge of pattern-making when I have time.
    I did save some money long ago when I sewed for the kids because I couldn’t afford the prices for retail Oshkosh and places like the Jansen outlet had great knit yardage. They grew up in Stretch & Sew, Burda kids, Kwik Sew and a little Sunrise Designs mixed in due to pattern longevity.

  28. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    You know that’s another great point: if you are short (like me!) you need to compare rtw-plus-alterations versus sewing….since rtw doesn’t fit. I totally agree that the mental challenge of patternmaking is really satisfying. I wish I lived near a fabric/manufacturing outlet….when my daughter was little I could shop at the Malden Mills outlet…long since moved overseas but definitely a great money-saver at the time. They gave you huge plastic bags and you paid by the pound. It was so much fun!

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