(#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:
(*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.
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.
- 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)
- 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?