A Month of Clothing Philosophy: Sewing Is No Longer a Thrifty Proposition

Posing in the rain for Me Made May today. I’m wearing a Colette Patterns Sorbetto top with a story behind it. Colette recently redesigned their basic sewing blocks for both misses and plus sizes. (This means they changed the way their patterns are drafted — therefore changing the way they fit.) They re-released this free pattern with the new block to encourage people to test the new fit. I never got the original Sorbetto to work for me, and the fabric for this test garment actually came from a failed old Sorbetto and its scraps. I removed the pleat and had to introduce a center front seam to make the pattern pieces fit, and since I couldn’t pattern match I deliberately cut one of the fronts on the wrong side of the fabric to create a faux chevron effect. Considering that I used fabric on hand that would otherwise have gone to waste, and thread and bias tape leftover from another project, this shirt was completely free to make (apart from my time).

I also want to say (for the sewists in the crowd) that the new Colette block is much better than the old one! Because this was a test the only pattern alteration I made was to grade out to a larger size at the hips. I made a straight 16 at the bust and shoulders, and although I would make several changes in the future (narrow shoulders, raise darts, swayback) the fit is comparable to ready-to-wear now. The armscye and sleeve are beautifully drafted — the sleeves set in like a dream, and I didn’t even need to make a large bicep adjustment. I can’t vouch for the new plus size block as my measurements put me in regular sizes at the bust and shoulder, but I am very much impressed with the new misses block.

(Please forgive the ridiculous look my my face. My Mom kept making me laugh and we wanted to get out of the rain!)

A Month of Clothing Philosophy — Part Nine
Sewing Is No Longer a Thrifty Proposition

We didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, and only shopped for brand new clothes a couple of times a year. Many of my clothes came from garage sales — and later thrift stores — but we also would have several things sewn each year, too. Home sewing used to be ubiquitous, and a way to have high quality garments for less than retail cost. Sewing was still cheaper than ready-to-wear in the 1980s, though the fact that we went to a neighbor instead of a professional seamstress probably helped to keep costs even lower. Her name was Christine, and she sewed mainly for pleasure. She took in sewing projects from other people just to supplement her retirement income, as far as I can remember.

She made a lot of my favorite clothes, too. I remember a specific plaid dress she made that I wore until I nearly burst out of it. It was almost two sizes too small when Mom made me give it up! I still think about that dress today, honestly. And the fact that the dress lasted that long was a testament to her skill, too. She finished seams with pinking shears and made beautiful handworked buttonholes with tiny perfect stitches enclosing each opening. She saved us money and was a treasure, and we only stopped going to her when I learned to sew myself.

Now it’s often cheaper to buy brand new ready-to-wear clothing than sewing in most cases, and resale items are even less expensive. Going to a professional if you lack the skills yourself is very costly — bespoke clothing is completely beyond an average shopper’s budget these days. Fast fashion changed the entire retail clothing game, and not for the better in any way except in price. Ready-to-wear clothing is cheaper than it ever has been before (and the quality reflects it), but many people can’t afford anything else. Knowing that an $8 t-shirt comes with an unseen price tag in both environmental impact and human suffering doesn’t seem all that important when you have difficulty paying your rent.

There are still exceptions, of course. Formal gowns and party dresses can be surprisingly simple to sew (though I would hardly recommend a wedding dress as a first project), and even when high quality fabrics are used they usually cost less than department store prices. Christine made a beautiful semi-formal dress for my 8th grade graduation — black satin with a boned bodice — for less than $50 when something similar would have been over $100 retail even then! My aunt Karen made her own wedding dress in the early 1990s, too — and it was truly designer quality, as she spent countless hours applying beading by hand — but it cost literally hundreds of dollars less than a comparable gown. Although I haven’t made anything formal lately, I think it’s safe to say that it would still be cheaper than ready-to-wear much of the time even now.

You can also mitigate costs by repurposing clothing you already have and using either thrifted garments or linens for fabric. (I often use thrifted sheets to make muslins, for instance, and have been known to buy long gathered skirts just to harvest the fabric from them.) Just like when shopping for ready-to-wear, you can look for fabric sales, too. I personally think the coupon shenanigans of Jo-Ann Fabric (the last brick and mortar fabric retailer in most places) are more of a hassle than they’re worth, but they do have legitimate large sales a couple of times a year — and most online fabric stores have sales once or twice a year, too. Some people have good luck when thrift or estate sale shopping and find amazing (sometimes vintage) fabric for a song, but I never have. Sewing patterns can also be expensive, but using them multiple times can bring down the cost per use. (Be sure to trace off a sewing pattern to preserve it — that way you don’t have to buy it again to make other sizes if you gain or lose weight, or want to sew it for someone else. I make clothes for myself and my very-differently sized Mom from the same patterns all the time.) Printable PDF patterns are usually cheaper than paper ones — though you do have to go through the trouble of taping them together. There are also lots of free patterns online now, too.

Another way to keep down costs is to resist FOMO — or the Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO can lead you to buy fabric and patterns that you don’t need and may never really use. It’s easy to squirrel away far more than you can reasonably use, and I am as guilty of this as the next dedicated sewist. I have, according to my spreadsheet, over 130 yards stored in our closet, as well as two large plastic tubs of scraps and remnants. There’s nothing thrifty about that! I used to buy fabric for only one or two projects at a time, and would finish those projects before I got anything else. That was back before I had much in the way of disposable income, of course — but I still long for that kind of simplicity, and it certainly makes sewing less costly to pay for only one project at a time.

Practice helps, too. Once you reach a certain level of competence the sheer quality of self-made garments helps to cancel out the cost. With care, well-finished home sewn garments can last longer than ready-to-wear, and therefore require fewer replacements over time. These days there are so few mid-range clothiers that it’s hard to find quality in the marketplace to begin with (especially if you’re plus sized), and it only takes a moderate amount of skill to sew something of higher quality than a fast fashion retailer.

Regardless of cost, when you make your own clothing you can make things that you could never find in a store — things that exactly suit your preferences. You get used to getting exactly what you want, and ready-to-wear starts to look less and less appealing over time. The satisfaction of sewing your own clothing can be priceless.

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