Updated on 09.26.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Making Your Own Clothes

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Joanna writes in: i’ve been sewing skirts and purses instead of buying, and so far the cost isn’t any cheaper, it’s actually more expensive than buying on clearance.

This isn’t an unusual frugal tactic. My wife, Sarah, has made her own clothes in the past. We also have a close friend who makes many of the clothes that her family wears.

Their conclusion? It’s a hobby that produces clothes at a fairly inexpensive price, but it takes time and you can find clothes elsewhere at an equal or lesser price. If it were simply a question of purely saving money, neither one of them would do it.

The simplest way to compare the prices of such clothes is to look at some of the buying options, as well as some of the options for making them at home.

Recently, I purchased a dress shirt for my five year old son at a consignment shop for $4. Later, we found a similar shirt on sale at another clothing store for $12. So, let’s use that as a baseline.

My wife visited Jo-Ann Fabrics and purchased a similar type of cloth as to what the shirt was made from for $4.50, which provided her more than enough to make a duplicate of the shirt. She also had to purchase a spool of thread for $1.50, so the cost of material was $6.00.

At home, she used a pattern she found online and made the shirt out of the cloth. This project took her about two hours and required the use of a sewing machine that she’s had for about ten years. With unskilled hands, such as my own, the project would certainly have taken longer.

So, compared to buying the shirt new at a clothing store, making the shirt was somewhat cheaper. However, buying a nearly-identical shirt at a consignment shop was less expensive than making the shirt.

So why would you bother making your own clothes?

Sarah’s reasons are simple. It’s something she enjoys doing. Beyond that, she has the freedom to essentially make anything she can imagine, provided she can find appropriate cloth to begin with. For example, she’s currently hand-sewing a costume for our son for Halloween, as he wants to go as a fairly obscure character that doesn’t have costumes available in the usual stores.

Making your own clothes is a hobby that might turn into a business if you’re skilled, creative, and passionate.

However, it’s not particularly frugal on its own unless you have some incredibly good sources for cloth and don’t mind working at a very low hourly wage.

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  1. Vicky says:

    If you are buying every day clothes like plain t-shirts – sewing is very, very expensive.

    However, if you’re like me – I sew bags, wallets, dog collars, leashes, funky tops, and I constantly convert old clothing into new – you’ll save TONS of cash in the long run, and have a style all your own.

    I’m seeing people do replicas of shirts that cost over $50, by buying a pair of $2 shirts at the dollar store and simply making some modifications.

    And nevermind the quality :p If you get good at sewing – sky is the limit!

  2. Sara says:

    I came across a blog once in which the woman purchased random items from the thrift store, then used her sewing skills to modify the items. Basically, she used the item as fabric, which decreased her out of pocket expenses considerably.

    Of course, this method depends on a bit more comfort with sewing, not to mention creativity. I’m not sure her method would work as well with patterns.

  3. Jayme says:

    I think sewing becomes a frugal choice when you can take an existing item and:
    -Repurpose it for another use to lengthen its life (ie: make a pair of jeans into a pair of shorts)
    -Repurpose it for another person (ie: turn your t-shirt into a dress for a little girl)

    Someone with that level of talent can really save money!

  4. Riki says:

    Sewing takes a lot of time and good quality fabric can really get expensive. I have never been able to save money by making my own every-day clothes.

    I did, however, save money by making my own dress to wear in a wedding. But it still cost $150 in fabric and other notions. It also took forever (FOREVER) and I would never do it that away again.

  5. Pamela says:

    I don’t sew, but I do knit. I’ve made sweaters and socks for myself and for gifts. If I buy quality wool, it can easily cost $40 (or more) for a sweater, $20 for socks. However, I’m able to spend time on a hobby I love while creating something that I’ll be able to wear and use for a long time – so it’s worth it to me. I have control over the fiber used, the style, color, and fit – all things that are important to me. Sure, I can buy sweaters at the thrift store for $5, but they don’t provide the same satisfaction that creating something by hand does for me. Plus, I feel enormously accomplished when I’m able to turn two sticks and some string into a beautiful article of clothing.

    (as a side note, I also take much better care of my handknits than I do sweaters I’ve purchased at Goodwill or Target or similar. Each one takes hours and hours of work, so I handwash them, block them, fold them carefully, protect them from moths, etc – none of which I do for my mass-produced/”cheap” clothing)

  6. Another Katie says:

    How much fabric was your wife able to buy for $4.50? I find the amount of fabric required to make an item of clothing can really make costs add up. Also, if you need any notions like zippers or buttons, it can start get expensive quickly.

    The biggest expense to sewing I have found though is the cost of mistakes. Like any other learning process, mistakes are part of learning, and in sewing those mistakes can cost a lot of money.

  7. Sarah says:

    My thought would be that the real value would come from having unique clothing for a lower cost than if you were buying designer garments. If you are skilled, you can copy expensive designs which generally cost more than just the materials and labor.

    Every day clothing that is easy to find cheap is probably not worth the trouble just to save money.

  8. Andrew says:

    One extra benefit of sewing/knitting your own clothes (not that could even begin to try!) is that you have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re not wearing something produced by child labor under appalling conditions in some Third World sweatshop.

  9. edenz says:

    My two cents as someone who sews almost her entire wardrobe:
    If you just want basic everyday clothes (jeans, t-shirts, mostly knits) and you have an average body shape/size then it’s cheaper to purchase your clothing.

    If you are an odd size/shape it’s probably a wash — I’ve never been able to find a pair of store bought pants that fit properly, if I want to wear pants I have to make them. This is especially true for women as store clothes are designed with a B cup. (No matter what size, no matter what brand – B cup is it.)

    If you want to wear quality garments (tailored jackets, suits, skirts; silk, wool, etc.) then it is probably cheaper to make your own — but it is not cheap. Example, I can make a dress with $150 of materials, that would cost >$1,000 off the rack.

  10. Becca says:

    I am often surprised that Trent buys kids clothes at consignment shops. The going rate for kids clothes at yard sales is $1 or less per item. I buy when prices are 50 cents or less. I stock up kids clothes a year or more in advance, and monitor my supply so I know there are no gaps. I pay more only for essential items, usually after yard sale season, and if I know I will need that item before the next yard sale season.
    I agree in general it saves little to buy new fabric to sew clothing. It is sometimes worth using fabric from old garments to make clothes. More frequently though I would be inclined to sew only to repair clothes or to make Halloween costumes. I sometimes make special things for children, like an apron out of old overalls. I then allowed my daughter to use fabric paint to decorate it.
    I have sometimes gone to yard sales and found clothes in need of repair, pointed out the defect and gotten the item for free. It helps to save overalls hardware, buttons, zipper pulls, backpack hardware and so on from dead garments and cloth items. I have remade used curtains to fit my windows.
    In general sewing is a highly useful skill. Decent (older) portable sewing machines can be had at yard sales for about $10 to $20. I often buy part spools of thread at yard sales. I have gotten some supplies from relatives that passed away. I spend extremely little on sewing items. I honestly can’t recall buying any new sewing items, with the exception of replacement sewing-machine needles and rotary cutter blades.
    I consider the ability to sew to be a time saver because I can repair an item in less time that it takes to buy a replacement.

  11. Des says:

    I think the real benefit to having mad sewing skillz is that you can alter/repair off-the-rack clothing. For me at least, it is hard to find the magical combination of good quality, stylish clothes in my exact size in thrift stores. Being able to alter the fit of some items (or repair minor damages) opens up a wider range of possible finds.

  12. Nancy says:

    What about the repair of clothing? You can save money if you can fix a zipper, sew on a button, take things in (or out) or repair a rip.

  13. Melanie says:

    One thing I do not see here is alterations. I understand modifying to suit your tastes but, I like to sew items which I cannot readily find (silk slips, cotton pajamas) but, mainly I alter clothing to fit my body. A tailor charged me $12 to hem pants and I figured I could to it on my own for less. I made custom pajamas for Christmas presents. I could not find similar items in stores so, it was not cost prohibitive. For tailoring, it is the best investment I have made.

  14. SwingCheese says:

    I would love to be able to sew. But I have a really hard time with it and my mistakes (such as not cutting the pattern out correctly) have been very costly (I had to buy more fabric). I’m thinking of taking a class, but I’ll probably still stick with premade clothes.

  15. kristine says:

    Andrew- you nailed it. That’s why I no longer sew. The garments in the store, because of ruthless employment practices, are ridiculously cheap. Cheaper than I can make them myself, unless I consider my own time only worth similar- about 2 bucks day. I used to try and buy made in america- but there are so few options now. When I no longer support children, I will use some of that found time to try and reduce/eliminate my prison-labor purchases.

  16. Steven says:

    I think this post deserves a photo…

    I’m not sure I’d wear homemade clothing. I’m too concerned with my appearance, and I have my doubts that homemade clothing can compare to brand-name.

    Yeah, I know I’m probably opening up a can of worms here, but I really have my doubts. I’d love to see photos (of male fashion, since I’m a guy) that can prove that homemade can be just as fashionable.

  17. jennifer says:

    I love the idea of making my own clothing! Every time I try it, though, I can’t wear it (it doesn’t fit, the hems aren’t straight…you get the idea.) So I end up spending $ but since it’s a hobby I enjoy, it’s worth it to me.

    I have started repurposing clothing (taking something from a thrift store or that I got for free from a friend) and sewing with that. I have made some successful clothing for my child, but not really myself. At least I haven’t wasted money!

    There are lots of blogs out there with ideas for repurposing thrift store finds.

  18. Michele says:

    I have to say, I wish I could sew to make alterations to my own clothes! I’m really good with a glue gun, but I never learned how to sew.
    It’s so incredibly expensive to pay someone to tailor my clothes, but I look much better in tailored clothes than just ‘off the rack’. I also have a friend who sews for relaxation…she’s made a lot of wonderful gifts after shopping for material at garage sales…she stockpiles it in the summer for dirt cheap prices, then makes great gifts in the fall for Christmas! Sew Smart :) I had to say it!

  19. Karen says:

    The winter before last my kids and I tie-dyed two shirts every week, just experimenting with different techniques and having fun. We used kids t-shirts, but they were too big for my toddler girl. So I picked apart or cut up one of each weeks’ shirts–and refashioned it into a dress for her. It allowed me to try different sewing techniques: lettuce edge, gathered elastic cuffs, tailoring the body of the shirt to fit her, remaking the neckline, etc. Alot of them turned out just so-so, but it was a great learning experience. T-shirt material is so cheap and SO forgiving.

    Why am I mentioning all this? Because I just picked up a new symphony job and need a black dress for next week. The requirements for the dress (contract rules + having range of motion to play) are pretty hard to meet off the rack, even with standard alterations. Right now I’m picking apart an $18 consignment dress, adding long sleeves and increasing the size by adding tuxedo stripes down the sides. I know it’s within my skill set thanks to all that t-shirt practice!

  20. Jules says:

    I also came to the conclusion that you don’t really save any money making your own clothes.

    That being said, you can save a TON of money making other stuff, curtains being the big thing. We have enormous picture windows (about 20 feet wide) and buying new curtains for them would have cost us a small fortune. €60 in fabric and €5 in thread, and we have new curtains. The key, obviously, is to find cheap fabric–I have never spent more than €3/meter for anything.

    I also make aprons (for the cooking-inclined and myself) and bags, skirts, and things like that. It’s not really a hobby for me; that is, it’s not something I would do if I had nothing else to do. But it is something I’m glad I have the skills for.

  21. deRuiter says:

    Andrew #8, You’ve hit another reason to buy good quality pre owned clothing (and most everything else pre owned!) at yard sales and thrift shops. The purchase price goes to the American owner which helps the economy in the USA, improves the American balance of trade (money doesn’t go overseas), is better for the environment because no new resources have to be used in manufacturing, and it keeps things out of landfills. Plus you get better quality for almost no money. You can pay to have tailored your yard sale or thrift shop finds, and look better (for less cash) than someone who buys new stuff made by child or prison labor. I love getting a fine, all wool name brand or designer sweater for $2. in the perfect size of color.

  22. Availle says:

    It depends what you want do achieve with the sewing.

    There is no way you can beat the price of casual clothing by sewing them yourself (tshirts, jeans…). If you go for more dressy stuff, yes the price of the fabric will be less this way, but to make it look really good you will need to have a lot of experience and time to make a suit for example.

    I usually make repairs/alterations of my clothing, as my body is eternally difficult to dress properly with stuff straight from the rack. In the case when there’s nothing decent to find that fits you properly, sewing is certainly the way to go.

    What I like to sew most is some little thingies for my apartment: curtains, cushions, covers for books…

  23. Tracy W says:

    My tip is that one can easily make anything with cheap plastic buttons look much more expensive by replacing cheap plastic buttons with more expensive ones. And I can do this while watching TV.

    On the issue of avoiding buying clothes from prison labour – be very careful about this. There are a lot of poor people in the world who work in sewing factories not out of slave labour but because it’s the best of a bad set of choices. If you avoid buying non-US made clothing because of wishing to totally avoid prison labour, you harm those people as a consequence. It’s much better, if you want to help the poor, to buy items made overseas from places that avoid slave labour.

  24. Although I haven’t sewn for a long time, making your own clothes can be a better choice for those who have “hard to fit” figures – if you’re taller than most, shorter than most, thinner, or like myself, wider. It depends on what you are looking for and what your skill set is. Mine is pretty basic.
    Sewing your own clothes allows you to experiment and for little extra cost turn something plain into something extraordinary!
    It also keeps you from having too many clothes. It’s easy, I think, to buy too much just because it’s cheap. Then you have to deal with the clutter! Thanks for the post. I need a dress for a wedding next month and I may have to be adventurous!

  25. cc says:

    @19, i remember having to find a black outfit when i was in my school orchestra. long black clingy skirt, made out of elastic, i remember it like it was yesterday. i don’t remember where i got it like it was yesterday though ;)

    i can’t find the exact comment but my main beef with making clothes is i can’t sew and they would look awful :) also no sewing machine, and even if i wanted one i don’t have the space for it.
    THAT SAID- i repair most of my clothing at some time or another. holes, buttons coming off, loose snaps, etc. just very basic needle-and-thread stuff, but it’s kept my wardrobe going for a few years longer than if i had just let everything go to pieces.

    ohhhh, i blew $250 on a winter coat 4 years ago- last winter i saw someone in the same coat. all the snaps had fallen off, and the decorative clasps were being used as the real clasps and it was falling apart. my coat is still in great shape- it’s been worn for four years, but all the snaps are there and the buttons work great. if i’m dumb about spending too much on a coat, i’m at least going to be smart enough to make it last.

  26. susan says:

    It’s not about cost. Home sewing is about value: quality, fit, creativity. Some things are best bought on sale or at thrift/consignment shops. I would seldom waste time sewing every-day items for children because typically such items would soon be outgrown, but couture sewing for a little girl is enormously rewarding as is knitting for babies. Take a look at the intangible benefits. Focus on quality.

    Andre’s comment about social responsibility, responsibility for ecological matters raises another important reason to repurpose materials.

  27. Terri Sue says:

    the clothes you buy at most stores in the u.s. have been made overseas by people working in terrible conditions. i’m all for saving money, but i have my morals too. my husband and i won’t buy coffee, tea, chocolate, or sugar unless it is fairtrade. i make our clothes because i won’t buy from sweatshops or have things made with petroleum products. polyester,ek! fleece,double ek! it doesn’t even let your skin breathe. but the worst thing is it’s made from a non-renewable resorce. then we go to cotton. the way it is usually processed it’s a terrible polluter. that leaves me with organic natural fibers. the few clothes you can find for sale are extremely expensive. the fabric isn’t cheap but yes i can make my husbands and my clothes cheaper than buying them. much cheaper! and to steven my husbands clothes look extremely nice

  28. Creede says:

    There are a couple of reasons my wife sews:

    1. She enjoys it. She’s been doing it since she was a teenager some 40 years ago and it’s something she does well and has fun doing.

    2. We do a lot of costuming at science-fiction conventions and the like. If that’s your inclination you can make a much better costume based on your favorite movie or TV series than you can buy anywhere, at any price.

    3. Similarly, there are some clothes you just can’t buy off the rack. Want a Western cut shirt where the yoke displays a pattern of skulls and crossbones? You probably have to make it yourself.

    4. Some people are of odd sizes and can’t find clothes off the rack that fit properly. For instance I have a, um, substantial waistline and short (27″) legs and arms. I can’t find pants off the rack that fit, but it’s trivial for my wife to take a pair of jeans with 32″ legs and the proper waist size and cut 5 inches off the bottom and recuff them.

    If it were solely a matter of frugality I doubt anyone would make their own clothes. It’s more of a matter of getting exactly what you want and/or clothes that fit you properly.

  29. Evita says:

    I love beautiful clothes but I am quite petite and busty. Off-the rack dresses and blouses never fit me properly, no matter how much I pay (which is painful when you are as cheap as I am!). I also need to shorten pants and skirts. I used to pay a tailor to alter my clothing but over the years I have developed the skills to alter ready-to-wear purchases and also to turn a $15 cut of fabric into a $100 dress. I routinely copy high-end RTW and designer styles in colours that flatter me. This is my way of saving money!

    There is a learning curve, definitely, and some time and equipment purchases are involved. I don’t lose my time making low-end stuff (such as children’s clothing, plentiful at all prices) but like to do stuff that is near impossible to find, such as nightshirts for men……. (a special request from a dear relative).

    The net is full of forums and blogs of people who do any kind of creative sewing…. most of them will also tell you that they save money in many ways with their hobby.

  30. Melody says:

    I agree with so many of you above –

    Sewing from scratch gets pricey, and patterns are a mixed bag. However, it can make sense for unique items…or more importantly, it can make sense as a hobby. I have friends who have made wonderful stuffed toys for kids or quilts they plan on passing down.

    However, sewing becomes great frugally if you can alter and fix clothes you have…or clothes you find at a thrift store. You can make clothes last longer, and find great quality pieces for less and make them work for you.

  31. Georgia says:

    Andrew – I cannot show you pictures, but I have a brother-in-law who made his own tailored suits. And he was a very finicky man when it came to his clothes. He would never ever let his wife even iron his Army uniforms. Even his mother, who was an excellent seamstress, could find no fault in his work.

    His sister also made her own wedding gown. They learned a lot from their mother, as she sewed, knitted, crocheted, embroidered, etc. in the most fascinating styles. She also taught sewing to 4-H clubs. She also made lovely dresses for my daughter when she was young. I do have pictures of those. I could never do all that work, but my daughter seems to have caught the bug. Her regular clothing sewing is not top notch, but all her craft work is fantastic.

    Any old-timers on here who remember clothes made from feed sacks?

  32. Carol says:

    Terri Sue – Can you please share where I can buy organic natural cloth for sewing? Thanks!

  33. Beth says:

    Yep, I was going to start knitting more sweathers and scarves, but learned it was cheaper to buy them on clearance.

  34. Christine says:

    I wore mostly homemade clothing as a child; usually matching my younger sister. At the time, it was cheaper to make your own clothing. With the cost of fabrics, except deeply discounted fabrics and $1 McCalls patters sales, sewing your own clothing isn’t more affordable.

    Mending and altering your own clothing saves money. I picked up a $4 pair of $45 mall-brand jeans at the thrift store. I rarely find petites when purchasing used. I spent 20 minutes ironing and hemming the pants and saved another $10 for this alteration. Being a short woman, the skill of hemming is quit helpful.

    Additionally, putting a tuck or dart in clothing is useful too. Don’t forget to learn to sew on buttons. Sweater repair pays too (Pull snag to back of garmet with a crochet hook. Snip the loop of yarn in the middle and tie a knot without causing puckering on the sweater front. Snip the ends of the knot short.)

    Repairing and modifying household items cuts costs too. Reupholstering furniture yourself with old thrift store drapes or a highly discounted bolt of fabric saves a lot too and you get slip covers that don’t slide around or come undone.

  35. Jennifer H. says:

    As others have pointed out, it’s not the everyday clothes where you’ll save money.
    Last year, there was a Ren-Faire type event I wanted to go to, and I really wanted a costume very badly, but there was no way I was going to shell out the kind of money for one of those costumes. My sewing skills are somewhat okay, so I went ahead and bought a bit more fabric than I needed, and gave it a go. I got to make a fitted bodice that actually fit (nothing from the store fits my long skinny torso!), and a skirt, for far less than I could get it from any store, and it fit perfectly, because I learned (for free) how to draft a pattern from my own measurements. It was a great learning experience, and turned out quite well, considering that I had never made anything so fitted before.

  36. mary Scott, RPh,CGP says:

    Coming in a little late to the discussion, but I sewed a lot of my clothes in high school’ not so much now, but do a lot of altering. I buy the majority of my clothes from Goodwill and other thrift stores. Just bought a cute dress (size 13) and altered it to my size (8 petite). After hemming a pair of pants for my co-worker, I offered to teach her how to hem so she could save money (she is a single mom and makes significantly less than I do). I brought in a needle and thread and proceeded to show her how to hem another pair of pants she brought in. The woman actually broke out in a sweat when she tried to do it! So needless to say, some people are not cut out to do their own repairs/alterations!
    My 11 yr old daughter,however, is enjoying learning how to sew. We look to thrift stores for fabric more often than fabric stores.

  37. Rachel says:

    I am relatively new to sewing, but use the following tactics to keep the costs in check:

    Our local fabrics shop has a clearance rack with ends of fabrics on hangers – each piece is usually 1-2metres (but you do have to take the whole piece). I barely look at the fabrics at regular prices. I’m usually looking to update my wardrobe without a particular colour or design in mind, so I’m flexible, and there’s usually a good selection.

    I sometimes make tiny dresses for baby girls, and I figure that the cost of materials plus the value of my time makes that an appropriate gift, where I might have felt I should spend more had I been buying it.

    I harvest buttons, zippers, ribbons, lace, and even swatches of material from old items that couldn’t even be donated.

    Finally, I like to make matching accessories, or slightly match up fabrics – such as lining a skirt pocket with fabric that I’ve made a shirt from. It’s a nice touch that they are coordinated, and you can’t usually get that buying retail.

    Factoring all these in with my hatred of clothes shopping, the cost of any other potential hobby I might take up if I didn’t sew, I think it’s a great frugal hobby, not to mention a doomsday skill worth having.

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