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Sewing: Worth it…more or less

Given the plethora (today’s ‘big’ word) of opportunities to buy what looks like inexpensive (i.e., cheap and cheaply made, of cheap goods) clothing, Aunt Toby would like to ask the logical question: If I can go to Wal-get-ohl-H&M and buy a dress for $30.00, why bother sewing? Let’s just say that you are one of the lucky people(few though they may be) who actually can go to the rack, pull off a size whatever, put it on, look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Dayam, I look hot!” Well, let’s look at the major reasons people are STILL sewing clothing in A.D. 2009: creative outlet and fit and selection issues.

Creative Outlet. This is the ‘my eyes are bigger than my stomach’ situation – sometimes it is merely that people see clothing that they could not possibly afford to buy and feel their skills are such that they can reproduce the look for less. At other times, it is a case of people falling in love with fabric (whoever dies with the biggest stash wins) and are inspired from the fabric up. Another factor is actually practical: If you are someone who actually looks on a wardrobe as something that can be freshened up with the addition of certain more ‘on trend’ items (and by that I mean items in certain colors or prints or shapes) and you can’t find them in the stores (a situation your Aunty finds herself in many many times) in your size, or in a style that flatters you, sewing is an option. If you are the sort of person who would be wearing high end looks AND also have the skills to pull this off AND you value your time at $0.00, then you can definitely save money. As for stash-a-holics – as someone who not only has built her own ‘fabric edifice’ but inherited a stash from her mother and great aunties, Aunt Toby has to say, “I feel your pain, Sisters.”

Fit and Selection Issues: We discussed this in the first installment, but suffice it to say, a large majority of people who sew in 2009 are doing it because they are too something to fit into standard manufacturer’s fit sizing: too tall, too short, too round, too thin, low knees, high rearend, short arms, sloping shoulders, all the weight carried in the front, all the weight carried in the hips and thighs. Narrow shoulders with a big bust (Marilyn Monroe Syndrome). Wide shoulders and no bust. For everyone who ever stood under the merciless greenish yellow lighting of a try-on cubical, learning to fit and sew a decent shirt or dress will open the heavens to the glorious singing choir.

But let’s return to the ‘myth of the advantages of deep discount retail” and our illustration of the $30.00 dress (actually I got a catalog today from a mail order/on-line retailer which used to purvey $20.00 dresses – these dresses are now their $39.00 dresses. Such is the effect of rising expectations in China, where manufacturers having to pay their workers more – not appreciably more, but more nonetheless, thus giving them another excuse to increase their profit on each item). So, we are looking at the $30.00 dress, which frankly is mostly a fairly simple affair in cotton or nylon/rayon/polyester/cotton knit. It may have a zipper in it or may not. It may have a cheap lining in it; more times than not, it will not. It will be run through a ‘cover stitch’ machine which as you know, if you catch one of the threads and pull, you will end up with hems loose, seams popped and facings flipped out. This is a simple item to make – as long as the fitting has been done in the first place and the changes necessary to be made done on the pattern (or a muslin made and fitted), even someone with basic technical sewing skills can produce something that looks BETTER than what can be bought off the rack. And it will cost the same…or less.

The cost to make this sort of dress (unless it has a very full skirt, lots of pleats, fancy sleeves etc.), including fabric and a zipper would be something in the neighborhood of $20-$25.00.

Here is a nice simple dress, with or without sleeves, simple little dress

The amount of 60” wide fabric to make this dress is, depending on one’s size, 2-2.5 yards. I went to a couple of my favorite on-line fabric sites and the range of pricing can be anywhere from $4.00 a yard to $7.00 a yard, so let’s split the difference and go with $5.50. So the fabric is going to cost me about $12.00-$15.00, plus the thread and zipper, which will run another $3.00 together for a total of $15.00-$17.00. I’ll be able (because my local chain fabric store always has patterns on sale) to get the pattern for $4.50. And here is another secret to saving money with sewing: buy a pattern you like a LOT and make it multiple times. You get better at it and also it reduces the cost per use. But let’s say for the moment that you don’t. So this will cost you
$12.00 – 15.00 fabric
$3.00 zipper and thread
$4.50 pattern
Total: $19.50 – 22.50 plus your time

As long as you have the skills. This is the nut in this entire discussion. If you do not have the skills, you either have to acquire them (which is a joy in itself) OR you must pay for them. For what it will cost for you to get someone else to sew this for you, you may as well find a source of lessons, whether it is the local school district (some actually do have classes), a local fabric store (quilting lessons are usually easier to find than clothing sewing classes, but depending on where you are, this can vary – in larger cities this is easier to find). You can, if you are very very patient, make this dress with a needle and thread, but it might be better to find a good used sewing machine. These can be located everywhere – whether it is a school getting rid of their HomeEc sewing machines, or on Ebay, or a local sewing store , an estate sale or your local paper. Look for a good basic machine – the only stitches you will need are a straight stitch, a zigzag, and a stretch stitch. Those will carry you through sewing anything short of sail canvas and industrial work. If you feel uncomfortable looking for a machine, find a sewing machine repair shop and ask them to keep an eye out for a good basic machine for you.

Now, looking at the illustration above, you may be asking yourself, “Well, I’m still not saving as much money as I’d like – why shouldn’t I still go to the ‘naughty retailer’ and buy the dress for $30.00? Making this is going to take several hours – I’d rather use my time …blogging in my pjs in my basement.”

For those of you saying that to yourselves at this point, Aunt Toby says, “Go in peace…and keep rolling the bottom hems of your slacks and wearing your tops over the waistbands of your skirts and pants because the waistband does not fit..” I can’t fight that sort of argument.

But for those who are intrigued by the idea of this, Aunt Toby says, “Come closer – we will continue this conversation tomorrow…in the meantime, dream…dream of the perfect white blouse..that buttons nicely all the way down the front and does not gape right in the middle of your chest…”

(photo at the top is courtesy of …. ME — that is a shirt I made recently for the ever-stalwart DH, who deserves as many custom shirts as Aunt Toby can push through her trusty Kenmore sewing machine)

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  1. fuzzarelly says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Cheap is not always so great. Actually, never is. Quality, on the other hand, is worth a lot. It is worth one’s money and one’s time because, as you say, it lasts.

    I lapsed after the holidays and purchased a long sleeved, cotton, t shirt from MalWart (your place for cheap, plastic crap,) for $3. What a bargain! After one laundering, it shriveled into some other garment, a lifeless piece of fabric that is not a pleasure to wear. Or look at.

    You’d think I’d have learned by now.

  2. htwollin says:

    It’s interesting – I find shopping for finished clothing just really frustrating. Fabric on the other hand..totally different deal. Of course, part of this is a certain amount of practice in terms of buying quality fabrics – natural fibers mixed with a little bit of man-made are great and wear well. Totally manmade is very frustrating because you put in as much effort no matter what you do and I invariably have rotten luck with 100% petroleum based fabrics. Certain qualities of rayon are very good esp. if mixed with a little manmade but totally petroeum based stuff just lets me down every…single…time.

  3. Sewist says:

    I agree with you that cheap clothing is often very expensive in the sense that it doesn’t always look that great up close, doesn’t last, is cut for 14-year-olds. I often look at cheap clothing for inspiration and have been taking classes at FIT. I have little sewing experience and it’s really not designed for people who primarily want to be superb home sewers, so it’s challenging.

    I will say, though, that sewing, especially since I don’t have a workplace at home, takes a looooooong time to master. I also will be spending more on fabric unless I find a great sale. I have some Liberty of London fabric that I’ve been saving from my last attempt to learn how to sew. In time, I want to work with wool crepe and silk charmeuse and make fitted and tailored clothes.

    Once I get the sewing down and some great patterns, I will save a lot of money, but I’m a long way from that.

  4. htwollin says:

    Sewist – I’ve been sewing for over 40 years and I still find working with silk charmeuse to be really challenging – it’s very slippery. Wool crepe is a good ‘workhorse’ fabric that with a lot of steam pressing will give you great results. Stretch cotton sateen and stretch cotton twills are great to work with. Cotton knits with a little stretch fiber in them are great also.

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