the economics of sewing, part 1

Let’s talk about the economics of sewing, shall we?

When I was growing up, my Mom sewed to save money. With five girls, and five parochial-school tuitions to be paid on a professor’s salary, there wasn’t much left over for clothing. Mom made all our school and church dresses, which was great for me since I’m the oldest. My younger sisters probably weren’t so thrilled with my hand-me-downs, but we’ll have to ask them about that another day.

Anyway, waaaay back then (it wasn’t all that long ago, I swear), sewing was a great way to save money. Manufactured clothing was expensive, and it was rare that we found something in a store that cost less to purchase than to sew.

These days, due to globalization and the offshoring of fabric manufacturing and garment production, clothing is amazingly inexpensive. You can purchase cute dresses at Target and Old Navy for next to nothing–often for less than what it would cost you to purchase the materials to make a similar garment yourself.

So why do we still sew clothing? And why bother making clothing when you can purchase it for much less? Here’s what I think. And I would love to hear your opinions on this, as well:

1. The pleasure of the process. Personally, I love to make things. I love to sew, and I get great satisfaction from making something with my hands. It’s more than a hobby for me; sewing helps me to calm down, relax, and feel a sense of accomplishment.

2. Creative options. I love to make something that is unlike anything anyone else has. I think the word “unique” is over-used these days. But when you make something by hand and select the pattern, fabric, and trims that are used, it truly is unique. There’s a lot to be said for that, especially in this day of mass-produced products.

3. The inhumanity of the global supply chain. Let’s be honest. If you purchase a dress for $10 at a big retail store, someone somewhere was paid very, very little to make that dress and may have produced it in suboptimal working conditions. This is a dirty secret in the garment industry that the more reputable brands try to address. I’ve worked for companies that employed full-time overseas managers whose sole job was to be a presence in the factories of their suppliers–ensuring humane working conditions for the vendor’s employees. While I applaud these efforts, I still believe that in instances where prices have been pushed so low someone is being treated unjustly. It may be the factory owner who was pressured to reduce prices to a level at which there is no margin profit in order to stay in business, or it might be the line worker. Pricing has become so sensitive and competitive that the big retailers aren’t always playing fair with their suppliers. This is a complicated issue and deserves more consideration than I can give in this venue, but let’s just say that I get a little concerned when I see clothing sold for such low prices. When I sew a garment for my daughter to wear, I know that no one was treated unjustly in the creation of her dress. Unless I poked my finger with a pin or something. Or hollered at the cat when she jumped onto my sewing table while the machine was running….

Those are just three of the reasons why I sew. What about you? I’d love to hear what your motivations are.

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27 Comments

  1. I agree with the reasons you gave. Sewing your own clothing really isn’t the cheapest route to take, but there is no better way to get that perfect fitting garment you are looking for.

    I think it is so wonderful that we can buy the same material that some of the prestigious brands are using, make one of their patterns, but make it to fit our own body.

  2. My mother used to sew my two sisters and I matching dresses at christmas which I loved

    BUT as a teen i had no real desire to learn to sew a hem let alone sew clothing

    it wasnt until I had my daughter that I took up sewing

    – I cant afford the gorgeous stylish dresses you find at high end shops but still want special things for my lil girl

    – I love making a version of something Ive seen in a shop its very satisfying

    – it keeps me sane whilst being a sahmummy

    love this post!

  3. i actually just learned how to sew. i was getting frustrated with ill-fitting clothing (i’m very short with an almost-non-existent torso).
    once i had my daughter, i was excited about teaching her how to sew because i feel it’s a great skill to have- especially in a day and age when people have to send out clothing to have buttons sewn back on!
    i like the hands-on approach and the control of choosing the fabrics i like and the color combos i prefer.
    i also hope it would inspire my daughter to be creative and think outside of the big-box selections.

  4. Sarah C, you make an excellent point that I didn’t mention: by sewing, you can also customize the fit of a garment. My own “S” is tall and thin, and when I sew dresses for her I make a size 3 with a size 4 length. It fits much better than something I might buy.

    And Sarah-Jo, you’re absolutely correct that high-end clothing is made with details that you probably won’t find at lower prices. It’s those details that intrigue me most, and I love to include them in our sewing patterns as well. If you’re going to make something, you might as well make it special, right?

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. My answer has more to do with why I don’t sew my own clothes anymore. My reason is primarily cost and my inability to find any fabric I like in my local stores. I started making my own clothing in high school, inspired by Vogue and living in a town where “dress jeans” were what you wore out on the town. Economy was definitely a factor, fabric was less expensive than clothing back in the 80’s, plus there seemed to be a wonderful selection of beautiful natural fabrics (cotton, silk, wool). I gave up about ten years ago when I just couldn’t find fabrics that I liked any more and clothing become so inexpensive in comparison. I know typical retail clothes aren’t made from good fabric either, but I’d rather pay $20 for a pair of pants than $100 in fabric and 4 hours sewing them. Recently I made a couple of skirts, but I don’t see myself taking on the tailored pants, blouses and jackets of my youth any time soon. That said, I do enjoy sewing clothes for my niece and nephew, but they are special Aunty-made items and I’m sure I won’t ever fashion them entire wardrobes.

    My question to you adult garment sewers is where do you find fabrics? Does everyone buy online? How do you choose fabrics over the internet without being about to see the color and feel the drape in person?

  6. Last month I made matching smocked dresses for my daughter, her friend and their dolls. The dress for the friend was a birthday present. It takes me about a week to smock the front of the dress, and then about a week to put it together. When I finish the dress and my daughter puts it on she has the biggest smile. It is not the same smile as store bought clothes, even a Hello Kitty outfit…

    The other day my daughters teacher came out to talk to me after school, as she walked up to me, all I could think was what did my little one do…the teacher told me how much she liked the dress my daughter was wearing…it has a hem facing, something I added after learning about it from an oliver+s pattern.

    Sewing for me is adding something personal to an over manufactured world. I also make my own bread on Friday, and make my own pizza in Tuesdays…

  7. Elise, I feel your pain! The neighborhood fabric store is a thing of the past, which makes sewing for yourself especially challenging if you don’t live near a major city with a good fabric store.

    One of the reasons I’ve written Oliver + S patterns specifically for quilting cottons is because quilt shops can still be found all over the U.S., and the selection of printed cottons within those shops just keeps getting better.

    So cottons are relatively easy, but for other fabrics, it’s much more challenging. My favorite shop here in NYC has a wonderful swatching service, but they’re also quite expensive:
    http://www.bandjfabrics.com/

    They take requests over the phone, so you could give them a try. I hope that helps!

  8. I have to agree it’s for the details and the ability to take one pattern and adjust it or add to it whatever my daughter wants. It’s also fun to ‘design’ a dress/outfit with her. She gets to add her opinions, pick out the fabric, or something along those lines and it’s a little bonding time for us.

  9. sk

    Great post, thanks! I agree with what you wrote– especially with the “true cost” of those very inexpensive clothes that are so prevalent these days. I rarely buy anything from those inexpensive chain stores anymore because I feel quite guilty about the labor practices I’m supporting…not to mention the quality is usually really awful! I’ve had too many experiences at places like Target with buying a cute top, loving it the first time I wear it, and then after I wash it once it just isn’t the same…and inevitably goes to goodwill. I’m just now learing to sew, and I’m determined to get much better at it, so that I can create lasting garments that I feel really great about!

  10. You pretty much summed it up for me. Sewing is my Yoga, and although I don’t see my hips and thighs getting any thinner, it gives me great pleasure to sew. I also love fabric. I love everything from cottons, to italian made wool and cashmere, not to mention turkish silk. In all my travels, I have collected fabric not knick-knacks wherever I go. I also love to create something that looks better, and most importantly is a better quality then what I can find in the store.

  11. I, too, grew up wearing clothing that my mother sewed for us. Our dolls were well dressed as well, thanks to her ever busy sewing machine. 🙂 I learned to sew in middle school but fell in love with it after the birth of my daughter.

    While sewing is not always an economic choice these days, I do feel that I save money by simply not being in the stores or mall as much. I’m less likely to impulse buy, get suckered by sales, or lured by matchy-matchy accessories.

  12. First… Elise – be encouraged! It was Liesl's recommendation of B & J Fabrics that helped me to find the wool gabardine quality I wanted for my daughter's Christmas dress. B & J fabrics leaves a lot to be desired website wise, but their swatching service is SUPERIOR to anything I've ever experienced. I e-mailed them a link for the garment I was styling my pattern after (in a boutique catalog), told them the fabrics and colors I wanted – they mailed them immediately. I telephoned with my request, the gentleman on the phone remembered me becausse he had filled my order and sent me the fabric that day. It was a very, very slick process.

    Anyway… back to the issue. I think we were designed to Create. I think it is in our very nature to look at something beautiful and one-of-a-kind that we have made and say "It is good." While some are gifted with other creative talents, sewing happens to be my outlet and I love it. I agree with Karen. I probably spend more on fabric than I would a garment, but I'm driving less, getting fuel less, wear-n-tear on my car less (the closest decent mall is 30 minutes away), getting mochas less, spending elsewhere less… it might even out. That would certainly be an interesting statistical case study!

    OH! one more point – in light of today's economic standpoint. There was a recent situation where my husband was contacting a US supplier for something. They were able to price it at such-n-such for us. We KNOOOOOW we could get it for pennies in China, but the few more cents we might pay the US manufacturer for the same good – worth it to keep it HERE. 🙂

  13. Liesl, for myself, it is definitely all three suggestions. I have made comments to associates that some kids clothing stores are “suspiciously cheap,” I do not think that they understand.

  14. I too have kids with an ‘unusual’ fit, being very tall and also long in the body, so I sew to ensure a good fit.

    I know this will be even more relevant when they are older as I want to be able to continue to dress them in an age-appropriate manner, like little girls not like pre-teens, which will be the sizes they fit.
    (My girls are not quite 3 years old and wear anything from a size 4 to a 7 depending on fit).

    Having three girls I also love being able to dress them in something other than pink, pink or purple which is what a lot of little girl clothing still tends to be in.

    Also being a full-time mum I find it really rewarding when I make a garment as it is a ‘tangible’ thing I have done during the day.
    Compared to cleaning (which just gets dirty again) and cooking (which gets eaten!), when I sew I have something to show for what I have done, and that makes my day.

  15. liz

    How funny it is that you brought this up. I’ve been thinking of posting the cost of things I’ve made on my blog just to see. I just made your sunday brunch jacket (on my blog soon) in light weight denim $2/yd and did the bias tape on the inside for $2.50 for my half yard piece. pattern (divided by 4 because i might make it in the next 4 sizes) $3 on buttons and I’ve spent around $12 on it. There was a cute one at Target for only $10, but the process of learning, sanity, and creating make it all worth it. Plus, it makes me smile when someone compliments my daughter on something she is wearing and she says, “My mom made it”. People are shocked! So fun!

  16. My husband calls my Puppet Show tunic the $1,000-shirt due to all the time I have spent on it (I’m a new sewer). So clearly I’m not doing it for the economics of it. I really enjoy being connected to the products I consume and understanding how things are made.

    With respects to your third point, it breaks my heart to see an army of 10 year old girls bent over a sewing machine to make my $5 T-shirt but what is their next best alternative? The situation is much more complicated to solve than it appears. Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece in the NYT on this issue that you might find interesting. Thanks for the great patterns. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/opinion/15kristof.html

  17. I sew because I love it period. I love the feel of fabric the control over the fit, style and color. I love the fact that I can create for my kids and family when they have fitting issues with rtw. Besides for me just because it’s mass produced doesn’t mean the construction is as good.

  18. Just one more reason here. I can sew what I like my daughters to wear. As my daughter gets older and into the next size group (here in Canada that would be 7-16) I can find less and less girly clothes and more tweeny stuff. And really, a 6 going on 7 year old girl should (in my opinion) still look like a girl. And I like my girls to be dressed modestly. As time goes on this will become more and more of an issue I’m sure. Just one more reason to sew, along with the reasons you’ve mentioned.

  19. I agree with all the comments mentioned- fit, creativity, humanity, and detail. I also have a long, skinny daughter and will enjoy dressing her appropriately in the years to come.

    I guess I didn’t have anything to add- except that I love the act of giving that’s involved. In an entirely tangible, practical way I can lavish the recipient of my handmade work with love, attention, and time, whether it is my daughter, husband, self, friend, or family.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Can’t wait for future parts!

  20. Thanks for your thoughts Liesl. I sew for about 100 reasons, many of which have already been mentioned. I don’t save any money by sewing (like our mothers did), but it feels so good to own and give away things that have been made with my own hands. They feel like they truly belong to me because to all of the thought and creation behind them. I tend to want to keep the clothes I’ve made because of the time (and money) I spent on them. My mom kept all of the clothes she made for my sisters and me long after our store bought items were given to charity. Maybe we hold on to them because they survived a million washings and still look good enough to hand down. Perhaps it’s because creating something is so personal that it’s difficult to let go. I tend to think it’s because those items have such great memories attached to them, we get to revisit those memories each time we clean out the closet.

  21. I also agree with Gord and Alisa. I like being able to dress my daughters like little girls, not little teenagers.

    I agree with also with your reasons, but the main reason I sew is I see it as an expression of love. I could easily spend 10 minutes running into Walmart or any store and grabbing something cute. But if I have taken the time to create something handmade for you, it’s because you are special to me or to my family. I am not olnly giving you a dress, I am giving you the precious gift of my time and my thoughts during the process of making it. And I don’t have lots of time on my hands.

    I am also able to create a more memorable garment. I like to make complimentary outfits for my girls (sometimes they match, sometimes they are just from the same color family). This would be costly to do at one time with store bought clothes, but if I just go to my stash… And my daughters are still sweet enough to get excited when I make them something new. They even like to go to the fabric store and pick out fabric. I think they like the surprise aspect of picking out fabric, saying they want a dress, and then seeing what I come up with.

  22. Every time I am out in the children’s dept. and I see the cutest girls dresses ever for like 10.00 I always think to my self why do I bother? Why am I trying to make it with my own handmade children’s dresses that I sell for much more. It seems really disheartening. But then I think about the reactions I get from my dresses. There is just something amazing and awesome about handmade clothing. I don’t know what it is maybe it is the originality of the design or the fact that it doesn’t look so manufactured. So I try to remember that but it is hard to keep working at it when there are such cheep options out there.

  23. I like the creativity and custom details. My mom sewed a lot of our clothes when we were very little, and I love looking at them now and want to use them for our kids when we have them. The particularly nice clothes can become heirlooms and connections to family members in a way store-bought clothes can’t. When my mom is gone someday, we will still have this link to her creativity, love, practicality, and skill. But I’m wondering… what about fabric manufacturing – isn’t it possible that there are suboptimal conditions for workers there? I’ve never known about that.

  24. I was on computer all the time before having children (I’m a graphic designer)- so I love the pins-in-your-teeth-measuring-tape-around-your-neck hands on part of sewing. And the fabric! I love being new at something and having this whole world to explore and learn.
    Also, the chidren’s clothes I covet (flora and henri) are so expensive that on some crazy level I’m saving money.
    I’m becoming quite obsessed….

  25. Why do I sew? To collect all of the Oliver + S patterns of course!!!

  26. Fit and form. Sure I can go down the street to a big-box store and find a dress for $10, but will it fit right (my older two maybe, but twins from Asia…not likely) and will it have “the look” I am wanting? There is a world of possibilities out there in children’s clothing, patterns are just the beginning. I adore the different combinations of fabrics available and don’t even get me started on trims!

    The biggest road-blocks for me right now to sewing the girls’ clothes are: time, finding quality fabric for garments, and know-how. I’ve sewed off and on since childhood, but I still have so much to learn. Notice I did not list cost as a factor. With four girls, that dress will be handed down. A handmade piece will last all the way to the last girl, $10 big box dresses are lucky to last to girl #2. Guess I should add quality to fit and form above.

    On a side note, it can still be economical to sew your own items. With a little creativity you can come up with great fabrics, buttons, and trims at little to no cost. I started in my own closet and found a too big shirt that quickly became a dress/tunic at no cost. Worn out pieces have buttons and trim that can be re-used. Old wool sweaters can be felted and made into new garments such as your a-line skirt. Vintage sheets and pillowcases make adorable sundresses, your bubble dress would be adorable made out of these! It just takes a little bit of thinking outside of the box.

    I am by no means and accomplished seamstress, but I enjoy it. I like to create with fabric, be it dresses, skirts, quilts, or curtains. Perhaps a little bit of it is just being stubborn and wanting it done my way?

  27. […] economics of sewing, part 2 When I started this thread, I was thinking about how when I was young my mother sewed to save money, but how most people I know […]

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