A sewing hobby helped me save $1,500 in a year towards travel and a down payment

Elizabeth Sile
Elizabeth Sile wearing one of her creations.
Courtesy Elizabeth Sile

Last year, I needed a new hobby. As a books editor at a magazine, my lifelong pastime — reading — had become my job. Sure, I traveled and hiked and went to yoga occasionally. But I was also spending more time on my phone, burning hours a day mindlessly scrolling.

I come from a family of women who sew and do basic alterations, and as someone who dabbled in everything from cross-stitching to drawing, craftiness is in my DNA. But somewhere in between college and getting my career off the ground, I'd let my creative side go. I wanted to get back to it.

Initially, I thought I'd learn to sew to alter some clothes, maybe make some new pillows for my couch, and then work on a couple simple shirts and dresses. I asked for a $100 beginner sewing machine for Christmas (thanks again, Mom) and signed up for a class. Immediately, I was hooked.

When I started tracking the costs of each garment I finished, I was surprised — then motivated — by what I was not spending, and how my entire perspective on shopping changed. I didn't set out to save money doing this, but over the last 12 months, I've saved nearly $1,500 that I've put toward travel and house-buying goals.

I spend far less on each piece of clothing

In the last year, I've made about half of the things I've added to my wardrobe. No one is going to call me a couture designer, but I pay near fast-fashion prices for well-made clothes that fit me to a T.

Take one of my cheapest makes: a linen boxy top I wear year-round. It's a copycat of this $145 tee from one of my favorite indie designers. The fabric was $12 and the pattern cost $16. Sewing patterns typically include variations so you get around 4 to 6 garments for the price of one. I've used this particular pattern three times now, making my current cost per use around $5.

When I finished my linen top, it cost $17. Over time, as I keep using that pattern for other projects, that cost per use will go even further down.

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My most expensive project was a pair of muted rose-colored wide-leg Tencel pants, reminiscent of this $198 pair from Eileen Fisher. I also sprung for Tencel because it's among the most sustainable clothing fabrics out there. For fabric, thread, and the pattern, which I used one other time on a pair of shorts, I spent $64.

The dresses I've made have averaged around $50, and tops and tanks around $20. It's worth noting that I could save much more money — but I tend to pick more expensive fabrics, like linen and Tencel, that would cost me three to four times as much in a garment off the rack.

The spreadsheet that Elizabeth Sile used to keep track of her clothing projects.
Courtesy Elizabeth Sile

I've become more attuned to what's in my closet

Sewing is slow fashion. A basic shirt takes me around five hours to finish. Something more involved like a dress or pants creeps up around 15. And I'm not such a pro that I'll be attempting to DIY a winter coat or bathing suit anytime soon.

If I'm going to commit to making a garment, buying a pattern, and going out for supplies, I don't decide on a whim. I study what's already in my closet, figure out what the item will go with, and assess how often I'll wear it. I think about the colors I wear most often and what gaps I need to fill in my wardrobe.

This mentality has extended to what I buy in stores to the point where I don't impulse shop.

Before I started making my own clothes, I used to "pop by" my favorite stores on a lunch break or feel like I had to buy something because it was on sale. Now I'm far more thoughtful, and I can go months without shopping. In the year I've been sewing, changing that habit has freed up a few hundred bucks every season that I'm putting straight into accounts for travel and a down payment on a home.

I can go months without shopping. That has freed up a few hundred bucks every season that I'm putting straight into accounts for travel and a down payment.
Elizabeth Sile

I can afford clothes that last

Once I began sewing — and, in turn, learning what good garment construction looks like — I couldn't stop seeing low quality everywhere I shopped. Much of what's sold in stores, as the journalist and expert Elizabeth L. Cline and others have noted, is made to be disposable so you will buy more.

I owned a lot of clothes with red flags: flimsy fabrics, bad zippers, loose stitches, and uneven seams. I used to regularly replace certain closet staples, like work pants and blouses, thinking this was unavoidable.

But by saving money in both hard, per-item numbers and through new shopping habits, I've freed up funds in my budget to invest in quality clothes that will be in my closet for years.

Now, a year after getting my first sewing machine, I've built a wardrobe that is functional and better for my budget. I can now say I always feel like I have something to wear.

Elizabeth Sile is a New York-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Real Simple, Departures, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and more.

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