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.
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.
Video by David Fang
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.
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.
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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