Sewing Savings

by Rebecca Underwood


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Sewing has almost become a lost art in our society, and that's partly for a good reason. Discount ready-made clothing often costs less than the new supplies you would need to sew it; the same goes for dollar store and thrift store linens. The cost of fabric alone can be prohibitive. And by the time you buy all the items listed in just one of those "quick and easy" craft show projects on television, you've probably blown your budget for decorating a whole room. So, sewing really isn't a frugal option, is it? Wrong!

Like most things, when sewing, there's a spendthrift way to do it and a frugal way to do it. If you consider your options carefully and take your time, you can save significant amounts of money on big projects. And, even if you don't actually save money, often you'll get higher quality results that last longer, which means you get more for your dollar. Either way, use the following tips to help you make sure sewing is truly frugal for you.

  1. Don't buy a sewing machine. Well, at least don't buy one at first. If you're not sure how cost effective sewing will be, try borrowing. Schools teach less and less sewing each year; ask if you can have a little time with one of the machines. Or, offer to make a swap with a friend and trade a little baby-sitting time for the use of her machine. That way you'll know you can really use one before you get one of your own.

  2. Buy used, barter, or share. If you're sure you'll use a sewing machine, put out the word among family, friends, and co-workers. Many families have inherited machines and don't know what to do with them. Don't beg for a free one; say you're "looking for a good used machine" instead. It may just be offered free for the taking; if not, be prepared to make a reasonable deal. If you don't have cash to spare, think of goods or services you might be able to trade. A reputable repair shop will usually evaluate the sewing machine at no cost before you complete the deal. And, if all else fails, check with the repair shop to see if they sell unclaimed machines. Some shops sell them for the cost of repairs after a certain amount of time. No matter how you procure a machine, consider sharing one among close friends, neighbors, or family members. Most of us don't have time to use one daily, so it makes sense to share the cost and the storage burden.

  3. Always do the math. Before you start any sewing project, be sure you calculate the cost of sewing vs. the cost of buying the discount or used ready-made item. It's usually cheaper to find garage sale kid's clothes than to make them from scratch, unless you happen to have donated supplies. On the other hand, dollar-sale flannel fabric may be turned into good extra-large men's work shirts, which are hard to find used and in decent shape. When you calculate your costs, be sure to include ALL the supplies you'll need to complete the project; buttons, seam tape, and trim can overrun your budget quickly if overlooked.

  4. Compare dollars and sense. Even if the cost of the project is about the same as your cheapest ready-made option, sewing may still give you significantly higher quality for your dollar. For example, I have two long windows in my living room. Even at the dollar store, the four curtain panels I'd need are $5 each. A couple of cheap sheets at Wal-Mart are around $8 each for the size I'd need. Either way, I'd have to pay $16 to $20 to cover those windows. I have had no luck at garage sales or thrift stores, but I did find a beautiful fabric on sale for $1 per yard. I'd need $14 worth of that material and a little thread to make my own curtains. That's only about a $2 savings over the sheet option, and it will require a couple of hours of my time. A dollar an hour isn't much of a savings, is it? Or maybe it is! The fabric I found is heavier, more wrinkle-resistant, and looks much nicer than the ready-made options. It will wear longer, look better and save more on heating and cooling costs. I'll be getting much more value for the dollars spent, which makes it a much better deal in the long run.

  5. Recycle and re-use. This may be the best sewing value of all. In our disposable society, tons of useful things are thrown away every day. Learn to look at stained, torn, and outgrown items as fresh materials for new projects. A bath towel with ragged edges can be cut and hemmed to become two brand-new hand towels. A stained flannel sheet can be turned into receiving blankets or a child's pajamas. Threadbare throw pillows can be re-covered for a brand new life. If you're stumped for ideas, talk to a friend or family member who lived through the Depression. In those days nothing went to waste, and most of their recycling strategies are just as good today as they were back then.

  6. Accept all donations. If you put out the word that you're looking for sewing supplies, you'll probably get results. You may even get more results than you expected. Don't turn down donations you can't use, though! First, you may be able to use them for something you haven't thought of yet. And second, if you continue to turn down donations, you may not get any in the future. Politely thank the donor and stash whatever supplies you get. If you don't use them after a while, quietly pass them along to someone who might. You'll be surprised to see how often those unwanted donations turn into great solutions for future dilemmas!

  7. Cut pattern costs. Full-price sewing patterns can be $8 to $10 each or more. As you get more experienced (or at least more adventurous), you'll find that many simple items like pillows and curtains don't require a pattern at all. They can simply be measured and stitched. For more complicated projects, watch for sales. Most craft and fabric stores have at least one or two per year. Stock up on classic styles, multi-project, and multi-size patterns you know you'll be able to use. Transfer multi-size patterns to thin garage-sale wrapping paper and label in order to make the most of all sizes. (The easiest way to do this is to trace over the pattern lines with a tracing wheel, which will perforate the wrapping paper where you need to cut.) An alternative is to make your own patterns using items that are beyond repair. Rip out the seams of a badly stained garment and use the original pieces as your pattern. Note how the garment was sewn together as you work backward to separate the pieces.

  8. Get organized and stay that way. It's hard to be creatively frugal when you don't know what you've got. Wash fabrics and fold neatly; store all in one place. Sort buttons and other small notions into clean baby food jars. Wind ribbon and trim around small pieces of cardboard and tuck ends into a small slit; store in a shoebox or basket. Always secure thread ends before putting away spools and store all in one place. Keep scissors, pincushions, and other tools in a single drawer or container and always return them to their place. Not only will you save money, but you'll also save valuable time that would be wasted tracking down supplies.

  9. Finish what you start. An unfinished project never saves you money. Make a rule that no project may be started before the last one is completed. Stick to that rule, and only break it in the case of a real emergency. If you don't have everything you need to finish a project, just don't start it until you acquire all the materials. You'll waste less time and money if you can follow a project all the way through.

  10. Make sewing make money. Every year fewer people do repairs, alterations and custom projects, and these services are still in demand. Start off doing simple repairs and hemming. As your skills improve, take on more complex alterations and full projects. Most craft and fabric stores offer free bulletin boards where you can advertise your services. If you don't want it to be a year-round job, do what I did. While teaching full-time, I used clearance sale materials and odd bits of time to create a variety of holiday decorations and gift items throughout the year. During the holiday season, I set up a booth at a couple of local craft bazaars and sold my wares on the weekends. Even after accounting for expenses, I netted about $300 and had plenty of stock left over to cover all my Christmas gift-giving. I'm sure I could have expanded the idea and earned more, but this way I barely noticed the time invested and wound up making money at Christmas instead of spending it. No matter what you decide to do yourself, sewing can truly be a frugal endeavor!

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