Sewing with a plan

Soli here. As part of my frugality, simpler living, and reclaiming domesticity desires, I am going to be featuring some more posts this year to potentially assist all of us in incorporating these ideals into our life. Noel is a long-time internet friend who periodically talks about making up new clothing for herself, and I thought it would be fun to share her philosophy on crafting a wardrobe.

Is Sewing with a Plan Frugal?

Back in 2008, I was in desperate need of some clothes that fit well, were in coordinating colors and were of a style that fit my general lifestyle. Oh, and I didn’t have much money. Keep that in mind. It becomes important later on.

I read an article called “Sewing with a Plan” from Australian Stitches. It explained that one could create an excellent wardrobe for oneself in three stages.

Stage One

2 pairs of pants
2 skirts, one solid, one print
6 tops, matching and coordinating
1 jacket

I never do anything right, so I adapted it to my own needs, and did make a wardrobe of which I was very fond. It took me from home office to classroom to vacations with absolutely no problem. I have added some capsules to my original SWAP wardrobe, though I didn’t quite following the rules according to the Australian Stitches article for the next stages of the SWAP. What I did do was add a few pieces to expand the wardrobe I’d already made to suit myself while keeping to the spirit and intent of Sewing with a Plan – make sure your wardrobe coordinates! If you have a well thought-out wardrobe that coordinates well, you don’t have to own as many garments to have a variety of looks.

Okay, so back to frugality…

The average American consumer unit spends close to $2000 a year on clothes. Since the average consumer unit is 2.5 people, let’s say that the average person spends $800/year on clothes. Friends, I haven’t spent that much in nearly four years, and that SWAP I was running on about was why. I sewed myself that initial stage of the SWAP for about $150. Yep, I got 27 different looks for $150, and can pack for a week’s vacation in a carry-on. Since then, I have spent another $350 on sewing materials — both to add to the SWAP and make some incidentals like polar fleece pajamas. This is some blissfully warm loungewear that lets me turn the thermostat waaayyy down and still be able to sit still and write in comfort. I still wear everything I made in 2008, so I’m getting plenty of wear out of the clothes I made. That’s important to frugality as well. Making a new wardrobe every year might be cheaper than buying one each year, but it’s still not frugal.

Even though common wisdom says that sewing is a frugal way to clothe oneself, like most common wisdom, there are some hidden catches to it. You can go overboard in several areas.

Let’s start with the sewing machine. For good basic sewing, you don’t need a computerized deal with lots of fancy stitches. You want something that has a basic stitch, can reverse stitch, and can do a zig-zag stitch. Boom, you’re all good. You can find what you need at a yard sale or thrift store without too much issue. Those top of the line jobs (barring the really good industrials) are highly overrated for basic clothing. I use the same basic student machine I was given for my 24th birthday nearly 20 years ago. It has served me well through everything from making a set of cloth napkins to Elizabethan corsets.

Your next possible pitfall is fabric. It is far too easy to go overboard with fabric. You’ll hear a great deal about people who sew having a large stash of fabric. Friends, this isn’t frugal! If you’re trying to be frugal, buy fabric to the project, and make sure your project fits your overall plan! Yes, I know that silk looks lovely and feels wonderful. And oh! that shiny brocade would make an amazing jacket. Be strong. Have a plan. If you do not intend to sew it up within the month and have a niche in your wardrobe where it will fit with more than three garments, resist, resist, resist.

However, even standard garment fabric can be prohibitively expensive. I do something that a lot of garment makers don’t and many would shriek at. I usually use quilting fabric to make my clothes. Quilting fabric is cheap, woven cotton is totally easy to work and care for (barring the fact you do have to iron your clothes), and if you know how to make garments fit well (more on that later), no-one ever knows that you’re using something so inexpensive. Before you say that one can’t do that living in a cold climate, I’ll point out that I live in Northern New England and do not exactly overheat my home. A couple of pairs of good, thin long underwear (I wear microfiber instead of silk) works wonders for keeping warm. I also knit, so I do have a collection of warm sweaters and wool socks, also made inexpensively and in my wardrobe’s palette.

The last pitfall is skills, and that takes some time. If you’re going to try to save money by sewing, you need to learn to do a little pattern drafting and fitting garments to you. What makes sewing truly frugal is about how you can have custom clothing really inexpensively. Thing is, tailors charge what they do because it does take time to learn the skills. An out of the packet pattern will not fit you all that well – any more than Ready to Wear really does. It can’t. Bodies have too much variation. But if you learn a few tricks with darts, adjusting crotch fit in pants and other techniques, you’ll be able to make a long-lasting garment that will be far superior to anything you’ll find in a store. It’s bad fit that screams cheap. Well-fitting, well-tailored clothing looks elegant even if you only spent $10 to make the garment. Your local library is probably loaded with books on sewing and fit. Check ‘em out.

Frugality in clothing revolves, like every other sort of frugality, in a sort of principles-based living. To be frugal, it’s important to know what you want, what you need and have a plan for filling those needs without being wasteful. That’s going to be very dependent on your lifestyle. Wool pants that need to be dry cleaned aren’t in the least frugal if you’re a homesteader who grows most of her own food and need garments that can stand up under garden work. They’re a considerably more sensible choice to the person with the desk job in a cold office where clothes don’t get dirty as often. When you start thinking about sewing as a way to get a frugal wardrobe, think carefully about how you live before you dive in and start making clothes.

Noel Lynne Figart is a nerd whose friends live primarily in the computer. When not sewing her own wardrobe or teaching people how to use computers, she can be found shoot off at the mouth about politics, relationships, cooking and knitting at Noel

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I’m sharing this post at Monday Mania, Traditional Tuesday, Real Food Wednesday, Frugal Days Sustainable Ways, Simple Lives Thursday, Fight Back Friday, and Fresh Bites Friday.


11 responses to “Sewing with a plan

  1. Great article Soli! Love it!
    You know, my sewing skills are MARGINAL at best. I think even if I had help, I am not sure I could sew a jacket at all and the skirt/shirts would take some time.
    HOWEVER, I can see where this same idea would work, even with “store bought” clothes by picking a color scheme, and buying the 2 pair pants, shirts, tops, skirt and jacket that are all interchangeable !
    Great ideas! THanks!

  2. Lovely…I too have an old, simple, sewing machine which is, I’m afraid, gathering dust. You’ve inspired me to pull it out and sew that window panel I’ve been wishing to hang on the back door. Maybe after that, I’ll be ready for some simple clothing.

    • I was actually thinking about where I might post that. Going to share it in the FB group too. Very lovely work, as always.

  3. Another perspective on stash fabric: As a seamstress, your stash is your pantry. We keep a proper full food pantry and a well-stocked freezer as “insurance” against supply disruptions, bad weather, financial hard times, etc. We have had to rely on the pantry more than once over the years, and we have been caught very down on our luck without a pantry to cushion the blow, too, so this is something we take seriously. Your stash is your wardrobe “pantry”. It is your gift pantry. It can provide things like napkins, diapers, blankets, new upholstery, etc. In a lean year, my stash has provided most of my kids’ Christmas. That said, most of the things in my stash have come from incredibly low-priced sources–like the large online fabric source that is headquartered near where hubs once worked and, at that time, had a $1/yard ROOM in their outlet store, in which they used to put everything they had less than 3 yards of, even silk. Or the free source of decorator sample fabrics, which, while mostly small pieces, have their uses. Stash can certainly be frugal. You just have to look at it the right way.

    • Heather, definitely true there! It’s really frugal if you use it and don’t just buy for the pretty and it sits for an unending amount of time. (She says, thinking of her stuffed box of yarn…)

      • I have yarn, too. 🙂 But knitting just doesn’t happen when I have a small baby, ’cause my hands are busy with the baby anytime I might otherwise knit. The yarn will wait for the baby to grow up some! When I was doing Christmas sewing this past Christmas, I used several different fabrics that have been aging in my stash for many years, as well as some more recent additions–mostly things my grandma and my great-aunt passed on to me when they cleaned out their stashes last year–their stashes are not the frugal kind!

    • but those stashes are frugal when they’re gifted to you! 🙂

  4. Pingback: A Top 12 for 2012 | I Believe In Butter

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