Save Money Sewing Sustainably (Get everything you need for almost no $$$)

Welcome to the middle of October! Wisconsin celebrated by having our first snowfall. It’s not getting me down though, because you all have been so sweet in having my back. Thank you so so much to everyone who reached out to me after reading last week’s blog.  Your messages, emails, and comments were very nice to receive.

I read recently that you shouldn’t share personal stuff on your blog until you offer something of value to your audience (and I laughed out loud how backwards I am). So, here’s an effort to provide y’all with something useful since I vomited up my emotions on you last week.

October is a month to celebrate slow fashion. That means appreciating the clothes that you will take time to mend and care for properly, as well as clothes made with human rights and the environment in mind. I would love to type up a full treatise on the meaning of slow fashion, but I think there are plenty of people who have done it better than me. To dip your toes in the water of slow fashion, you can check out:

In lieu of all that, I offer you a guide to getting started in making and mending your own clothes without spending a bunch of money to get supplies for the craft:

SEWING ON A TIGHT BUDGET or for FREE

One thing holding people back mentally from taking up a hobby like sewing or knitting can often be the monetary investment. However, to start making your own clothes takes almost no money if you have a network, some luck, and time.

On the flipside, I find that many people are willing to make the monetary investment, but then have trouble making the time. This comes down to a basic mindset difference between the crafter and the enthusiastic shopper. A crafter will craft with whatever is around them. A shopper will see craft supplies and buy them in hopes of someday crafting. I think the former is the better way to go.

I also find that it can be more inspiring to work with limited supplies. Making do with what you have calls for ingenuity which helps us bend our minds and grow our skills in ways that popping over to the store every few days doesn’t.

STEP 1: Start by Hand – Get Hand Sewing Supplies for <$5

So let’s say you’re going to start sewing. If you have literally no resources in your home or family for sewing, then you’ll need to start with the basics. At the minimum, you need a needle (preferably needles), thread, and cloth. That’s literally it. You can buy needles and thread at the local dollar store. Or even better, you can usually find some sewing supplies in the grab bags of the craft aisle as the local thrift store. These can be handy because they usually have some thread, a thimble, and even a pincushion if you’re lucky. (BUT, be sure to double-check your network before purchasing supplies. I find many people can get the basic materials for free from friends or family.)

Think you need a sewing machine? While sewing on a machine can speed up the process considerably, there have been plenty of people making clothes completely by hand for centuries. Everything you can do on a sewing machine can be done by hand sewing, but not everything you can do with hand sewing can be done by a machine. So of the two, hand sewing is more useful.

Sewing by hand is also more relaxing, you can do it on the couch once you get used to it, and it resembles knitting in its meditative qualities. If you want to start sewing, you can do it today just by mending what you have. Grab a needle and thread and make a conscious effort to patch your holes, tears, lost buttons, and add a layer to your worn out knees. If you need some motivational words while you try it, I love Mama Minimalists’ episode on mending (which may or may not have been inspired by an email I sent her about the importance of mending…*cough cough*).

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STEP 2: Knowledge is Power: Learn for Free

Taking a class or buying a book can be very very useful in expanding your sewing skills. But like the other larger investments (I’ll talk about in a bit), it can be a later step after you decide for yourself whether you really enjoy the process of sewing.

Of course I’m going to tell you that YouTube can be a great friend in sewing. So here it is: YouTube has plenty of tutorials on sewing. However, I find that I learn better from books. I think it’s easier to learn if I can re-read instructions constantly and look at a frozen photo instead of a video. So for sewing, I like to use blogs (I just Google any specific question I have) and books from the library. Please, please, please, please use your library. You can start by just getting a basic sewing book which will provide you with lots of information. Many of them even have patterns inside the books so you can make basic tops and skirts without investing in a paid pattern.

Here are some basic blog tutorials I’ve used in the past for solving specific problems:

To find books at the library, I like searching in person best. I just enter the craft section and find all the sewing or knitting books and work my way through them. If I can’t make it into the library, I will go to their online catalog and search around for key phrases and books that look interesting. This has been the number one way I have leveled up my knitting, by reading about techniques for a few minutes each night before going to bed. **My local library is very small, so these online searches have been very important in giving me access to books I can rent through inter-library loan.

STEP 3: Start Getting the Bigger Supplies

Let’s be realistic, if you really want to start making clothes, you’re probably going to want a sewing machine eventually. Occasionally an acquaintance will ask me about starting to sew and I tell them I can probably find them a free sewing machine if they are very interested. More than once, their answer has been that there is a sewing machine somewhere in their family they can use. This doesn’t surprise me, because I routinely get offered sewing machines by ladies of a certain age who no longer sew and have no children interested. I’ve even been offered sergers. *Fingers crossed a coverstitch crosses my path someday*

Long story short. You probably have access to a sewing machine, if only to borrow for an extended period, somewhere in your network. If you’re not lucky enough to have such a network, fear not.

Like I said, I get offered sewing machines just because people know I sew. If you’re dead set on not paying for one, just keep telling people you sew; eventually you’ll meet a sewing machine in need of a loving home. If you want to speed up the process, I recommend starting some volunteer work in an older community. If you are a community center member or in a church, there may be a sewing group for quilters. Acquainting yourself with these will not only bring you near people with physical resources, it will bring you near invaluable sources of knowledge who can mentor you.

Now, even though I can’t seem to swing a dead cat without getting offered a sewing machine, I can see how you might feel kind of sleazy networking to try to get something for free (or swinging dead cats…I don’t recommend it). However, if your method of networking is to volunteer at a nursing home and interact with residents and create meaningful mentorships, I think you will gain more than a machine. Even if this method fails, going into such an endeavor with an open heart will almost certainly make you a better person. However, doing so just to gain something would be wrong, and many of these residents are already dealing with their own families trying to divvy up all their possessions. Please consider this my reminder to you to try to be a decent person.

Thrift thrift thrift

If you haven’t noticed this yet, YOU CAN GET ANYTHING YOU NEED FOR CRAFTING AT A THRIFT STORE! I almost always see sewing machines when I visit second-hand shops. They are usually in rough shape, but make sure to peruse the random homewares aisles if you’re on the market for a good machine. Being in the box is generally a good sign. Open up the box and see if the pieces are there. You can also check if you can find the user manual online while you look over the machine in the store. Also, do a search on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. You may get lucky. Out here in the country, we also have lots of estate auctions at which sewing machines can be found.

Santa Baby

If these options fail, many of us are lucky enough to have family and/or friends who want to buy us presents around birthdays, anniversaries, or Christmas. However, I would NOT recommend asking for a machine as a gift unless you are very certain you will sew and you have already made time for hand sewing.

This is just my perspective, but I think when something is gifted to you, it can feel like you have to use it, and the weight of that can actually STOP you from getting the motivation to learn to use it. For this reason, I think you should either borrow a machine or stick with hand sewing for a few months before you ask other people to lay down cash for your hobby. You want to make sure that you will truly enjoy their gift and not just lose interest or become too frustrated to learn how to use it. (And believe me, it will be frustrating to learn to use at first. Sewing machines seem to work beautifully for the practiced sewist, but for the beginner, seemingly the same actions result in birds nests instead of seams. You need to accept this if you want to get through it.)

STEP 4: Build your Arsenal of Other SUPPLIES

“Okay. I have a machine, but sewing is still really expensive,” you say. I hear you. I’ve heard sewing is expensive. I’ve made a few expensive things in my time. Sometimes they even worked out. Sometimes…

But honestly, of the things I’ve made, I’ve been much happier using free fabric destashed to me from friends, or cheap fabric bought at thrift stores, than what I’ve picked out myself at the fabric store.

Part of this might be because I make poor choices when inundated with the countless options at a true fabric store.  Maybe you’ll do better than me. But another part of it is that with limitations come innovation. If I have the sewing bug, starting with the fabric I have available helps me get sewing right away and come up with something more interesting. And the makes are more cherished and beautiful.

Fabric

Now honestly, if people give you fabric, be prepared to get a lot of printed cotton. Most sewists will destash quilting cotton to you, because most sewists are quilters (also, we have an affinity for useless prints). However, you will get some real gems.

Also, most thrift stores have sections, usually near the bedding and drapes, where they sell fabric yardage. I said it once but I’ll say it again THRIFT STORES HAVE ALL THE SUPPLIES YOU NEED! I’ve found 5 yards of a soft knit maroon jersey for $3.99. Just thinking about it makes me giddy.

Once you discover thrift fabric, it can be a dangerous game. It’s easy to convince yourself that you should buy all the fabric, since it’s so cheap. I had to force myself out of Savers last week leaving behind some lovely yardages of knits.

So another rule to save money is to only have one project going at a time, and only buy fabric for that project. Otherwise, if you’re obsessed like me, your stash could develop into its own life form. The lovely ladies at Love to Sew podcast have several episodes about stash guilt and management.

Now, I mentioned yardages of fabric only. Of course, many of us know that refashioning is wonderful too. Sara Tyau is the most famous refashioner I know of, her before and after looks routinely circle the Internet for how clever her revitalized outfits are. You can find her on Instagram here. You can start with curtains and sheets and than graduate into some other larger materials. NOTE: I try not to take clothes from the women’s plus size sections unless I find many of the same type of item of clothing.

Anyway, men’s clothing is generally larger, made of more durable material, and there are usually hundreds of similar items. Refashioning men’s items, I don’t feel like I’m significantly affecting the pool of available options for larger men shopping for secondhand clothes like I might be in the women’s department.

Thread

Thread is expensive. Period.  Thread is so expensive that originally, I hated buying new spools so much that I would just use one spool until it ran out instead of having some that matched my project.

It’s not worth buying the little rolls you find at antique stores. Not for actual use anyway. It’s durability deteriorates significantly over time (ask me how I know…).  For cheap people like me, I’ve found the best solution has been to buy thread in one big batch of colors. I have an embroidery machine, and so I bought a huge selection of colors of embroidery thread. I actually use embroidery thread for almost all of my makes. If I really need a thicker thread, I have a couple of cones I found at a thrift store which were clearly new in their packaging. (I am starting to feel like this whole post could just be pared down to “Go to a thrift store!”)

I’m sure I’ll catch some flack for using embroidery thread instead of a thicker option for my makes. But it’s worked out. And having the wide color selection means that my thread almost always matches my project (unless I’m too lazy to wind a new bobbin). Investing in a bunch of thread years ago means that I have matching thread for all my projects, and it makes it more likely I’ll actually get them finished. However, you can get really really far with 1 spool of black thread and 1 spool of white. Ideally the thread won’t show anyway, so if you’re still beginning, feel free to just buy the basics.

Notions

(For the beginner: Notions are the little odds and ends needed to make a garment truly finished. They include ties, ribbon, elastic, buttons, zippers, clasps, and do-dads of any other sort for your project.)

Shopping for notions can be addicting because there are so many cute options. I’ve found that the best way to save money on notions is to build a healthy stash of secondhand notions found in the craft aisle. There’s less danger here of stash runaway than with fabric because there are generally fewer notions available at thrift stores, and they take up less space.

My favorite notions score from a thrift store was $3 for a bag of zippers still in their packaging. I think I got about 9 zippers (one of which ended up in my lederhosen shorts).

Also, as someone who wears clothes completely out, I am able to pull notions off of clothes before composting or trashing them. If your clothes are too terrible to mend or thrift, then it’s time to donate their organs. I pull out any ties, drawstrings, or buttons. I’ll even cut off the fabric with snaps (if still in tact), and take out any elastic if it still has decent memory.  This can save you many emergency trips to the store for final finishing touches. And it makes throwing out clothes less emotional (at least for me).

Patterns

Patterns at the store can be extremely expensive. There are low-cost patterns available at some stores such as Wal-mart. These can work very well for some people, but for many, these patterns don’t have the detailed instructions beginners need (and the quality of the finished garment can be suspect).

However, buying more expensive patterns such as a Vogue pattern for a lined coat can cost well over $20 (just for the pattern!). Independent designers such as Helen’s Closet, Melly Sews, & Rosy Pena (to name a few of my favorites) usually have much better instructions and will teach you new skills that give you more bang for your buck. (For a more complete view of the independent pattern community, check out Indiesew.) But there are some people who still can’t afford those patterns, even when they’re on sale. And those people should get to sew too. Luckily there are a couple of other options.

The easiest option is again, THRIFT STORES (noticing a trend yet?). Check the craft supply aisle or the paper goods aisle at your local thrift shop. Chances are, they’ve got a fair number of patterns for under $3. Most of the patterns I use are “Big 4” patterns I find at thrift shops.

Also, there are many free patterns online. This can be tricky for some folks to access if they don’t have a good printer (me) or if they need a bit more help working through a pattern. Melly Sews has free patterns for people who sign up for her newsletter. All of the underwear I have made has also been from a free pattern. (This will change soon when I buy a bra kit!!!!!)

If you don’t have a printer, you can print pages at your library, or find a friend willing to donate to the cause by allowing you to use theirs. Speaking of the library, don’t forget that many sewing books at the library have great basic sewing patterns that you can trace onto newspaper and cut out to use!

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So there is it. It was long. It was rambling. But you now have my tips on saving money and sewing:

Summary

  1. Start small – get just fabric, needle, and thread and you’re set!
  2. THRIFT ALL THE THINGS!!!! – everything you need for sewing can be found at a thrift store from a sewing machine to fabric to buttons
  3. INVEST IN QUALITY THREAD — if you can’t find thread in the package at a thrift store, buy it online or in another store. Don’t buy opened thread, it’s often too weak to withstand a machine
  4. SHARE! – network with other sewists and former sewists. There are many people with basements full of beautiful fabric that they have no intention of using. The same goes for sewing machines and supplies. Just tell people you sew and the supplies will come to you eventually.
  5. Libraries! — Libraries and librarians will be able to direct you to books on learning to sew, patterns, and probably even individuals in your community who can teach you.

If you are reading this but still feel too intimidated to start sewing, I want to hear from you. Let me know what’s holding you back. Is it time? Is it money? Is it fear of failure?

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