The cost of handmade vs RTW, and making for others

 

I’ve had a few people chat to me recently about the cost of making your own clothes. It seems to be a common misconception among non-sewists that making your own clothes is cheaper than buying them – after all, why would you spend time and effort making something that you could go out and buy in much less time, for much less money?

While this is true in some cases – an old duvet cover refashioned into a dress compared to buying a ready-to-wear designer dress for example, it is definitely not true in all cases.  To start with, it depends on how much you spend on clothes – and how much you spend on fabric.

 

If you are buying higher quality materials to make items to last, then it’s not necessarily the cheaper option. I recently spent over £150 on materials alone to make a wool coat for my husband – the total cost of the item still works out cheaper than what a similar item would have cost in the shops, but obviously there are cheaper coats available. Two metres of liberty cotton lawn for a man’s shirt will set you back the best part of £45 (unless you can find some on sale) – yet you can buy a cotton shirt in high street shops for under £20. And this fabric cost isn’t even taking account of all the other materials you need – buttons, interfacing etc – and the time you spend making it.

It’s quite a hot topic among home-sewists (as opposed to those that sew professionally) as to whether or not they make things for other people (ie not direct family). The general trend seems to be they don’t make things for others, because they are expected to do it for nothing because they ‘enjoy it’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to help out a friend who needs a quick repair on something to extend its life. For free. All it costs me is a few minutes of my time and a little bit of thread – in exchange they get to continue wearing an item for a bit longer. But when people ask if I can make something for them from scratch, they usually change their mind before I’ve even totalled up the cost of just the materials needed.

The era of fast fashion has devalued the skills of the dressmaker, and created the expectation that clothes are something that can be made quickly and cheaply. So why would anyone pay twice, triple (or even more) the price of a RTW shirt to have one made for them? And if I’m making a garment myself, people wonder why I can’t make it for cheaper than they sell it for in the shops, with all their expensive overheads that they surely build into their sales price.

I’m not going to talk in detail about the obvious factors here of bulk discounts and economies of scale for these huge fashion chains, or the outsourcing of labour to countries like China and Bangladesh where wages are lower. These are the biggest influences in the cheap prices of the throwaway fashion we have nowadays, and something that a single sewist in the U.K. cannot even begin to replicate. Things made in England will always cost more than those made overseas, simply because the labour cost is higher.

Totalling up project costs is not something that I do on a regular basis, and not even to a precise degree even when I do calculate it. To me it’s not so important, because this is my hobby. I do it for the enjoyment. But if people catch on that you’re a sewist, the day will inevitably come when you’re asked if you will make something for someone.

Just because I’m curious, I’m going to total up one of my makes to see what the cost is. So, what goes in to a project? The main inputs into creating an item of clothing are the materials, the tools, and the time.

 

 

Before I start to talk about material costs, let’s discuss the real sticking point – the cost of labour. ‘Living wage’ here in the U.K. is £8.45 per hour. If you live in London like I do, that living wage becomes £9.75 per hour. These are the government guidelines for a fair full-time wage, in order for the worker to be able to live and pay rent and bills. This of course is the minimum that an unskilled worker should receive in exchange for an hour of their time – a rate which will obviously increase in line with the worker’s skills and experience. If you’re at a stage where you can sew garments to a good level, then you’ve obviously invested time and effort into honing your skills, and could command a higher hourly rate. But for this exercise, let’s use the London living wage of £9.75 per hour.

Time spent on the project covers more than just the sewing time – there’s sourcing the right fabric and materials, time spent going to the shop to buy thread and buttons, and all the construction techniques such as pinning, basting, and pressing.

Before you start buying materials, you are going to need a pattern. There is a cost for this too – this is true whether you self-draft (in which case the cost will be your time) or purchase a pattern from a store. I’ll admit to having a fair stash of patterns, and these have varied wildly in price from about £3 on sale to £15 which I recently paid for my Ginger Jeans pattern from Closet Case. (Yes, £15 is a little steep for a pattern and more than I would usually pay, but I’m hoping to get to a place where the template has been altered to fit me perfectly and I can then just reuse it again and again each time I want to make a new pair of jeans. So although the initial outlay is high, I’m hoping the cost-per-use will be a lot lower).

There’s rather a lot of people out there that don’t realise most of us use patterns to sew from when we make things. They assume that when we say ‘I made it’ that we mean we cut random shapes out of fabric without a guide, sewed them together and made a garment. They think that we haz mad sewing skillz. And when they ask if we can make them a shirt/dress/skirt they assume that we already know what shapes are needed to make their item in their exact size. Erm, no. They get even more horrified when you tell them how much patterns can cost.

 

 

Obviously material costs will vary wildly – I tend to buy material in natural fibres, cotton, silk, wool etc  (rather than mad made fabrics such as polyesters which can be cheaper) and I always use Gutermann branded thread. Quality to me is important and I want the things I make to last for years and years.

 

For this illustration, here’s a list of materials I used for my ‘Asia Calling’ shirt –

2 metres of Liberty lawn – £45

Vilene interfacing – £1 (for collar and cuffs only)

Buttons – £3.50

Pattern – £13 (today’s price on SewDirect)

Thread – 1 spool of Gutermann £1.80

So I’m currently at a total of  £64.30, before I’ve even started making it. I’m leaving out the time spent browsing patterns and fabric stores for the perfect combo (as I do this for fun 🙂 ) but that could also be considered.

So once you’ve got your materials, you’ve then got the prep to do – and firstly you’ve got to pre-wash and press your fabric.

Let’s say a total of £1 for the water and detergent used in the washing machine, and your time spent levelling the fabric and pressing.

TOTAL: £65.30

You then have your time spent tracing your pattern in the size required (using your own tracing paper), and cutting out the templates (30 mins = £4.88) If you’re making a muslin, you might have spent £2 on fabric and 1 hour making it to check the fit (£9.75).

Then you’ll be cutting out the real fabric and transferring all the construction markings. Total time – 1.5 hours x £9.75 = £19.50

The construction of the garment consists of sewing time, pressing time, and fitting time.  I don’t track how many hours I spend actually sewing something (though maybe I will start just out of curiosity) but it will usually take a bit longer if it’s the first time I’m making it or it uses techniques that are new to me. Let’s say for the average dress shirt, construction takes 4 hours in total = £39.00

So far then, total cost for the men’s shirt is: £140.43.

Then we’ve got the cost of depreciation for everything you’ve had to buy in order to actually be able to make the shirt – tools, consumables and machinery.

For me, this would cover:

Pins, scissors, ironing board, iron, cutting mat, rotary cutter, chalk pencils, machine needles, tailors dummy, and of course, the sewing machine.

Let’s take an average, mid-range machine costing £500. I’ll assume that you keep it for five years, so £100 per year. Let’s say you make 20 garments a year – therefore the cost per item for your machine is £5.

For all the other consumables listed above let’s say £1.50, as blades will need to be replaced, scissors sharpened and needles replenished.

Therefore the total, all in cost for the shirt is £146.93. Wowzers.

And this is without adding on any “profit”, which if you’re happy to go without because you’re making for a friend/family member, then you wouldn’t need to add anything more. You may or may not even want to charge for your time, if the item is for a friend or family member, however it’s better to charge something from the outset otherwise you might find yourself being asked to make more things afterwards for the cost of materials only.

If you’re asked to make something as a commission, you would expect to make at least some profit on it – which means that the total price to charge will need to be increased even further.

So our Liberty shirt in question has cost over £140 to make, before any ‘profit’. Would I spend that amount of money on a RTW shirt? Maybe, if the fabric was absolutely awesome, the best thing I had ever seen, and was a decent quality natural fibre. And the fit would have to be pretty damn good too. But I would still think carefully about whether it was worth it before I parted with the cash.

 

 

As I don’t mind using my time to make a shirt for the husband, I’ll ignore all the costs apart from the direct materials used – £64. While this is still a lot of money to spend on a shirt, my perspective is that the £64 is not just getting him a shirt – it’s also getting him a shirt that fits well (which is so hard to find in RTW – arms and body are always too wide and too long), in a fabric of his choice, with buttons of his choice. I get to develop my sewing skills, and spend time doing a hobby I enjoy. But it’s *my* choice to spend my time doing this. Time is precious, and in short supply, especially as I also have a full-time day job (boo).

It seems that from your average non-sewist’s point of view, the decision of whether handmade is worth it or not is very much focused on cost – if the cost of the handmade item is more than the cost of store-bought, people are put off. For me, it’s not until you start learning about things like seam finishes and fabric properties that you really notice which RTW items are truly quality (which unfortunately seems to equate to expensive) and which have been made as cheaply as possible. When you begin to sew your own clothes and learn about the processes and techniques involved, you find yourself inspecting seams and pattern matching in clothing stores, and looking at the labels to see what fibres it’s made from. You inadvertently become the strictest ever quality control manager.

So when all is said and done, is it worth making your own clothes if it costs you more?

For me, yes. I’m paying for the opportunity to choose my fabrics, and style. No longer do I have to walk away from an item in a shop because it’s the wrong colour, or too short, or it’s got a design element I don’t like. Instead I can just make one exactly how I want it. It’s worth it because it’s also my hobby – others would think nothing of spending £100 on food and drink on a night out, but I would prefer to spend £100 on fabric and make something for myself or my husband. It’s all relative, I guess, to what you value in life and what you want to spend your money on.

From a buyer’s point of view though, I totally understand that people probably don’t want to pay me £150 to make them a shirt. It’s a lot of money. But… you do get a nice fitting, unique (probably) shirt rather than one off the shelf which might not fit quite right. Perhaps I should start charging my husband for each shirt that I make him.

Do you make things for friends/family? What are your experiences? If you have made things previously for others but wouldn’t any more, why not? Please share your thoughts 🙂

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14 Comments

  1. May 7, 2017 / 10:45 am

    That is a pricey shirt, but worth it, I reckon! I’ve lately got into the habit of totalling my materials cost for each make, and the time spent sewing, just for my own interest. Some of the things I make can be cheaper than similar quality RTW, but only if I ignore the labour cost.

    I do sometimes make things for immediate family. Usually as gifts, but I have occasionally made things for my mum. She pays for materials and provides me with childcare so I can have a few peaceful hours spent sewing. Like you said, time is the thing in really short supply! I’m not going to charge her for it if I get to spend more time doing something I love.

    • Sarah
      May 8, 2017 / 1:28 pm

      I think it’s quite useful to note all of the costs down, even if it is only for our own personal knowledge. Like you I think I might start doing this from now on!
      Yes I think yours is an ideal scenario, you get the materials provided and quiet time to enjoy your hobby – win win!

  2. May 7, 2017 / 11:40 am

    An excellent point. Often people assume handmade is cheaper but in reality there’s a lot more than just fabric to take account of.

    • Sarah
      May 8, 2017 / 1:30 pm

      Thanks Laura, my aim was to highlight all these other costs that go into a garment so that people can get paid a fair price for their skilled work.

  3. May 8, 2017 / 7:37 am

    I enjoyed reading your article and hope a few non-sewers will read it so they will understand more about the dedication of many sewers. Many assume that when they buy a jeans for £65 you can make it for £25. I make and mend garments for other as well and they pay me for my work. That can either be money or something they like to do like cooking or doing the garden. When I started with my blog I decided to add the costs and time used for a garment. I recently wrote an article about the printing costs of a PDF-patterns versus the paper version.

    • Sarah
      May 8, 2017 / 1:35 pm

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it Sonja, and that’s a great idea that others can pay you in their time with their skills too – I hate gardening so would happily exchange a few sewing hours for some gardening ones!! I think I might start keeping track of time – I made a wool coat for my husband which felt like it took FOREVER (I think I worked on it for at least three full days straight) but I’m sure wasn’t quite as long as I thought it was. I’ll check out your post on the printing costs, as I think about this as well – I’m not a lover of PDF patterns, I prefer the old school paper ones, and it always seems a bit of a faff to cut and stick but costs a fortune to have them printed at a copy shop!

    • Sarah
      May 8, 2017 / 1:50 pm

      It’s actually sad that it’s true though, isn’t it 🙁 A fair price should be paid for the skills and time involved in garment making, whether you’re making for retail or an individual.

  4. Nancy May
    July 3, 2017 / 1:07 pm

    Thank you for the article. I hope you don’t mind, but I have shared it in FB.

    • Sarah
      July 3, 2017 / 1:22 pm

      Of course not! Share wherever you feel it would be useful! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  5. September 9, 2017 / 5:39 pm

    Really enjoying your blog and more so that you post your mistakes/learning points (that aren’t often shown or discussed with other blogs) as they really make me think for my future projects. Thank you and please keep it up 🙂

    • Sarah
      September 10, 2017 / 8:40 am

      Hi Duncan! Really glad you’re enjoying the blog 🙂 When I read other sewing blogs (before starting mine), I realised how ‘perfect’ the finished items were made to look. And thought about how offputting this could be to others who wanted to learn or were in the process of learning, thinking that if they made a mistake or something wasn’t 100% perfect then somehow they were just rubbish at sewing at should just give up. When I started my blog, I knew I wanted to reassure people that sewing is a learning curve, whether you’ve been sewing for 30 minutes or 30 years – no ones knows everything, no one is perfect, we all make mistakes and cut wonky hems and sew things back to front. I wanted to help people realise that every mistake is an opportunity to learn, so in theory the more mistakes you make the more experience you can gain! 🙂

  6. Phyl Featherstone
    November 16, 2017 / 10:53 am

    A good read, and thought provoking! I must say I’ve had plenty of people asking me to “just run up some curtains” as if they’re done in 5 minuets! Or ask me to do something that won’t take long, in their opinion! …
    I don’t make clothes although I have done, I do more alterations and repairs. But I feel quite proud of myself when I see the end result. I can spend a lot of time on a repair that maybe others wouldn’t bother with . I only do this for famil now.
    Although after joining this sewing site I’m all fired up and want to make all sorts!! There are some very talented people, I really enjoy seeing everyone’s makes.

    • Sarah
      November 17, 2017 / 8:34 pm

      Thank you Phyl, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I think people are just really unaware how long things actually take – sometimes I will say that I won’t do it *for* them, but will help them *do it themselves*. Often this is enough to put them off!! I do like to take my time with things, I believe in a job well done so would probably be the same as you with the details on repairs!
      The sewing groups are a big source of inspiration aren’t they – I have a sewing list that will last me about four years I think! What is top of your sewing queue?

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