sewing for the frugal

If you can believe it, once upon a time sewing your own garments was actually less expensive than buying ready to wear. Now, sewing a simple tee shirt or dress is twice, three times or more expensive than a comparable garment in the store. It doesn't add up. So why sew at home?

Of course, there are many great reasons for sewing your own. The argument for handmade is quite public right now and I'm definitely not going to reiterate points to people who are looking for tutorials; I'm obviously preaching to the choir here. Stuff is cheap, yes. But we sew because we have values that say that there are things more important than getting the most stuff for the lowest price.

The other side, though, is that sewing it yourself can still be really pricey. Walk into any fabric store to buy a pattern, fabric and notions, by the time you are done it is a sizeable enough chunk of change to make you wonder if it is really the best use of your creativity and time. Sewing is no longer a necessity and now considered a hobby. Many people justify the cost as something they do it for kicks: hobbies aren't supposed to be cheap or save money, just be satisfying. Another unhelpful aspect is the recent popularity of crafting, which has encouraged the proliferation of overpriced, mega-craft supply stores whose eye-candy displays induce almost trace-like spending sprees in even the most thrifty of us. (Here, I am a repeat offender.) Much of the new crafting, including sewing, encourages the use of specialized, high-tech products, a high contrast to the days of yore, where handicrafts was using what you had on hand.

When I began sewing a couple years ago I initally borrowed a sewing machine, bought myself a few yards of fabric, and took my first shakey steps. It was all done with great reluctance since I really had no plans to sew anything beyond the couple of projects I had in mind, still believing I was going to hate sewing as much now as I did in grade seven. Turns out sewing can be addictive and I was to be no casual user. I liked it. And with this exciting discovery I began to stock up on supplies. I did some serious shopping for fabrics, notions, and anything else sewing that took my fancy. I got giddy in fabric stores and went completely wild on sale days.

Beyond my shameless fabric hoarding, common to almost everyone who sews (and even some that do not), I've become painfully aware how much my enthusiasm cost me my first year sewing. And before this becomes a deep, dark confession, I'm just going to sum up by saying that I've spent the last year trying to figure out what is the least expensive way I could feed my addiction without going bankrupt.

(If I had any illustrations for you, right now I would feature a cartoon of me holding up a sign on the street saying, "Will work for fabric".)

So, in the spirit of this blog, I shall now share some strategies that help reduce the cost of making your own. Presenting:

Frugal Strategies for Sewers


- organizing your stash is one way of avoiding buying too much of a certain type or style of fabric. Until I was forced to clean out my sewing room, I had no idea how many yards small flower prints I had. Apparently I will buy a small flower print whenever I see one, with complete amnesia to the 20 yards I already have at home and still do not use.

- search thrift shops and yard sales for unused fabric. Most sell for quite a bit less than the fabric store, particularly yard sales, and sometimes great vintage fabric can be had for almost a steal. (Be careful, though - some national thrift stores are onto the craft craze and sell fabric that ends up being more expensive than the discount or sale wall at your local fabric shop).

- Search your local freecycle network and put the word out among your neighbors that you will take away the extras from other sewer's stashes. I know I've had to downsize even with my 2 short years of sewing, and some older ladies who have been sewing for decades have so much fabric that they really don't want anymore but equally don't want it to go someplace where it will be junked. Most people looking to downsize their stash will be happy to give it to someone who will appreciate the fabric and use it well.

- save your remanents for patchwork and embellishments. It's amazing, but entire garments can be created in patchwork from scraps that normally get chucked.

- keep track of your fabric store's discount days and shop them with a list (or small children because nothing will convince you to just get what you need and get out fast quite like trying to control a 3 year old in a fabric store).

- that being said, keep your eyes on the prices of fabric that you love or use often and stock up when there is a sale. For instance, I know I will always use corduroy and linen in my favorite colours and buy extra even when I do not have a specific project for it.

- also check back in the store the week after a big sale. My local store advertises 50% days, which are crazy busy with every sewer in town, but doesn't take down their sale signs for a few days afterwards. Some going out of season or discountinued fabric is actually further marked down after the big sale.

- when buying new, cheap fabric doesn't always mean a deal. Some cotton prints and flannels are always priced cheap because their quality is poor. You do not save money (or feel good about) if your hand-made garment looks faded and tears after just a few washes - if you are spending good money, make sure it is on quality material.

- second hand sheets and pillowcases make great garments. I use them most often in patchwork (most of my patchwork dresses are made of second use fabric) and witness the popularity of pillowcase dresses. Watch you don't buy worn sheets though. Still, in thrift stores I often see children's sheets and curtains with character prints that are worn in the center or have sun damage in particular areas but with the edges looking like new. If you can get them for free or very little, the printed characters on the edges make great appliques (and may save you the cost of buying new character prints for kid's clothes).


- again, thrift stores and yard sales are the best resources. You can often pick up large grab bags of notions for a dollar or two. Also a great source of vintage closures (though stay away from vintage thread - it dries out and snaps). If buying buttons, make sure that there is enough matching buttons to finish a garment.


- nothing wrong with used patterns, as long as they are complete. Most serious sewers trace their patterns so the original is uncut. Patterns for children can be a particular deal here, as the styles do not change drastically over the years (a pinafore is a pinafore is a pinafore) and can be updated with contemporary fabrics and embellishments (and maybe leave off the peter pan collar). Modifying patterns is also a great way to increase your skill set.


- reconstructed garments are the ultimate in thrift (and creativity), especially if you revamp your own wardrobe using only what you've already got. Check out Wardrobe Refashion for some inspiring ideas.

- old clothes can also be made into quilts with sentimental value (in addition to being inexpensive). I've seen many great quilts made with old jeans (with interesting pockets and loops still attached), baby clothes (for those of us incapable of getting rid of the tiny sleepers and blankies), and inherited clothes from great auntie so and so, who's taste's ran to eclectic in the later years but make great quilting patches (which is also a nice way to remember loved ones).

- use 3 strands of thread in your serger instead of 4 by taking out one of the needles. This is also handy if you sew kid's clothes as it creates a smaller stitch if you remove the left needle, which means less bulky seams on tiny garments. And speaking of sergers, do not bother to serge the edges of knits and other fabrics that do not fray - it just adds bulk and is unnecessary. If you can serger, still ask yourself if you need to.

- check out sewing books at your local library. Most libraries will stock several older books full of general knowledge (which will cost you a mint to buy new) as well as some of the new hip books on reconning that sell for 20 smackers or more in the bookstore. Also, and this is too obvious, the internet is an amazing source of free tutorials and patterns. But you know this :) The more techniques you know of, the better you will get and ultimately save money buy not having as many botched projects.

- be selective about using special products sold as sewer's aids. Buy what is helpful (I simply love clear elastic) and then use what you already have at home (making do is a creative skill too that can be quite satisfying.) For example, a great stabilizer for embellishments is used dryer sheets (and smell nice too). A seamstresses' ham is just a bag of sawdust. As far as appliques go, most can be held with pins while you stitch on and avoid the use of bonding papers. Often older sewing books have great, inexpensive techniques from an era that has never heard of liquid anti-fray agents.

- buy your machines from a local dealer and not a big box store. They often offer free or low cost classes to accompany your machines (my serger came with a low fee class, which was subsequently reimbursed in product once the class was completed). It is also a time/money saver to develop a relationship with someone who knows what they are talking about. The big boxes may have lower costs, but no service departments - bit of a problem when the machine gets a glitch. Also, the local guy can cut you a deal or negotiate with you. When buying my newest machine, my husband got the seller to throw in a 36" cutting mat for free because the box was damaged (after, of course, they had opened the box and made sure the machine was working perfectly).

- speaking of machines, make sure you keep yours in good shape by cleaning and oiling frequently. Don't bother to use canned air to blow out the lint from your machine - a set of inexpensive make up brushes work just as well, can be use for years and are the fraction of the cost. Better maintenence means less service bills.

- sew gifts for holidays and birthdays. I've discovered that kid's love crayon rolls, which can be made with scraps for next to nothing. There is a ton of great ideas out there for inexpensive handmade gifts (hey, ever hear of a scoodie?)

- use your sewing to motiviate you to reduce costs in other areas of your life. Bags are one thing that are relatively inexpensive to sew and can save you money. Sew yourself a lovely lunch bag to take with you to work rather than buy lunch. Use your own totes instead of paying for plastic at the grocery store. Make a lip balm cozy and be able to find your lip balm instead of buying a new one every week to replace last week's lost one.

- and remember: sewing skills were, once upon a time, used to save money. Darning socks, patching holes, mending rips, etc. My favorite, as I have small children, is the creative placement of appliques on stained tees and pants.

This is only a short list (though a long post). I would love to hear from everyone how they've saved money on sewing supplies or with sewing.


  1. Oh, Vegbee-

    What beautiful truth... I may have to take the Vegbee pledge and work toward a sewing pattern that supports my larger world view.


  2. As a beginning sewer, this post is so inspiring! Thanks for sharing your tricks...and I totally relate to the "taking your 3 year old in a fabric store" experience -- it DOES make you want to get out FAST!

  3. Thank you for this. It is good to find a place in crafty blogland where new and expensive or coveted by all isn't a pre-requisite for creativity. I am a thrifty sewer and I hardly ever buy anything new except needles and thread.

    Don't skimp on needles! They are relatively cheap compared to your machine or your fabric and the right needle which is sharp and shiny will make sewing even more pleasureable. Matching your thread to your fabric also makes such a difference and is worth it in the long run.

  4. I am new to your blog, though I think I was here after a Christmas issue of Thread Bangers, but I just wanted to say I just love your blog. Your tutorials are just wonderful, and I love your sewing advice. I am returning to the world of sewing and its slow going, but you have given me some good advice. Thanks for your sewing wisdom! :-)

  5. A 3 year old in a fabric store- amen!

    I also wanted to add that for those readers who may ever be in the Edmonton, AB area, there is fabric for almost free at our reuse centre. Take as much home as you like for 2$ a visit. They sometimes have notions as well.

  6. thanks all for the lovely words!

    Blackbird Pie, I really, really need a reuse centre in my town. Next time I'm up in your neck of the woods, I'm def checking it out!

  7. I shamelessly beg supplies off my mom. She used to sew all my clothes as a kid, but as I grew she got out of the habit. She has tons of old findings. I also have a jar of vintage buttons from my grandmother. There's an odd smell to the jar, but I think it just adds to its appeal. I also keep old clothes that have stained/ripped and use them. I make a lot of doll clothes, and bits of old t-shirt and stuff make great fabrics. Our dryer went nuts a few weeks ago and ripped up a bunch of our good clothes, so now I have a lot of nice fabrics in my scrap pile. :/

  8. I actually will buy used clothes and 'modify' similarly to the way you do (but you do a much better job at it) to make outfits for my girls.

    I've found that I do save $ on their outfits - I can make a skirt for $10 - and the same one would have cost me $25 at a store. Sadly, the old me would have bought it :)

    My youngest is skinny and tall - and making her pants has been pretty cheap - a lot better than trying to find something that fits her.

    I love your tuts... :)

  9. This is absolutely fabulous :) I just posted an outfit that I sewed for my daughters for well under $2. :) I love bargain-shopping, and have gotten almost all of my fabric on sale or at the thrift stores!

    Stop on by and check out some of my finds if you get a chance! And for those of you looking for some free fabric, I'm having a giveaway on my blog right now. :)


  10. What great advice! Love your blog!

    With friendship,

  11. I just found your blog this morning -- very nice! Great advice about frugal sewing and thank you for sharing your tutes. ~~Billie

  12. I always buy fabric on sale!! (Or should I say, if it isn't on sale, I don't buy it - because eventually it will be on sale!)

    Another thing: for small projects, like small bags or totes, or little pouches and so forth, look for placemats on clearance at stores like Target. With two placemats (taken apart) you can do a lot! And you get not only the pretty fabric on the top, but you get a coordinated piece of lining!

    I bought two placemats for less than $2 each and made a little couch caddy for embroidery supplies and loose thread scraps. It works great, looks good, took only 30 minutes to sew up, and cost me less than $4! What more could you want?

  13. I loved to read this posting.
    I save much money by buying thread in boxes via ebay. Usually they are older, but (in Germany at least) high Quality thread that isn't as good nowadays than it has been formerly. My grandmother was a tailorwoman and told me a lot about that :)
    Also I go for sales and thrift stores, just like you. And I ask friends to give me their old jeans trousers and clothes they don't wear anymore and would throw away. I use them for patchwork things, small things like pouches and for "muslin" versions of something I want to sew but don't dare to do instantly with the "good" fabric.
    Love your blog!

  14. Great tips from you and in the comments!

    I've just found your blog, and I'll definitely be coming back!

  15. Thanks for the great post. I couldn't have put it better myself & keep referring to this! Love your tute blog loads!

  16. Great tips! Thanks so much!

  17. Thanks for all the great tips!

    I've ironed on interfacing to my craft patterns before I cut them out to make them durable. I can reuse them several times without worrying about tearing them up. I have some craft patterns that are over fifteen years old.

  18. I have had luck with old thread myself--I picked up a large bag of thread on wood spools because I wanted the spools, and then thought, why am I not using the thread? Most of it was silk and did just fine. There were some cotton spools that broke, but I usually unwound a few yards and tested by hand before I used it. But maybe I've been lucky.

    One thing--freecycle has been a source of great bounty for me. I have 3 knock-off singer featherweights (and the next generation, "not so feather" in weight) that I got for free and rehabbed with a new cord, plug, or a good cleaning. All I need is straight stitch and zigzag, and zigzag is negotiable...

  19. Opening the plate on the bottom of my machine is impossible. While trying to finish a project, my fabric was warbling due to the lint in the bottom. Rather than go out and buy canned air, I realized that I could direct a straw into the bottom of the machine and blow into it. Worked like a charm. One of these days I will probably have to buy a screwdriver that fits into the short space between the plate and arm of my machine, but being frugal means I'll wait until I really need it!

    Also, you should check out the craft section of Wal-Mart. They often have fabric clearance tables set up with $1 and $2 per yard fabrics! I have gotten great suiting material as well as satins and cute kids fabrics.

  20. Another way to save money on girls' dresses is to take one that is too short in length, but fits fine in the torso and shoulders and add a ruffle at the bottom. Makes over the dress and gets another year's wear out of it before it is outgrown. The same could be done for girls pants that fit fine in the waist but are too short.

    Also, be sure to check the remnant box at the fabric store...sometimes a full yard or close to it can be gotten up to 80% off the original price!

  21. Another way to get higher quality fabric at lower prices is to join a fabric co-op. Watch out though, it's also very easy to buy much more than you need! (ask me how I know this!) You don't get the fabric right away, but you can get significant cost savings.

  22. Thanks so much for this post! I SO loved it! I was actually very much torn whether to buy a sewing machine about a year ago cause I figured it really is a rather expensive hobby! But your tips are great!!! I did end up buying the machine - or rather my husband did - and started teaching myself how to sew. I love the idea that one day - when I actually have enough time - I will be able to reuse my old clothes that I am too sentimental to throw out .... :-)

  23. love your ideas for kids clothes. Have 2grandaughters, 2ggrandsons and 4ggrandaughters under 10. How do we dress them? We have a thrift store in our town that sells any thing fabric for 50cents agrocery bag full. Do you know how many nice clothes, recyclable shirts,etc. you get for 50cents and fabric pieces of all kinds and sizes from Barbie doll clothes on up. This with your ideas, 50 years experience and I have really well dressed kids.

  24. Vegbee, have I told you recently how much I love you? no?


    seriously, you're my sewing guru and totally the best blog to look for stuff on.

  25. i have become the "sewing woman", ppl regularly dump bags of materials on me. so i go thru it and then dump it off on a friends mom so she can do the same! i went thru my supplies yesterday and i have 2 totes full of materials... one that is fleece the other that is knits and wovens... almost all gifted or bought on remnant. i LOVE the remnant section. but i don't skimp on quality thread, i just use a coupon or get it off co-op in bulk. i stock up on elastic when i see it on sale, i have 2 lil kids i will use elastic. esp 1/4" elastic.

    love your tuts! and your blog! ok, i'm done now.

  26. I love your blogs. I got my first sewing machine when I was 5. Was sewing whole outfits for myself by the time I was 13. But for some reason I didn't think of making anything for my daughter until she was almost 3 yrs old. It started with a really cute T-shirt she got something on (can't remember, or maybe I never knew) and could never get the stain out. It was on the bottom half of the shirt, so I cut it off and sew material I already had around the house and made it into a dress. Then I had a "light-bulb" moment. Three years and several hand-made outfits later... now my daughter is famous in our little town for being well dressed. Everywhere we go people will ask me, "where'd you get that outfit?"


  27. Great post!

    My favorite place to get sewing supplies is my local nonprofit thrift store. They have an amazing expanse of supplies and ALL fabric is 99 cents/yard! Love it!

  28. Awesome tip on the used clothing, I just wrote it down!

  29. Here is my fabric/sewing tip:

    I love satin pillow cases. But I refuse to spend 12.00 for one.

    So I hit the thrift shops and buy old out of date prom/bridesmaid dresses with large satin skirts.

    I typically can get 2 pillow cases out of one average size dress.

  30. I love this. I couldn't have said it better after having been Mrs. Frugal, herself, for most of my life. It was always so satisfying, many ages ago, knowing that most sewn items could sewn for much less than the ready-made price. I am happy to have your so-sensible article to refer to when I need help and a reminder that I need to continue sewing because I love it. It is well done and a fun read. Respectfully, Pattie

  31. I came across your blog today, and I love it! You write so well and the things you say are just SO SMART! As a mother of toddler twins who lives in Africa on a very fixed budget and an ocean away from the nearest craft store, I have to say I find you "fabric recycling" tips very useful, If not life-saving! Keep sharing!!