Is making your own clothes cheaper than buying them?
Updated: May 12, 2020
Since writing this post in 2016 it's been one of my most popular, I've also now got a video on my youtube channel that updates the costs for this year (2020) and expands on a few points. Feel free to check that out too!
Some people think making their clothes is cheaper than buying them and then get disillusioned when they realise that the version portrayed in the Sound of Music where you can make 17 dresses from one pair of curtains isn't QUITE accurate... and you then just have to buy another pair of curtains anyway. You can't often make a dress for £5 - so don't expect that you will be able to.
There are some people in the world (so I've heard) who would and could spend thousands on a dress - but they're not normal and I'm certainly not friends with them (not through choice I should add, I just haven't met them yet and asked them to take me shopping). Most people in the UK have, I think, become used to high street prices so let's do the comparison with that. Yes I could make a dress for less money than I'd have to spend buying one in Dior - but I could make it out of diamonds and that would still be true, so let's not worry too much about it.
There are many issues when we consider cost, it isn't just a numbers thing. We can think about the basic, unfettered number of £s an item will set you back, the quality of that item, how long it will last and what you are paying for - be that a certain style, a brand or a particular trend. I'm going to take all of these in turn to do the comparison between shop bought and handmade as best I can to try to answer this question once and for all.
Basic £ cost - how much will you cry when your credit card statement comes through?
The High Street
Before the likes of Primark came along Topshop was the 'go to' shop for teens, young and indeed older women. H&M was cheap, Topshop was average.
So how much does a dress in Topshop cost? I did a quick check as I haven't walked into a Topshop for about five years, mostly due to the trendy music and shop assistants with multicoloured hair - the combination tends to get me a bit stressed.
This is what I saw when I clicked on 'dresses' on the Topshop website this afternoon, just the first page as this seemed a fair test to assess price - I didn't add any filters, just went with what was on offer by default:
The average cost of these 20 dresses is £45.75 - of course there is a range but around £50 seems to be the Topshop rate for a dress - £50, that's some money, I wouldn't call it cheap either, but maybe my scale is wrong.
Some people, like me, think Topshop has now moved into the 'more expensive' end of the high street so I checked out H&M as well - definitely at the affordable end. I did the same exercise and took the first 20 dresses that came up when I clicked that link on their website. There are a few in this list that I might not class as a dress (see green item number 14, which let's be honest is definitely underwear) but I'm not going to be picky at this point.
The average cost of these 20 dresses is £27.39 so let's just say £30 for ease of maths.
So to buy a dress (and a 'normal' dress, not a special one) will cost you between £30 and £50 on the high street - OK, I buy that (I mean I don't BUY it, because I make my clothes most of the time, but I believe it to be true).
Let's just deal with the Primark question. Primark of course is significantly cheaper than both of these shops, indeed it's often cheaper than buying a sandwich, but as they don't have online sales I couldn't do a comparison and quite frankly I didn't want to because this fashion is imaginary as far as I'm concerned.
The really important thing here is that comparing a Primark dress to a dress you make yourself is like comparing a Gregs Sandwich to afternoon tea at the Ritz and complaining that Gregs is cheaper so why would you ever go to the Ritz? It's just not the same product. I'd argue it's not even a similar product and for that reason I'm not going to address the Primark question - if you want a dress for £5 you're probably not going to make it yourself. I will leave the ethics question out of this but let's just say if you make it yourself you know just how much labour went into it and how old that person was. Just saying.
The next question of course is how much it would cost you to make a dress yourself?
This is a harder question to answer because it all depends on the fabric you choose and the style of dress you are making. I'm not going to take time into account here because most people will be making things in their spare time so the 'opportunity cost' is minimal. If you wanted to make clothes and sell them you'd need to think about that, but let's not over complicate things here.
To try and come up with an answer that seems reasonable I've done the calculations for making a knee-length shift-style dress with a normal (i.e. not full circle which needs huge amounts of fabric) skirt. For most commercial and independent patterns you'll need between 2m and 2.5m of fabric to make a knee length dress - something like the Megan dress on the pattern reviews page.
There are essentially two places to buy fabric - same as buying clothes off the peg - in a shop or online. Online is generally cheaper, but not always.
Let's start with John Lewis - friend of the sewer for so many years and stockist of a wide range of dress making fabrics at a range of prices. Again, I went to their website and clicked on dress fabrics, I filtered out suiting fabric because it's not appropriate for a dress and is usually much more expensive than other fabrics but otherwise went with the first 20 options as before.
The average price for 2.5m of these fabrics is £22.50. Then you'd need a zip, which depending where you buy it from will cost you between £1 and £4 so we're up to £25 or so plus thread at a couple of pounds get's you to £28.
If we go slightly more expensive and assume the fabric is between £12 and £15 a metre, which is what some of the more bespoke dress making shops will charge for higher quality fabric then you'd up to between £40 and £45.
From those examples it's going to cost you about the same to buy a dress as to make one, depending on where you go. Of course if you find a bargain it will be a lot less and if you start to take into account the cost of replicating a dress from a more expensive shop it gets a lot cheaper to make one. A good example is the copy of the LK Bennett dress you can see in the pattern review section of the site - it cost me nearly £200 to buy the original (don't judge, it was for a special occasion and I saved up) but the clone cost me £15. No kidding - £15, now that's where making your own really does make sense.
So, price wise there isn't much in it for materials.
Nobody who makes their own clothes does so and hates the process. You have to love the process or you really wouldn't bother (partly because the cost is similar) - so the act of making the thing needs to be where at least half your joy comes from or you're not off to a good start. BUT if you love the process and love to learn and get progressively better every time you do something, then there are worlds of benefit to making your own things that don't necessarily come down to money. More of those later in this series.
This is a big issue and one worth spending some time thinking about.
The first time you make something it's quite likely it will be a little on the wonky end of the spectrum and may be confined to 'house wear' but the second is likely to be significantly better and this is where quality becomes of relevance.
There is a lot of learn about fit and drape and all sorts of things, but I can say with total honesty that the clothes I have made for myself are of far higher quality than I can buy from the high street. The reason for this is a few fold.
Firstly, I am buying dress making fabric from the bolt which will be of higher quality than the fabric used to make clothing in factories - it just makes more economic sense for large scale manufacturers to go with the most economic fabric they can when making mass-produced items. So my materials are better before I even start.
I also spend time with my garment, so it will fit better - after a bit of practice. The fact is that hardly anyone is exactly the proportions used by high street shops for their various dress sizes, and making your own means you will have something that fits your shape much much better than a shop's products would. This might take time to master, but once you're there the difference is significant.
You've stitched it together and you've sewed on the buttons. how many things have you bought where a button comes off the first time you wear it? Make it yourself you're going to have done the job properly, it will last longer.
A lot of people say this - 'oh you'll have something that nobody else has, that must be brilliant!'
This is true. For me it's never actually been that much of a draw to sewing because I've never really minded if someone turns up to a party wearing the same dress as me, but I know a lot of people really do mind about that sort of thing. Make your own - you never have to worry about that.
More interesting to me is the quirky details you can add to things you make - alter colours, buttons, fabrics, fit, mix and match patterns to make something completely new - the possibilities really are almost endless.
But a massive part of this is interest and expressing yourself - and by that I mean your true self - not the closest self that the high street caters for. The fabrics available to make clothes from are SO much more interesting than the ones you'll find in the high street and so much more varied, if you love skulls and polka dots and peonies there's probably a fabric set you can get that will allow you to have that skull, polka dot, peony jump suit you've always secretly desired but for some bizarre, completely inexplicable reason, never been able to find on the rails of M&S.
YES! Giraffe-bee-superhero outfit anyone?
VARIETY my friends - variety, that's what you get when you can just think something up and make it happen - indulge your imagination - make your own clothes.
I could go on...and on... about why I think there is a lot to be said for sewing your own - but I'll leave it there as this post is already quite long enough.
Suffice to say - it's not necessarily more expensive, but it probably isn't that much cheaper unless you are a bargain-finding fiend and can snap up some yardage for less than the price of a cup of tea. Money isn't the driver here though - it's what you can gain from the creativity that's unleashed by starting from scratch, and that, as Mastercard might say in a way that makes me weep into my Horlicks, is priceless.
More from the sewing myths series later this week! Please do comment and share your thoughts on this and other sewing issues below.
Love and kisses