Something I’ve been hearing quite a lot lately is this:
“It used to be cheaper to make your own.”
Surely, this could be true. Home Ec was taught in schools at least since the early 1900s, with prior home education for girls often being in the “home arts”, including basic sewing and mending. Buying your own fabric and copying fashions were a way for the middle-class women to keep up with the movement of styles, and making over secondhand garments was a way for those of less means to stay remotely up to date with “fashion.” And, to be honest, the sewing industry hasn’t always had the most ethical standards of pay for workers, even in the idealized “olden days.”
But why does it now often cost more to make your own at home today?
Primarily, we need to consider our starting point of reference.
Are your ideas in your head of what is appropriate for clothing cost realistic?
This comes down to the supply and production values. Most of our clothing is not made in America. Most of our clothing, and all the individual elements that go into them, including fabrics and trims, are made in second and third world countries, where living conditions, working conditions, and pay vary greatly from what would be considered a decent living wage in the United States. This has changed drastically since things were made domestically in the first half of the 20th century. Don’t get me wrong- production often had unethical practices back then as well, so cheap fabric or cheap clothing made domestically didn’t necessarily mean it was more ethical or pay a living wage.
Speaking for today, let’s take a look at what it takes to make a garment.
While clothing production (please note I say “production” here and not “sweatshop”, because the two are not always equivalents) can streamline and quicken the process of making clothing- meaning a dress or blouse that can take us all day can be made in much, much less time when done on an assembly line process while using specialized industrial machines. So our realistic time-frame of how long it takes one individual to make a garment from start-to-finish is different than when a company outsources to a factory that specializes in clothing production.
The larger the order from the company, the lower the price points go. This is why a small, made in USA company may have dresses priced at $400, while a similar big box store that makes a garment can sell a similar dress for $40 that has less style lines and less fabric .
Speaking from clothing production experience, the larger your fabric order, the lower the costs. While there are still hands that must work on machinery that make or gather the fibre, spin it into threads, and weave or knit it on the machines- there are also hands who must oversee the put-ups (i.e. amount on the roll), cut the fabric, package it, and ship it worldwide for distribution. That is one whole supply chain. The time to cut one three-yard cut is greater than that that supplies ten hundred-yard rolls or more.
We don’t often think where our thread, buttons, snaps, and zippers come from- but likewise, even in much automated production human hands still need to design, prepare, package, and ship each of those components, and again the quantities affect the price structure.
A clothing designer designs the garment, the pattern designer makes the pattern, and the grader gets the pattern ready for production. We can cut out the sewing instructions in a production setting, but in home sewing you also need instructions which often means you’ve got a technical illustrator or photographer, a technical writer for the instruction text, and then either a cover artist, or a model and sample to photograph. Of course, in small companies, all these jobs are often done by a single person (it’s a LOT of work that takes a lot of skill), but some small pattern or clothing companies can outsource some of these jobs. In big retail jobs, each of these is often done by different people, which means the single blouse or dress must also compensate each of these people’s time and work.
Finally we get to the sewing. First we have someone who cuts the garments. While you do it at home on a single layer of fabric- industrial cutting is done all on a large table with either automated cutting or a person who manually cuts with either a saw or large industrial rotary cutter through many, many laters of fabric at once- often several inches high!
Like I mentioned before, when it gets to the sewing, many hands make the work in industrial sewing, so a single garment will be in the hands of a specialist- often one for sleeves, one for buttons, one for collars, one for hems, etc. Each person is very fast at what they do and work on a machine specific to the task.
After this they are tagged, packaged, and shipped internationally to a location.
So why does it cost more to make it yourself?
When worked in a large scale- those clothing manufacturers can streamline their process so they can cut 50 garments in the time it takes to cut one. Instead of having to individually order buttons, thread, trims, etc- they order hundreds or thousands. When sewing you must sew and press each single part of a garment in the time it takes for an industrial setting to make dozens. Each of your individual elements comes from an individual source and must compensate each person in the supply chain- from the original concept to the sourcing, to the manufacturing, to the distribution, to the brand representative, to the shop owner, to their employee who sells it to you.
A tee shirt that costs $8 at target may cost you $30+ to sew yourself
So why do it?
You are in control of the supply chain- When you make your own, you may not be able to say with certainty that every single part of the garment you make is ethically sourced- that would go back to the actual milling of the fiber and designing of the buttons. But you can make the best choices you can about where you source things.
You can be particular about the quality of fabric you use. Inexpensive clothing production often uses cheap fibre and loose weaves because they don’t expect it to last more than one season. You can chose fabric to last for years.
You can finish your garment with a couture, professional finish. Production garments are often sewn on overlock machines- meaning one seam stitches and finishes the garment in one swipe. It’s fast, but this also means there aren’t seams to let out if you grow in size, and once part of the seam goes it’s very hard to stop the rest of it from coming undone.
You invest in yourself. Sewing is meditative, and there’s something that speaks to the soul. Humans have been making their own clothing for thousands of years, and there’s something centering about putting a needle through cloth just like people have been doing throughout time. Crafting and making have been proven to help with stress and mental health.
You express your own personality. You can have a say in the colors, fibres, fit, and style of your own clothing. No one will have another one exactly like yours, even if they use exactly the same pattern.
You support independent artisans. You can support small fabric shops, small pattern makers, and other people who’s livelihood came from a love of this creative community
You can make a garment fitted to your exact body, and your own specifications. While people used to tailor ready-made garments to themselves, that’s not as often an option with garments made with modern production methods- the seam allowances, etc, of past garment production standards are no longer there (it was not unusual for 1940s ready to wear to have one inch side seams for letting out). You can learn tips for adjusting bust sizes, enlarge for your figure, and learn other technical skills to get you a high end garment for less cost.
So, in the end, it’s really a comparison of our expectations for price vs. what our end garment is worth.
Does it cost as much as a Target blouse made in a factory? No. But surely cost less to make than the cost of a multi-thousand-dollar couture garment made in France. It’s up to you how you want the fit, finishing, and look of the garment you make. And a lot of that is in the details.
Make sure you factor that peace that comes from creating into that cost factor, too. We all know that’s priceless.