Culture shock


I often shake my head ruefully when people suggest that I must be saving money by making my own clothes. World-wise in my own mind, I contemplate the naïveté of these well-meaning but woefully ill-informed folks who fail to consider that lovely yarn and high-quality fabric? Are not exactly cheap. Having spent my fair share of time on Ravelry groups where people drop huge amounts of money on luxury fibers, and/or bemoan the difficulty of restraining themselves from buying said fiber, it seems laughable that working up a cardigan in hand-dyed cashmere/silk/merino yarn could really be regarded as a savings. Likewise, having whiled away hours in fabric stores, mooning over imported Italian wool suiting at astronomical per-yard prices, I have a hard time believing that home sewists are making out like bandits in the modern economy. And that's not even taking into account incidental materials: needles, bags, storage bins, sewing machine maintenance, notions, tools, swifts and ball-winders, and all the detreitus of the dedicated knitter or sewist. That stuff really adds up!

And then, today, I looked at the Anthropologie website. And I was forced to eat some humble pie.

I just realized: I haven't made any new clothing purchases for a VERY long time. I started buying primarily used clothes in high school, and continued thrifting throughout and after college, due to a combination of preferring vintage styles, not having a lot of money, and not wanting to worry that I was supporting sweatshop labor. Then, shortly after I started Family Trunk Project, I made a casual resolution to try to make all my clothes for a while, and not buy anything. Just, you know, to see how that went. Of course I have acquired new clothes since then - my mom surprised me with a new sundress this summer, for example, and David's mom picked up a cute new t-shirt that she passed on to me. And that's not to mention the GORGEOUS locally-crafted blazer jacket that David surprised me with on our anniversary a few years back, or the gift certificate from my aunt to a local boutique specializing in Portland designers. But by and large? Not so much clothes-buying around here.

And it's amazing how time slips by. I don't think I understood how long it had been, until I started looking around the internet and realized that off-the-rack clothes have become way more expensive while I was looking the other way. I still kind of feel like I just made my no-clothes-buying resolution a few months ago, like it's something I'm trying out for a while but which is more of a hiatus than a way of life. But apparently, come to find, my "hiatus" has lasted two years. And in the meantime I've developed even more of an incentive to keep it up, because, while there's absolutely no WAY I could possibly afford to drop $200 on a lacy little blouse, I could whip up a similar one for about $45 if I were so inclined. To be honest, $45 still does not seem that cheap to me for a short-sleeved shirt. But it's a heck of a lot cheaper than $200.

I know there are several factors I'm not considering here. I'm not paying myself, except with enjoyment, for the labor hours I spend sewing, whereas the Anthropologie sewists are obviously taking home a salary (hopefully a decent one). And there are certainly stores less high-end than Anthropologie, although in general, the cheaper you get, the lower the quality of the clothing, and the sooner it will disintegrate - meaning that picking up that $15 dress at WalMart may not actually be such an awesome investment. But still! Looking at the price tags on some new clothes at contemporary prices really shocked me into a realization that I may actually be saving money after all. And even though budget concerns aren't my major motivator for making my own clothes, I have to admit that the realization adds to my already-high enthusiasm for the project.

So, to all the recipients of my head-shaking, I apologize. Apparently, you were right all along!


  • This is something I think about a lot, because, like you, I realized at some point that I was comparing apples to lawn chairs when I was trying to work out cost of handmade versus store bought. One thing I try to consider is that when I make my own sweater to my own measurements, using the color and materials I want, I'm essentially making a couture garment. So rather than comparing a cardigan I've knit to a cardigan from Target, or even Anthropologie, I try to compare to one with similar materials and perhaps to a couture garment. Of course, as you say, that's still leaving out the cost of time, but in some senses, we are saving money when we make our own. We're saving money against a designer wardrobe rather than an off the rack wardrobe, though, and that means that actual dollars spent is probably going to be higher than if we bought brand new clothes at most chain stores. Another consideration, though, is long term wear. When one of my handknits starts to go, I have a strong incentive to repair it. I've patched holes in a number of jackets and pullovers. In a similar storebought item, I'd have tossed it. It wouldn't be worth the cost of time and money to fix it when it's cheap and disposable and the materials are not made to last. It's a wasteful way to live, but it's actually more expensive to fix things than to buy new ones much of the time now. So in a long term sense, in making clothes in materials that wear well, in making the clothes to fit, in repairing and altering the clothes as necessary, there is likely to be money saved and waste lessened.

  • I wrote a longish comment last night and the internet ate it, so I'll just say I agree with you 100% (Kristen too, great points there!)

  • Hm. I have to say that not everyone shops at Anthropologie, J. Crew, or even Gap, let alone Nordstrom's or Neiman Marcus, or couture houses. So maybe if a person shops at those stores, then yes, they could definitely think you are saving money on raw materials. But I too think it's funny that people think knitting a sweater has got to be cheaper than buying one - uh no - not if you are using nice yarn with no acrylic content that will not pill in 24 hours and actually feels soft, fits you perfectly, looks interesting, and is a color you like. Also, there are definitely different levels of purchasing for sewing materials - Italian wool vs. Joann's cotton - I bet the people who buy $2 or $4 a yard fabric DO save a lot of money by not buying store bought clothes.

    I find this post interesting - am I reading too much into it, or is it indicative of your socio-economic background and that of the people you hang out with? Cause I've got to say, probably less people in the world can actually afford an entire wardrobe or even one full-priced piece at Anthropolgie vs. buying clothes at Wal-Mart, Target, or Mervyn's or Old Navy. Just ruminating. I think you can go on shaking your head - there are obviously different levels of consumption happening.

  • Kristen: Excellent point about reducing waste. It's true; I'm definitely more motivated to repair hand-knits than store-bought garments. So, there may be money saved just in terms of not having to replace things so often...something I was also thinking about in terms of making new clothes versus buying used ones.

  • Well, I definitely can't afford to shop at Anthropologie, so maybe it's indicative of my aspirational socio-economic bracket? ;-)

    I think I'm just trying to get a handle on a slippery set of comparisons. Should I be comparing the clothes that I actually make with the clothes that I would be buying were I not sewing/knitting? Or with clothes of a similar quality/uniqueness if I were trying to buy them? Or with the least expensive clothes on the market, or with the most expensive? And then, as you point out, there's a whole range of fabric available too - I lust after the Italian wools, but I actually shop the mill-end corduroy, which (not including labor) puts the finished cost of a pair of pants around Target or WalMart prices. Should I then consider that I'm saving money, since I would probably not be clothes-shopping at WalMart were I buying new clothes? Or do I consider that I'm not saving any money, since lots of people do shop there? I'm probably not saving anything off Goodwill prices, which is where I was primarily shopping before I started making my own clothes - but then, like Kristen was saying, I have to factor in duration of wear and the fact that probably half the lifespan of your average piece of used clothing has already been worn away, which means having to buy more pairs of jeans in a given time period, even if they are at a lower price.

    I think we can all agree that it is a weird assumption to make - savings certainly don't happen automatically when you begin making your own clothes, unless you were previously, say, personally commissioning Vera Wang to design your wardrobe or something. And maybe we can all agree that it's possible that the savings could happen, given the right combination of before-and-after shopping practices. But it's weirdly difficult to figure out whether savings are in fact happening in my particular case!

    Anyway, it's thought-provoking stuff for sure. Thanks for the comment!

  • I admit, when I think about making clothes for myself, it's about getting things I want that actually fit, rather than saving money.

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  • I understand, that you can be angry because of such talks, but I still think you can save a little bit of money out of that. It was time when my mother did like that. Not because we were poor, but because she enjoyed that and found it interesting, she made amazing clothes. But I'm to lazy for that and only enjoy to talk to naked girls for free, when I have time and I don't care about anything.

  • I understand, that you can be angry because of such talks, but I still think you can save a little bit of money out of that. It was time when my mother did like that. Not because we were poor, but because she enjoyed that and found it interesting, she made amazing clothes. But I'm to lazy for that and only enjoy to talk to naked girls for free, when I have time and I don't care about anything.

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