Posted in Thoughts and Ideas

Sewing on a Budget

I remember being slightly taken aback once when someone remarked that sewing my own clothes must save me a lot of money. Seeing as I’d rarely ever spent more than £25 on any garment throughout my teenage years, I exclaimed:

“Save me money? SAVE me money? This fabric cost me £15 a metre! AND I had to buy THREE METRES just because ONE PATTERN PIECE was SLIGHTY wider than 115cm! AND the pattern cost me £10 as well! Not to mention notions. NOTIONS! That’s over £55 for ONE COTTON DRESS. SAVE ME MONEY?!”

(Disclaimer: I actually didn’t say any of those things. I probably said something like “Um, not really, haha,” before sidling off awkwardly back to my fabric nest.)

But when I thought about it, I realised that, although the fabric and notions may seem much pricier than that £15 New Look dress, the finished garments are no doubt much better quality than anything you could buy for the equivalent price in the shops. Plus, since you’ve made the garment exactly to your size and taste, you’re likely to get much more wear out of it. So I suppose that is where you save the money!

Still, all this isn’t much comfort to a poor student like myself, who feels a bit dizzy when she thinks about how much debt she is already in. Is there a way of making my own clothes, that fit and suit me, but that don’t send me into a spiralling vortex of crippling debt that will hurl me out onto the streets? I’ve gathered together a few little ideas for cutting costs, to prove that this delicious hobby of ours doesn’t have to break the bank.

Sewing Machine

Why not start with the mothership? A sewing machine can be a massive expense if you’re just starting to sew, especially if you’re not sure you’ll take to it. I got lucky with mine, which was given to me second-hand as a birthday present. But why not ask around your friends and neighbours to see if anyone has an old machine they might lend or give to you. If not, there are plenty of sewing cafés around the place where you can rent machines by the hour. That way, you can practice with the machine, and see whether you like it, without having to spend a few hundred pounds!

If you do want to commit to buying a machine, however, it doesn’t have to cost the earth. Just buy a more basic machine, without all the fancy stitches and gizmos, and you’ll basically halve the price. Or, ask for it for your birthday!

Fabric and Notions

I was also lucky enough to be given quite a bit of fabric from various family friends – one in particular heard about my enthusiasm for sewing from my Grandma, and ended up giving me lots of fabric, notions and equipment which she no longer needed. I’m not saying that you should go around demanding crepe de chine left, right and centre, but if you let people know that you’re a keen seamstress, you never know what they might remember they have in their attic.

Charity shops are also a great place to look. One of my favourite and most-worn dresses was an 80s shoulder-pad number which I bought in a charity shop for £4 and refashioned. I could never have bought similar fabric off the bolt for £4! Look for good prints and don’t worry about the shape of the garment – it can be changed. Dresses can become tops or skirts, two different dresses can become one, or larger items can have pattern pieces cut from them.

Here’s a too-tight charity shop dress that I turned into a well-fitting skirt…


…and here’s an enormous charity shop ballgown that contained plenty of fabric, lining and boning for me to make this off-the-shoulder Seda dress

Some charity shops might also have second-hand fabric, tablecloths or curtains which will be large enough for a paper pattern so you can make a garment from scratch. I recently snatched up a beautiful pair of curtains for £4.50 which easily have enough fabric to make a full-skirted dress.

Many haberdasheries, including online ones, will sell end pieces for a reduced price – there might be enough for a simple top or bag. They might also have an offcut bin where you can buy samples and fabric scraps for dirt cheap. Use them for patchwork, or smaller projects and accessories. Hoard buttons, ribbons and trimmings like a mad person. Spare buttons from clothing, ribbons from around cakes and presents, cheap trimmings from your haberdashery’s bargain bin…snatch them all and hide them away in pretty jars and tins. Start this now and in a year or two I promise you’ll never have to buy a button or ribbon ever again.


Here I encountered more difficulty. The big commercial pattern companies just don’t produce many patterns which suit my age or style, but the indie pattern companies, whose patterns I love 95% of the time, often charge more – they have to, since they are much smaller companies dealing with smaller quantities. But a bit of careful shopping can go a long way. I keep a list of all the patterns I want to buy, checking it and adding to it regularly. I waited until Simplicity had a sale and were only charging between £2 and £3 for many of their patterns. Only then did I buy the pattern for one of the dresses on my pattern list. Similarly, Tilly and the Buttons had a seconds sale several months ago (reduced price in return for a damaged envelope) in which I bought their Coco pattern, which I have wanted for ages. I saved a third of the cost just by being a little patient. Again, check out charity shops or the sale section of your local haberdashery – I picked up the pattern for this skirt for £1 at a charity shop. The pattern was quite old, but seeing as the pencil skirt/A-line skirt shape is such a classic, the finished garment didn’t look outdated.

Tapestry skirt
Not bad for a pattern that cost me £1

It’s also a much better economy to buy versatile patterns. I’d recommend going for a pattern with several different views or options for adapting. If the garment would work in several lengths, for example, or with different types of sleeves or necklines, you’re essentially buying many different patterns for the price of one. Think about fabrics as well. If the garment works well in different fabrics, colours and prints, you’ll no doubt get so much more use out of it than a pattern that is more restrictive when it comes to fabric choice. Classic shapes and styles are far more useful – Tilly and the Buttons’ Coco pattern, for example. It’s a classic Breton top or dress, and it’s so versatile that I have a feeling I’ll be making hundreds over the coming years!

If you have a friend or relative who is subscribed to Prima magazine, ask if you can borrow or have the free pattern which comes with every issue. I believe you only get the pattern if you are a subscriber. My mum has a subscription and I’ve built up quite the collection of patterns, since she’s kind enough to let me have them (she reckon I’ll get more use out of them than her!). Recently there was a pretty neat bomber jacket pattern which is great because they’re all over the shops at the moment.

And the things you shouldn’t scrimp on…

There are some things which will make your dressmaking process a nightmare if you try and cut corners and prices. It may be tempting to go for the cheap versions, but honestly, it will save you time, money and heartbreak later down the line if you go for quality first time round. These are things like:

  • Thread – go for a decent brand like Gütermann and it’s far less likely to snap while you’re sewing or wearing the garment
  • Interfacing – get the right kind and weight of interfacing for your fabric and the finished product will look more professional and will be far more durable
  • Zips, buttons, buckles and other fastenings – we really don’t want these snapping do we?
  • Sewing machine needles, feet and other accessories – it’s super important that you buy the right kind for your machine or it could very easily end in disaster

So use your common sense and your purse wisely, use a bit of imagination, and you’ll be able to make your resources stretch much further (and have a much fuller wardrobe)!



Hello! I'm Hannah and I'm a Classics undergrad at Cambridge. I spend most of the time which I should be spending on my degree crocheting and sewing instead.

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