August 27, 2015


Is it more expensive to make clothes or to buy them? – The Self-Made Wardrobe the whole money thing…

The Self-Made Wardrobe is a project where I only wear garments I’ve made for a year.
It was a year about making things and seeing what happens.


For a long time making clothing was cheaper than, or at least as expensive as, buying ready-made clothing. As store bought clothing got cheaper, and the fast fashion industry grew & fed upon itself, this became less and less true. Until it became significantly more expensive to make clothe than to buy them. But is that really the case?

Is it more expensive to make clothes? Or to buy them?

The short answer is… it depends… ???

Since I have access to so many numbers for all of the clothes I made as part of the self-made wardrobe, I figured I’d go through and calculate out the cost for each garment.

The Cost of Materials

cost per garment(click to embiggen)

A quick note about the colors on the graph! The dark blue bars = pieces I bought materials for. The light blue bars = pieces I stash dove for. Having a large stash of yarn & fabric on hand all year was a huge(!!!) part of this project succeeding. Carrying on…

The least expensive piece cost $7.50 (US dollars btw), and the most expensive cost $126.40. *though! I didn’t include the cost of my winter coat or tank tops, which were approximately $221 for the coat, and $7 per tank top, and therefor would have been the most expensive and least expensive.

These dollar amounts are for the approximate cost of the materials + patterns/classes for each individual garment. I pulled from receipts where I could, and estimated (for fabric) or looked up (for the yarn) retail prices for what I pulled from my yarn & fabric stashes.

For the most part I didn’t include the cost of notions/thread/interfacing, since most of those came from my sewing kit, and would have only influenced the cost of the garment by a couple dollars.

The most expensive piece turned out to be my Versio Sweater for $126.40* and the least expensive piece was my Blue Kimono for $7.50 – no surprises there.
*interestingly, this sweater was the only piece where I combined stashed and bought materials…

So if the entire 27 piece wardrobe cost $1,047.95*, and the average was $38.81, then I could have easily bought a more expensive wardrobe (just like I could have easily, easily, easily spent significantly more on this project), and I probably could have bought a cheaper one.
*keeping in mind that this is for clothing only – this project didn’t include any undergarments, bags, shoes, or accessories.

But the problem with comparing made-by-hand clothing and store bought clothing is that you’re comparing the retail cost of raw materials with the retail cost of finished pieces of clothing – and those numbers represent two very different things.

No where in any of these numbers for my wardrobe is the cost of my time. Or the cost of my education, or experience that comes from a lifetime of royally screwing up projects (aka a lifetime of sewing & knitting experience).*
*because somethings can only be learned by fucking them up yourself.

And with those “hidden” or “sunk” costs comes the quality that made-by-hand-with-love clothing has, which store-bought clothing generally doesn’t, is constant, focused, attention.

On some level, every single piece of clothing is made-by-hand. From the cheapest fast fashion T-shirt to the highest end couture – some human being sat at a sewing machine or a table with fabric + thread + needles, and in collaboration with many other human beings, made a garment.

But the devotion and attention to detail that made-by-hand-with-love clothes are made with, generally translates into longer lasting garments.

So it only seems natural, since I have access to how much each garment I made cost, and how many times I wore them, to calculate the cost/wear of each garment.

The Cost per Wear of a Garment

The “cost per wear” of a garment is often an idea that gets tossed around as a justification for spending more money on higher quality garments, but the argument is not usually accompanied by a number, probably because calculating that number in reality is pretty annoying (unless you’ve been taking daily photos of yourself and what you’re wearing for a year… which I still can’t quite believe I did…)

cost per wear(click to embiggen)

Obviously, these aren’t the cost per wear over the lifetime of the garment, just over one 365 day stretch of time. I’m not just going to get rid of everything now that the projects over, so the cost per wear is only going to get lower as I wear the piece more often. And I expect to be wearing, at least some of, these pieces for years.

I expect to be wearing these clothes for years, not only because they are well made, but also because I designed them to last.

Most of the pieces I made for this wardrobe aren’t trendy pieces, they are mostly solid versatile pieces – they’re not all basic basic in the way that my black sweater or black maxi skirt are basics, but most of them are pretty damn versatile and can be styled tons of ways (even pieces like my pirate skirt or Versio sweater).

And that brings up another bonus of making your own clothing, that isn’t taken into account when we talk about the cost – you can create versatile pieces.

If a garment is only meant to be worn once or twice, there’s no point making it versatile. But if your clothes are built to last then you probably want them to be more than just one thing. Kind of like in a relationship.

So all of that being said…

The average cost per wear of my self-made wardrobe was $4.55 per wear. Figure I averaged two of these pieces a day (sometimes one in summer or three in winter), and that comes to $10 per day.*
*not counting tank tops but the cost per wear on those negligible is less $0.10 per day. And remember this doesn’t include shoes/bags/accessories/undergarments.

But that average includes the cost per wear of the two garments that I only wore once. And since I only wore them once, their current cost per wear price is the price of the whole garment.

If I had worn them twice, that cost per wear would be cut in half, and bring the average cost per wear of my whole wardrobe down from $4.55 to $3.67.

And if I take the average cost per wear of my wardrobe without the two pieces of clothing I only wore once, the average is $3.00 on the nose.

And again, this average can only go down as I wear each piece of clothing more often.

So I guess, the conclusion is… it depends???

I started this post asking, “Is it more expensive to make clothes? Or to buy them?”

And I guess the answer is “it depends?” Which is a quite unsatisfying answer.

But it brings us back to transparency, the elements that influence the cost of things, and the problems with comparing store-bought clothing and made-by-hand-with-love clothing.

Using my black maxi skirt as an example again, that skirt cost me $18 +notions +time +experience.

I could have bought a black maxi skirt at Forever 21 for $20, at Zara for $40, at Madewell for $100, or at Anthropologie for $100+ or at any other price point I could think of.

I could have bought any of those and it might have lasted for 92+ wears, or not.

My time and experience are both certainly not cheap, and the black maxi skirt was absolutely one of the less expensive & fastest pieces in my wardrobe.

And none of this takes into account the enjoyment I get from making, the enjoyment I get from shopping (yes I enjoy both), or the frustrations of either.

Maybe it all comes out in the wash?

It sort of feels fruitless to compare made-by-hand-with-love clothing and store bought clothing, given how many elements (hidden and transparent) go into “the cost” of a piece of clothing, and how different those elements are between store bought and handmade.

And aside from the actual money cost (to us the consumer) of a piece of clothing, there are the intangible, but very real, pros and cons/benefits and frustrations for each way of obtaining clothing.

When you make your clothing yourself…
You can get a perfect fit, if you’re willing to spend the time, and you have the skills. You can make exactly what you want, if you know what you want, and you have or are willing to obtain the resources (tools, knowledge, materials, etc.) to make it happen. You can make your clothing one of a kind, if you spend the time searching for unique patterns & fabrics. You don’t have to support sweatshops, if you have the skills, and you know where your materials come from. You have an enjoyable hobby, if you enjoy it.

When you buy your clothing…
You can wear your clothes immediately, if they already fit and don’t need to be taken to a tailor. You can wear pieces of art made by some of the greatest designers in the world, if you can afford them, and they fit you. You can try things on before committing to them, if you have the time. You can support ethically produced clothing, if you have the time to research brands, and the money to afford it. You have an enjoyable hobby, if you enjoy it.

I could go on about this all day, so I should probably stop here, since this piece is already even longer than the first self-made wardrobe wrap up piece I did, about how often I wore each garment.

Maybe the best conclusion to this question is… to each their own, and as is usually the case (at least in the US, in 2015) new clothing is never about the money.