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
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…)
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.
I loved your self-made wardrobe project, and I miss it now that it is concluded! As a maker of clothing for myself for 40 years. I found myself cheering you on, and really enjoying your analysis of the whole project. For me, making my own clothes is all about getting exactly the clothes I want to wear, in the colors and fabrics I want ( mainly natural fibers), and the challenge of seeing my ideas emerge in reality. Secondarily it is about cost, since the cost of my time limits the production of clothing for me, and makes some things ( like a new sweater) extremely expensive in terms of time. Enjoyment is a huge factor, and the satisfaction that comes with creating something comfortable, wearable and unique for me. I applaud you and look forward to seeing what you make next!
Thank you so much Jeri! I’m glad you enjoyed the project. And thanks for weighing in about why you make things – we all have our own personal reasons for why we make, and I think enjoyment & satisfaction are huge motivations for a lot of people. I love that you’ve been making yourself clothes for 40 years!
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Are your shawl books available in hard copy.
p.j. darbyshire – They are not currently available in hard copy. If they ever do become available, I’ll be sure to announce it here on the blog, and to my newsletter.
This is a fascinating post (I love data) and really thorough.
One more aspect you could consider is the environmental cost of clothing. It would be nearly impossible to estimate the dollar value, but as a rough comparison, store bought clothes accumulate environmental costs at every stage of their production from sourcing the raw materials for the fabric, dyeing the fabric, shipping the fabric to the factory where the garment was assembled, the factory itself, then shipping it overseas to stores, then person driving to store to purchase, the plastic bag you take it home in, and then the junk heap you toss it in 2 years later (most donated clothing end up overseas or a landfill because they just don’t sell). All of that shipping back and forth and production adds carbon and waste products to the environment, which all take a toll.
Meanwhile, made-by-hand-with-love clothing accumulate a fraction of those costs at the raw material stage of things and would theoretically live a much longer useful life before being junked. So while the raw materials might be just as costly as buying a garment, in my opinion, handmade clothing is less expensive when the environmental impact is considered.
Yes! Alicia! – I didn’t even try to touch on the environmental impact of shipping clothing in it’s various incarnations between mills & factories & warehouses & stores. Let alone the waste and pollution at each step of the growing/spinning/weaving/dyeing/sewing/etc.
And while all store bought fabric certainly isn’t blameless in this (at least not the fabric piled up in NYC’s garment district) – I do think that being involved in the process of making clothes, at least prompts us to search for ethically produced and environmentally friendly materials, fabrics, clothing, accessories, etc.
And this also brings up the issue of “out of pocket expense” and “socially covered expense” – by that I mean the expense of a more expensive a sustainably produced piece of clothing, comes out of the pocket of an individual and the benefits are shared socially, while the expense of cheap clothing is diffused out across the entire chain and the disadvantages are also shared.
I could just go on and on.
I loved this post. I’m not familiar with fabric and notions prices, but was a bit surprised at how expensive the jeans were. Was it the denim?
I’m so glad you liked the post – and thanks for the question, it’s a really excellent one!
The denim, materials & notions for the jeans weren’t actually very expensive – the thing that increased the price of that project were two Craftsy classes I bought on making jeans. This kind of really skews the price up when compared with the other pieces in my wardrobe, since this is the only piece of clothing I bought classes for, and there were only 2 or 3 other pieces that I bought patterns for.
I debated if I should include patterns & classes in the price of the garment since I used so few of them – but decided that since the knowledge from the pattern/class is integral to finishing the project, then the cost certainly shouldn’t be left out of calculating the cost of the garment.
This is such an insightful post! I think in the end your handmade wardrobe project has inspired me to take on more sewing and finally getting some skills there. Sure, there are many valid points for buying store bought clothing, but I don’t think they can ever outweigh the positives of handmade with love. I think there for one is an entirely different mindset into just buying something, because it’s cheap and who cares, compared to investing time into something. And just because of the time investment alone there’s more reason to take a moment and think. Do I need this, do I love this, will I wear this? I currently have a wardrobe that is overfilled with cheap garments, many of which are falling apart and it is madness to be honest. And then I haven’t even touched upon the ethical aspect yet. Thanks so much for sharing this, I’ve really loved these overviews of your 1 year of handmade wardrobe!
yay! I’m so glad this project inspired you sew more, Tahnee! And that you’re totally right that making vs buying clothes, is hugely connected to the mindset we have when we think about clothing. Time is such a huge factor in forcing us to think a little more intentionally about our clothing choices – with fast fashion, it’s so easy to forget how labor & resource intensive fabric, and clothing are. The making aspect, prompts us to pause for a second and think a little harder about what we really want our wardrobe to be, and how we want to interact with it.
Well stated analysis. I agree. For me there are other variables and weighs, for example my fluctuating weight, my apparent inability to predict what I’ll wear or not, and my enthusiasm or lack thereof towards either shopping, sewing, or knitting. It could be that a pencil skirt or an A-line skirt is one of the cheapest things to make as opposed to buying it. But if every visit to the fabric shop one buys fabric one does not use, that fabric counts too. And like you said, classes, patterns, books, magazines, sewing machine, scissors etc. So I think sewing and knitting are hobbies, and as all hobbies they cost money, but some of that money comes back to you by making you buy less clothes (or not…!). It would seem to be incorrect to say that making your own clothes saves money. Only that given that you have this hobby with all of its expenses, it might save money when you want curtains / hemming / mending / etc and are willing to do it yourself rather than pay for someone else to do it or buy ready to wear clothing.
Keren. It’s true what you say about hobbies costing money. Hobbies are primarily forms of enjoyment, regardless of their “usefulness.”
I guess I probably think about this a little differently, because (for me) sewing & knitting aren’t just hobbies, they are also my job. And to throw another angle on this whole thing, it’s only rather recently (in the US), that sewing & knitting have become hobbies, as opposed to necessary skills for running a household.