Learn to Sew On The Cheap

Sewing can be an expensive hobby, unless you know these tricks.

One of my earliest memories, around age two, is watching my mother sew. As little as I was, I remember being mesmerized by the whirring machine, the crinkling of pattern tissue, and the glinting of strategically placed pins as she guided fabric under the arm of her pale green Kenmore machine. I was always fascinated. She shooed me out of her way and was full of reasons why I couldn’t help. Fabric is expensive. We couldn’t afford for there to be any mistakes.

Very rarely, my mother would tire of my begging to learn, and hand me some scraps of fabric and a needle with thread. She showed me how to thread a needle and make a knot in the end. The rest I learned from watching, or failing, or through sheer imagination. I taught myself by sneaking the packets of pattern pieces from the off-limits sewing area, and secretly studied the diagrams; reading and re-reading the directions with intense interest. I was sewing in my imagination as I read through the steps of putting together my dream dress.

I love to read the directions for a sewing pattern.

By the time I was a teenager, I was secretly altering my clothes by hand and cutting up other clothes to use as fabric. I got away with it for a little while, until I once cut up a white sweater. Even the vacuum cleaner could not hide this extreme offense to a sweater I hated and never wore. You see, while the family was aware that I had a strong desire to sew, it was not a hobby I was allowed to pursue until my teenage years. After the horrible sweater debacle of 1989, I was given an old, donated sewing machine and a job sewing smocks for a nursing home.

There is no hiding it sometimes. Fabric scraps and thread end up everywhere when I sew. I do rake the carpet before vacuuming in the sewing area.

When people learn to sew, a lot of things can go wrong; there is the potential for a lot of waste of both fabric and money. To buy fabric for a full sized garment at the the fabric store is often more expensive than buying a ready-made garment at the big box store. As a young adult, it was hard for me to explain to my folks that I wasn’t so much interested in the final product, as I was the process. When I asked to get fabric for a dress or skirt, it wasn’t because I wanted the garment, necessarily, it was because I wanted to make the garment. This is still a concept hard to grasp for many people. I like picking the fabric, tweaking the pattern, and puzzling it all together with the steam of the iron pulsing lavender scented starch into the air. It’s a sensory experience.

Thrift stores are a great place to find quality fabric at an affordable price. I shop the housewares section.

Saving money on Fabric:

It’s a hobby that I admit is expensive, sometimes. To save money on fabric, I started buying sheets at the thrift store to try a pattern first, so I didn’t destroy expensive fabric trying a pattern for the first time. It was my answer to the traditional “muslin” and cost about $3 for a king sized sheet. For that amount of money, I could test patterns to my heart’s content. So I did. If the pattern turned out well, then I invested in expensive fabric to make a final product.

This is also how I approached providing fabric for the many sewing classes I taught. I frequently bought linens at the thrift store and washed them up before introducing them to the classroom. I taught students from 4th grade and up, so there was significant fabric waste as they learned. In order to nurture their budding talents, I encouraged them to make a lot of mistakes with upcycled materials. It was cheap and there were no hard feelings for chewing up the fabrics I provided. Not only that, I could keep the cost of the class cheap and encourage more students to give sewing a try!

I often find yardage at the thrift store for a dollar or two. Sometimes I find really cool vintage fabric in the crafting department of the thrift shop. If there isn’t a fabric section at your local thrift, browse the sheets, pillowcases, curtains, placemats and tablecloths for fabric. Even the XXL section of men’s and ladies garments offer nice selections of fabrics. I like to use large flowy dresses! Need fur? Look in home décor for throw pillows (wash and use the stuffing, too) or furniture covers, even old stuffed animals can be deconstructed and the fur repurposed. I have done this for doll hair!

Sometimes there are bags of remnants stuffed with all manner of goodies for a few dollars.

Learn to make clothes on the cheap:

Another way to save money on fabric when just beginning to learn how to construct garments is to sew doll clothes. I do not recommend clothing as small as a Barbie, as it can be frustrating to piece together those little outfits under a standard sized machine. The clothing that fits American Girl Dolls works best and can be made from old clothes and fabric remnants. All the pieces fit together the same as people clothes, so the construction lesson is learned!

Saving Money on Patterns:

I have a borderline addiction to vintage patterns. I scour shelves and bins at thrift stores and garage sales looking for ancient gems at a quarter a piece. Most of the time they are still factory folded and uncut, which is even more lovely. Sign up for the email program at your local fabric store – sometimes there are $1 pattern sales, and it’s worth it to stock up!

Here’s a Pattern Tip:

The individual pattern pieces are printed on the front page of the directions. When scanned, these images can be enlarged to the size of a sheet of paper; the perfect size for a doll. It takes a little practice to scan, crop and size, but it’s worth it. The pattern can then be tested with whatever small scraps are lying around. Then, it can be used as doll clothes… even if it turns out a little wonky.

Buying a Sewing Machine:

I won’t lie to you. This will be the most expensive piece of your sewing supplies. I do not recommend a new sewist to buy a used machine… particularly if someone can’t demonstrate to you that it actually works. If you are able to get one for free, it is worth it to take it to a mechanic for servicing before sitting down with it for the first project. A temperamental machine is the fastest way to lose interest in sewing.

Keep in mind that the simpler the better when starting out. No need for a fancy serger (overlock) or something electronic with a bunch of stitches. I have found that a simple machine with a straight stitch and a zig-zag is sufficient to start. A one step button-holer is a definite plus. Other than that, there is no need for anything fancy. Keep it simple, and it will make learning much more fun.

Finding cheap notions:

Go to local thrift stores and church sales to scope out bags of thread spools and remnants of ribbons. Most shops have a wall of hanging grab bags with all kinds of yarn, thread, lace, ribbons, snaps, buttons, pins, needles… you name it! An entire bag for under $5 will last a while.

Other Supplies:

It is easy to go overboard on sewing supplies, and there is no shortage of them available. Cutting mats, rotary blades, quilt templates, fusibles… I could go on and on. While they all have value, there is nothing better than getting started with the basics and building up to a stash of sophisticated tools as they are needed for individual projects.

The truth is, it doesn’t require a lot of equipment to get started, and it doesn’t need to cost a fortune to learn how to sew.

Published by lessismorelifestyle

Do you like saving money and learning new skills? Less is More Lifestyle focuses on crafting projects and recipes that save money!

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