Want to make something by hand? Sew start, already!

Recently, J.D. wrote about the value in finding something that you enjoy making by hand. As I read his post, I couldn't help but to think about my mom, who is hands-down one of the craftiest, most creative people I know. (Yes, I'm biased, but everyone who knows her agrees.)

While she can make just about anything — from floral arrangements to jewelry to gorgeous Christmas ornaments — the thing she does most these days is sew. She started her hobby as a little girl, turning scraps of fabric into Barbie clothes. Then when she had a little girl of her own (that's me!), she sewed the dresses that I wore to elementary school. The teachers bought them as soon as I outgrew them. She continued to sew clothes for me, hem pants, and fix buttons, and when I bought my wedding dress, she hemmed that, too. She also embroidered and stitched the ring pillow, among other things. Now she has come full-circle, starting her own side business creating clothing for Japanese ball-jointed dolls. Most of her dresses sell for more than $100, as these collectors are quite serious about their hobby.

The Value of Sewing Skills

Talk about the value of learning to make something by hand! Sewing is a hobby (and now a business) that my mom loves. She can stay up until the wee hours of the morning when she's sewing, but crashes at 9 p.m. on other nights.

In addition to giving her a creative outlet, the money she's saved over the years by using this skill is impossible to calculate. Sewing clothes is a savings. Never needing to pay for alterations is a savings (and a huge one when it comes to wedding dresses). Her craft has made her money, too. The dresses I wore as a child were sold after I'd outgrown them. The doll clothes she makes now have turned into a lucrative side business that she plans to do full-time when she retires.

Also, it's worth mentioning another benefit: giving loved ones something unique and handcrafted. I have pretty spring bags and the perfect pencil skirt, and my mom made those things for me, which makes me love them all the more. On my wedding day, almost everything decorative was made with my mother's hands, and there's nothing more special than that. When people compliment something she made, I'm incredibly proud to tell them my mom made it because most people can't do what she can do.

Which Leads Me to…

I can't sew. I mean, I can sew on buttons and work through simple patterns, but I've been too intimidated to really learn how to sew. Let's face it, in my case it has been too easy to just ask Mom to do it for me, rather than to learn how to do it myself. This is a shame for so many reasons.

One, I have her old sewing machine in my house. She moved on to a more sophisticated model, but the one she gave me is a nice machine.

Two, Mom has the newer sewing machine plus two sergers. (A serger stitches at twice the speed of a conventional machine and creates ravel-free seams, among other functions — they are very cool.)

Three, she lives next door!

A Small Project

J.D.'s post might have been the kick in the rear I needed to get serious about learning to sew. It's been on my to-do list forever, and there's no better time than now to finally get to it. To get my feet wet, I decided to on a quick project I saw on Design*Sponge, a spring tablecloth created with IKEA dishtowels.

Last Friday, Mom and I spent a couple of hours at the serger making this tablecloth. She showed me some of the features and how she would adjust the settings and run the fabric through it. One dishtowel was made shorter than the others, so she showed me how to let out the seam to get extra length. I came home with a pretty, inexpensive tablecloth and eagerness to find another project.

Sewing 101

If sewing is a skill that interests you, here are a few tips that I've picked up from Mom:

  • Don't invest too much at first. If you don't have a sewing machine, find out if any relatives or friends have a machine that you could borrow for an afternoon to try your hand at sewing. Make sure you're going to stick with it before you spend too much money.
  • Learn how to use your machine. My mom took lessons on how to use her newer machines. Sometimes lessons will be included when you purchase a machine. If you are borrowing one, ask the owner if they have a manual, or if they can give you a quick lesson on how it works.
  • Start with something small. I loved the immediate gratification of the tablecloth project. When you are deciding on a place to start, pick a simple project. If you will be using a pattern, look for the ones that are marked “easy” or “quick start.” Most pattern books put these in a separate section.
  • Save on fabric by recycling. Old sheets, clothing, tablecloths, etc. can be cut up and re-purposed. This is especially great for a beginner, as beginners are bound to make mistakes (and it's better to do so on inexpensive fabric). Mom shops garage sales, second-hand shops, Goodwill, and antique stores, picking up clothing and vintage lace that she can sew into doll clothing.

Of course you could take sewing lessons, as well. I might do that in the future, but for now, I'm going to keep things simple by looking for projects that excite me and booking a sewing session with my mom.

What have you always wanted to learn to make by hand? How can you get started today?

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Chett
Chett
10 years ago

Don’t limit “making things with your hands” to sewing. Over the last three years I’ve taken on the project of remodeling my home with very little prior knowledge. The feeling of completely transforming the look of my home and knowing that I’ve done it with my hands is VERY satisfying. I also know of retired men who were miserable in retirement that started the hobby of wood working. Some of them have turned their hobby into a good money making trade as they make and made toys and crafts to sell at local venues and over the internet. Sorry I… Read more »

Dave
Dave
10 years ago

If you’re wanting to try sewing something to wear, a kilt is a pretty easy one to go for. I had no experience at all with sewing and got most of the way through one (borrowed sewing machine was too cheap to work with the thick fabrics I was using, never got round to finishing it) and the hardest part ended up just getting the creases right

There’s some instructions on it at http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-make-a-Cargo-Kilt/

Rachel
Rachel
10 years ago

Be careful about assuming that because you sewed it yourself, that it automatically becomes cheaper. I can’t make pyjama pants cheaper than I can buy them. A jumpers worth of wool can easily cost $AU100. Having said that – when you make it yourself you can make it how you want it (like longer sleeves). And even though the wool cost you $100 for that jumper, you got 40 hours of entertainment out of it. Good article. I personally make stuff as I get fidgety and I just like being able to make stuff that I just can’t get (Crochet… Read more »

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl
10 years ago

In my experience, it is often more expensive to sew my own clothes than it is to buy used clothing at thrift stores or new clothes on deep clearance.

Of course, sewing new clothes means you can make exactly what you want, which is worth something (the value of things can’t always be measured in dollars and cents).

And you can definitely save money by repairing, mending, and tailoring your own clothes…those activities are very worth the time investment, in my opinion.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl
10 years ago

Rachel, great minds think alike….you posted while I was I was typing my comment. lol

Colleen
Colleen
10 years ago

Remember, with sewing machines there are two ways to go.

If you have someone to work with you, you could buy a used machine and learn cheap. Or you could buy one at a discount store. If, however, you don’t have that support, spend the additional amount to buy a machine from a sewing center that offers classes with the machine. It will be worth the extra money in the long run because you won’t give up because of lack of knowledge. Fiscally responsible doesn’t mean cheap, it means getting value for the dollars you spend.

Chiot's Run
Chiot's Run
10 years ago

So true! I learned to sew as a little girl, making all my own dolls and doll clothes. I still do it, though not as much. I love to repurpose old fabric for bags and curtains. I also let out my own dresses and hem my own pants (as well as for a few friends). I would recommend searching for clearance sheets as a cheap source for fabric. One of the most expensive parts of sewing are the fabrics! I’d love to have a serger someday. I bought a nice but inexpensive machine 10 years ago, no fancy stitches but… Read more »

Maureen
Maureen
10 years ago

Stockpiling fabric can be a big money sink (she who dies with the most fabric wins). I have a similar problem with scrapbooking supplies. I could probably go for years without buying either.

I did enjoy sewing for my girls when they were little. Now I mostly sew costumes or home accessories and gifts.

Kat
Kat
10 years ago

Sewing a clothing item is almost always more expensive than buying it at the store. However, making your own also removes you from the exploitation of the garment industry, if for that garment only. As a longtime sewer the biggest piece of advice I can give is to invest in a quality machine (assuming you’ve decided to commit to sewing); cheap machines are frustrating to work on and greatly diminish your enjoyment of sewing. You don’t have to buy the top-of-the-line version to get a good machine. Make sure the features you get you will actually use. My machine is… Read more »

Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
10 years ago

I’ve probably been doing hemming, button sewing, and repairing tears since I was 10. I also worked at a “sweat shop” part time in college. I can probably sew a polo shirt collar in my sleep now. I also learned how to crochet a few years ago. I’m currently working on a queen-sized afghan with a rather intricate pattern. Been working on it for 2 1/2 years now… It never quite happened, but a friend of mine and I once arranged an exchange of services, I was going to teach her to crochet, and she was going to teach me… Read more »

Barb1954
Barb1954
10 years ago

My sisters and I also grew up wearing clothes our mom made us, using my grandmother’s ancient Singer treadle sewing machine. I hadn’t sewn since college (mid-’70s) but became interested in it again last year. (One thing unemployment is good for is giving one time to reexplore hobbies that were dropped when working 50-60 hours a week.) I’d already taken up knitting again in January, 2009, something I love doing. As spring arrived, I took a few sewing classes at a local fabric store to see if it was something I would be interested in doing again. I LOVED IT!!!… Read more »

Malisa
Malisa
10 years ago

1) I’ll agree with Maureen on the money sink. I can’t tell you how much fabric we got rid of when we cleaned out my mom’s house! She could have taken a couple really nice vacations with what she spent on fabric. 2) I was born in the 60’s. Mom had a 1959 Singer. It was awesome. In 9th grade, she bought me my own machine, it was a 1963 Singer. It’s awesome too. I’ve got her serger that she bought down the line to do some commercial things too, but I’ve never tried it. But I wouldn’t want anything… Read more »

suburbangrandma
suburbangrandma
10 years ago

I loved reading your article. Congratulations on starting you sewing hobby. I love sewing, and used to sew a lot when I was a stay home mom, but now I have slowed down considerably, but am getting back to it now that I have a granddaughter. I used an old pattern (from when my daughter was 2), bought some material on clearance at JoAnn Fabric, and made a beautiful pink coat and dress for my granddaughter. I plan to post at on my blog in the near future: suburbangrandma.com. You gave me a great idea about sewing doll clothes, and… Read more »

Anne KD
Anne KD
10 years ago

Mom had all of her three kids making cookies and cupcakes/easy cakes before we were 9 years old. We were making bread for the family when we were 12 or 13. She wouldn’t let us make chocolate chip cookies, though, because (of course) we’d eat the chocolate chips and not have enough in the cookies. Dad showed us how to do things by talking with us when he was fixing stuff on the car, fixing stuff around the house, painting and so forth- now my brother has saved an incredible amount of money by doing stuff himself including putting in… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

Here’s the thing with a lot of DIY: If you’re the type of person who’s going to buy your things at Walmart or Old Navy or H&M, you aren’t likely to save any money by making things yourself. However, if you like quality, you’d have to pay a lot to get the same quality you can get from sewing your own clothes, building your own shelves, etc. Yeah, you can get cheaper shelves from Target but they’ll be made of chipboard and plastic and only look like wood for a few months, until they get some wear and tear. I… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

Oh and I use a Singer featherweight from the ’50s that I found in an attic 🙂

Mary
Mary
10 years ago

Sarah-
I too sew on a Singer featherweight, from the 40’s that belonged to my SO’s mother. Isn’t it a neat machine? I’ve also been collecting a few Featherweight accessories and learning how to use them. April, thanks for an inspiring column.

Amy
Amy
10 years ago

Sewing is a wonderful way to learn to do for yourself and make a business! (It’s what I’m doing.)

I also like the idea of learning things that our parents, grandparents, and farther back did to be independent. Helping old skills live on is a bit of a hobby of mine. (I spin, knit, sew – machine or by hand, dye, bake bread from scratch, weave a bit, etc.)

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
10 years ago

The chances of me learning to sew are slim to none, save replacing buttons and such, though I did make a pillow when I was about 7 on My First Sewing Machine. My mom and one sister love to sew. I just don’t have the patience for the fine details.

Still, this post is pretty similar to how I feel about cooking and baking.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

Oops. Sorry folks. I had a bad anchor tag in the second paragraph, which led to a confusing sentence. Fixed now. That was my fault from editing, not April’s from writing…

STL Mom
STL Mom
10 years ago

Sewing can save you a lot of money, or it can cost you a lot of money. I’m lucky to live near a fabric store which frequently puts fabric on sale for $1.50 – $3.00 a yard. There are “refashioners” who take old clothes, sheets, or tablecloths from thrift shops and remake them into attractive and useful clothing or household items. I save money by hemming pants, taking waistbands in or out, and extending the use of my kids’ clothes by turning long-sleeved shirts into short-sleeved shirts, turning and pants and jeans into shorts and capris. I believe I’ve saved… Read more »

Leah
Leah
10 years ago

love this post! I, too, want to learn how to sew. I’ve been sewing by hand for ages (mostly mending and small projects), and I’d love to use a machine. However, I have yet to find someone with a machine who is willing to let me use it. Do I just know some finicky sewers? I lived with two sewers, and both of them said they would teach me . . . once I bought my own machine. For reasons we’ve often seen here, I’m hesitant to buy my own until I learn some new skills. Where can I look… Read more »

Barb1954
Barb1954
10 years ago

I took sewing classes at a JoAnn’s fabric store. Our local technical college also offers sewing classes.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

Great article! The only thing I don’t necessarily agree with is using cheap materials when you’re starting out. I used to help teach sewing classes, and beginners often have better luck (and see the project through) if they use good quality stuff. It’s easier to work with — which makes the learning process less frustrating — and yields a better project, which helps keep people motivated. By cheap, I mean poor quality. Buy decent materials on sale or used. And work on a machine that’s in good working order. Many people forget that sewing machines are in fact machines and… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
10 years ago

That’s great!

I, too, love sewing. It’s amazing how few people where I live know how to sew. Last year, I handmade all gifts for birthdays and holidays, and my friends & family really appreciated the personal effort.

Sewing your own clothes CAN be more expensive than buying them, but the cool thing about sewing is that you can’t buy what you can make. They don’t sell YOUR creations in any store! Fabric is always on sale somewhere, and like your mom does with old sheets etc., you can almost always find something to repurpose.

Happy sewing!

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
10 years ago

I used to knit when I was a procrastinating graduate student–I don’t think it made sense economically, but it made for great baby gifts, and I was dating a guy who watched TV and I just need to have something to do while watching TV or I get bored. Right now I have cats, though, which would make it challenging to knit at home.

I just read in the paper about some people who have started a business recycling yarn and reselling it, which I think is great. Yarn can definitely get expensive, especially when the euro exchange rate stinks.

Amy F
Amy F
10 years ago

Nice timing — I just made my first skirt for myself today. I’ve been sewing for my kids for awhile but hadn’t tried anything for myself. The fabric cost about $30, so I didn’t save much, but I made a reversible A-line skirt with fun fabrics and a yoga waistband that will keep fitting me this summer during my second and third trimester of pregnancy and for the first couple months postpartum. It’s unlikely that I could have found something fashionable and versatile for that price and I got to customize it just the way I wanted. I got a… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

The local non-chain fabric/yard store in my town has a great deal — you can learn to sew/knit/crochet via inexpensive classes the owners teach AND/OR you can rent time on their sewing machines, which is a great way to find out if you really want to get into sewing, while also getting the benefit of help right there while you’re working. I was interested in April’s story because I think that the fact that my mother was a great sewer made it harder for me — she was so much better at it than I was that I just gave… Read more »

Rachel
Rachel
10 years ago

As someone who runs a DIY site, I obviously LOVED this article! When I wanted to learn how to sew, I found a local shop in my area that held classes. Those classes paid for themselves many, many times over. Not only that but now I have a shop full of knowledgeable people to help me out when I get stuck. I totally recommend classes. Most will let you bring in your own machine and learn on what you have.

Lindsay
Lindsay
10 years ago

Start with curtains! Just measuring and hemming straight lines.

Mel
Mel
10 years ago

Sewing clothing only saves money if you enjoy it enough for the hours spent to be a worthwhile tradeoff and you’re sewing fairly high-end clothing that you plan to wear for years. A wool coat? Yes. A t-shirt? No. And if you like quality natural fibers, even on sale they’d going to cost something. We are spoiled by cheap, sweatshop-labor clothes made of cheap synthetics; clothing used to be an investment, and if you make it yourself out of quality materials, it still is. But that doesn’t mean it will save you money if your alternative is to buy clothes… Read more »

DoubleH
DoubleH
10 years ago

I’ve started sewing again. More so because I have a hard time finding clothes that I like. Fabric can be expensive, but if you know where to find discount quality fabrics sewing your own clothes can be cheaper. Look for discount fabric stores in your area, and shop for fabric off season. I’ve also found good deals on fabric online.

I think the best thing I did was take a sewing class at my local community college. My technique has improved and I’m able to produce higher quality garments.

Yin Teing
Yin Teing
10 years ago

My mom sew our clothes and my working skirts and is an excellent cook. But unfortunately I can’t seemed to do both. Still, I inherent her passion and perserverance and doing things from the heart and with sincerity.
A friend of mine who works in the corporate world and is a breast cancer survivor took up knitting as a hobby. It’s something that she really enjoy and put her mind off from the stresses at work. Thanks for the post.

erika
erika
10 years ago

Everything about this article struck a chord with me – my mother is an excellent seamstress/crafter and I’ve never learned how to sew because it’s so easy to hand my projects over to her. Learning to sew is on my to-do list, but one call to mom and the project arrives at my doorstep looking professional and exactly the way I envisioned it. Some day I really must make the time to sit down for some lessons with mom…

Shari
Shari
10 years ago

I just learned to sew about 2 years ago. I took a class from our city’s park and rec program…they offer some really fun classes there. That gave me enough knowledge of the basics to be able to move on from there. I started sewing because of my interest in Renaissance fairs…..I love to go in costume but the costumes are expensive and I just couldn’t justify spending hundreds of dollars on something to wear once a year. Now I have made costumes for me and my kids for the last several years. I can make a really nice costume… Read more »

Tammy
Tammy
10 years ago

My mom loves to sew and has been selling her creations at craft shows since I was a little girl. It started out as quilts and embroidered sweatshirts, and progressed to making really nice, collector grade teddy bears. Several times she has had people bring her their grandmother’s old mink coat that has been in the closet forever (because really, nobody wears fur anymore). Depending on the size and condition of the coat, Mom can make about three good sized teddy bears out of the fur. That way people still have a way to remember Grandma, but don’t have to… Read more »

Kai Jones
Kai Jones
10 years ago

Last summer I made 5 work-appropriate blouses, and 3 of them were refashioned from old skirts and blouses that did not fit me any longer. For cheaper fabric, try Goodwill and other second-hand stores–but look in the large size men’s section. I can find silk and linen shirts for $5–take them apart and cut a blouse or tank top for me out of the pieces. The equivalent yardage purchased new would be at least $20. Same for knitting, buy top-quality sweaters used and unravel them for the cashmere and wool yarn. Take it a step further and learn to dye… Read more »

Alexis
Alexis
10 years ago

I agree…I just started slowly sewing little things & already I love it! I spent $9 on 2 panels of fleece & made a blanket that would have cost me $30 because it was NFL. And pillows are so easy & fun. Its nerve racking the first time your foot hits the peddle but its awesome to see it completed!

Shirley Price
Shirley Price
10 years ago

Not only is sewing a way of being creative it can help save money on gifts. You can also spruce up your home by adding new cushion covers and window coverings without breaking the bank. Many people forget about the wonderful skills they already have. Retirement is a perfect time to pick up on some of your old interests and hobbies.

Amy S
Amy S
10 years ago

Nice article. I re-discovered sewing just over a year ago, and since then I have only bought one pair of jeans for myself, and made all my clothes, and gifts for friends since. Sometimes due to bargain fabric finds my clothes come in super cheap, and sometimes they will be more than what I would spend on a similar item in H&M. But H&M clothes are rubbish, made from cheap synthetic fibres (which I never use) and designed to fall apart after 6 months of use. The most expensive item I made recently was a wool jacket, I spent probably… Read more »

Yllota
Yllota
10 years ago

Some people said that is is often more expensive to make your own clothes than to buy them. While this is true for some projects it is not for others. I find that if you are making a simple t-shirt from stretch fabric, it may cost you 10 eur in fabric while you could buy it already made for about 3 to 5 eur. On the other hand I bought some medium weight navy cotton fabric the other day. It was considered a “scrap” so it was on discount, it cost me about 10 eur. Now that “scrap” was about… Read more »

Fifty Shades And Blinds INC
Fifty Shades And Blinds INC
3 years ago

Very Nice Article! People think of that make your own clothes is often more costly than to buy them but it’s not true It is an art and a way to save money as well.

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