The cost (and payoff) of handmade

The cost (and payoff) of handmade

Once again, in light of Slow Fashion October, I’ve been tracking costs on my handmade clothes this year because I wanted to see how it held up over last year’s tally. And again, it’s a weird thing to talk about publicly (at least if you’re a born-and-raised Midwesterner like me), but I think it’s really illuminating in terms of the impact of acquiring less and making what you can, even when some of the handmades are an investment—

$18.00 : White linen shell
6.00 : Grey wool pullover
20.00 : Striped muscle tee
54.25 : Blue button-up shirt
12.00 : Olive pants
73.00 : Blue jeans
17.50 : Denim pants
21.25 : Camo pants
$222.00 — average cost of $27.75 per garment

$175.00 : Black yoke sweater
213.50 : Camel Channel cardigan
110.00 : Linen Sloper
112.00 : Fisherman sweater
38.50 : Purple lopi pullover
$649.00 — average cost of $129.80 per sweater

So even with the top-shelf denim (for my jeans) and a couple of comparatively pricey sweaters in there, I’ve spent a combined average of $87.10 per month on my handmade clothes. If those were the only clothes I had added to my closet this year, and I had spent less than $100 per month, I’d be utterly floored and perfectly satisfied.

However, that’s not all I’ve spent or acquired. Since $87/month represents a savings for me, I’ve been able to invest in some coveted pieces from companies I feel good about supporting, such as my natural Willie jeans, my Elizabeth Suzann silk top, and my State smocks.

Far and away the most astonishing thing to me is I’ve added only about 2-2.5 garments per month to my closet. In my past life, 2 garments would have been a slow day at the mall, not a month’s total, yet in no way do I feel deprived or like I’m making do. Just the opposite: My wardrobe has never been better looking or higher functioning. So my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has inspired and encouraged me in this endeavor.


PREVIOUSLY in Slow Fashion October: Slow Fashion Citizen Jen Hewett





44 thoughts on “The cost (and payoff) of handmade

  1. I find I buy the important pieces (pants) for example, but on sale. My sweaters (many wool and cashmere, even) from the Goodwill store. Even now I have to purge some, but they will go back to Goodwill to be loved again (or to my humane society thrift store, where it will support the dogs..and kitties…)

  2. Karen–

    Great to meet you IRL at Rhinebeck this past weekend. I remember being shocked on my first trip to NYSW at the fact that people would spend $25+ dollars to make a pair of socks.

    As a knitter (I haven’t made the sewing plunge (yet)) with an extensive stash, I’ve learned to buy less yarn but it’s based on project and quality. While I try to coordinate my projects, I mix impulse knitting and workhorse knitting. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t buy sweaters anymore. What I make is nicer and better quality.

    The best advice I heard at Rhinebeck was from Jocelyn of O-Wool while I was selecting yarn for an Om Shawl. You have to balance what’s fun to knit with what works for your wardrobe.

    Happy knitting,
    Heidi Cohen (aka @KnittedYarns)

  3. You are such an inspiration to me. You have made/acquired so many great pieces this year. I’m trying so hard to find the right balance for me with making my own clothes. I want to make all of it but I just don’t have the time. My closet is lacking a few key pieces but I have the fabric and patterns to sew them so I don’t want to buy something.

    • That’s so much pressure to put on yourself. For me, it’s really important to accept that I can’t make everything, even if I wanted to — it’s an impossible goal, in my world, with time constraints, etc. So I’m just making the things I feel driven to make and capable of making, and picking up a RTW piece here and there to fill in and to support those makers.

  4. I’m betting these handmades will hold up better than the mall purchases. And because you love them, you will wear them more too.

  5. How do you think about the time-cost of making your clothes? I’ve found this very sticky, myself, but I think it’s something we need to grapple with because it’s part of what can make “slow fashion” more accessible to some than to others.

    On the one hand, I don’t want to devalue my time by pretending that the only cost of making is materials — for lots of reasons, but for me personally, the dark history (and present!) of women’s skilled textile labor being undervalued and exploited makes me uncomfortable possibly contributing to the “oh, but they’d do it anyway, for fun, so we don’t need to pay them much” excuse for that exploitation.

    But… again for me, personally, I do make things “for fun” (I’m not a production knitter/sewer/etc), and I reap multiple benefits from that labor (entertainment, solace), so I’m not sure how to tote up the cost of my time. And, practically speaking, the time budget and the dollars-and-cents budget are drawing from different resource pools (though, obviously, they are linked to each other), so sometimes I can afford more of one than the other, making the intuitive sense of what something cost me complicated to evaluate. It *feels* expensive when it’s scraping the bottom of the resource barrel, right?

    So clearly I haven’t gotten anywhere coherent on this topic, but I’m curious to know what others think!

    • Oh, and I’m also well aware that there’s an entire discipline — Economics (parts of it, at least) — whose goal is to think rigorously about these topics, and whose practitioners have been thinking and arguing about this sort of thing for a lot longer and with a lot more depth than me. So if anybody reading has that training and has tried to apply it to their own making, I’d love to hear about that, too.

      • Hey Julia! I have been constantly thinking about this topic as well, and I am a soon to be CPA (aka accountant haha) so I even run a spreadsheet to figure those tings out myself. When we talked about cost, we are talking about two type of cost: accounting cost (the cost of fabric, labor, etc) and opportunity cost (the most valuable thing you gave up to do this thing). I used to price my time equal to my hourly pay rate when I try to figure the cost my labor, but as others have put, it will be too expensive and excludes my joy from this exercise. However, my argument will be that everything we choose to do, there is some qualitative values we get from it: entertainment, family, work, etc. So in order to figure what cost us to make something besides the obvious cost, I usually think about it in terms of what I have to give up to make these: entertainment, social life, work etc. If I believe what I gave up is more valuable than I am able to make using that time/resources, I wouldn’t do it.
        If I am understanding you correctly, are you asking how to evaluate the decision of if you should make something/price something you make given the cost benefit analysis? My approach has been figure out my opportunity cost of making that thing, and see if I have comparative advantage of making that. For example, when I evaluate should I knit a sweater, I calculate the cost of yarn+ pattern and estimated time of making it given minimum wage, and I compared that against the price tag of a store bought garment of the SAME QUALITY ( known origin of fiber, fair labor, good design and quality, etc, it is simply not fair to compare the price against brands that did not hold up to certain standards because they can’t be treated as substitutes ). And I think about if I don’t make this sweater, what I will be doing with my time that could be used to make this sweater: scrolling online to try to find the equivalent, shopping in the mall, etc, and I decide which one seems more cost effective or maximize my returns. I came to conclusion that it makes most senses for me to knit my own sweaters, sew basics summer linen tops/pants/dresses, and make my own accessorizes like bag and jewelry given my skill level and resources (time and money) from a cost-benefit perspective. I will buy shoes, professional clothing (suits, dress shirts, etc) from others from a comparative advantage stand point.
        I don’t know if this helps….. Sorry for the extremely long response since I struggle to put it into words…

    • Julia, I sew and knit because I enjoy the actual process; the fact that something useable comes from it makes it even better. And, personally I think it is a much more valuable way to spend my time instead of watching tv, which anymore is pretty much garbage! 😄 So, to be a true economist, I guess I would need to add something for my time, but could also deduct the necessity of more dollars put for entertainment, cable, and the cost of “brain development” necessary to counteract the tv.😆

    • You’re right this is a sticky issue! If I’m making something for myself or as a gift, I think about the time in mainly non-monetary ways; it’s my relaxing time, my comfort, my learning, my time in the physical world away from screens etc., and all those things are more than worth the time I put in.

      But as soon as I think about selling something I made, I MUST price it to pay myself fairly for my time—in dollars, not just satisfaction—otherwise it’s exactly as you say, I’m contributing to the idea that my labor isn’t worth much, and to the equally destructive idea that our clothes should be cheap. Which then makes almost everything I could produce myself seem much “too expensive” for the average person to buy (a lesson I learned first hand).

      Personally, I’m hoping for a slow change in attitudes around clothing, labor, and what things in general “should” cost (and how long they should last!), as more people become aware of how our current model of consumption is affecting other people and the planet. I’m trying to contribute by teaching more people to make their own, which I think leads to awareness if nothing else.

    • You’re not the only one thinking about this. I have not actively participated in “Slotober” but follow the discussions. The idea of sustainability is noble and attractive. However, the cost of doing things like flying to Denver, time and money, to learn to make ones own jeans is waaaay out of reach for most folks and adds enormously to price. No shade cast your way for doing so, Karen, as I regularly attend knitting conferences and classes away from my home, and maintain a large stash, too. It always feels a bit elitist to me. This requires more thought and consideration on my part as to how the principles can fit into my life. I suppose that’s the real basis of Slow Fashion October anyway.

      • Yeah, I mean, for me the Denver trip was a business trip and I was able to tie together a meeting and attending the workshop. And being able to do the workshop is a luxury, for sure. But of course, neither travel nor a workshop is required for making jeans. If you know how to sew, you can open the pattern and follow it, just like any other pattern. For me, it was fun and worthwhile to get to do it in a weekend-intesive, group setting, but the way I see it, that’s what the workshop cost went toward — the experience of being there, and the other skills learned in the process that are applicable to everything I might ever make — so I don’t think of that as part of the cost of that one pair of jeans.

        As a general response to this thread of the conversation, like many other commenters here I can’t imagine billing myself for time spent doing what I love. I don’t spend money on lots of things other people spend money on — greens fees, concerts, movies, pedicures, whatever the case may be. For me, knitting and sewing are entertainment — I would credit the joy-value of the time spent against the cost of the materials, if anything, not add that as a cost.

        Many have rightly noted that it’s a whole different equation if you mean to sell what you’re making, but if you’re knitting for pleasure, what is the value of that pleasure? That’s how I look at it.

  6. My “Slotober” has been to wear a handmade item each day. I realized that many of my first sweaters were crummy yarn which resulted in not fitting well. I am now carefully buying yarn per project and learning styles that knit and fit well. Thank you for guiding me to this path.

  7. Your wardrobe is so cool! I personally can’t wait to take the plunge into sewing jeans: the only ones I’ve ever found that fit me are from Old Navy, ethical companies like Imogene and Willie or Dearborn Denim don’t carry my size, and I know that however much I spend on good denim, I’ll get my cost-per-wear. I wear jeans a lot.

    Another thought about the cost-prohibitive aspect of making that i think about a lot is knitting sweaters! Buying good yarn in the sizes i wear is a serious, serious investment, 1.5×2 times what you’ve spent on some of your most expensive sweaters. Still an investment I’m happy to make, but an interesting thing to consider.

    • Thanks very much for bringing up how the costs of making your own clothes are higher for some people than for others — and how access to ethical/sustainable/virtuous/whatever clothing you didn’t make yourself is also not evenly distributed.

      It doesn’t really seem fair to me, and it seems important for the conversation not to unwittingly concern itself only with the experiences of people lucky enough to have the most options and lowest costs.

      Big picture, this sort of unfairness is one reason that I tend to think that a purely individual action model (“everybody make their own clothes!”) doesn’t scale as a solution to the ills of our current garment industry (though I am **not** saying there’s anything wrong with people making things for themselves!). Small picture, I wonder if the community of people who care about this stuff could find ways to mitigate the uneven distribution of cost by banding together — to form buying clubs, for instance, and maybe other better ideas?

      • What should be taken into account as well, are the costs of knitting for those who are not in the biz vs. those who are. It isn’t just the cost of yarn vs. gifted and discounted yarn, it is also the dynamics of being able to write off expenses associated with the knitting and making. I love knitting, but I think if I penciled it out in a realistic way, it is not a savings, it is a luxury. That said, the joy I get from it is worth it to me.

        • Fair point, and this is all part of why I so rarely knit with yarn I’ve been given. There are loads of people begging for the opportunity to give me yarn, and I realize that’s not normal — and it’s not comfortable to me. Partially because I don’t want my experience to be skewed and partially because I don’t ever want to be in a position of feeling obligated to post about something — at all, nevermind favorably. I just want to knit with what I want to knit with, weigh the costs like anyone else, and say what I feel. So for instance, when Jones & Vandermeer offered to give me the yarn for my camel sweater, I insisted on paying for it — especially in that case, because it was my biggest investment I’d ever decided to make. But then when she offered a discount that everyone could have access to, it seemed like the nice thing to do to say yes to that and share it. Or, for instance, last year’s FAFKAL where we all knitted with yarn provided by the yarn companies (based on our choice of what we wanted to knit with, not vice versa) and each of them provided a sweater quantity for a winner from the community as well.

          I can’t do anything about bringing down the cost of conscientiously made fashion (other than supporting these businesses where I can and hopefully helping costs come down over time), but I can do little things like that!

    • It’s a really good point, Madeleine. I’m often knitting somewhere in the medium-large end of the size range (depending on the range), and then I also have really compact row gauge, so everything takes more rows (more yarn) for me, on top of that. I’m always aware of that when looking at people who make sweaters so much more quickly than me — I’m like, yes but they’re TINY and I am not. But I know for people larger than me, the difference in the cost of the yarn can be significant.

  8. Knitting is not exactly an inexpensive enterprise! I find that sewing is, though, especially when using quality fabrics. Of course, that doesn’t take into consideration all the tools, machines, stashed fabric that may never be sewn… I don’t actually think I’ve saved money sewing in the long run either! But there was joy in (almost) every minute of the process, and it is a good feeling to know under what conditions your clothes were made. Worth it :)

  9. Julia’s comments echo my own (although, stated much more thoroughly and elegantly!): the investment of time is a huge factor in considering how handmade items get into our wardrobe.

    I also think this circles-back to a post a couple months back regarding the demographic of folks hand-sewing and knitting their clothes. Not everyone has the time to research, learn, and buy the resources needed to make well-fitting clothes that look amazing and last forever.

    Thank you, Karen, for your thoughts on this fascinating topic. I love sewing and knitting (I’m a home decor seamstres by trade) and try to add to my wardrobe whenever I can because these pieces are always special. Your blog is a total inspiration on process and design!

  10. Thanks for sharing your costs. Money is such a tricky thing to talk about for us Midwesterners isn’t it? People tell me often that I could sell my knitted goods, but when I break to them the amount the yarn cost let alone the hours I put into the making said item they are shocked to say the least. One thing I think many of us over look is the entertainment value of our knitting and sewing. I do spend a lot on yarn, but then I’m not spending money on sports tickets, concerts, plays or full priced movies for entertainment. My socks may have cost $25 in yarn, but they took me about 16 hours to knit making the entertainment cost a cheap $1.56/hour. It’s not something that everyone would agree with I think, but I do believe it’s a valid point to think consider.

  11. Making, whether knitting, sewing or quilting is my way of loosing my creative spirit. I think I need it and music everyday! That is priceless to me!

  12. Raised by a mother who always noted when we were shopping “that you could make that yourself,” I got real tired of hearing that refrain. My clothes in high school–which I made myself–were never quite right and purchasing them was not an option. I didn’t have the matching skirts and angora sweater sets that were popular then. As soon as I got to college, I quit sewing…and by that time, all anyone was wearing were jeans, anyway. So I have mixed feeling about trying to make my clothes (and I have good sewing skills). Yes, I know it saves money but that is offset by things that I’ve made, not been happy with, and never worn. So I appreciate your thoughtful approach to creating a wardrobe of clothing that one looks forward to wearing…but right now, I put the cost of yarn and fabric into my entertainment budget.

  13. Hi Karen – I do love reading your posts. This one has prodded me to think and think again about the “Value” of making garments. The monetary cost of making a garment in my calculations must include the notions, the tools (why does each project I plan to knit need a new or additional set of needles? Happily an excuse to drop by your shop….) and the time beyond the fabric or yarn. The added value of the pleasure of making/crafting and the pleasure of hopefully having a garment that fits both my body and my wardrobe is also to be calculated into the mix. And there is the waste – I have yet to purchase JUST the right amount of fabric and find scraps are multiplying like bunnies. So, it is hard for me to think that any project of mine could have ever come close to being a $6 top. But the pleasure and satisfaction of the making process far outweighs the $$ spent. Hope to see you back in the PNW again sometime soon.

    • Girl, sounds like you need some interchangeable needles! I remember buying a new needle for every project when I was first knitting and hate to think how much more I spent on all of those than a good set would have cost me. But I take your point!

  14. Thanks for being so open about all of these different factors–I really appreciate it, because some of your posts make me think about things I hadn’t thought about before and others bring out in the open topics I usually wouldn’t discuss, myself, like how much my “hobby” costs.

    I’d have more to say to this, as is my usual style, but I’m a little out of sorts, today. One of my “making” mentors, a beloved aunt, passed away yesterday. I was fortunate that I made it out to see her a few days before (a hellish journey that involved being stranded in two different cities for two nights owing to fire and rain). For years, I wanted to knit because of her and she always offered to teach me, but we lived so far away. I was in awe of the way she could make a slipper or knit up something lacey while sitting in the dark, watching tv. She was also a very “busy” person–a mother of four and, more recently, a grandmother of four who was very involved in childcare. She was also the backbone of her husband’s business, handling tons of stuff. I marveled at the way she managed to fit crafting into the nooks and crannies of her life and I wanted to do it, too. In truth, her knitting was really only a very small part of her life–or of my memories of her, but I was so happy to wear my first really good pullover to the hospital and have her spot it immediately and complement me on it. She loved art, food, family, travel, reading. She was a thoughtful, inquisitive and open-hearted person. The things she made with her hands, gifts to warm and delight the people she loved, have now become, overnight, irreplaceably precious. This is another side of making, I think.

  15. I’m always so fascinated by cost breakdowns and other numbersy posts! (I also love the ones where you lay out all your clothes and go through outfit permutations.) I definitely think there is something to the arguments made by Julia above on how labor, especially women’s labor, should be valued. Others have also argued that cost should not be a metric — especially not a primary one — for measuring the value of our ethically-based choices because focusing on cost is what got us into trouble in the first place (i.e. overproduction, overconsumption, unfair labor practices, unsafe environmental practices, etc). However, I think that looking at numbers sometimes gives us different, useful perspective. Numbers can often be a great starting point for reflection. I would also love to hear how often you wear each of these pieces, too, Karen, to get another way of looking at value.

  16. For knitted garments, I take the the cost of the yarn divided by the number of hours spent making the item. Generally, the pleasure (hobby) cost per hour is negligible at the end of the process. So you’re looking at the cheapest hobby around–and, yes, the end product is something to wear if you want. Knitting is fun. Big fun. Really big fun. It’s that simple.

      • If I remember correctly I paid $14/skein for that lot — got a deal on some odd-lot skeins that had lost their labels, etc. The funny part is I had two (I think) leftover and had to buy the rest of what I needed for my current cardigan at full price, so the stockinette cardigan will wind up costing more than the fisherman sweater.

  17. We could donate crafting tools to our local libraries for borrowing out – that would remove some of the cost barriers for those who aren’t in as fortunate a financial position. Perhaps this already happens in some places?

    • I think that is a fantastic idea. I am a high school teacher and I also hope/plan to do more knitting with my students and help them acquire materials. I regularly buy materials at Goodwill to share with them. Also, I recently did some good Goodwill shopping for myself. I went home with a bunch of circular needles, 3 skeins of worsted-weight 100% wool, and a stocking-making kit from the 1970s that I’m hoping will help me learn color work. It all cost less than $15.

      • Most cities also have some version of a center for creative reuse, where people can donate unused craft supplies and others can buy them for pennies on the dollar. In SF, there’s Scrap. Here in Nashville there are at least two that I know of, although the names are escaping me at the moment.

        And did you guys see my link on Friday about the fabric swap that Sam from A Gathering of Stitches is organizing?

  18. “In my past life, 2 garments would have been a slow day at the mall, not a month’s total, yet in no way do I feel deprived or like I’m making do.” Thanks so much for articulating this thought that’s been in the shadow of my mind lately. I feel the same way.

    • This really hit home with me too. It has taken me ages to realize I’m so much more content (and well-outfitted!) with a few items I’ve made, than a closet full of ready-made.

  19. Thank you for sharing this, and thank you to everyone who commented. This is such a complex topic and it’s truly helpful to hear everyone’s approach to how we value the time and money put into cloth making.
    To the people who have described the hourly cost as being their entertainment budget : Thank you ! This was looming in my mind but I couldn’t articulate it.

    The invaluable aspect of this process, that I haven’t seen mentioned in this thread, but am sure everyone is sharing is the sense of community. I have never felt more connected and more inspired as I share with (and obsess about) other makers and creators.

    Thank you for sharing!

  20. Thank you very much for this display, it opened my eyes a little bit in terms of slow fashion, a topic on which I’m dedicating a lot of time recently. I think I can make a lot more clothes myself now, I thought I had to spent a lot more to gain an entirely handmade wardrobe. Thanks again for writing this fantastic blog!

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