Contrary to the cashier's assumption, there are many ladies today that still sew. However, I think sewing has become more of a "designer handbag" hobby rather than a frugal skill.
Do you think it is frugal to sew all of your own clothes? Think again. After buying the fabric at $3-$15 per yard, with several yards required for a dress, you're paying just as much, if not MORE, than you would at Walmart (or garage sale or thrift store) for a similar item. And that's not counting the hours you spent putting the garment together. If you figure in the initial cost of a sewing machine, miscellaneous notions and the time spent learning how to sew, the cost is even higher.
This is a distressing idea, and probably one reason why most potential sewers quit after a pair of pajama pants. Why spend time and money to make a sloppy-looking, ill--fitting piece of clothing? However, there is hope. After spending a lot of money on supplies and a lot of time sewing and learning how to sew, I've got some tips for you on how to make sewing pay off.
1. Get a sewing machine that is not something fancy. An old (possibly free) machine from the 1980s will be fine for beginners if it works properly.
2. Learn to sew with dolls. Really. (If you feel like you are too old for this, skip to #3.) I spent my tween and early teen years making dolls and doll clothes. I was able to make everything with sheets and scraps, and could make something with "fancy" (slippery, hard-to-work-with material) fabric and only buy 1/8 yard. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was learning to modify patterns and solidifying my skills with the sewing machine. Unlike my friends who had to buy expensive American Girl dolls and clothes, I was able to make anything I wanted for my dolls, for free! After the fun of playing with dolls had passed, I still made clothes because the fun of designing outfits was so addicting.
3. Learn to sew by taking apart old, free clothing. If you want to make skirts, find a skirt and take it apart, stitch by stitch, with a seam ripper. Then iron out all of the parts. The parts- what you will see on a pattern- look a lot different than the skirt when it has been put together. Take note of the hem (bottom of pants, skirt, or dress). How wide is it? How many times has it been folded under? What is the seam allowance for the piece of clothing? After you have taken it apart and ironed the pieces, save any buttons, zippers, elastic or other notions. Set aside the fabric for use in other projects. Better yet, try to put the whole thing back together.
By utilizing tips #1, #2 and #3, you will learn to sew and simultaneously build a supply of sewing notions and/or fabric for cheap (or even free!). At the learning stage, there is no reason to buy fabric. If you do find a need for large piece of fabric, an old bed sheet from a thrift store will work just fine until you are ready to make something wearable. Believe me, you probably will not want to wear your first creations in public (thus my mention of the dolls...).
4. Start with easy patterns. Princess line dresses, A-line skirts, or simple T-shirts will be easy but still flattering and wearable. If you are not going to wear your project, please don't spend money on fabric.
5. Use large garments to make small ones. When I made my wedding dress, I started with a dress from Goodwill that was several sizes too big. It had enough extra fabric for me to make an entirely new bodice.
6. If you want new fabric, buy online. Find what you want at Joann's or another fabric store, take note of what it is (satin, crepe, cotton, etc.) and find something similar and less expensive online. It is a bit of a gamble to buy fabric without touching or seeing it in person, but worth the savings if you aren't too picky.
So now you know how to sew, and you've done it fairly cheaply. But how can sewing save you money?
7. Do alterations on ready-made clothing. Oftentimes, a piece of clothing would be perfect, if only it were shorter or had a panel in front, or didn't have a tear in the side. One of my best pair of jeans was picked out of a garage sale free-box... with no button in front. It took all of 10 minutes to make that otherwise perfect pair of name-brand jeans wearable again.
8. Make costumes. Costumes tend to cost WAY more than regular clothing. If you are involved in theatre, reenacting or halloween, there are definitely big bucks to be saved by sewing your own costumes.
9. Make formal wear. Another expensive, comparatively over-priced garment is the formal prom or bridal/bridesmaid dress. These kind of garments can be tricky to make with their slippery fabrics, but definitely doable. I would recommend taking apart a cheap (possibly outdated) dress to examine the insides. Often these dresses will have several layers of support (especially if strapless) including stiff net-like material and boning, in addition to the outside fashion fabric and inside lining.
10. Make custom-fit and styled couture garments for yourself. When you've reached a skill level in which you can do anything with a piece of fabric, then you can have every DIY Sewer's Dream of making all your own clothes. But usually this advanced level isn't reached until people are busting down your door, offering to pay big bucks for your sewing expertise.
Is sewing worth it? Not if you go to Joann Fabrics and try to recreate a Walmart skirt. But if you stick to alterations, costumes, and formal wear (and source your supplies wisely), sewing can be very useful and economical. Remember, the higher your skill level, the more it pays off. So be diligent in becoming more skilled.