The Art of Thrifty Sewing: How to Save Money When You Sew

thrifty sewing

It's hard to consider sewing to be a money-saving activity when you add up your costs. After you buy a pattern, full-price fabric, and any accessories, you can easily spend twice as much as you would on the same item – already made – at a discount department store.

Occasionally, buying everything new will be the only way to create what you truly want. But most of the time, if you can be flexible and a little patient, there are some excellent sources out there for sewing supplies at next-to-nothing prices.

Buy Vintage

Thrift stores and yard sales can be a great source of fabric, patterns, notions, and tools. The best yard sales for these items are typically in older, well-established neighborhoods of mixed age demographics. Finding the perfect yard sale for sewing materials can be rewarding for the buyer and seller. While the buyer might be able to purchase several yards of fabric, a mixed bag of notions, and a handmade quilt top for just a few dollars, the retired seamstress could be thrilled to know that the items will still be appreciated.

thrifty sewing

Look Outside the Box

When you find a super sale on table cloths or bedding, consider if these items might be suitable for any upcoming projects. Cotton tablecloths can make unique sundresses. Plastic-coated tablecloths can be used to cover weathered outdoor cushions. Clearance sheets can provide several yards of fabric at a price per yard that is hard to beat.

thrifty sewing

Keep Cutting

This principle is perfect for making children's clothing or accessories. Remember your old prom dress? How many princess dresses for Halloween or the dress-up closet could you make out of it now? Those wool overcoats with boxy, outdated tailoring that have been stuffed in the back of the closet can become boys' Sunday pants. Your long, flowing cotton skirts that haven't fit in years can become girls' summer dresses. Before donating outgrown or out-of-style clothing, consider if the fabric could be useful for a pint-sized project and store it instead.

thrifty sewing

Never Buy Buttons (or Zippers, or Snaps…)

When you do begin to store some of your old clothing rather than donating it, you will also be building a stockpile of buttons, zippers, snaps, elastic, tabs and pockets. Next time you need a button, you will know exactly where to look.

By using the principles of storing what's still useful and stockpiling when you find things on sale, you can avoid the temptation to run to the fabric shop when a new project strikes your fancy. In this way, sewing is no longer an expensive hobby. It is instead just what it should be: a rewarding outlet that sparks creativity and also helps the budget.

thrifty sewing

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62 Responses to The Art of Thrifty Sewing: How to Save Money When You Sew

  1. Sewingangelsews says:

    I’m sewing on a budget most of the time. Some of my sewing tools I buy at dollar stores or hardware stores. Some times I use uncommon materials like the straps for suitcases or the bands to fasten things for transport. I make backpack or bag straps from those.

  2. Linda Danielson says:

    Loved this topic! I’ve been sewing since I was 9-years old. Helped put my hubby through college by taking in alterations and sewing clothing for the golf club women. I’m 70 now and have done it all and continue to, saving and dismantling garments for use for other things, and dying hundreds of things that weren’t the right color! My friends tease me lovingly and it always makes me smile!

  3. Shannon says:

    I tell my kids that they aren’t wearing ‘homemade clothes’ they are wearing “Custom made” clothes. It cuts down on the stigma and generates a sense of pride. Of course if questioned they say that I custom made it for them. They aren’t ashamed of that, just that kids can be mean so its important how your phrase things.

    • Jennifer says:

      Hi Shannon, with the fashion trend of wearing labels on the outside of garments, when my kids were small I used to remove labels from out grown or worn out shop bought clothes and attach them to “custom made” clothes. Helps to stop teasing. You can also get labels made cheaply like “Kids Boutique” if you don’t have a lettering function on your machine. You are right kids can be very mean!

  4. brendaave says:

    My oldest daughter commented on the skirt I was wearing and wondered where I found it. She only shops high end and I hesitated a minute before I told her that I made it from a thrift store vintage tablecloth. The look on her face was priceless! Her 4th grader observed the interaction and started re-fashioning some of her old clothes by painting over a stain, adding a ruffle to a top, and she even made herself a dress with 2 tshirts. Her teacher praised her creativity when she wore the garments to school.

  5. Yvette Lawrence says:

    Thanks for the reminder to recycle. I jpulled two skirts that were made a couple of years ago from a bag to donate and cut the reversible zippers and the fancy gold elastic bands. I will use these for future projects.

    • Yvette Lawrence says:

      Follow up to my comment: After posting my comment, I realized how stupid and selfish it was to not donate the skirts to someone that could possibly be in need. So I put one skirt back in the bag, and cut the other to make 18 mini scrap wallets to donate. The pattern is provided by The Sewing Loft and can be found on Blu Print (formally known as Craftsy). Please accept my apologies for having a moment of selfishness.

      • Jewelled1 says:

        Yvette, while I understand consideration of putting one skirt back, I found there are so many clothes at your neighborhood thrift shops, Goodwill & Salvation Army that some may end up in the trash bin instead of being used to remake something useful. Not to be selfish but now that I’m ‘re-gifting” used clothing for my family or extended family, it is less fabric that I have to purchase from my local fabric store or thrift shop. It could be used for pillow cases, quilting, pot holders, etc. Just a thought.

      • Sylvia says:

        You are so gracious to mention this. It’s more significant that you acknowledged and corrected your mistake than it was to make the initial gaff.

  6. Pat McCauley says:

    I bought a gorgeous blue 70’s leather jacket and skirt at the thrift store recently (think Dynasty, huge shoulders lol) for $15, will make several handbags, wallets, and whatever else as well as lots of ‘scraps’ that I will use for appliqué etc. Love buying leather which is so expensive this way.

  7. Diane Atkins says:

    Love all the ideas, nothing is safe from my seam ripper! Old knapsacks are a treasure trove of plastic fasteners, hooks and web straps. Threadbare coats usually have some usable fabric that goes into a pile for zipper pouches and small purses. Thank you for the wonderful patterns and tips!

  8. Janet says:

    I was thinking about all these tips and how I used them when I was newly married, maternity tops out of curtains, all wood old coats were made into cute coats for girls, slippers, mittens etc And never throw out buttons, zippers etc. I do not sew like I used to, am now a quilter, and save scraps of material for projects or for crafty people. Send unused or not going to be used fabric to GoodWill separated into gallon zip locks and color coded. Patterns can be done the same with. There are people who hand sew or can find a inexpensive machine to learn to sew with. We always tore old clothes into rags for rugs either made on a loom or hand braided and sewn together. People have forgotten how to REALLY recycle.

  9. Pamela Sturtevant says:

    I am on a limited budget plus I love the idea of recycle/reruse whatever possible, so using outdated or thrift store clothes as fabric for new projects certainly is part of my normal routine. I encourage everyone to do this, even if you can easily afford new clothes.

  10. Shirley Eagle says:

    I didn’t think I was so ‘cheap’, but none of this stuff is new to me. I just never thought it was anything anyone else would want to know! Keep it up. The more who know what you can do with what we have, the merrier. And we’ll have the money we saved to spend on other things that can’t be ‘thrifted’.

  11. Janice Lacey says:

    Our culture of overconsumption of clothing that is considered “disposable” because of how cheap it is, is literally ruining our planet. It is right up there with plastic! I was raised in a home where every piece of clothing was deconstructed (at least removing buttons, zippers etc) and repurposed in some manner – clothing, quilts, bags, dolls/toys …… or Mom bagged the un-useable fabric up, mailed it away where it was shredded and turned into blankets for our beds. Thank you Mom for teaching me these skills.

  12. Granny G says:

    I come from two generations of recycle mavens. My grandmother could take an old wool coat from a rummage sale, dye it and make a new coat for my mom or one of my aunts. She was also an incredible seamstress. She could look at a dress in a shop window and use scrounged fabric to make a copy – without a pattern and on a treadle machine! Granny could make anything – she was amazing. My mother was talented too. She’d buy rummage sale clothes and re-work them or herself or one of us kids. To her, a good piece of wool, was a good piece of wool, it could be remade into something else. So was a good cotton garment.
    I often recycle my own old clothes. Lightweight, stretchy knits are great for making underwear; out-of-date print cotton skirts are good for making kids stuffed toys or quilts, old worn out cushions provide good useful zippers. used men’s shirts can be cut down to my size or used for quilting (lots of buttons to save), ripped up old jeans can be used to make purses and the scraps can be used to reinforce patches on other jeans, and I NEVER throw away a good used zipper. I recently took an old genuine suede and faux sheepskin vest of my husband’s and made slippers with it. Keep looking around, inspiration can be found everywhere.

  13. Kristi says:

    Look for clothing on clearance racks at the mall and purchase clothing for the fabric, not necessarily the style of the garment, or even the correct size. For example, you can buy a garment made from cashmere at a greatly reduced price compared to what you would purchase cashmere by the yard for at the fabric store. Buy a size larger than you normally wear or buy two of the size that is smaller than you wear. Think of that garment as a piece of fabric. Hope this tip helps someone.

  14. Emilia says:

    There is still a lot of room to save with sewing- especially if you are sewing for someone who doesn’t take a standard size. Way cheaper to make something than to hire a seamstress. If you do buy something ready made, it is cheaper to alter it yourself than to pay someone for that. Also, anything that is labor intensive- like a handmade quilt, will be much less to make than to buy.

  15. Sylena E Smith says:

    Oh my gosh. Why did I think if this sooner!!! I threw away a pair of stretch velvet pants last week. I could have used them for kids pants!

  16. Judi says:

    Just a couple of thoughts acquired from my other hobbies of knitting/spinning/weaving.

    1. Don’t let WIP (works in progress) hang around forever. Either finish them, give them away or turn them back into their base materials. Instead of a guilt-inducing WIP, you have turned it into something that someone can use or you’ve enhanced your stash.

    2. Your project may indeed cost more than what you can buy it for in the store, but the fabric and findings are probably better quality and the fit is determined by you, not some standard mannequin.

    3. Don’t stop with calculating the cost of the finished project. Instead divide it by the number of hours of enjoyment you got from making it. I was appalled at how much spinning fiber cost but when I figured it on the basis of dollars/hour of spinning, it was better. Then if I used the yarn to knit something I had even more hours of fun. And at the end if I had an item I could use or give as a present, the cost was negligible because I’d already calculated the hours of enjoyment the fiber had given me.

    • Sandy Coffin says:

      Yes! Dollars/Hour of Enjoyment is the best way to measure the cost of any craft activity. (When I have to rip out some knitting, I console myself that the $/Hr just got even better.)

  17. Karen Dubay says:

    Great ideas! I also buy fabric pieces at thrift/resale outlets where they sell by-the-pound. Sometimes it yardage, other times it’s tablecloths or the fabric from a finished garment.

  18. Eileen Keene says:

    Plan ahead and watch for sales at the fabric store. My fabric store has 75% off flannel at the end of the winter and the same with summer weight cottons at the end of summer, so I try to plan ahead, especially for gifts when I might want to use new fabric-I bought several yards of different flannel prints recently with the plan to make flannel scarves and rice filled heating pads as holiday gifts for next Christmas
    I will start the gifts as soon as holiday decorations are down and stored!

  19. Evans S says:

    i have used material from my clothes to make shorts for my daughter. I donate almost all of our old clothes only keep a couple to make shorts.

  20. Sue PB says:

    i would add a couple more tricks. Buy older wool sweaters at thrift and yard sales or your attic. Bring them home and wash them in the hottest water possible and dry on high heat. What you get is wool felt that can be cut up into, hats, potholders, purses, (line with scraps of muslin or other lining material) 2 or three sweaters make a jacket. If you knit, take the sweater apart before washing, knit what you want and a swatch. Treat the swatch as above to get the percentage of shrinkage.

  21. nsadewater says:

    I deconstruct items before storing them so I can determine if there is enough to complete the project I want to do. Buttons are removed, strung together and stored with other buttons. Zippers are removed and stored based upon color and length, etc. This way when I am ready to sew I don’t have to spend the time taking the fabric apart.

  22. Pamela Parish says:

    These were absolutely amazing tips that I use sometimes! Plus I have new ideas now thanks to you!! Thanks so much!!!

  23. M-E Jinno says:

    All excellent ideas. I’ve been doing this for years. Every fiber is a potential fashion makeover. Potential is what I think about constantly

  24. LaNell Mueller says:

    This is the way our ancestors did things. Most of them were very frugal. My grandmother made quilts out of old clothing (the best parts), etc. My mother taught me to never throw away a button. When I was a teenager my mom made straight skirts for me out of men’s slacks that were sent to a neighbor by her son who was a businessman.. I was better dressed than some of my contemporaries whose mothers did not sew.

  25. Jean Wiseheart says:

    I found several old jeans at yard sale and I deboned them saving the fabric, pockets , zippers. The denim is great for tote bottoms. Garage sales have been a wonderful help to keep costs down and build my stash. All my finds go to laundry first.
    Love your site!

  26. Mary Creighton says:

    One of my favorite coats I ever had was one my mother made from an old wool suit coat. I grew up with a lot of these ideas. I rip off buttons, zippers and pockets, and take hardware off old purses and belts. I even save the excess fabric cut off from pants legs to use for other projects. I almost feel like a hoarder! I save so much of this stuff, I feel guilty when I really do have to throw something out. There isn’t much I can do with fabric from old jeans with lycra or knitwear that is stretched out. But if someone else has a use for it, I’d like to know!

  27. Carrie says:

    I love these tips! When I buy clothing or fabric from thrift stores or yard sales, it seems so many times there is fragrance within from the laundry soap, dryer sheets and/or perfume that was used . I’m always so optimistic that I will be able to use what I buy but even after repeated soaking in baking soda, washing, hanging outdoors in the sun, the fragrance is still there and sadly makes me kind of ill. Do you have any tips on how to remove the fragrances that linger?

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      HI Carrie, you have listed most of the things that I would have used. For the exception of soaking in vinegar and baking soda. I really have never come across this problem but I am hoping some one will post a solution. Do let me know if you find an answer. Thanks for sharing.

      • Judy says:

        I have come across lots of fabric with a musty smell. I wash it with my regular detergent and a cup or more of white vinegar. Never had a problem getting rid of it. But as far as fragrances go, I don’t know. Maybe keep at it – add it to your regular wash each time and hopefully it will eventually go away.

      • Carrie says:

        Hi Mayra! I will try vinegar too, I think that’s more of a softener but not sure, I’m learning. Like you said, hopefully someone else will know. Thank you!

        • Vickey says:

          I have this same problem, but can’t wash them with the regular laundry, or it winds up with the same odor. I’ve actually hung things out to air so long they deteriorated.
          I’ll try the vinegar & baking soda soak. Maybe the bubbling action will lift the oils that contain the fragrance.

    • Judith Martinez says:

      Oxyclean! I got cigarette smell out of a dress with an oxyclean soak. The dress was so saturated that the water was black after the soak (and I’d run it through the wash once already) but when I was done it no longer had the smell.

  28. Pamela McCandless says:

    Great article. I have been doing this what seems like forever. 30 years ago, driving down the street on the way to the grocery store, I saw a guy hauling boxes in a large wheel barrow to a huge pile of “trash”. I noticed shoe boxes from Nordstrom, I recently had purchased the same brand. I did a quick U-turn, asked if I could take a look, he replied take what you want, just don’t leave a mess. I assured him I wouldn’t. The shoes were new & practically new, even style, but not my size. But there were beautiful clothes, linens, and all manner of stuff. I took as much as my little car would hold and I could really use. The sheets that didn’t it a queen, I used for making sun dresses, one double made one for me and two small ones for a girl friends little girls. I don’t have girls to sew for. I donated tons of stuff to a battered women’s shelter, yes I went back multiple times. I called friends who went, got badly needed furniture, housewares, etc. I even had a large box of new digital watches, everyone got some. I regretted not getting some of clothes and repurpossing them. I’ll never forget the man who didn’t want to mess with a yard sale.
    I still keep an eye out and don’t worry about what other people think, I think of all the people who can benefit, and keeping it out of the landfill.
    I made it to the grocery store the next day, but nothing was left for the trash man, not a single box or bag.

    • Donna says:

      We must be sisters! You sound just like me! I love to put stuff into the hands of people who need it. I help at a church thrift store and we give free clothes and housewares to people whose houses
      burned down, people getting out of rehab, people who just got custody of grandchildren, etc., etc. The items we sell are super cheap. The proceeds go back into our community.

  29. Carole Dufort says:

    I am 65 and have been sewing since the age of 14. My mom was a theater seamstress sewing costumes for plays, and she’s the one who thought me to sew. She thaught me to remove buttons and zippers from discarted pieces of clothing and to buy fabric on sale only. Also, use adult size garment and cut children patterns out of them. At times, I have gone to thrift store (dress for $1.00) and buy an oversize one. Wash and iron it, then cut a garment ouf of it. And got so many compliments out of it. If you don’t have enough fabric from that one dress, mix another fabric with it or make a new design with the added fabric i.e. chevron bodice with those two dresses. It’s a lot of work, but soooo cheap and looks to good. Also, topstitch with proper topstitch thread and choose a long stitch. Topstitching makes a garment look like a million bucks.

  30. Bonnie R in KY says:

    I love your site, and this article. I want to point out , I never ever leave a yard sale that has a freeebie box without taking a peek. Men’s clothes can become pot holders, casserole carriers, Tiny girl dresses can become fancy summer evening bags – ohh the smoking and embroideries ! If it’s orange – Halloween! If it’s Christmas – make stockings ! At the very least save smaller pieces for appliques. trims, making reusable gift bags. I always sort by type and box with labels – flannel plaids, mens shirting, table linens, etc.

  31. Sophie says:

    AFTER I took a bundle of t-shirts for donation last year, it dawned on me that I could reuse them for a pantie pattern that I found recently! D’uh! The material is soft and would work perfectly. So, this spring, I’ll sort my closets with an eye for the fabric and donate what doesn’t work. And I’ve been a notion saver for a long time too.

  32. honor14 says:

    some great ideas. Thank you.. Only found your site a couple of weeks ago and I made your 30 minute skirt

  33. Em, NSW Australia says:

    All great advice – I used to buy oversized adult clothes at the second hand shop or garage sales for fabric to make clothes for my kids. Now that am learning how to accomodate trickier adult shapes (thanks to So Sew Easy) I am practicing on old bed linen. Have been collecting buttons and zippers from old clothes for years (a habit of my mothers). Every bit helps.
    Its a shame fabric is so expensive now – tweny years ago here I found it still economical to buy some fabrics rather than an off the rack garment. Happy sewing everyone, its such a fullfilling thing to do.

  34. Goddesslily says:

    I love the idea of tearing out zippers, I’d never thought of that!

  35. Lisa says:

    LOVE these ideas! I love old sheets for mock up instead if using muslin. I also mix and match patterns so I don’t have to buy new ones.

  36. I just got two darling little girl’s dresses out of one dress of mine with tired shirring. My older daughter (just three now!) always said “you look lovely mama” when I wore it so I thought she would like such a dress. I had to trick a little bit (make a seam at the back piece for example) but they are so adorable and cost just the thread (which I bought at a discount 😉

  37. Emily Crocetto says:

    Excellant ideas and money saving tips on altering and restyling old into new clothes.

  38. Carma Buschman says:

    Really love your site and these great ideas! So glad I found you!

  39. hphobby says:

    Thinking outside the box, a friend encouraged me to look at clearance furniture covers at IKEA. I bought several pieces of sturdy canvas fabric for $1 each!! One of those pieces became a beautiful tote bag for my friend. I’ve never been so satisfied with a bargain.

  40. Deborah Sharpe says:

    Another way to save is to buy vintage sewing machines. Very solid, all metal gear machines can be found for less than $50 in thrift stores and at yard sales. I use machines made in the 40s and 50s on a daily basis and they are very dependable. Be sure to do a little research to see if parts are still available.

What do you think?