How to Save Money on Patterns and Fabric

Try on RTW styles that are similar to the patterns you want to make before you buy that pattern or fabric.
Herein lies the key to saving money on patterns and fabric.

No, I’m not going to tell you to wait for pattern sales and to bargain with fabric store owners. My money-saving tip is even more basic than that. Here it is:

Go to the store and try on RTW styles that are close or the same as the pattern you want to make. Do this before you buy a new pattern (assuming it’s a style you haven’t made before) or a yard of fabric.

What prompted this post was reading the comments on Facebook about the crossover top pattern (M6991). People were wondering how it would look on, and some were dismissing it as unflattering to anyone not a stick figure. However, versions of this top are in stores everywhere now. Try one on: If it looks good, make it! If it looks hideous, then well done you, because you just saved a bunch of time and money.

Yesterday at lunch I went to Century 21, which I think is the world’s most fabulous off-price department store. (Seriously, include a visit to the downtown flagship store next time you’re in NYC; totally worth it.) I was so excited when I saw this camel-hair Derek Lam coat, because I love this shape and want to make a coat similar to it.

Derek Lam coat at Century 21, NYC.
Derek Lam coat at Century 21, downtown NYC.

So I tried it on and…bleh. Really ugly on me. Now I’m crossing this off my list and thinking about other coat patterns.

An example of me not following my own advice is what I call the Peplum Debacle of 2012. I found out, after I wasted some expensive fabric and my time sewing V8815, that peplums on me are scary. Could not be a more unattractive look on me.

V8815 Vogue Patterns peplum top
I was convinced, with no proof to back up my conviction, that I’d look fabulous in a peplum top like V8815.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking, ugh, I hate shopping and trying clothes on and that’s why I sew. I hear you. But isn’t spending a little time in the fitting room better than wasting a lot of time (and money) making something you never would have bought in the first place?

So be smart, happy sewers and remember this: Cost to try before sewing: $0. Cost to sew before trying: $$-$$$, plus time wasted and much frustration incurred.

Tell us: Do you “try before you buy” with patterns? Any other words of advice in this area?

We’ve been sewing since 1863.

47 comments
  1. Well said.. Funny I was just talking to someone about the difference between buying RTW and sewing your own clothes.. You don’t get to try on garments before sewing. But like you said, there are similar garments in stores now, so it’s easier to just go in and try them on before sewing them.

    What I personally do is search for reviews and other sewers that have made the look/pattern I want to make. I read their comments about the pattern and see how it fits them. This has helped me so far. And also knowing your body type and what fits your body type helps a lot.

  2. This, is a true story. Love your voice!

  3. Too true. have done this very thing. discovered to my shock that cut out shoulders work well for me.

  4. love the century 21 experimentation. you are a brave woman to enter its maniacal doors at lunch hour.

    although sewing did turn shopping sour for me (used to be a beloved past time) i have found a new love for mock shopping… now i leave stores empty handed, but brain full.

    1. I use the empty handed, brain full shopping strategy too. Snoop shopping is a great way to experiment with looks!

    2. Love the phrase, “empty handed, brain full.” You may have started a movement.

  5. What I love is that sewing patterns now are right on trend – they don’t lag behind what I can buy in the stores. Just this week I saw a dress I loved on pinterest, and thought, wait — there is a pattern for that. So now I can make up the dress myself:)

  6. Good advice! I never had the misfortune of sewing something and not liking it on me. I’ve been sewing on and off since I was 12 yrs old so I always know what works for me. My mother would never buy me fabric to mess up so I had to be sure it would work in my wardrobe. There was just no way I was going to be “her” sewing machine for nothing, lol. Yes, the peplum worked back in the day but I would not do it now, the wrap top on the other hand is worth it and I will be making a few of them.

  7. I like to tell myself that I’ve tried on enough clothing over the course of my life that I’ve got a pretty good idea of what kinds of shapes and lines work for me.So I’m fairly picky with the patterns I get to begin with. I don’t think I’ve yet sewed up anything that was a complete disaster in terms of style (though disastrous in other ways sometimes, for sure).

    And even so–I so hate shopping for clothing that I would rather spend the time and money to make it up first and find out, then spend any more of my precious time at the mall than I have to. Really. At least then I get to sew, which is fun.

  8. Great advice! I bought the crossover top yesterday after seeing it on Instagram. I’m really hoping it looks good on me!

  9. That’s fantastic advice! I’ve wasted lots of money and time on things that don’t suit me. Sometimes you just don’t know about a shape or style until you’ve seen it on your body! In the past I’ve waited a few times for a pattern to get made up by a blogger with a similar shape to mine, but trying on a RTW version is probably much faster!

  10. Also, remember that spending a little more money on decent fabric for your final make can save you untold heartache and the expense of a less-than-wonderful make in a fabric that you bought merely because it was inexpensive. Remember to factor in the cost of time spent shopping, mileage and wear-and-tear on your vehicle, and the cost of your labor when you are calculating actual garment cost. And pay yourself at least federal minimum wage when you do your mental math.

    Mistress Meg is so, so very right: Don’t waste money on something that does not make you happy, either rtw or your own couture creations. Even if your sweet, dear mother insists that you look great in a mustard yellow and magenta giant plaid dirndl, check yourself in the mirror first before committing to that pattern and fabric purchase. (Who am I to judge? She may be right!)

  11. This is a good idea. I’ve always look over the pattern and noticed if I could easily do my normal adjustments that I need. If I see where it would be very difficult or not possible I pass on the pattern. I think the other is being self aware when it comes to your body, if you see yourself as you really are you are less likely to make style mistakes.

  12. Brilliant advise that I too employ at the Century 21 down in Brooklyn. I love to browse the better RTW to see the different seam finishes and construction details

  13. This is a great tip! I Have about 5 peplum patterns and I’m 96% sure I won’t look good in them. I have 2 that look OKAY that I purchased but I never wear them lol

  14. I rarely shop but I do take a lot of cellphone camera pics of ready-to-wear details I like.

  15. I did this last week! I decided to try on some color blocked dresses, so see if I should mix colors, or just stick with a solid on an upcoming project. The dresses I tried on looked horrible – but only because they didn’t fit well. I would never be able to buy this style in a store. BUT, with a little pinching and imagination I could see that they style itself could work very well for me. So I plan to give it a go. After making a few muslins first, of course.

  16. I had the opposite experience with a peplum. Thought I would look hideous in them, but my daughter insisted I try one on in the store, and it actually made my big hips look smaller – who would’ve thought? So I made V8815, got nothing but compliments and am making another. So your advice is definitely great – try before you sew!!

  17. This advice works the other way, too. More than once I have tried on a style I didn’t even like on the hanger because I was heading for the fitting room anyway, and found new styles I really like.

  18. Such a good idea- one I hate to confess that I hardly ever practice. I only ever seem to shop for clothes when I NEED something, not for “fashion fit” purposes. I did once try on a style just like Vogue 1108 and loved it on myself- but it still sits unmade. Hmmm.. Since I am spending a long weekend in NYC in late October, a trip to Century 21 sounds like a good idea! Thanks for the kick in the fitting pants Meg!

  19. MANY years ago, I tried on something Calvin Klein….I loved it, but too expensive, so next time, I brought a seam gauge and paper, and a tape measure, and measured it in the dressing room, and made it from scratch! I tried on expensive wedding dresses before I made mine. I am too poor to buy clothes, but when I find fabric cheap, I copy stuff I find. Now I use patterns, but it helps to measure RTW to know how much ease fits your body.

    1. Ooh yes. The wedding dress is the mother of all ‘gotta try it on’ clothes. The NYT Ethicist and I got into a email snipefest about this some years ago: his (HIS) opinion was that if you try it on there, you should buy it there. And that sewing was just like buying it somewhere else, ethically speaking.
      (sound of stifled laughter)
      Dodged a big disaster on the coat, though. That’s like sewing a car.

  20. Great advice, that I will be taking on! I am guilty of doing this all the time, in fact I have done this very thing quite recently, thought the big, roomy, artist like dresses, all the vogue at the mo would look fabulous on me, but I ended up looking like a little girl playing dress up, in a linen potatoe sack.

  21. Good idea! I never thought of that! Although when I get dragged to store I usually think, and sometimes say out loud, “$134.99! I could make it better for half that cost!!”. I don’t get out much.

  22. This is one of my favourite activities! For me it works the other way around, I find inspiration in clothes that I try on in stores, and I hurry home (via the fabric store) to make them up myself. At the moment I’m self drafting a pair of culottes but usually I use a pattern. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about sewing, especially when I can put my own twist on things. Woohoo!

  23. Great post! I was just thinking about this the other day as I definitely fell into the trap of sewing things that look gorgeous on other people when I first started. I can very rarely find anything I truly love when shopping now and instead enjoy checking out the construction and thinking about how I would tweak things to make it work for me!

  24. Being a nonstandard height I find the proportions are often wrong on RTW so it’s hard to tell if a style is OK or not from trying it in a shop. But the good news is that I’ve found I can wear things I never thought would suit me once I’ve adjusted the length of the pattern. I prefer to just take the chance on a pattern I love.

    A couple of years ago everyone in the sewing blogosphere was making a digital croquis to try out styles. I haven’t seen one for a while though.

    1. Catherine. I tried making a digital croquis, but I’m still not quite sure how to use it. lol

  25. Great advice! Although, I will add that one ought not to be too quick to dismiss items though because the devil is in the details. If proportions are wrong or the fabric not right, that could make one dismiss something that could have actually been great in the right fabric etc….I do think women fall into some sort of trap, oh I can’t wear that, I’m short or that would good on only a stick figure, how many times does that get said?? I say why don’t you try it first? I think a lot of people might be surprised.

  26. This makes a lot of sense. I find that there’s a lot to learn from RTW, from construction to style to little details here and there that I wouldn’t have thought would look good on me.

  27. Hey, because I wait for the sales on patterns, I find I buy MORE of them and (at least yesterday) spent MORE on them than if they were regular (listed) price.

    Not sure if that pricing model is one that’s going to keep anyone in business much longer.

  28. Well said! I never thought to try on before buying and it’s cost me tons of time and money of nothing but fruatration. Good advice!

    1. I’ve seen where it’s been suggested that you go into a high end store to try on clothes and see finishing details. I would feel bad about taking up a salesperson’s time if I knew I had no intention of purchasing something from their store. I don’t think it would bother me as much if it was a department store. Probably flawed logic, but … I should probably go try on clothes to see what actually looks good/decent on me.

      1. Carol, that’s why I love stores like Century 21, Off Saks, Neiman Marcus Last Call. They carry designers like Chanel, Prada, Lanvin, Balmain and more, and if you want to try them on no one cares.

  29. In the past I have tried on the actual garment for the Designer pattern I wish to make. It’s useful to see construction techniques, which may be different than those used in the pattern. Long ago I made a DKNY dress and I found the pattern was identical in measurements to the dress in the store in my size; however, the dress in the store had a waist stay and facing cut in one out of lining fabric. I reproduced those details. I also like to deconstruct old or vintage garments to see how things are put together: my husband’s old Armani jacket gave up many secrets. In my early years of sewing my goal was always to have my projects look as much like RTW as possible.

  30. I do try on before I sew. I have spent a lot of time in the fitting room trying on clothes, this is part of why I sew. Since losing 75 lbs, I have decided to try on all styles of clothing, this way i will be able to tell if what I like looks good!

  31. This is something that I try to tell my daughter and husband. Unfortunately, I don’t always follow my own advice. I just made a pair of jeggings for myself. They are now my daughter’s. I hated the style on me. She loves them on herself.

  32. Could not agree more. I always struggled to buy clothes online for this reason, my vision & reality did not always meet!
    My daughter wanted me to sew a dress for her and I offered her the same advice. ‘Let’s go to the shops, you try on all sorts of things and then we will decide what to sew’. And funnily enought the dress I suggested she try on, thinking it would not suit her at all… looked completely amazing!

  33. What can look horrible in RTW can look fabulous when made to fit your proportions. However, I am not opposed to checking out RTW for ideas and inspiration 😉

  34. I also make a muslin 90 percent of the time. I’d rather waste 99 cent a yard fabric and see how it fits and if I really like it first.

  35. I try to do this twice a year as the seasons change winter to summer. I always find it very enlightening. Colors I think might look awful surprise me and shapes I didn’t expect to work sometimes do. It’s a very eye opening experience. It’s also fun to look inside the garments. Most of the time that either shows me a new trick or lets me know how good I actually can sew.

  36. fab post and makes total sense – although I’m just about to cut out a top with a peplum!!! 🙂

  37. I always snoop-shop. Why waste time and money going through the motions of a garment that doesn’t flatter? I wrote a post a couple of years ago on my adventures in snoop shopping for a cocktail dress. Best. Thing. Ever. =)

  38. This also holds true in the world of knitting where a nice sweater made with good yarn can set you back a $100+. Try on a similiar sweater in the store…or if a trunk show comes to shop near you, try something. Take pictures. Or at least have someone else take pictures. Funny how pictures reveal things you don’t notice just looking in the mirror.

  39. I thought everyone did this.

    In college I would try on the new styles, then go down the street to the nice lady who ran the designer fabric and patterns shop.

    ============
    Another money-saver is to re-use basic patterns. I made the same skirts and tops in different fabrics because what can you say about a simple yoke-waist A-line?

    And buy a good jacket (because they are a PITA beyond most people’s skills) and make skirts and blouses for it.

  40. I totally agree, Meg. I try to go snoop shopping twice a year on day where time doesn’t matter. It can take an afternoon to “do” one store. I go when the new seasonal garments have just come in. I am always amazed at how what I thought would be divine is actually disaster and then I what I thought would be meh really looks great. Its also a good time to refresh what colors make one look their best.

    1. Just realized I posted twice. Dang, that caffeine!

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