Last week’s report on my rapidly depleting fabric stash led me to think about our sewing spaces, how we show them off, and the reality behind the seductive facade. If ever there was a time for unearthing the reality behind those shiny happy Insta shots – it’s now.
So, dear reader, I give you the sewing space debunk: deconstructing the gloss and showing how, with a little time and grit, you can create your own sewing haven, however small or transitory.
My concern here is that sewing as a hobby seems unattainable. Before I joined Instagram in 2019, I always thought of sewing as a thrifty creative outlet. It is absolutely wonderful to see how many people are now taking up sewing, and how many are joining in online, sharing their passion and their work. But on Instagram, at least, sewing doesn’t seem like the frugal activity I grew up with. It’s a whole other beast, revolving around pricey fabric, every gadget under the sun, and supersonic machines with price tags to rival that of a second hand car.
If you want to sew, but are on a tight budget (by which I mean struggling to make ends meet, not a self-inflicted ‘fabric ban’) does this seem like the hobby for you? Probably not. This makes my heart ache, because it could be. It really could.
Sewing is, in many ways, a liberating activity: it encourages body positivity, self-acceptance, self-actualisation. It gives us a sense of self-efficacy, mastery, worthiness. With care, you can create clothes you feel good in on a very tight budget – sometimes even rivalling the price points of the likes of Primark. Yes, really. This way is hard work, clearly, but it comes with its own rewards. The fact those rewards are slower is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives us time to consider our projects and sew more sustainably.
I’m not about to lecture anyone who is hard up on being sustainable. I have too many thoughts on this subject to include here, but will share them at a later date. My hope is that by showing the reality behind my sewing set-up, you will get an idea of how this hobby can be taken up on a shoe string. And, dare I venture, sewing on a shoe string is the best way to get started. If you’re anything like me, you will continue to sew this way long after necessity demands it.
Now, I’m going to step right up here and acknowledge some of the ludicrous privilege to which I am party – not least the fact my gran used to run a haberdashery on the Bolton markets of yore and I have bags of buttons – probably enough to last me a lifetime.
Nevertheless, it’s worth knowing that much of what looks like an artfully curated and, one might therefore assume, expensive set-up is in fact a smorgasbord of the free, cheap as chips, or repurposed.
So, in the interests of getting up and running with a sewing set-up that doesn’t cost the earth, here are five mantras to help you save money on your sewing space. I think mantras are better than guides on what to buy, because they frame an approach without being overly prescriptive; it’s your kit, your space, your choice.
1. You don’t need a designated space to sew
Let’s face it, most of us don’t even have a sewing space, let alone a sewing room. Yes it would be amazing to have a room, yes it is fantastic to have a designated spot (I’ve been lucky enough to have had such a place for the last few years), and it’s great to have somewhere we can regularly sew – even if we have to clear away – like the kitchen table or a fold-out in your bedroom. Sometimes, however, none of this is possible: we cart our machine from here to there, trying to find a suitable spot for the hour or so we have spare. Our materials and notions, fabrics and tools and machines are shoved all over the shop, and gathering them is a mission in itself. Sometimes, by the time we’ve managed to set ourselves up, the desire to sew has wained, and the call of the kettle and biscuit tin impossible to resist.
Even so, it’s not the end of the world. You don’t need that special spot, however wonderful it would be, to sew. If you get yourself as organised as you possibly can, you will save time on set-up, however strange and ever-changing the day’s location proves to be.
If you love sewing, now is the time to invest in the habit. And by invest, I mean schedule in regular practice. However hard it is to find the time, let alone the space, the habit itself is what will carry you through your life, not any amount of fancy equipment or studio space. Put aside twenty minutes three times a week, and you may find that time mysteriously expands.
Before we moved to our current house, we rented a one bed flat. As our first child got older, we turned the living room into our bedroom so she could have her own room. From then on, if I wanted to sew, it would be at the kitchen table, which was folded away most of the time to make room for our sofa. That table also doubled as my office (I was writing up my PhD and freelancing as a journalist at the time) and the place we ate every meal. I’m surprised we didn’t wear the hinges off the gateleg.
My sewing machine was stored in an understairs cupboard. Fabric was squashed into an Ikea bag at the bottom of our wardrobe. My notions and tools were in a plastic tool box and a couple of shoe boxes under the bed.
I sewed as often as I could – which wasn’t as much as I would have liked. While it was a ball ache at the time, I’m glad I persevered because now, five years on, with a designated sewing spot, both the habit, and an appreciation of how lucky I am to have it, is ingrained.
Whenever you look at Instagram, it’s always worth remembering that all is not as it seems. From the picture above you might think I have my very own sewing room. The reality is I have taken possession of one wall of the spare room, while my husband’s ‘office’ occupies the opposite wall, and the spare bed (and the ironing board) the gap in-between. It’s a good-sized room so it works for us, but I do still dream of having it all to myself. Yes I have suggested my husband puts a shed in the back yard for his office. No it didn’t go down well.
2. You don’t need all that stuff to sew
Sewing is, in a quite literal sense, a material habit. But it is only materialistic if you choose for it to be. Of course there are some basics that are indispensable, like maybe a machine (unless you take a really slow approach), scissors, needles, etc. You definitely don’t need a computerised machine. I still haven’t got one; even though I’ve been saving up for years, I think the truth is I cannot really be faffed with anything so fancy. And – hold the front page – you 100 per cent do not need a coverstitch.
Your machine is likely to be your biggest outlay. Even if you source cheap thread, fabric, patterns and gadgets, the cost per garment shoots up when you account for machinery. This doesn’t mean you have to drop a bomb. If you want to start sewing, it’s always worth asking around to see if anyone has a machine you can borrow. This gives you a chance to see if you really dig it before committing. Put an ad on Freegle or Freecycle and see if you get lucky. Failing that, head over to eBay or Facebook selling and see what’s on offer: the markdown on used machines is like cars.
Overlockers are hot darned amazing, I’m not going to lie. I would hate to be without mine now, but you do not need one. They don’t improve your sewing, they just make you faster and, dare I say it, sloppier (speak for yourself, Ruth!). Stretch fabrics are easier with an overlocker, but it’s a luxury. I’d wager your sewing is of a higher standard without an overlocker because you have to invest in couture finishes to keep those seams tidy. Keeping the overlocker on the long list is a surefire way to learn the ropes, and learn them well.
As for the rest of the endless sewing paraphernalia that is constantly being waved under your nose… You don’t need it. I have plenty of gadgets that make my life easier, but I could do without them and prior to owning them used something else for the same purpose (Prym point turner for a knitting needle, anyone?).
Now this isn’t to say it’s not jolly good fun acquiring some of these items. I’ve been sewing for decades so it’s no surprise I have a decent set-up by now. I always have a little list going in my head, in case anyone asks me for a birthday or Christmas idea. Low cost items build up into quite a collection over time.
If you do need to make a purchase, make sure you check out the amazing YouTube channel The Camden Stitch. In a whopping six part series (starting here), Jay Jay (aka @thecamdenstitch on Instagram) guides you through every aspect of sewing on a budget. It’s an invaluable series. Even if you don’t need to worry about the financial side of sewing, there are tips for everyone.
3. It doesn’t have to be perfect
So you haven’t enough fabric to pattern match? Skipping the pattern matching will save you a lot of fabric in the long-run. Your bobbin has one shade of blue, your thread is a different shade, and your fabric another – does it matter? Nope. Don’t sweat the small things. We are all far too critical of our own work when the reality is nobody else gives a rat’s derriere if your seams are wobbly. There are so many ways to save on sewing (again, pointing you in Jay Jay’s direction for a plethora!). For more ideas check out this blog on bargainous sewing from Alice of The Polka Dot Palace and pay Wendy Ward a visit.
As for your sewing space, it doesn’t need to be perfect either. You don’t need that trio of machines (sewing, overlocker, coverstitch) so constantly flaunted on Instagram. You don’t need a spare machine in storage just in case. You don’t need a separate machine for your kid. You don’t have to reach an immaculate zen-like state to get into your sewing (though I can’t deny it would be nice to have the opportunity). Take a make-do and mend philosophy to your sewing set-up and make the most with what you have. Feel free to dream, but don’t let that stop you starting the habit right now.
4. It doesn’t have to be new
I know second hand gives some people the shivers, but I would never have gotten as heavily into sewing as I have without having received just about everything that started me off as a hand-me-down. Most other things I purchased for pennies from a thrift shop or eBay, or sourced for nowt but gratitude on Freecycle.
Let me give you an idea. See the picture of my stash, left? A lot of the fabric is old. It was my gran’s mostly, some of it mum’s. What I bought myself, I sourced from a variety of places – deadstock from The Textile Centre, market stall finds, wax fabric and ripstop from eBay, and some more expensive fabric (decent denim, silk crepe) as presents. A lot of these pieces are sub-one metre remnants; I will use them up for small projects as time goes by. As you can see from the labels, this collection has been built over a period of more than 20 years. It was bigger, but as I wrote here, it has taken a battering over the course of lockdown.
The buttons in the Kilner jars were mostly my gran’s, some my mum’s, and some from a good friend of my mother-in-law who sadly passed away a few years ago. When people know you are a keen sewist, they often think to pass things to you, which is a lovely feeling and creates an inter-generational bond between makers. The Kilner jars were bought from Ikea years ago when we had an allotment and I went through an extensive chutney phase. Yes, some of them still smell a bit spicy, it’s part of the charm.
The cupboard was a huge stroke of luck: it had been left in the house when we moved in. If you’re into midcentury, it’s a Minty bookcase, made in Oxford for libraries – since we’d just moved up from Oxford, where I had spent an inordinate amount of time bookworming, this seemed rather fitting. It soon became my sewing cupboard.
Most of the other stuff you can see is repurposed or a present (ahhh, my beloved clapper). The old metal box from Ikea I’ve had since I was an undergrad in the late-90s. It’s bashed up but the perfect width for storing patterns. Inside are mostly vintage patterns I inherited from my gran, or bagged on eBay for pennies (the rest of my patterns are stored in boxes in a cupboard on the other side of the room).
On the shelves above are books and manuals, several of which are very old, handed down or picked up in charity shops, a few thrifted handbags and boxes, and some toys from when I was a kid.
5. It doesn’t have to be forever
In front of the cupboard is one of my luckiest finds: my mannequin. It’s not the best dress form on earth (why are we always coveting the next thing, I wonder?) but it does the job. I call her Blodwin. She’s a decidedly odd shape, truth be told – although adjustable, she has Barbie boobs and all her girth seems to come in depth rather than width. She is, however, a useful clothes horse to get a rough idea of fit and look.
She came to me through Freecycle – I was still a student finishing my PhD while we were doing our house up, and I was constantly offloading random things like window stays and sinks, when I spotted someone was giving Blodwin away 10 minutes drive from our house. It was a dream come true. Many moons ago my mum found an Adjustoform in a charity shop. I’d only had it for a year when we moved flats and it was crushed to a pulp in the back of the van. Blodwin is made of polystyrene with a rod up her middle and some slightly-broken dials to adjust her size. But she does me proud. One day I might get a fancier version. Or maybe I won’t.
The problem is when we equate our creativity with consumerism, and measure our value by a barometer set purely by purchasing power.
I hope this post doesn’t come across preachy. Nothing could be further from my intentions. I am concerned that the entry point to sewing is being misrepresented – unintentionally for the most part – as prohibitively expensive. Our wonderful sewing community is interwoven with the business of selling. In many ways this is positive: giving new and independent businesses a place to grow. The problem is when we equate our creativity with consumerism, and measure our value by a barometer set purely by purchasing power. The fact is, if we are failing sewists with limited budgets then we are failing on every measure of inclusivity.
If you can afford to splash out on your space, then great – there is nothing nicer than being able to make it every bit as wonderful as your dreams. But if you are on a budget, or maybe have no budget, then please don’t despair. My hope is that the entry point to this activity will slide down a notch. You don’t need to part with your hard earned at a rate of knots to get going. It takes time to build a stash. But you can have fun being creative with your space, working out ingenious hacks to make things you already own work for you, and sourcing the things you need at cut price. I hope then you will forget about the sewists with four coverstitch machines and a cutting table the size of your entire flat. The true gold is in the sewing itself.
So, how did you start out with your sewing space? Whereabouts do you sew? Or are you just beginning to work out what you need and how to get hold of it? Let me know in the comments below…