Following my recent post Six reasons to love sewing coats, I was asked whether it’s possible to sew a coat without spending a fortune.
Money is one of those troublesome metrics which, while it seems straightforward – a pound is a pound, a dollar a dollar – is in fact anything but.
Despite the fact the experience of money is elastic – my fortune could be your pittance – there is an endless stream of fashion and style pieces on ‘affordable style’ or ‘dressing on a budget’.
Some pundits focus on value – the idea that if we spend more on quality it will last longer and therefore work out better ‘cost per wear’ over the long term. Others promote cheap ‘dupes’ of designer pieces – something that looks like Dior but costs a tenner is, according to this camp, all anyone ‘on a budget’ could wish for.
The idea of affordable sewing or sewing on a budget is similarly fraught. Who is the arbiter? Whose budget? How long is the piece of string? How deep are your pockets?
So before I get stuck into one of my favourite sewing topics (coats!) once again, I have to start with a disclaimer: affordability is subjective, it varies from one person to another. ‘Sewing on a budget’ does not, in itself, mean anything in financial terms, other than an indication that there is a boundary to expenditure. This could mean a budget of pennies or of thousands.
I can’t, therefore, tell anyone how to make sewing ‘affordable’. What I can tell you is whether you can sew a coat for less than it would cost you to buy one new from a high street chain.
The short answer is: yes. For the long answer (as if I would ever give you anything but!) read on.
Hit the high street
The easiest way to approach this is to turn it on its head. Start from how much you would spend on a shop-bought coat and work back from there.
A quick peruse of the January sales shows that coats are not as expensive as they used to be. Once considered investment pieces that would be kept carefully for years, now high street retailers clamour to offer the cheapest price points and consumers buy and discard at dizzying rates.
On a recent search (I won’t include links because fast fashion moves so quickly some of them have already expired since I first looked) I found a Zara wool blend (55% wool) coat that had been reduced from £96 to £60. Another wool mix (13%) tailored coat at M&S, meanwhile, was £63 in the sale down from £79.
Like I said, I’m not going to get into whether this is affordable or not, but in terms of materials alone (we’ll get to other inputs later) these are modest price tags.
Now, let’s compare this with some of the coats I’ve made.
The main fabric for the grey double breasted coat pictured here was about £20 per metre (I used 2.5 metres), the lining was £3 and the interfacings (hair and linen canvas and Petersham) about £5 for what I used (I bought more than I needed), the buttons were from my gran, the pattern a vintage eBay purchase I’d used before, and the thread already in my stash (I’ve never been one to worry about an exact colour match).
So, if I discount labour – which I do because it’s my hobby and, let’s face it, fast fashion outlets basically discount labour too – that’s about £58 for a pure wool coat with (in my humble opinion!) a quality finish and fitted to my exact specifications in terms of design, length, etc.
This might be too much for some but it feels reasonable to me. In fact, if I saw a wool coat (or any overcoat for that matter) in a shop for £58 I would be worried. Who was working for pennies to make this? Luckily on this occasion the answer is… me!
My latest coat, this navy wool jacket made using a Prima pattern I bought on eBay for 99 pence, used about two metres of £20pm fabric, plus 1.5m of lining and about 1/4m interfacing. Cost of materials: about £50. The fabric for both this and the grey coat was from Minerva for review – I’m giving the figure for total cost here because the point I want to make is that, even without free fabric, you can still beat the high street by sewing your own.
So, if I was shopping for a wool mix coat, I could easily snap up a tailored wool mix number for around the same price – in terms of materials – as the coats I’ve made. Was it cheaper to make them myself? In real terms, only just.
Keeping costs down
For those on a tighter budget, Primark might be a port of call (I’m using these high street stores as examples because, generally speaking, we understand the ballpark price points). Here you can pick up a ‘longline smart coat’ for £35 or a ‘tailored’ coat for £23. There is no mention of fabric composition.
So, it’s fair to say, I could definitely get a coat for less than it would cost to make the wool coats shown above. Not by a huge margin, and I’m comparing Primark with a tailored wool coat, but still – if we’re talking brass tacks here, Primark wins.
But you didn’t think I would let Primark win, did you?
I’ve mentioned before that I started sewing to save money. I didn’t want to buy from stores where everything was the same, and I didn’t want to spend what little money I did have on clothes, so I learned to make and refashion as thriftily as possible. That meant buying fairly cheap fabric (one for another day in terms of sustainability and ethics, I know) and making clothes from vintage patterns or self-drafting. Without fail, I could come in lower than Primark prices – and, while I have to admit this was never a driving force behind my learning to sew, it comforts me today to know who made my clothes.
My 1970s wrap coat, for example, was made a few years ago with two metres of 150cm synthetic coating from The Textile Centre. Fancy fabric it is not, but I think it looks great and I still love wearing it. The fabric was £4.99 per metre. The lining was a ditsy print viscose I also bought from The Textile Centre for £2 per metre. Thread was just what I had in my stash, as was the pattern – one from my gran, though it could have easily been purchased online for a couple of quid. I could have stopped there – for about £13 in total, but I wanted to learn some new techniques so bought linen canvas and Petersham for an additional £10 (using about half for this coat). At £18 this coat came in (again, counting materials only) at less than the cheapest ‘tailored’ Primark coat.
Another coat I made around the same time was a shorter wool-mix coat (using the same pattern as the navy wool version discussed above) which required two metres of fabric. Again, I bought a £5.99 wool blend from The Textile Centre and used the same lining and leftover iron-on interfacing from my stash. Including the pattern, this one came in at about £15.
Factoring in labour
So far, we’ve looked at the upfront costs of making a coat versus buying from the lower end of the high street. To prevent drowning in a sea of sludge, I’ve avoided getting into longer-term costs of machines and equipment because, as I’ve written here and here, you really don’t need to blow a wad on these things to sew well.
The glaring omission that cannot be ignored in this calculation is labour.
If I factored the amount of labour involved in making a coat, the price of even the cheapest of my homemade affairs would become far less competitive. I don’t add up the hours (because I do it for fun, who’s counting?), but I suspect we are talking days here, not hours.
Let’s say I worked really fast and managed to cut out and sew up a tailored coat in a day (unlikely!) – how much would I like to be paid? Let’s say (British) minimum wage £8.72 x 8 = this adds an extra £70 to proceedings (and let’s be clear, it took me longer). I noticed Celtic and Co were recently hiring machinists in their Cornish factory and offering a rate of £12 per hour. So that would give us a day rate of £96.
So, where might I pay somewhere in the region of £140 – £166 for a wool coat? M&S does a very nice wool and cashmere coat (65%/11%) for £149, the difference in price bumped up for the premium label and fabric quality.
What if we go a bit higher end? One of my favourite stores for an inspo snoop is Whistles. A 75% wool single breasted coat in the January sale for £139 was down from £285. If I was in the market for a shop-bought coat, my head would definitely be turned by a price reduction like that!
Indeed, £139 for a 75% wool coat now seems fairly cheap when we consider the inputs involved. Yes, businesses benefit from economies of scale, leaner and swifter production (and I know factories probably turn out a garment in half the time, but let’s just play with this idea for a while), but they have to cut a profit somewhere. The £166 I mentioned above does not take into consideration commercial costs such as transportation, warehousing, retail square footage and sales staffing – where is the profit in all of this?
As consumers, we simply don’t know. We don’t know how much profit they make, we don’t know how many hours it took to sew each garment, we don’t know how much is paid towards labour.
Some shops are trying to be more transparent about the costs involved. An Everlane puffer jacket costs (at the time of writing) £162. I’ve included the link here, because Everlane products tend not to churn as much as the likes of Zara, and I also think this is both an interesting business model and a useful benchmark when assessing other retailers.
At the bottom of the product page Everlane provides a breakdown – the true cost of the puffer, the retailer says, is £83.52. Of that materials are £23.98 and labour is £16.43 (transport and duties are also factored in).
Now, I don’t know how many hours it took to make this particular puffer jacket, and I know that its manufacture would be broken up across various workers to optimise efficiency, but I’m guessing the garment workers are being paid less than what we in the UK would consider a minimum wage.
I understand these wages keep people in work and that they are the norm in some countries. To withdraw custom would lead to crisis for many people who rely on the global fashion trade to live – as exploitative as it is, this is the current status quo. Clothing is a complicated business, right?
But let’s be real. People are working for a fraction of what we would consider a minimum wage to provide clothing to people who earn a great, great deal more.
What is clear is that it doesn’t need to be like this. Half the cost of the coat goes into the business’s hands. Could they be doing more?
To be fair, Everlane is trying, which is more than we can say for many big fashion chains. When the Corona pandemic hit, many huge multinational companies felt entitled to ditch their suppliers mid contract without a penny. Check out the Worker Rights Consortium Covid-19 tracker to see who still hasn’t coughed up.
Still, what I crave is genuine full-bodied transparency. I want to know how many hours it took to make a garment, how much the garment workers were paid per hour, where they live and work and whether those factories and dwellings are safe, and whether their wages meet their needs. Websites like Good On You, which provide sustainable and ethical fashion brand ratings, are a good place to start, but the fact so few chains seem to be aware of what goes on throughout their entire supply chain (from growing, producing yarn, fabric dyeing, etc. etc.) means there is still a huge amount of work to be done.
There is an additional social justice complication here. If Primark was to hike up prices because it introduced clauses in contracts with overseas employers stipulating wages and working conditions above and beyond current expectations, would existing customers be able to afford the clothes? Why should someone who can afford to shop at higher end stores dictate what kind of clothes are available to less wealthy people? Why should people on low incomes not have access to nice clothing too? What is the solution here? One can only suggest a complete societal overhaul, where our norms regarding clothing ourselves are completely transformed. Where retailers modify their profit expectations. Otherwise, as always, the poorest in our society become both the losers and the scapegoats. Until we have genuine and far-reaching change in the system, I would implore an end to shaming people for buying ‘cheap’ or ‘synthetic’ fabrics or clothes.
I came here to talk about making coats, and unsurprisingly find myself off on a tangent. There are so many thorny questions which intersect unapologetically with the idea of ‘affordability’, but I will park this tangled web for now and get on with the subject at hand.
If you’re interested in further exploring ideas of sustainability, ethical consumption and wage justice, then a good place to start would be Fashion Revolution. I’d also recommend the Netflix documentary The True Cost and Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets, which delves into the environmental degradation caused by fabric production. Fabric provenance is a really important consideration for home sewists, and one that is, in many instances, completely opaque.
Pushing the boat out
At the other end of the spectrum from the Primark-equivalent sew, you can have your pick of beautiful wool coatings. There are some stunning tweeds out there if you’re feeling spendy. But even so, if you go for a pea coat style, you’re probably talking around 2 – 2.5 metres of fabric – so perhaps £100 on your outer for a £40 per metre wool. You could spend more but to be honest I daren’t even look for anything pricier…
Lining is generally inexpensive, but let’s say you go for something fancy – maybe a £16 per metre silk habotai – so an additional £32. Go for traditional collar and facing materials – an extra tenner – and you’re up to £142. That’s the cost of the M&S coat right there, so you haven’t even stepped beyond high street prices, and yet you are going to end up with a tailored bespoke coat to your detailed specifications and all in a beautiful high quality fabric you simply will not get on the high street.
I’m not sure I would dare let myself loose on anything so pricey, but look at the cost of this kind of coat from a traditional tailor and, when your eyes have stopped watering, tell me this isn’t a steal.
Sew and save
I think it’s fair to say that whatever your price point on the high street, or whatever you consider reasonable for a winter coat, you can undercut the cost if you sew. Even if you shop in charity shops, it can be hard to find a decent wool coat for under a tenner these days (if you do find a coat that fits well in a charity shop, snap that up before you go and make one – they were made to last!).
And, ultimately, if you’re making a coat you are learning so much about sewing and taking your craft to a new level. For many of us, that’s enough reason to invest in materials to whatever degree we are able.
There are, of course, always ways to sew outerwear thriftily. For the interlining in my winterised Waver Jacket, I used an old mattress protector I’d kept ‘just in case’ after we’d gotten rid of the bed it belonged to. Including snaps, the pattern, lining and thread (most of which was already in my stash), this make came in at under £40.
The coat I’d been pining for was a North Face parka – £360 down to £180 in the sale. So not a bad saving, imho, for a waterproof winter coat.
So, can you make a coat for less than you would pay on the high street? Most definitely. Are there other issues at play – labour, fabric provenance, environmental considerations, social justice – that might affect your choice? Of course. Can we say homemade coats are more affordable than shop-bought? Perhaps.
All in all I would say that if you sew, and want to give coat sewing a whirl, then don’t let the idea that it is going to be horribly expensive put you off.
As sewing projects go, it is likely to cost more than your average garment, sure, but if you need a coat, then it is possible to make one for less than you would pay on the high street. And that’s without resorting to making it out of an old curtain (after all, the fabric you will actually want to wear is always going to be the best value long-term).
Whatever you make your coat from, have fun – coat making is not as tricky as it looks, and provides a hugely rewarding project and one that usually gets lots of wear. If you venture forth, let me know what you make and if you post any pics tag me on Instagram @grinlowstudio – I’d love to see!
So, where do you stand on coat making? Do you see a coat as an investment of time and materials or are you keen to beat the high street on price? Tell me about your coat making odyssey in the comments below!