January 24, 2012

Sewing: Fabric and Patterns on the cheap

Look for vintage sewing manuals for neat tips and tricks!

I have been wanting to do a regular sewing segment here for quite a while to answer questions I am frequently asked about my sewing, and to share tips and How-To's (unlike yesterdays...). So today I am going to start this by covering two of the topics I get asked about the most: Where can I find cheap fabrics and patterns?

First thing to discuss is what does one mean by "cheap." It's such a relative word. Frankly if you are really interested in "cheap" go to any shop that sells mass-produced clothing. I love Target, but let's be honest, most of the clothing there is poorly made. These places are great for "disposable" basics. Target's t's are great and about $8 a pop! Not too bad. And if you are a clearance shopper like myself you can often get things like that for even better prices.

This brings me to a discussion on why we sew. I sew for many different reasons: It's harder to find the kind of clothes I like in my size, I like looking like an individual, I like the creative freedom, and in the last year I have come to adore the process of creating. For me sewing isn't just functional, it's mental, and spiritual, and emotional, and physical all coming together in (hopefully!!) perfect harmony. Many sewers come into sewing with the attitude of get it done fast. I myself was that person, I'd stay up all night making a dress for an event only to have a shoddily made dress that I didn't love. A good rule of thumb is only wear things you love, and following that only makes clothes that you love. Yes, some things will not work out, your taste may change, you may realize a project was just totally impractical, but I always look at it this way: when I donate those things to a thrift shop, and the next girl picks them up, then she will have something that is beautifully made and works for her, and you had a learning experience. Everyone wins.

1940's cotton that became a Sorbetto I never showed you!

So getting back to "cheap," sometimes sewing is not going to be the cheaper route. Fabric can be expensive, patterns are expensive, then there's the notions, not to mention machines, etc, etc. And frankly the time you put into a garment is probably going to be twice as much that goes into a mass-produced garment. In the end your time alone might make something more expensive. So, as I said "cheap" is a relative term. I prefer to use Low Cost. Yeah, it's mostly the same thing, but for me cheap refers to the quality, not the quantity. I already know it will take up some of my time, but how can I keep the actual costs down? Well here are some ways!

Vintage fabric for a few dollars.

Thrift Shops 
This may seem obvious to some, but check your local thrift shops! Most will have a selection of older patterns, and even some vintage ones. It can be tricky to find ones in your size, but we will discuss that in another post. The point is don't be afraid to buy things that are too small or too big. And these are usually super inexpensive. The most I've ever paid for a pattern at a thrift store is 29cents, and the lowest is about 15cents. Obviously the price will vary from one store to another, and it may be tricky to find them at your thrift shops, but never be afraid to ask an employee if they know if the store carries them.

Thrifted patterns!

Also check the linens section of thrift shops. While there will be some actual fabric yardage there, there is also tons of sheets to choose from. Those fantastic floral sheets from the 60's and 70's make perfect summer dresses! Look for table clothes as well. A round tablecloth can become a circle skirt with a little math and a pair of scissors. Sometimes you can also find bundles of sheet sets for a few dollars. So many possibilities! You can easily have 5+ yards of a fabric this way. Use your imagination and think like Maria von Trapp, curtains can become a lovely frock worthy of a song!

Chain Craft Stores
When it comes to shops like Joann's, it is important to remember that these are NOT sewing shops. These are craft shops. Yes they carry fabric, but compare the quilting fabric section to the apparel section. The apparel fabric is always a smaller section. Now I am very fond of using quilting cotton to make regular clothes. What about the drape? Well wash the stuff first. Fabric in fabric shops has been treated to be stiffer anyways (which if you live in CA or OR (I'm not sure about other states/countries) is why they have a sign above fabric about the health hazards of the chemicals in them. ALWAYS WASH YOUR FABRIC!). Obviously if you are making a gown a quilting cotton isn't going to cut it, but often times these cute prints are fairly inexpensive and perfect for blouses/dresses/skirts. And look for sales, especially around holidays or season turnovers. You can get some amazing deals this way. If the shop has a coupon mailer sign up for it. It is totally worth it. If you have children, sign up in their name, have them sent to your work and home, send them to your husband/boyfriend's work. When you get a mailer, cut out the coupons and slip them in your wallet so you don't forget them! Sometimes the Sunday paper will also include coupons for places like Joann's or Michael's. I hate coupons, but I love my fabric store ones!

Summer Spot Dress
A perfect example of quilting cotton for a day dress!

As far as patterns go most of your big chain craft stores are going to carry the big 4 (Butterick, McCalls, Simplicity, & Vouge). They may carry other lines too, but these 4 are standard. Every so often one or more of these goes on super sale at Joann's (I'm not sure about other craft stores) and you can find them for 99cents or at most $1.99. I only ever buy the big 4 when they are on sale. Usually there is a 10 pattern limit, so if there are more than 10 that you want check another store, or make eyes at the weird goth guy who is always giving you discounts. (I really miss that.) *Helpful Hint*: Visit the company's website before you hit the store. Make a list there of all the patterns you are interested in and keep they in your handbag. This way you don't need to fight with other shoppers for a pattern book and can just grab what you came for. If this location is out of your size, you still have a list for the next location/visit.

Online shopping always comes with a small sense of foreboding.  I am a touch person when it comes to fabric shopping, so I am usually a little nervous to buy fabric over the internet. But each time I have, I have been very pleased with the result. Places like Fabric.com have weekly sales and sometimes discounted prices. The only drawback to consider is that sometimes they do not have enough yardage for one cut, which most of the time wouldn't be a problem, but might be if say you were making a circle skirt. One of the perks though is that often it is easier to find special collections online than in stores. Do a google search for online fabric companies and just see the endless options available to you!

Lovely Patterns from (L to R) Victory Patterns and Colette Patterns 
When it comes to pattern shopping online, I really love it! Not only can you find vintage ones on sites like ebay or etsy, you can also find independent companies like Colette Patterns or Victory Pattern (which I am dying to get my hands on!). Sometimes these are on the pricier side, but I fully believe they are worth it for the size range, the instructions clarity, the overall design, and really the quality. No crappy tissue paper patterns! These are also usually Continentally produced, and for some of you may even be local (Colette is based out of Portland, while Victory is Toronto, Canada produced)! Colette ocasionally offers a discount code, so keep your eyes open for that. Another great source is BurdaStyle. Many of the patterns are member made, and are either free or only cost a few dollars. These print out on printer paper which you tape together. I actually really love these kinds of patterns. They are pretty sturdy (some of mine have far too many coffee stains!), and you can save them to your computer to print again, which is great for someone who has lost weight or wants to make something as gifts for multiple people. Also look around online for other free patterns. Most of you know my complete obsession with the Colette Sorbetto top, but there are tons and tons of other free patterns out there.

Other places to check:
Estate/Garage Sales are also something to keep in mind. They can be hit and miss, but check the description and keep an open mind. Again these are great places to look for linens.

Garment District!

Flea Markets tend to be a bit pricier, but there are some real treasures to be found for fairly little money.


Specialty Fabric stores tend to be in large cities, and if you live nearby they are well worth it! The LA Garment district for instance is a fantastic place to find fabrics and notions! I didn't pay more than $2 a yard for anything.

All of the above places are a great place to also look for notions (zippers, hem tape, bias binding, etc.). I lucked out once and found two huge bags each containing about a hundred zippers, for something like $5 a bag. That's like, 5cents a zipper! And most of them were metal (I hate plastic zips!). Keep an eye out for these. *Helpful Hint*: Old thread spools are beautiful, but using the thread is a bad idea. Vintage thread is usually made of a natural fiber that will have broken down over the years. These make beautiful decoarations, but are a bad idea for functionality.

Pretty Belt Buckles for ten cents each.

Well there you have it! I hope I haven't forgotten anything. I think the best advice to keep in mind is to just look everywhere, use you imagination, and have fun! If you have any questions, or an idea for a topic in this series, please send me an email at Fraxinilucia [at] gmail [dot] com.


  1. I love your sewing posts. You make such nice clothes from the old patterns. On that note I have a question for you. I know that modern sizing and vintage sizing are different. When I go thrifting; a 60's large can fit like a smallish-medium. However, on patterns, my Modern Day Mall Sized 8 behind fits into a size 16 (80's-now) and 18 (50's-70's). But when I look at the finished garment measurements, especially on modern patterns, they don't seem like they fit the size charts at all. How on earth do I choose a size? How on earth do *you* choose a size? Why would a 38 inch bust need a 45 inch bust finished garment? I don't get it... please help!

  2. Great post! And I love that fabric with the pineapples on it! Eep. So cute.
    -Andi x