Why Is Fabric So Expensive? (Plus Tips on Reducing Sewing Costs)

stack of fabric for sewing

The Cost of Fabric Has Skyrocketed Over Recent Years. Here’s Why.

When I was a kid, my mom sewed all my clothes. I expected to do the same when I had my daughter. But sometime in that 30 year span of time, there was a shift and sewing was no longer the least expensive route. Sewing for my own daughter has been very specific and customizing – adding an applique or monogram to a shirt or tote bag, helping to make cosplay costumes, or whipping up something special for “Crazy Pants Day” during homecoming spirit week.

Back in the day, sewing was preferred for thrifty moms because one pattern contained the basics for an entire wardrobe. A vintage Simplicity (Pattern Number 6534) from the 1970s provided pattern pieces for a pantsuit and a dress. With that came even more options – add length to the dress for a longer version or cuffs to the pants if that was your thing. That entire pattern sold for $1!

For my family, my mom’s sewing was largely because we lived in a rural community without many clothing options other than boutique style, expensive clothing. The practical woman that she was, my mom just couldn’t fathom buying something expensive off the rack that I’d just outgrow in six months. We didn’t have big box retailers within a 100 mile radius.

During my time of motherhood, it’s cheaper to buy ready-made children’s apparel from any one of the big box stores within a stone’s throw now. Why wouldn’t I buy my kid a $3 t-shirt with her favorite cartoon character instead of paying $7 or more to make a shirt she will outgrow soon?

Why Is Fabric So Expensive?

Supply and Demand

The cost of fabric is largely controlled by costs of every other industry. Things like the availability of raw materials, the cost of labor, and the cost of electricity to produce the fabric, and let’s not forget shipping… all that goes into the cost of fabric.

It was interesting to run across this article that outlined the “Fabric Scope for 1973-1974.” It was interesting to see that the oil shortage was playing a big role in the manufacture of polyester fabrics. I never think of a shortage of polyester in the 1970s, but that shortage probably helped boost its popularity even more. When a product is in short supply, but its demand is high, the price increases.

Because one of the raw materials used to make polyester (petroleum) was in short supply, the cost of polyester rose. Interestingly, it rose at a time when women were starting to work more outside the home. While some preferred cotton’s breathability, they needed the lower maintenance of no-iron polyester.

Before boll weevil eradication was successful or in years where there is a drought or blight, cotton harvests can be negatively impacted, which then increases the price of cotton fabric.

Shipping

When you pay more for gasoline at the pump, so do the fabric manufacturers as they ship their product. Consider how much shipping actually occurs with your fabric. Raw materials are shipped to manufacturing facilities. Dyes used for those fabrics are shipped to those same facilities. Machine parts for repairs are shipped to those facilities. Shipping costs money which ultimately increases how much it takes to produce fabric. Those costs get passed down to the consumer.

Cost of Living

As the cost of living rises, cost of production rises. In the United States, the inflation rate in 1974, when we saw the polyester shortage mentioned above, was 11.3 percent. To put things into perspective, the inflation rate in the US for May 2022 was 8.6 percent.

Here’s the number that may be surprising: annual average income. The Chip Board Archive notes that the average annual income in 1974 was $13,900. I remember finding my father’s W2 from 1974; as an elected official in a small, southern town, his annual income was $6,900. My mom didn’t work, we had a new three-bedroom, two-bath brick home, and decent transportation…all on that income!

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average earnings for full-time employees was $1,037 per week in the first quarter of 2022. That’s a total of $53,924 annually!

People have to be paid more to keep up with the increased cost of living. The pay of people who have a hand in fabric production – whether it’s in the cotton field, wool harvesting, or creating synthetic fabrics – all have to be paid, and their wages become part of your final cost of fabric.

Novelty

The novelty of your fabric choice will also play a role in its expense. For instance, fleece with officially licensed merchandise will usually cost a little more than fleece with a generic print. It’s the difference between a Star Wars print and a print with non-descript stars and planets. But when the novelty is what we want, we are willing to pay a little more for it.

This does not just impact the sewing industry. For instance, we could have paid $29 for the original Clapper, but when it’s Father’s Day and your husband is a Star Wars fan, spending the extra money for the Darth Vader Clapper didn’t hurt at all.

Tips For Reducing Your Sewing Costs

After reading the reasons we have expensive fabric, it’s easy to see that consumers don’t have a lot of control over how much their fabrics will cost. What we do have, however, is the ability to shop around. Here are a few ways to help you reduce your sewing costs.

Watch For Sales

It is as easy as checking fabric store circulars, either online or in the store.

Join Social Media Groups

Scan Facebook for fabric or stash de-clutter groups. It’s a good way to connect with other crafters who are also trying to save money without sacrificing fabric variety.

Create a Local Fabric Exchange

Does your community have an Extension Homemakers Club? If so, you have fellow crafters in your area. Consider joining one of its sewing clubs and organize a fabric exchange for members. Again, it’s a great way to unload some of your extras while adding something new to your own stash.

Get Thrifty

Yes, thrift shops do carry fabrics. Take a look at your area thrift or consignment stores and flea markets. Make sure you’re buying quality fabric by holding it up to a light source to see if the fibers are still solid. Also, take a piece of the fabric in each hand and give it a gentle tug to check for potential tearing or rot.

Share Your Email

Sometimes fabric stores will email discounts to you if you subscribe to their newsletter. Some newsletters are weekly, others are monthly, but if you’re looking to save money, it is handy to get the offers sent directly to you. As an added benefit, subscribers often get these offers before they are made available to the general public.

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