Tired of Wasting Money on Cheap Clothes? How to Dress Better for Less

“I, Grace, do solemnly swear to be a beginner, to make mistakes, and to have a wonderful time doing it.”

A chorus of voices rises up from the women gathered around the work table, joining mine and timidly inserting their own names before tittering through the rest of the repeat-after-me-style pledge.

At the front of the room, Bonnie Lewis stands up from the small stool on which she has managed to gracefully perch the entirety of her lean but not lanky six-foot frame. She surveys the group in front of her, eyes shining with the type of excitement brought on after three uninterrupted hours of sharing her greatest passion.

Six participants are in today’s class. Each of us eager to get started, all a little nervous we won’t be able to best the machines in front of us.

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Students at Common Sewing assemble their shirts. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

The studio we’re sitting in is the stuff of Instagram vignette dreams, with large windows, high ceilings and original doors that don’t sit quite right on their hinges. But shareability — people’s desire to post, tag and share with friends — is important to what Lewis is trying to achieve.

In the center of the room, four desks are pushed together to form one large workspace. In front of each participant is a sewing machine covered by a handmade canvas carrying case Lewis refers to as “the bento,” a sort of toolbox of her own creation.

The machines are nothing elaborate — a basic model, the Janome 2212. But that’s the idea; a simple machine (along with a lighthearted promise to be willing to make mistakes) helps eliminate some of the intimidation.

Besides, it’s not about besting the machines, Lewis assures us. It’s about learning them top to bottom, inside and out, so you’re never left crying in frustration when your thread jams up at 3 a.m., right in the middle of the last hem of the final curtain panel.

If we’re going to make sewing and wearing as common as cooking and eating, she tells us, we’re going to have to remove the fear.

Something in Common

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Bonnie Lewis, owner of Common Sewing, wants to make sewing a part of everyday life again. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Lewis is the owner, operator, head instructor and lead designer at Common Sewing, located on a quiet side street just outside downtown Orlando, Florida.

The workshop is located at the top of a narrow set of stairs on the second level of Factur, a shared “makerspace” that also houses a glassblowing workshop and a podcast studio, among others.

Originally, Lewis had wanted to call the business Grandma’s Hands, an homage to the woman who taught her everything she knows. But her friends convinced her that if her goal was to revive the dying art form and make it normal and maybe even hip, the “grandma” association wouldn’t do her any favors.

She admits they might have been right, and explains she doesn’t want her students to associate sewing entirely with a bygone era — that it’s not just an outdated hobby or a skill cultivated by sheer necessity in a time before department stores.

Instead, she explains, her goal is to make sewing common again — to make it a regular part of everyday life.

Lewis’ mission is simple: “To bring sewing back into our lifestyle in a way that’s relevant, sustainable and easy.”

And that’s what she works to do because her end goal is even larger.

You see, if she can equip people with the knowledge and skills to sew their own clothing, she can begin to empower a generation to step away from the relentlessness of the fast fashion industry.

The Trouble With Fast Fashion

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The pieces above were constructed by students of the class. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Fast fashion is the term used to describe the way clothing companies take designs from the runways to mass production to store shelves and closets within a matter of weeks.

The clothes are produced without much attention to quality and sold at a low price, creating a cycle of clothes that are overbought, underworn and thrown away too often. Think: Forever21, H&M or Gap.

These stores focus on volume — on getting out as much merchandise as possible as quickly as possible — because a small markup on a shirt can mean a huge profit when millions of units sell.

It’s a practice that encourages reckless spending and overconsumption.

Rather than focusing on two seasons, as was the case in the fashion industry of 50 years ago, fast fashion demands fresh options year-round on an almost weekly basis.

The trouble with this 52-season structure is in order to keep prices low while continually putting new products on the shelves, stores have had to outsource manufacturing to companies in low-wage countries like China and Bangladesh.

These companies use slapdash manufacturing techniques to construct garments from cheap, often synthetic textiles, resulting in clothing that falls apart and loses its shape after just a few washes and wears.

And, once it starts to fall apart, it goes straight into a landfill.

In 2012, 84% of unwanted clothing and textiles in the United States went either into a landfill or an incinerator, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report.

And while good intentions usually direct the bulk of our castoffs to second-hand stores first, only about 10%-20% of the clothing donated to thrift stores is accepted as resellable merchandise. The rest is either trashed or sold to private recycling companies that work to reuse or recycle the textiles into things like rags and insulation for houses.

However, these will also eventually end up in a landfill somewhere — it’s just a matter of time.

Ultimately, the U.S. trashes as many as 14 million tons of textile waste every year. And because most of these textiles are synthetic, they will take hundreds of years to biodegrade.

Something From Nothing

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Annette Denning is in the beginning stages of constructing her shirt. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Growing up in the 1980s, Lewis would spend the first two weeks of every summer at her grandmother’s house in Vero Beach, Florida.

Each day, they’d sit down together at the sewing machine and Lewis would learn a little more about how to create art from a bolt of fabric and a spool of thread.

Lewis didn’t know it at the time, but she would spend the bulk of her career honing and relying on the skills she was learning on these warm Florida afternoons.

After completing a degree in comparative literature, Lewis decided to take a year to think about her next steps. She moved to Austin, Texas, where she found herself caught up in the burgeoning music scene.

While waiting tables to pay the bills, she was spending every spare minute sewing — mostly for friends — until an independent filmmaker saw her work and began commissioning pieces.

From there, her story consists of one part luck to every three parts hard work.

Her hairstylist at the time offered her six months of rent-free studio space to launch a sewing business, and she began making custom stage costumes for artists all over the city.

After creating pants for every rocker and crooner in Austin, though, she decided it was time for another challenge.

She hunted down an agent, withstood a trial by fire working on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and passed with flying colors, thanks to prior experience sewing with transparent vinyl fabric. (Stage costumes: not just for country music stars.)

After that, she made the move New York City and spent the next 15 years as a traveling tailor with Ralph Lauren, working on fashion photoshoots to ensure models looked perfectly fitted in their garments.

But during her travels, after the 100th person came up to her and, with a mix of fear and awe in their voice, told her that they could never sew “like that,” she realized something.

She saw a knowledge gap in our culture that would only continue to grow, and decided what people needed was a straightforward, fear-free place to learn the skill that was already becoming something of a relic.

Lewis saw the need to make sewing a normal and attainable part of everyday life again.

And thus, Common Sewing — a place where she would teach people to sew so they could return to the slower, more sustainable practice of making their own clothing — was born.

The Slow Fashion Movement

Pinning is an essential step in the construction of clothing. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

“Slow fashion” suggests the literal antithesis to the fast fashion concept, although the movement is more about quality than time.

The primary focus of the slow fashion movement is sustainability — creating, designing and purchasing clothing based on longevity and quality — but it doesn’t hurt that making and repurposing also save money in the long run.

The term was coined in 2007 by Kate Fletcher, who called out our harmful reliance on the fast fashion industry.

“Fast is not free,” she writes in an article on The Ecologist. “Short lead times and cheap clothes are only made possible by exploitation of labor and natural resources.”

Fletcher points out that spending a little more on a garment that takes time and effort to produce can create a “richer interaction” that will travel up the supply chain, allowing companies to build “mutually beneficial relationships.”

Fletcher compares the slow fashion movement to the slow food movement, which seeks to bring awareness and responsibility to what we eat and where we source it.

The connection between fashion and food is a comparison Lewis also drew, urging people to return sewing to its prior status as a common household skill.

“We all eat, and we all wear clothes,” Lewis emphasized again and again. “So why isn’t sewing as common as cooking?”

Lewis left her tailoring work with Ralph Lauren behind in New York.

To most, the notion of leaving an exciting, jet-setting job in the fashion industry seems absurd. And after hearing about the years of hard work it took her to reach the height of her career, it’s easy to question the decision.

But Lewis had a plan.

In order to bring sewing to the masses — and with it, the slow fashion movement — Lewis opened her workshop.

How to Participate in the Slow Fashion Movement

woman modeling a shirt
Annette Denning models her newly constructed shirt. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

The slow fashion movement is all about knowledge and know-how.

Do your research and know where your clothing comes from. Understand the process and supply chain utilized by your favorite brands — and find new favorites if you need to.

Buy from brands that use sustainable, ethical and lasting practices and materials, and be mindful of how and how often you recycle clothing.

Spend a little extra money up front for fewer, quality pieces you actually enjoy seeing on your body — items you’ll wear more than three times before chucking them in the donation pile.

The longevity of these pieces — especially if you learn how to care for them properly — will lead to big savings in the long run.

“Invest a little bit more money in buying exactly what you want so you know you will cherish it and wear it into the ground,” Lewis encourages. “Seek until you find the very best version of what you’re looking for, and then save up and invest in it.”

Still, Lewis always comes back to encouraging people to learn how to sew. Providing them with the ability to participate in the slow fashion movement in the most elemental way allows them to make, mend and remake garments and textiles over and over again.

Need a new shirt to wear to work? Find a fabric you love and start stitching.

Have a set of curtains wearing thin? Sew them into dish towels.

Want a new throw pillow to jazz up your couch? Create one out of an old button-down.

When you’ve honed your skills to the point you can source your own fabric, draw your own patterns and create your own clothing from scratch, then you can remove yourself from the fast fashion frenzy almost entirely.

One of Lewis’ students, after discovering a passion for sewing over the course of several class sessions, decided to challenge herself to not purchase any ready-made clothing for an entire year.

Now, when she sees a pair of pants at the store, she brainstorms how to make them fit better and last longer — and gets to work. Then, when she wears them, she gets to share her new passion with anyone who asks, “Where did you get those pants?!”

And that’s exactly what Lewis hopes will come of her work at Common Sewing.

“It’s about building a community,” she explains.

“I’m not interested in just creating a buzz — I want to create a movement.”

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.