The true cost of clothing and what I am doing about it.

A man walks into a charity shop, has a look around, then heads to the cashier with a handful of long skirts……OK I know it sounds like the start of a joke but that man was me and after a few awkward moments, as the cashier eyed me up and down, I explained what I planned to do with the skirts (more on that later). The cashier seemed impressed and told me I should have a word with the manager as they get a lot of skirts donated but most of them don’t go onto the shop floor but are thrown away.

It was while I was driving home that the conversation really hit me: The charity shop throws lots of clothing away that, I quote, “isn’t perfect”. Now looking back I do remember when charity shops were generally full of ‘junk’ but over the years, more and more of us donate our unwanted clothing to one charity or another. The problem, however, is that with so much more arriving at the shops, they can select the garments that will make them the most money off the peg: No longer will you see a shirt on the rack with a missing button or a small tear, instead you will find a lot of ‘as new’ clothing (many still with labels on!) commanding a higher price. Yes good for the charity concerned as it helps them generate much needed funding but what about the other waste?

Last year a film was released by filmmaker Andrew Morgan called ‘The True Cost‘. A documentary that examines the untold story of the clothing trade. (If you haven’t yet seen it I suggest you have a look). Whilst we are constantly reminded about the horrors of low pay, poor conditions and slave labour evident in so many clothing manufacturers the real message is we buy too many clothes and don’t spend enough on them.

One thing really stood out for me from the film:

  • Only 10% of the clothes given to charity shops are sold in the shop!
So I did a little research and indeed it is true. Well, figures vary depending where you look but generally between 10-30% of all clothes donated to charity shops are resold to us. What about the rest? Well about 10% goes to landfill and the rest is sent overseas. It gets sent to developing countries (via a middleman) and generates revenue for the charity shop and middleman, of course. The UK is the second largest exporter of used clothing in the world, after the US. That equates to over £400m or 380,000 tonnes of our discarded clothes: In fact globally around £3.1bn is sent abroad.
This might sound OK as your discarded clothes are going to help people less fortunate but in fact it is having an adverse effect. The millions of pieces of clothing are saturating the market and having a detrimental effect on their own textile industries and creating unemployment.
So what can we do? We know we buy too much and living in such a ‘throw away’ society doesn’t help. We also have to live within our means and can only spend what we can afford on clothing: But it is a vicious circle; we buy cheaper garments (that we can afford) and this usually results in poorer quality items that wear-out quicker, zips that break after the first use or start shedding buttons over the carpet. So the piece of clothing gets dumped into a black bag and heads to the charity shop, possibly ending up further afield.
I know the vast majority of us that sew at home do it because we enjoy the hobby, not for financial gain. Indeed only today I went to a local shop to buy some fabric to make a few T-shirts: I could have bought 4 ready-to-wear T-shirts for the cost of the material to make one at home! We sew to get something a little different or to show of our creative side. We sew for friends but never charge them the true value of the garment we have made.
Long gone is the era of ‘Make do and Mend’ and I think we need to rethink this, not just the craft-orientated types but everyone. If clothing is sold at a more realistic price we will take better care of it. We will treat it with respect: When a button falls off we will sew one back on. When a zip breaks we will put in a new one, when it stops fitting correctly we will alter it and when that treasured garment finally comes to an end we will think how to reuse or up-cycle it. What do you think?
You may have seen a new sewing magazine in the shops this month called Sew Now, well I’m excited to say I will be featuring regularly in the publication and hope to inspire you in addressing some of problems I have mentioned here. Go buy your copy!
So back to the start of this post and my handful of skirts I purchased in the charity shop. I had an idea of what I wanted to do and thanks to seeing the Korbond Creative Upcycling Challenge I went for it. You know I love making menswear, especially shirts and jackets, so what better than to up-cycle 4 of the skirts into a tailored mens jacket?
After carefully taking the skirts apart I looked at how the colours worked together. I cut out the pattern and went for it. I managed to use the lining from the skirts for the jacket lining…just!
Apart from the thread and the interlining everything else was reused/upcycled. The buttons came from my ‘old’ button stash and I even managed to find a nice green one for my trademark odd cuff button.
Everything else went together well and I am really pleased with how it looks. OK it might be a little ‘wild’ but actually looks pretty good on.
I didn’t spend my normal amount of time with tailoring techniques such as hand-sewn button holes or complete pad-stitching but overall it’s a success.
Considering I have seen similar ‘patchwork’ jackets for sale costing upwards of £500 I am more than happy to do my little part in up cycling and saving these skirts. I also have a really fun jacket made of really nice fabric for £12!
So with Christmas rapidly approaching and the start of the ‘Sales’ have a little think. Stop and think about if you really need that bargain. Think about the clothing you already own and before you send it off to the charity shop, think about refashioning or up cycling.
Until next time……Happy Sewing


13 thoughts on “The true cost of clothing and what I am doing about it.”

  1. When I decided to make all my own clothes it was partly based on the cheap import issues you mentioned. I felt quite pleased that I would be getting better fitted and One-off items at an excellent cost but would not be contributing to Asian conditions. Then while boasting about my morals she calmly said 'so where do you think the fabric you buy comes from?' Hmm hadn't thought that one through completely.
    Loved your article – completely agree and the jacket looks great

  2. I sew about 60% of my clothes from thrift shop clothing. The dollar rail always has out of date long box pleated skirts/kilts in gorgeous 100% wool. There is a lot of yardage in those skirts! Enough to make a dress or coat at times.Only through recycling thrift store garments do I get to sew with quality material I can afford since I can't afford $45 per yard wool.

  3. Great post. I am too concerned about the amount and type of fabrics we buy, where it comes from and how we are duplicating the throw away mentality. My 2 office Christmas party outfits will be from refashioned from a dress I made years ago and a silk dress from the recent show I made. The jacket is lovely: Quirky and elegant

  4. Love the jacket ,you have a great talent.I was raised with the make do and mend, waste not want not attitude. I'm a born recycler, i voluntered in a friends charity shop for many years until illness took me away from it.Our little shop was the most popular in town because,we were told "the other larger charities were too fussy". The sewers and crafters used to love rumageing in our various boxes of rescued bits and pieces . They liked a charity shop to look like a charity shop not a boutique.I am horrified by the amount of perfectly good items i see put out for the refuse truck by charity shops, i had people come in to say they would no longer support certain charity shops because they had seen items they had donated dumped, of course this meant more donations for the cat rescue. i like to make items for charity fund raisers and charity shops are a great way to keep costs down.Look forward to seeing more of your designs.

  5. Nice story, most of my sewing is "alterations" Over the past 5 years or so, I rarely buy new clothing, but look at charity shops like the salvation army and value village in my area for clothing. I sew, so I am able to look at the clothing and see how I am going to make it over, upscale and make it modern looking. Many years ago I use to wasted a lot of money on "designer clothing" armani, versace, gucci, donna karan etc. I alway wanted to look like I walked off the runway. Now, I have left all that behind. I typically make new items from fabric in my stash (i have a huge storage room of nothing but fabric – 3 sergers, and over 15 sewing machines from vintage to modern, and yes, I am a Bernina guy) or upscale used clothing. I even purchase good hardly used shoes to wear for 10 cents on the dollar of retail costs. I think much of what has happened is that I am tired of garbage made in china/Bangladesh etc. It is typically cheap fashionless items constructed poor with bad construction. I take pride in the clothing that I make myself or fix. Recently I have gotten more into drafting my own patterns, pattern grading to keep working on My own fashion design skills. I enjoying knocking off looks from the runway and seeing how I can create my own spin on wearable clothing that uses "high end rtw" construction techniques. All my used clothing that I no longer wear, goes back to the salvation army for resale.

  6. Hi Jamie,
    great article and great work of sewing!!! This jacket is an eyecatcher,in a good way.
    The bad site of fashion industry was part of the last exhibishion here at Het Nieuwe Instituut at Rotterdam. That was also one of the reasons to install an open sewing atelier with haberdashery shop. People have free access to the atelier and are welcomed by a team of voluntiers who will support them by sewing a garment. With this project we hope to make people think and to value more the garments they buy. In a long term perspective we hope to build up a pattern archive for a basic wardrobe for men and women, from underwear to overcoat. It is nice to be part of that project and I was able to contribute two self-drafted patterns already.
    Keep on going with the good work.

    best, Martin

  7. Fantastic jacket. I was really surprised to hear the small percentage of items that charity shops put out for sale unfortunately it does seem that we are turning into a throw away society�� I'm the opposite, I keep all clothes I have (Mr B often complains about it!) it may get altered, re-worn years later or reused as u have done. I have recovered a foot stool, made cushions, bags & waistcoats from old jeans. Reused a ripped leather jacket to add patches to new makes. I can't bear to just throw away��

  8. Mike Foley from Clearwater here. I recycle too. From old roadside leather couches I make motorcycle seats, bags and upholstry on my restored Consew 226r. When people throw out luggage I find great two way zippers and netting for use in backpacks and bags.

    I will check the thrift stores for fabric, but I use a lot of denim from old jeans I buy at yard sales for no more than a dollar each (usually less). Two jeans makes a nice vest or backpack.

    Last time I bought fabric was for two tees I made, and you are right – I could have bought a five pack for half the price.

  9. I love what you all have had to say. Years ago I read about a woman who never bought new clothes just altered and repaired the ones she had. It really inspired me. and now I love the mend and make do part of it all. If something doesn’t fit quite right, rip it apart and try again. I recently made several nightgowns and the material was mostly from a thrift store. That’s where the better material is but it won’t last for long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.