Calculating the “Cost” in Costuming

November 3, 2015

Investing in the Hobby: Is it worth it?

Dress made of £50k for a promotional.

When you begin a costume, there are a few major determining factors that dictate how your project will proceed. You must have in mind an era or character that you want to recreate, like a 1942 army nurse,  Jessica Rabbit, a Civil War widow, Zelda, an 1570s Italian, etc. While this might seem like the greatest determining factor of a costume, in reality, nothing looms over a project so largely as a budget.

My grandmother and I had a phone conversation a while back, and I mentioned my latest sewing projects and plans. She admitted to not having sewn anything in a few decades. She asked how much fabric cost.
“I usually buy cheap fabric that costs between $1.50 and $6.00 a yard,” I told her, “but a quilting cotton could easily run $8-14 dollars.”
I could imagine her shaking her head as she told me, “I used to get patterns and yardage for about 50 cents. Now, it’s often so much cheaper to buy things already made than it is to make it at home.”

In 1959 (when this pattern was published), 50¢ had the modern purchasing power of approximately $4.10 today.

That brief–but informative–moment on the telephone prompted me think a little harder about the actual cost of my hobby. Granted, the vintage price of a pattern or fabric wasn’t subject to modern inflation, but fewer people sew their own clothes these days than ever before, turning fabrics and patterns into luxury hobby goods rather than household staples. A firm project budget is a must!

There is big difference between a set budget and the actual cost of a costume. Budgets should be set before the costume is even begun. Ideally, a budget should be a fixed number, but sometimes you go over, but often you might find yourself happily slipping by under budget! Cost, however, is ultimately a fixed number. It is the amount you spend making your masterpiece (or novicepiece, as is often my case). The concept seems pretty straight forward, but after costuming for a few years, cost can become a fuzzy grey area.

I’ll use perhaps my “cheapest” costume, my 18th century maid’s outfit, as an example.

Calculating the Cost of an Individual Costume


1. Fabric

Usually when you calculate the cost of a costume project, the most natural thing to do is figure how much you spent on fabric bought specifically for that project. For example, my Simplicity 3723 dress involved the following materials:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – STASH!
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – STASH!
Total: $6.00

I was fortunate (or unfortunate, as the stuff turned out to be a wrinkly nightmare) to find some faux-linen-whatever at Walmart for only a dollar a yard, and the floral decor remnant was from my stash, as was the cotton sheet. The cewel-work sample that became the stomacher was sent along as a free gift with another sample I bought. When it comes to fabric calculations alone…HOLY COW! A DRESS FOR $6?!


Well, sort of.

You see, I am a miser–or perhaps, more aptly, an accountant– when it comes to my purchases. For example, while the crewelwork and sheets were genuinely free (my parents had purchased the sheets for me five years ago as a college gift and I had worn them out), the floral remnant I could remember paying $10.64 at Hobby Lobby about a year prior, thanks to the paper label I had kept it wrapped in. Even though it wasn’t purchased exclusively for this dress, it was still an integral part in the costume.

Pictured: Not my stash.
My stash is nowhere near this organized.

Stash and scrap fabrics are an interesting case because so often we forget how much they cost.  Does it need to be included in the “cost” of my costume if I use it even though I purchased the fabric so long ago? Obviously I spent money on my stash fabrics at some point and even my penny-pinching side can’t remember the cost of every fabric in my stash. Could I count four yards of expensive embroidered silk taffeta as “free” if it’s been sitting so long in my closet that I can’t remember what I paid for it? That’s a tricky question. Basically, if I think the stash fabric would cost under $5 to buy new, I ignore the cost just for the sake of my sanity. Otherwise, I try to list a fair price.

There are also trims to consider, like the lace engageantes sleeves I made which, though removable, are basted to the dress and an important piece to complete the look. So my cost calculation should look more like this:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
Total: $26.64

2. Notions

Paper box with linen measuring tape, circa 1790-1810

All these fabrics and trims aren’t held together by angel dreams and unicorn tears. Sewing requires notions. I have a large collection of threads, bias tapes, and other sundry items, but do I include them in my calculation of cost? Notions are just like stash fabric. Often, we have collected them over a long period of time and can no longer remember their cost. Some, like spools of thread, can be used across multiple projects. However, notions (especially if you consider buttons or ribbon to be notions) and other structural materials like boning can add up fast, not to mention the cost of the pattern itself!

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE!
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
22″ zipper from Walmart – $2.55
Size 10 sew-on snaps – $2.97
Zip tie for boning the stomacher – FREE!*
Thread – $1.55
Simplicity 3723 pattern – 99 cents*
Total: $34.70

*As a general rule, if I calculate that I spent under 50 cents for the individual item, I do not count it, but I had to purchase a whole pack in order to get just this one 1/2 inch wide zip tie. If I never use the rest of them for other projects, I basically just spent $6 to buy boning for this one costume.  Also, the pattern was on sale at Hobby Lobby. On a regular day, Simplicity 3723 costs $10-17, depending on the store.

This is the money that I personally invested in this particular dress. It’s not the $6 dress from earlier, but it’s still plenty cheaper than buying one pre-made. You can’t find a mass-produced costume for that cheap, especially not one custom made just for you.

2.5 Equipment

This category is tricky and I’m only going to briefly go over it. Hence the “2.5” designation.

Almost any hobby requires you to invest in a few basic tools. The most basic tool for sewing is a needle. A good, sharp pair of scissors is another, as is a lot of pins and a flexible measuring tape (or 5). All other sewing equipment is just a variation of those three tools. These basic tools can be purchased for only a few dollars: needles are a dollar or two a packet of 10 or more, a box of pins might cost another dollar or two and a flexible measuring tape costs about the same. The most expensive is the scissors for $8-10. So for a handsewer’s start-up, the initial equipment investment can be less than $15!

However, most folks who sew will want to invest in a sewing machine. I sew on a Singer Simple machine. It was a gift, but would cost about $100 to buy new. Machines require special machine needles which, ideally, must be changed at least once a project and purchased to suit the type of fabric being sewn. Some people like also having a serger to finish edges for them or an embroidery machine. Those can run into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Others, like myself, content themselves with investing in lot of excellent pairs of fabric scissors. I have pinking shears ($20), regular fabric-only shears ($15), and two or three sets of thread-snips scattered around the craft room ($10 each). Some folks prefer cutting their fabric with a fancy rotary cutter instead of scissors. A good seam ripper is another must-have tool ($3). I probably spend more time ripping apart seams than sewing them!

My basic sewing equipment arsenal adds up like this:

Singer Simple – FREE-ish! (gift, but $120 new)
3 bobbins, button hole foot, needle threader, lint brush included with machine
Invisible zipper foot (a recent acquisition) $11
Sewing machine needles, pack of 5 – $6
3 boxes of pins – $6 ($2 each)
Fiskars fabric shears – $15
Fiskars pinking shears – $20
Fiskars thread snips – $30 ($10 seach)
3 flex measuring tapes – $3
Innumerable hand-sewing needles of various sizes – $5 (rough estimate)


Total: about $220 if I had to buy it all over again

While the start-up can be initially expensive, these tools are used for every project, so their per-use cost rapidly decreases the more projects you do with them. I have used my scissors so many hundreds of thousands of times that I don’t even consider them as a cost for a costume. At most, the per-costume use cost would be a few cents. But if you are just starting out in the hobby or starting a costuming business, the cost of your sewing equipment is an important budget consideration.

3. Time


Sewing at 2am is standard practice.

Material costs are one thing, but the time required to turn those materials into a piece of wearable clothing makes a custom costume more expensive. My costume took lots of hard work to make. I handsewed 90% and it took me over a week. I sewed about 4 hours a night for 8 days, so about 32 hours. That’s like working an average day job! At my current day job, I made about $12 and hour. If I carry that value over to all my time, by working 32 hours, I have have done $384 worth of work!  If you sell the costumes you create, keeping track of the time invested in your items becomes especially important. While you may not get the equivalent of $12 an hour, you don’t want to undervalue your time either! This is why custom clothing items are so expensive compared to the mass-produced clothing you buy in Walmart or even department stores. A home crafter or even a small co-op cannot match the production costs of a giant factory filled with specialized machines staffed by workers paid pennies by the hour.

I don’t think “paying myself” for something I do as a hobby applies to this dress because I made it for myself, but putting a price on the physical labor does make you appreciate your own handiwork infinitely more.

However, even if I put aside the hours of work involved in making my dress, I still haven’t reached the actual cost of my costume!


4. Support Garments

I’m not just wearing the dress I made, I’m wearing undergarments as well:


Though I did not sew my undergarments myself, my costume wouldn’t be the same without them! My costuming undergarments include a corset, tank top, and button-front skirt. Even though I wear them with everything and don’t include them in any costume’s cost calculation, I technically did pay for them at one point:

Corset – $75
Tank top: $3
Second-hand skirt: $3

I wear these so often that if I apply the “divide the cost by number of times worn” rule, the cost of the most expensive item, my corset, comes out to only about $1 a day. But if someone else wanted to recreate my look from scratch, they would have to invest the whole $75. The same goes for homemade stays. To buy fabric and boning to make them also costs money. Even my stash-made pillow panniers are made of material I once had to purchase.

5. Accessories


Accessories are another sneaky cost, but they can elevate a costume from cute to full-on fabulous! For this particular costume, I splurged on my beloved American Duchess Pompadours. I dyed and trimmed them for pizzazz. I have a favorite pair of stockings to wear with them as well. Up top, I used vintage baby bonnet to cover my bun. Even though my grandmother gave it to me in a box of linens, it was still marked with a $4 price tag. I also threw on some vintage faux pearls for charm; these belonged to my sister and were promptly returned. So to me, they were free!

American Duchess shoes – $92
Shoe dye – $12
Antique metallic ribbon – $18
O Basics stockings – $8
Vintage bonnet – FREE! / $4
Vintage necklace – FREE! (or $5 if you hit up Walmart)

Total it up!


So here is the new calculation based on every single item in this outfit:

6 yards of pink faux-linen-whatever from Walmart – $6.00
1 embroidered crewelwork-on-linen sample – FREE! *sent along with another I paid $24 for
1/2 yard floral print decor remnant from Hobby Lobby – $10.64
Recycled cotton sheets for lining – FREE!
2 yard of lace for the engageantes – $10
22″ zipper from Walmart – $2.55
Size 10 sew-on snaps – $2.97
Zip tie for boning the stomacher – FREE! *$6 for the pack
Thread – $1.55
Simplicity 3723 pattern – 99 cents*
Corset – $75
Tank top: $3
Second-hand skirt: $3
American Duchess shoes – $92
Shoe dye – $12
Antique metallic ribbon – $18
O Basics stockings – $8
Vintage bonnet – FREE! / $4
Vintage necklace – FREE!
Total: $249.70
if you include the $384 time investment:

I’m not going to lie: that’s a lot of money. Looking at the breakdown now, my dress seems like a poor showing for $250, much less $634! Would I pay that price for it? No. But remember, the actual dress only cost me $34.70! Everything else is an investment. My corset, stockings, shoes, and all the other separate bits are reusable. There may be thread left on the spool, the rest of the zip ties get used up the way they were intended (did you know that zip ties can actually be used to tie things together? Who’d have thought?!), and the leftover bits of fabric get added back into the stash. That is why when a costumer lists the “cost” of their final outfit, they do not include those sorts of items in the math.

While keeping costs down is the goal of many home costumers, you will ultimately spend money and, more importantly, time. There’s just no way around it. That’s why setting a budget and making smart investments is so important. Even a $35 dollar historically accurate pattern is justifiable if you have the skills to make it properly and/or make multiple pieces from it. Use a $10 dress pattern once and you paid $10; use it twice, and now it was only $5 per dress! The more you make, the better you will get and the cheaper the pattern will become. Find pieces that multitask or that you can refashion later when you get tired of the old version. Borrow and share pieces amongst your (trustworthy) friends. Recycle as often as you can!

The most important thing to remember about cost is that you are investing in your hobby. Keeping yourself busy with something you enjoy is the best therapy in the world, even if you get so frustrated with your machine you want to smash it with a hammer and throw it down the stairs after it gets all tangled up with an impossible amount of red thread in impossible places…


Experience speaks!

I costume not because I’m particularly talented at it, but because I love a challenge just as much as I love pretty clothes. To me, making costumes is like earning a series of giant, wearable achievement badges. More than once I have turned down a beautiful fabric because I couldn’t afford it or my current skills would not do the fabric justice. I may miss out on the perfect print, but I don’t think it’s a huge sacrifice to go with a cheaper fabric that I feel comfortable making a mistake with. You name the mistake, I’ve probably done it! However, I usually don’t stress too much if I purchased plenty of fabric at a good price. I could buy a $10 box of chocolates that will disappear in a few hours and mysteriously reappear around by waist a few weeks later, or I can buy $10 worth of fabric and puzzle a dress out of it. Even though I love candy (and dessert in general. Oh, the cheesecake!), investing $10 towards a new dress much better than spending $10 towards growing out of one.

Is costuming worth it? Yes.
Is it for everyone? Well, it could be. :)

Whether you make or buy your own costumes, what matters most is that they make you happy!

12 Responses to “Calculating the “Cost” in Costuming”

  1. Anne Says:

    Love this! Well written and I like to see how someone else breaks down her costs. I also costume on a budget and sometimes it can be really challenging :)

  2. Helen Says:

    Well thought out and well written. Most costumers have never really thought about the real costs of their hobby. I, personally, have cut way back on my costuming for that reason. But NO WAY will I give it up completely; it’s just too addictive.

  3. Randy Jessup Says:

    I keep up with my cost very easily I only buy fabric and notions when I have sold something I make and have a profit from my hobby. I buy Sheets at Goodwill for 3 dollars a pop and make pirate shirts to sell on Etsy. When I sell one I buy a few more sheets for my stash and then buy the fabric and notions to make my costume. With two daughters and a wife I have to make garb for I have to keep on top of where the money goes but more important to me is where the money comes from.

  4. Susan Campbell Says:

    Great article/post. Thanks for all the insight.

  5. Liesl Says:

    I am guilty of shamelessly accepting hand-me-downs from other people’s stash cleanouts, shopping at thrift stores and tag sales, and other assorted money-saving tricks. My daughter’s Halloween costume this year was made from a roll of fabric I bought for less than ten dollars from the charity shop. There was enough left for my period skirt and matching Zouave jacket!

  6. jen thompson Says:

    I love this article so much! I tend to gloss over all the accessories and investment pieces, but it’s fun (and a little scary!) to see it all added up.

  7. Deborah Says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog, and all your adventures in “costuming.” As a kid I was always making something, an “old fashioned” costume or something for my dolls (way before the American Girl doll era) As a mom I never bought new costumes, I repurposed from thrift stores and my stash.
    Kids are mostly gone, and I made myself a Cleopatra outfit from the usual thrift store, yard sale, dollar store. It really looked pretty good. No one commented about it, but like you said, I enjoyed putting it together and it made me happy.

  8. The Goose Says:

    Very well written, entertaining and meticulous! I am always grateful that you share yourself and your creativity, Liz. Vastly inspiring and encouraging – and always with a smile! Touché!

  9. Heather Wasilewski Says:

    Thank you so much for the time that you put into these posts. I really appreciate reading them.

  10. Colleen Says:

    YOU ARE AMAZING!!!!!!!! You are very inspirational!!!!! This is such an informative post and I will start thinking like this in future as I start costuming again!!!!!!!! THANK YOU!!!!!

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