The Price is Right – for Who?

Since getting my sew jo back I have invested in some (well lots really) of new equipment, all essential of course. During my extensive research for a sewing machine and over locker I noticed a big retail price difference between USA & UK. Being a nosy parker I usually follow links in posts for fabric. During this global fabric stalking I again noticed the variation in prices for fabric. During my interaction with my international colleagues (people in a Facebook sewing chat) this topic has been mentioned a few times.  Before I started packing my bags and looking at jobs I considered why and are things that much cheaper?

A little bit of history

My first thoughts were that as the UK is an island everything is imported, but we once were the world leaders in textile manufacturing. Churning out eight billion yards of cotton cloth for world-wide export in 1912. That’s what I call a fabric stash!


The towns I grew up in, live and work in were all mill towns taking advantage of the rivers for energy and the canals & railways for transportation. When I am cruising on my narrow boat the majority of old mills are converted into apartments or offices. Pleasingly some are now craft retailers. Sadly across The northwest many are derelict and not likely  to be regenerated. imageMy great-aunt May worked at Christie’s towel factory (our sofa was upholstered in chocolate brown towelling & my sister and I had some snazzy water absorbing beach wear, thanks to the staff discount!). Yet during the sixties almost one mill a week closed down. In 1998 41,000 jobs were lost in manufacturing, the equivalent of one factory closing a day. What caused this decline had people stopped needing fabric or wearing clothes? A major event started the unravelling of the industry: during World War 1 all export from the UK was banned. Other countries increased production to meet demand: Japan introduced 24 hour production making them the largest cotton manufacturers in the world in 1933.


Gandhi led India in its struggle for independence, part of the campaign included boycotting the importing of cotton from Lancashire. Four years after this 74 mills in Lancashire closed.

The decline continued as the UK couldn’t compete with the prices and many clothing manufacturers starting producing overseas.


Sew what does this mean?

I need to consider the impact of all this on sewing and fabric prices. I have noticed a big difference since my return to sewing. I use to make lots of my own and my  childrens clothes. This was not just because I enjoyed sewing but it was cheaper.  Now though fabric is expensive and clothes are cheap, it use to  be the other way round. Mass global production, man-made fibres and new technology all contributed to the throw away fashion we have today.

It made me feel quite sick when I read that 140 million pounds worth of clothes end up in land fills each year. Additionally the average person doesn’t wear 30% of the clothes they own. I am guilty of this but am determined to only buy what I can’t make and repurpose as much as possible.

image help women in Payatas in the Philippines,  to produce ethically made bags from fabric scraps they scavenge from landfills.  Nuff said.

On a more positive note supply and demand is starting to reverse, the huge growth in Chinese production is impacting on their market position. Prices are going up due to the demand for higher wages, improved working conditions and the spending power of the new increased middle classes. Many companies in China now focus on the domestic markets  as it is more straight forward than exporting. UK manufacturers are in demand again due to the shorter turn around in orders. The financial and ecological cost of importing also makes buying at home more attractive.


Much of the design and sales side of textiles stayed in the UK and the rising popularity of British made, quality and ethically sourced textiles at home and within the new tiger economies are contributing to better value fabric becoming available.

Are fabric and sewing goodies cheaper in the USA than the UK?

I compared the cost of items using Amazon UK & USA, & and & Electronics are cheaper, but after considering the exchange rate and comparing average wages not as much as you would think. The USA is huge and electronics in general are much cheaper than the UK.image


I compared  the prices of a Singer confidence 7470 £329 & $259, a Brother overlocker £329 & $399 and a Olfa self-healing 24 X 36 cutting mat £39 & $49.

Also, don’t forget that the price is usually determined by what people are willing to pay rather than production costs. Society in USA is more ethnically diverse than in the UK all with different price tolerances and Island mind sets are strangely fixed. Rather like the pricing of hand crafted items, price too low and people think they are homemade rubbish. Price them high, make them aspirational and they are suddenly bespoke artisan ethically sourced sought after products!

Now, let us look at fabric, ooh yes please at last I hear you call, I was quite surprised by the results of my meager research. At the time of writing a British pound would buy you $1.55.


I compared:

  • Gingham, £3.49 per metre & $4.99 a yard
  • Kona solids, £2.00 & $3.25 per fat quarter
  • Fiskars dressmaking scissors, £24.99 & $16.49
  • Kwik Sew dress patterns, £8.99 & $15.99

So Watson, scissors are much cheaper, gingham and Kona solids about the same (don’t forget to take in to account the extra fabric in a metre rather than a yard) but patterns are cheaper. From this I am making the assumption that fabric manufacturing is on the increase in the UK but other items such as electronics and haberdashery ( or notions as my lovely American sewing friends call it) are not produced so much in the UK. Not sure why patterns are cheaper, need to find out though, will report back with conclusions.


Now then, what should we do and where should we buy?

What have I learnt or maybe clarified?

Well the UK manufacturing industry and the global demand for British made quality goods has increased. If everyone tries to buy local or nationally produced stuff where possible prices will reduce. In addition, buy or even better make once wear often, reduce the wasteful culture. The advantages to the environment will benefit future generations (along with our stitching wizardry). Remember that the people in the fabric shop are not living life in the fast lane at your expense. Yes they may be buying the fabric at the same price as other countries but consider:

  • Tax & import duties
  • distribution costs
  • VAT 20%
  • high business rates (small country higher land costs)
  • Increased human resources required for global trade


The stash above were purchased from a combination of online shops, markets and local Independant retailers. I also repurpose clothes where I can and ask for fabric in return for the things I make for people.

If you need perking up with some ideas about acquiring fabric make a brew and read my blog: the price is right -affordable fabric acquisition?

if you have any tips or advice or thoughts please leave a comment

happy buying

Catherine Marie


2 thoughts on “The Price is Right – for Who?

  1. An interesting read Catherine:) Trying to work out if you are a Yorkshire or Lancashire lass?!! Originally from Skipton I have many visual memories of mills. Have you read Clothing Poverty by Andrew Brooks? He starts off talking about the history of the textile industry before moving onto the impact of charity shops selling surplus clothes to countries in Africa and the decline of their own textile production as a result.


    • Well Vicky, I class my self as a northerner and usually say I am from Manchester, country borders have changed so much I have lost my roots. If I am feeling posh I say I am from Cheshire but I was born in Manchester and work in Bury. The books sounds very interesting, I will have a look for it. Thanks for visiting


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