The Cost of Plain

A thread came up on facebook about the cost of dressing Plain, in the traditional sense, with Plainers, modest dressers and traditional Quakers chiming in. Is it expensive to dress Plain?

At first I had trouble affording Plain dress, so I modified and adapted my own clothes. This wasn’t hard for me, since I was working clergy, and I had a lot of basic black in modest cut. I bought a few compatible secondhand pieces, but put off cape dresses for several years. While three of my black dresses are still going strong – one is about fifteen years old – some of it wore through, particularly the denim. Denim dresses got made over into aprons, but even they have given up the ghost now. I decided to get cape dresses, and a pattern – a major investment for me. I wanted the dresses and particularly the capes and aprons to see how to make them. I’m glad I did that, because the dressmaking process is a bit complicated, and I’m still in  the midst of it!

My findings: EBay is a good source for secondhand, wellmade and wellkept dresses and caps. It is no more expensive than a city consignment shop, although a little more than expensive than the Sally Ann store. I learned a lot from the pieces I bought.

As to the cost of fabric – well! Here in Canada, a metre of good cotton can cost CAN$10-$15, and a cape dress takes about four metres for me, if the cape and apron match the dress. One solution was to buy a more expensive fabric for the dress, and a lighter weight contrasting fabric for the cape and apron. Remnants can sometimes supply enough fabric for the apron or even both cape and apron, if there’s a couple of metres of the same. Remnants here run about CAN$2 a metre, sometimes less. I unbundle the remnant and examine it before purchasing, so I don’t find a big stain, tear, or join in it when I get home. (If I’m not taking it, I refold and roll it back into its elastic or sleeve. I worked in a fabric store when I was young – the remnant bin was always the bugbear!)

The back racks and bargain rooms of most fabric stores will yield good fruit when alloted enough time. I’ve had to be a bit flexible on what I get – few solids make it to the bargain bin. I’ve bought some prints now, in subtle tones and patterns. Think “Little House.”

In Maine where I used to live, the Amish and Mennonite women would arrive at the discount stores by busloads to buy fabric. A little detective work might find a discounter who buys mill ends or outdated fabric store bolts. In Maine this was Marden’s. I know that most metropolitan areas have such a warehouse discounter, and if a group of friends set a date, they could carpool there and bargain hunt for fabric and notions. (Plain girls day out!) Len’s is the go-to discount fabric store here in Ontario, but Fabricland and Fabricville across eastern Canada have bargain rooms and remnant bins. Certainly don’t overlook the remnants to make waist aprons and bonnets!

For little girls and big girls who aren’t so Plain, a not so great fabric can be improved with an inexpensive trim, making a discount fabric a much better buy. I do this with the children’s clothes I make. It can lengthen a skirt a bit – pillowcase edging, which is often beautiful cutwork, can add an inch or more.

Let me know if you have more ideas on the frugality of simple dress.


19 thoughts on “The Cost of Plain

  1. Magdalena,

    I’ve no suggestions on how to stretch the $$$. For me, sewing my own is an impossibility, plain and simple, so finding a cost effective yet quality clothierre who also shipps internationally is very important. Fabric in Australia is even more scandelously expensive than Canada; $15 for good quality cottons; most prints suitable for ‘plainesque’ are sold out here as quilters’ fabric – add even more $$$ to the pricetag!!

    In a rather sobering twist of irony, it is far more cost effective for me to source from the Christian family business in the US, notwithstanding exchange rate differences and shipping prices, than it is to purchase from the sole comparible clothierre out here in aus; the US is literally half the price. I would love to buy local, but from underpinnings to headcoverings, the maths is rather unsettling.

    having had to commence from the ground up, my former wardrobe becoming too threadbare and tattered to serve any longer, and local clothing retailers not providing anything suitable (a window of around 2 years of respectable modest, even make-do plainesque came to an end), I’ve had rather expensive start up costs, but these are worth it, and the items I have grown weary of or that have been too short for my liking, have found new homes with fellow modest dressers here in aus, so, though I’ve spent a bit, I’m contributing to the cause, as it were.

    If/when I lose weight, and have to go through this again, some sister will hit the jackpot! 🙂

    Of course, it would be far easier to keep to a collection of pettiblouses and pinafores (jumpers for North americans), and perhaps a nice dress or two for church, but every Aussie knows that the pinafore is standard issue for schoolgirls all over the country, and after wearing one for 12 years, one never wishes to go back to them!!! plus, in the australian context, they tend to infantize the wearer, if you get my drift; even a breezy floral concoction would carry the schoolgirl stigma, and at 40, I wouldn’t touch a pinafore with a ten foot barge pole!!!!! :-0

    Cape dresses are also a hard sell in australia; my husband cannot stand one of mine, barely tolerates the other (though my university cohorts do like the cream paisly callico; its one of my ‘lucky’ dresses for when I give in-class presentations, as is a blue and white floral calico worn with a robin’s egg blue waistcoat (vest for North American ladies).

    So, hmm, there’s no really cheap way for me, but I have chosen the most cost effective approach.

    • I have a couple of pinafore dresses for wearing in the house, and sometimes I put a cape and apron over them for going out. If the blouse is close to the dress colour, this looks like a complete cape dress. I am over fifty, and `jumpers` are too juvenile for me; my center of gravity has shifted toward the center of the earth as well. The pleats have to fall in the right places or I have bunches of fabric under me when I sit. When you find that your dresses are too big, just get a seamstress to take them in, or even have them taken apart and recut.

      I should add about cotton quilt fabrics that they do not hold up well when sewn into garments, as the starching put in them comes out completely after a few washes, and they lose their body and don`t drape right. I learned this from my sister, who managed a quilting shop. Regular fabrics for dresses have a different `sizing`and wear better.

  2. I am fortunate here to have a wonderful little store that sales great fabric for 4 dollars a yard. You do have to root and dig through a lot to find enough but it can be done. And in Springfield a short drive away I can get expensive fabric wholesale. For example I bought some reproduction fabric from the civil war era that normally sales for 9 dollars a yard and I got it for 3 dollars a yard. You do have to be frugal and make most of your own things as buying them can be costly!

    • Perhaps I need to write a directory of discount fabric stores. I think it would be great fun to all converge on a particularly good one and have a great day out together!

  3. Ha! Plain dress has been shockingly extravagant and expensive for me, because I’ve dithered about it and allowed myself to be blown off course by the opinions of others. I’ve changed my entire wardrobe about 3 times trying to get to an attire that my husband will like, makes me not look socially odd, and satisfies the hunger in my soul. No chance. So finally I am working my way back to my own concoction of plain and simple garb, but I wish I’d stuck to what I had in the first place and wasn’t so spineless and wasteful as to keep changing it to fit in with what I thought would please others, which I feel very ashamed about, especially the waste of money. The truth of it is if I just stick to what I’m called to folks will get used to it and cease to notice.
    Here in UK it’s as cheap or cheaper to import from Kings Daughters than buy and make my own similar, though I occasionally can run up a jumper from large bedsheets bought from charity shops or eBay.
    I love the white caps, but stick to a headscarf wound like a turban for now as though people stare at me at least it’s with pity cos they think my hair has fallen out – I’m not yet brave enough for the ‘What the ***?’ stares that the cap might attract!

    • Oh, well, lessons learned! And perhaps you were able to pass on the clothes that didn’t work for you to someone who needed them. (See Sarah’s comment as well.) I had a look at your blog, and I really like the headscarf. There are so few Conservtive Quakers in England that you might feel a bit different in a kapp, and I certainly did, but I am American living in Canada – and everyone knows who the Amish are, at least. I always seem to be fairly near to a Mennonite, Amish or Hutterite settlement. If I get a parish in the UK we can meet up and you can see how the kapp gets friendly greetings, mostly! (I’ve only had negative experiences in London – Ontario! And I friend tells me that isn’t unusual, young people are just rude there.)

  4. It depends on how you approach it. is a source of my office type wear and this stuff is not cheap. However it is modest, and long skirts are actually long, and their clothing is made in-house (so no sweatshops). My other clothes are by, an excellent source of conservative, well made clothes for very reasonable prices. Again here, everything is made and designed in-house. Also of course the idea here too is to reduce the amount of ‘stuff’ in your closets so while I do not think there is a cost savings in plain dress, you should probably have the same amount of expense, but less stuff.

    • Overall, dressing Plain is cheaper than fashionable wardrobes, despite the initial investment. We can wear the same styles for years!

      • I never thought of that. Indeed plain and conservative dress is timeless. It hadn’t occurred to me because even when I dressed conventionally I seldom replaced my wardrobe for fashion.

  5. Ooh – pleeease get a parish in the UK!!! Hastings needs you!
    Here is a request. Do you remember posting at some point in the past how when you are lonesome you potter round the other Plain sites (eg Quaker Jane, Conservative Friends etc) and look at pics of other Plain people and it is comforting? Well I do just the same. And I would love it if you would post pictures of you more often on your blog – and Nicholas and your home.
    I never used to permit pictures of me on my book jackets and didn’t want to show any of me as a blogger until I twigged how important it is because it feels friendly and is an encouragement. So now I put loads and change my profile pic often. It allows a connection which enhances the sense of relationship – friendship.
    And for those of us who can read but like pictures better, it is a whole language of its own.
    I spend AGES on Bill Coleman’s Amish Photo site!
    And I’m loving your blog, and am so glad to have found it.

    • Well, thank you! I have camera compatibility issues, but have a bunch of stuff to post soon. Nicholas, God bless him, is one of the worst subjects for the camera – he mugs and squints or stands stiff. His family had a place in Hastings back in the seventies and eighties, so he knows it well! God bless you.

    • His aunt had a house in Hastings which he remembers as being on the water. Since his memory is a little uncertain since the stroke, I’ll have to look through his family notes to see where she was. His last name is Perks, a good old Canterbury name, I believe.

  6. Ember,

    Ah ha! Another King’s Daughter’s fan!! I’ve bought almost exclusively from them since 2007/2008 and have come to my own style, working with them to concoct plain (I’m not exclusively solid colours) that are modest, somewhat plain, but genuinely beautiful in cut, fabric and workmanship. Here in australia, Christian headcovering has no herritage precedent either, so the cap is out! though I live in a by and large Muslim area (with everything from fully covered Niqabi sisters with eyeveils and gloves down to the vaguest imagination of hijab (just a wafty something draped over whatever the wearer has on) there are no Christian coverers save one or two closed Brethren families who my husband has spotted once in 5 years, and a very small community of habitted nuns a few suburbs on. Though its not plain, take a look at for beautiful, affordable, suitable coverings for non North American coverers. I am awaiting a consignment and a dear friend out here purchases From them and is very happy with their workmanship. They ship internationally). If I never travelled outside our Muslim community (and my husband wouldn’t go running for the hills, I’d don the full brimmed bonet with mantle and solid coloured plain dress and some sort of surplous, but not now/yet.. .If I were living in Bradford or Manchester in the UK, I’d definitely wear such, as a witness to Christian modesty.

    Finaly, in Aus, the two prominent fabric chains are Spotlight and Lindcraft. they both fall short, from those I’m acquaintted with who are ‘in the know’ on such things.

  7. I, too, have spent a lot of money on trying different plain things over the last 8 yrs or so. I didn’t know anything about sewing, so I did not know anything about being fitted. But first I must share the first batch of plain clothes I bought for myself ( my husand and son’s pants were fine) were unwearable the workmanship was so poor. The unnamed company that made them was too novice at sewing to open a business just yet. The cotton was so thin and cheap they shrunk terribly. We had spent $700 and were so dissapointed. I had also gotten a crocheted shawl that turned out very nice. Anyhow, I ordered from Kings Daughters next and the workmanship there is stellar, but I didnt understand what kind of material would suit me best yet and I had elastic waists, which I regret. I had gotten cotton and I later came to realize I preferred #1 polyester like I have from the Amish because it lays straight and thin and is not bulky on my short frame. It feels kind of dressed up, too. #2 I like polycotton a lot too. I have used things from Katie’s mercantile and she is excellent. I decided years ago to use one color for my aprons except for a few experiments and that is black. I have all kinds of styles in all kinds of materials and last I bought from Katie’s a horse and buggy polycotten black tie on short apron and a kind of a pinafore type where there is not much back and a straight front. I hate to have anything on my waist at times, like that time of the month and that waistless apron feels great and looks very nice. I have a hodgepodge of stuff. My Amish dresses, which I had worn until recently for about 4 yrs are a 3 piece and the cape is pinned in back to the apron belt and the apron is pinned to keep it on. I use safety pins and don’t know how they stand straight pins on the belt. Some of my capes started going very ragged and so I am trying to do my best to match the various polys they use with what I have in polycotton aprons. I must say, too, that at least 7 yrs ago I ordered a bunch of Mennonite style aprons from Plainly Dressed for $20 each in black. I am still wearing most of them. Some got ruined by bleach. They say they dont’ sell them in solids anymore, but I could send my own material. I am having an apron made by Rachel’s Seamstress Service’s ( Quaker Jane has her link on the home page) and have had several soft caps done by her and she is also making me a Quaker Summer bonnet. I don’t think I will look right in them, I just don’t seem to. But I am trying to be Quaker rather than German Baptist/Anabaptist. I still end up wearing my Amish stiff cap because everyone is used to me in it. I had a German Baptist friend who was sweet enough to make me a pattern and she made me a Mennonite cape dress out of broadcloth and I love that stuff. Hobby Lobby carries it in the US and at about $1.97 a yard!! I had my latest black apron made out of broadcloth and then I plan to start replacing some dresses slowly over time with broadcloth ones. Another thing i need to mention is that earlier on my dresses waists all ended up under my breasts and I finally realized that I needed to have the waists lower on the bodice. I am short, but evidently my waist is lower on my short body than I realized. I don’t have much of a waist either, never did even when I was 97 lbs and couldn’t gain weight. It is kind of straight. So, these things prevented me from getting a comfortable fit, which is so important, especially if you are trying to dress and forget yourself.

    • I learned to sew as a girl from grandmothers who had been professional seamstresses, so I have relied on their teachings to get me through. My advice about ordering online is to order just one thing from a new company to see if you like it. You may think you’d like to save on shipping by ordering everything at once, but as you found, you can end up with things you don’t like at more expense.

      I, too, can’t abide much around my waist for long, so I have hung on to my plain knit dresses and put aprons over them. I have a couple of aprons I made that don’t have waistbands, and just tie in the back.

      Broadcoth here is about $3-$4 metre, still not bad, but I find what I can get locally is very light. It would be all right for a summer dress.

  8. Magdalena,

    Your suggestion re ordering one or two items only from an on-line clothierre is exactly what I did with TKD, back in 2007. I ordered underpinnings from them for several reasons;

    cost (underpinnings are cheaper than investing in outerwear
    they are an excellent indicator of whether their sizeings/your provided measurements have worked
    they are an excellent guide to the workmanship of the clothierre
    if they’re not exactly what you were looking for/expecting, they will still be serviceable under most skirts/diresses
    the right underpinnings are essential for comfort and modesty in one’s dress or skirt.

    Be sure to really measure in detail; a good on-line clothierre will give a comprehensive list of measurements they require to produce a good fit. I’ve had a few little indescrepancies, but nothing that hasn’t been able to be repaired locally, and, those first few experimental skirts that were a little too short for my liking have been handed on to friends who are getting excellent wear out of them.

    A guide to the novice orderer, choose options OTHER than elastic ruffles at waist and sleeve cuffs; believe you me, the comfort of your garments will be much improved. TKD’s dresses, for instance, even when made with what I call a ‘straight waist’ do not hang from the body like a tent.

    As for fabrics, I find poly-cotton rather irksome in the Australian heat that we live with for three quarters of the year, however, their pettiblouses have lasted the test of time and my poly cotton cape dress is virtually indestructable.

  9. Partly due to the combination of low thyroid and chronic illness, I am very plus sized. I am a U.S. Women’s Petite (short) size 32. I looked at a lot of the folks who make and sell plain clothes online. But the prices, however fair, were far beyond our budget. So, I knew sewing my own was the only way.

    While I am not dressing completely plainly, I needed a simple dress pattern that could be modified to be more disabled friendly if I need it down the road. I ordered the largest available size of the Ohio Cape Dress from Friends Patterns.

    I was stuck with this pattern for quite some time. Trying to get my mind around how to upsize it. I couldn’t find anyone locally with experience to help lead me through the process. I was stuck . . . and laughing. I was able to make late 1500s Florentine gowns from research and much study of portraits. The gowns look complicated but the pieces are easy to cut and put together due to scissors technology at the time. I finally just settled down and decided that Heavenly Father wanted me to develop yet another talent.

    I upsized it, sufficiently I hope, and cut the first one out of some real $1 yard fabric from my hoard. I did change the spacing on the pleats since I don’t have as much fabric in a piece that would have the pleats work out like the pattern.

    The place that I do the most shopping for 100% cotton is If you join their email list you can find out about the specials and they sometimes send out coupons.

    As for caps, well, at this point I am calling them kitchen coverings. We can a lot and the last thing I want is to pull one of my waist long hairs out of a jar or baked good. My granddaughter likes hers that is based on “Make a Headcovering with Erin” from Shepherd’s Hill website. The first one was several years too small. So we put it away for her little one someday.

    Mine are a way to try to reproduce the back of the Wilburite Bonnet on Quaker Jane’s Facebook pages. I get compliments on my first attempt at the bonnet proper, since no one but me knows what I am trying to accomplish. I need to wear the bonnet and long sleeves year round due to an allergy to the sun that started last year. I have discovered that when I put the bonnet on over the covering it seems to be less precarious in our South Dakota winds.

    I am fortunate to have a cotton fabric stash from true dollar tables from years ago with which to start my plainer clothing. I am thinking about taking the bodice off of one of my Florentine gowns and putting a plainer bodice on it, if I can find the extra fabric from the gown.

    My initial goal is 7 dresses, 10 aprons, 2 muslin slips. My nightgowns are worn out, so I need to make at least a couple from my stash flannel. I’m still debating making flannel drawers or flannel half slips or both for the South Dakota winters. Wind chill below zero Fahrenheit is not uncommon.

    • I too will have to pray for patience with the pleats! I am determined to finish two dresses this week, the weather allowing – my sewing room is the hottest in the house, being a converted attic. I have two dresses cut out, and one more to do, as well as aprons. I am looking for a one piece no buttons dress pattern to make in stretchy fabric – I have three purchased ones and they are so practical. I just bought another flannel gown at the thrift store, barely worn! I will need them next winter.

      I am tentatively building a little fabric hoard – which is not like me at all.

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