Crafting on the Cheap

Everyone from professional fine artists to the occasional weekend crafter knows how incredibly expensive supplies can be.  It’s not just the materials you need to create the piece itself, but also all the supporting supplies, be it it rulers, mats, easels, scissors etc. If you are just starting a new skill, there is a vanishingly small chance you will be good at it straight out of the gate. In all likelihood, you’re in for weeks if not months of mediocre projects before you nail the skills. Spending a lot on supplies adds an extra sting to the process. But if you plan your projects and expend a bit of effort, you can craft on the cheap.

Buy Online:
My two big go-to sites for materials online are and If you want it, it is there –  often at the fraction of the price of strictly art/crafts/sewing stores. Materials and tools often come in non-standard sizes. For instance, I bought a 100 pack of Xacto blades for $10 and a box of 100 metal bobbins for another $10. Yes, I had to wait for shipping, but I’ve now got enough to last me years. Conversely, I’ve gotten small swatches of fabric from Etsy, a few sheets of mylar, a handful of beads, some paper wire and other smaller amounts of materials.  Many of these items would have been cheaper per weight had I gotten substantially more of them. But I didn’t want to commit to a large package until I was sure it was a material I planned to use AND had storage space for.Some of the best materials to look for online:

  • Notions and tools (sewing machine parts, knives, glue, storage bins)
  •  Exotic threads (especially from India)
  • Fabric – from fat quarters of silk from Hong Kong to bundles of tailor’s scraps
  • Unique materials you’re not sure you want to buy a large amount of
  • Vintage notions (buttons, fascinators, hat blocks)
  • Used bulk boxes  (tubs of partially used thread, bundles of zippers, open packs of paper, barely used colored pencils)
  • Plants/seeds for mini gardens
  • LED/wires/boards/chips etc for wired project

Hardware Stores:

So many great materials and supporting tools can picked up for a fraction of the cost of “official” tools at your average Harbor Freight or Tru Value.  Some of my favorites:

  •  Tupperware storage boxes and bins, wheelie shelves, tool boxes (great for paints)
  •  Magnetic bowls/pans (to hold bolts or nails – great for pins) and telescoping magnetic “wands” to sweep for pins and needles dropped under furniture. (If you plan to grub around in your lap for dropped pins with your magnetic wand, do make sure the blinds are closed first or you may get some weird looks from passersby.  Not that I’d know.  Just telling you… for a friend).
  • T-squares, large metal rulers, linoleum squares for cutting mats
  • Magnetic knife racks for sewing notions or paintbrushes
  • Headlamps for detail work

Secondhand stores:
St. Vinnie’s, Goodwill, UW Swap, Ragstock and other used and resale shops are great for materials and tools. Look for:

  • Bundles of fabric
  • Clothes you can salvage lovely material from
  • Desks and chairs
  • Storage shelves, racks, bins

If you plan to shop at a craft/art store more than once, sign up for coupons! Always keep a junk gmail account for these as you will get spam. I never go to Joann’s without a coupon and hoard projects until I can get a really good deal. Our living room curtains are a single 9 yard cut of brocade that I got 50% off with a coupon. Plan and wait for sales, then pounce. If you’re feeling very brazen (and/or really hate being around people) bring a friend to stand in the cutting line with a number while you gather your material.


All Purpose Stores:
Plenty of other items can be purchased at regular stores like Walgreens, Target etc. If you don’t care about branding (and rarely does it matter) lots of items are just as good from a “normal” store. For instance:

  • Nail scissors – great for cutting thread, yarn and tiny pieces of paper or fabric.  Get them taken away on a flight?  They’re only a few dollars to replace.
  • Rulers, sharpies, erasers and other school-type supplies
  • Chalk – one of the biggest scams I’ve seen are the chalk pencils for quilting. I’ve never figured out how to sharpen them and the chalk always gets broken up inside the pencil.  My fix? A $1 box of white chalk that I rub to a point and use for marking.

The Library:
The library should always be the first place you go for instructional books or magazines. How many times have you gotten a book touting wonderful projects and patterns with complete instructions, only to find it is 10% useful and 90% staged self-promotion photos for the author? Check ‘em out first before buying and consider buying books used on if you’re unlikely to use them more than a few times.

Many books come with CDs and DVDs of patterns and instructions. Even large clothes sewing patterns can be printed on home printers. Just make sure you set the pattern to print at 100% and tile the printing (with overlap, if that is an option). This will print your pattern over multiple sheets of printer paper.  You’ll need to trim them down and tape them together but this is still far cheaper than buying a pattern.

Internet Instructions:
Everyone and their brother has free instructional videos. Youtube is a great clearinghouse for how-to videos on every topic out there. Many public TV stations carry full episodes of shows like Sewing With Nancy and other how-to titles. And there are countless free and cheap sites that sell you instructional videos along with templates like Craftsy and Instructibles. Google it and go!

Junk (Junque):
Save stuff and reuse it! I’ve got knife blades in a tea box, buttons in an Altoids tin, threads in soap boxes, paper tape in an iPhone box, bits of pretty cards and wrapping paper in my paper-crafting bin, a strip of material off a dress I had shortened in my sewing stash… If it is usable and sturdy or attractive, tuck it away for further use.

Expand Your Mind:
Once you start thinking about how to get your supplies cheaper, the ideas will keep coming.  Maybe you’ll learn to make your own egg tempera paint. Maybe you’ll get glass eyes or fake Ibix horns from a taxidermy site. How about ReStore for materials? Growing flowers for dye in your yard? My favorite recent find was ordering paper samples from Neenah Packaging. Each “sample” was actually 5 pieces of paper 12×19” for $1.55. I had to pay shipping but got enough new paper for a host of centerpieces for under $20.

When to splurge:
Is there a time to pay retail and splurge? Of course! That unique Aboriginal print fabric at the quilt show? Had to have it and it wasn’t available anywhere else. A really good pair (or two) of heavy, sharp sewing scissors? A must and a good idea to make sure your hands can hold them comfortably. An extra yard of thread, 1/4 yard of interfacing, or tube of black paint so you can finish the job today? Of course. A shiny bottle of ink because it is your birthday? Why not.

If you plan your projects and get your supplies affordably in advance, a splurge is only a small spending on a pleasant, unique thing. It shouldn’t be guilt inducing (or feel like bloodletting). Now, go forth and make art, knowing that the screw-ups won’t be costing you a fortune in the future!