Studio debunk: five mantras to save money on your sewing space

A glass-fronted sewing cabinet repurposed to hold neatly folded fabric stash is in the corner of a room next to a dressmaker's mannequin in a stripe cover with a tape measure hanging from its neck. Above, patterns are stored with a tailor's clapper and kilner jars filled with buttons.
Get creative with your sewing storage – repurposing existing furniture is a great place to start

Last week’s report on my rapidly depleting fabric stash led me to think about our sewing spaces, how we show them off, and the reality behind the seductive facade. If ever there was a time for unearthing the reality behind those shiny happy Insta shots – it’s now.

So, dear reader, I give you the sewing space debunk: deconstructing the gloss and showing how, with a little time and grit, you can create your own sewing haven, however small or transitory.

My concern here is that sewing as a hobby seems unattainable. Before I joined Instagram in 2019, I always thought of sewing as a thrifty creative outlet. It is absolutely wonderful to see how many people are now taking up sewing, and how many are joining in online, sharing their passion and their work. But on Instagram, at least, sewing doesn’t seem like the frugal activity I grew up with. It’s a whole other beast, revolving around pricey fabric, every gadget under the sun, and supersonic machines with price tags to rival that of a second hand car.

If you want to sew, but are on a tight budget (by which I mean struggling to make ends meet, not a self-inflicted ‘fabric ban’) does this seem like the hobby for you? Probably not. This makes my heart ache, because it could be. It really could.

Sewing is, in many ways, a liberating activity: it encourages body positivity, self-acceptance, self-actualisation. It gives us a sense of self-efficacy, mastery, worthiness. With care, you can create clothes you feel good in on a very tight budget – sometimes even rivalling the price points of the likes of Primark. Yes, really. This way is hard work, clearly, but it comes with its own rewards. The fact those rewards are slower is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives us time to consider our projects and sew more sustainably.

The tip of the iceberg: part of my gran’s button collection

I’m not about to lecture anyone who is hard up on being sustainable. I have too many thoughts on this subject to include here, but will share them at a later date. My hope is that by showing the reality behind my sewing set-up, you will get an idea of how this hobby can be taken up on a shoe string. And, dare I venture, sewing on a shoe string is the best way to get started. If you’re anything like me, you will continue to sew this way long after necessity demands it.

Now, I’m going to step right up here and acknowledge some of the ludicrous privilege to which I am party – not least the fact my gran used to run a haberdashery on the Bolton markets of yore and I have bags of buttons – probably enough to last me a lifetime.

Nevertheless, it’s worth knowing that much of what looks like an artfully curated and, one might therefore assume, expensive set-up is in fact a smorgasbord of the free, cheap as chips, or repurposed.

So, in the interests of getting up and running with a sewing set-up that doesn’t cost the earth, here are five mantras to help you save money on your sewing space. I think mantras are better than guides on what to buy, because they frame an approach without being overly prescriptive; it’s your kit, your space, your choice.

1. You don’t need a designated space to sew

Let’s face it, most of us don’t even have a sewing space, let alone a sewing room. Yes it would be amazing to have a room, yes it is fantastic to have a designated spot (I’ve been lucky enough to have had such a place for the last few years), and it’s great to have somewhere we can regularly sew – even if we have to clear away – like the kitchen table or a fold-out in your bedroom. Sometimes, however, none of this is possible: we cart our machine from here to there, trying to find a suitable spot for the hour or so we have spare. Our materials and notions, fabrics and tools and machines are shoved all over the shop, and gathering them is a mission in itself. Sometimes, by the time we’ve managed to set ourselves up, the desire to sew has wained, and the call of the kettle and biscuit tin impossible to resist.

Even so, it’s not the end of the world. You don’t need that special spot, however wonderful it would be, to sew. If you get yourself as organised as you possibly can, you will save time on set-up, however strange and ever-changing the day’s location proves to be.

If you love sewing, now is the time to invest in the habit. And by invest, I mean schedule in regular practice. However hard it is to find the time, let alone the space, the habit itself is what will carry you through your life, not any amount of fancy equipment or studio space. Put aside twenty minutes three times a week, and you may find that time mysteriously expands.

My gran’s button card: a talisman wherever I have sewn, now framed with its own little place above my desk

Before we moved to our current house, we rented a one bed flat. As our first child got older, we turned the living room into our bedroom so she could have her own room. From then on, if I wanted to sew, it would be at the kitchen table, which was folded away most of the time to make room for our sofa. That table also doubled as my office (I was writing up my PhD and freelancing as a journalist at the time) and the place we ate every meal. I’m surprised we didn’t wear the hinges off the gateleg.

My sewing machine was stored in an understairs cupboard. Fabric was squashed into an Ikea bag at the bottom of our wardrobe. My notions and tools were in a plastic tool box and a couple of shoe boxes under the bed.

I sewed as often as I could – which wasn’t as much as I would have liked. While it was a ball ache at the time, I’m glad I persevered because now, five years on, with a designated sewing spot, both the habit, and an appreciation of how lucky I am to have it, is ingrained.

Whenever you look at Instagram, it’s always worth remembering that all is not as it seems. From the picture above you might think I have my very own sewing room. The reality is I have taken possession of one wall of the spare room, while my husband’s ‘office’ occupies the opposite wall, and the spare bed (and the ironing board) the gap in-between. It’s a good-sized room so it works for us, but I do still dream of having it all to myself. Yes I have suggested my husband puts a shed in the back yard for his office. No it didn’t go down well.

2. You don’t need all that stuff to sew

Sewing is, in a quite literal sense, a material habit. But it is only materialistic if you choose for it to be. Of course there are some basics that are indispensable, like maybe a machine (unless you take a really slow approach), scissors, needles, etc. You definitely don’t need a computerised machine. I still haven’t got one; even though I’ve been saving up for years, I think the truth is I cannot really be faffed with anything so fancy. And – hold the front page – you 100 per cent do not need a coverstitch.

My trusty Elna 3210 workhorse, bought in 2008 after my mum’s 1968 Novum was irreparably damaged

Your machine is likely to be your biggest outlay. Even if you source cheap thread, fabric, patterns and gadgets, the cost per garment shoots up when you account for machinery. This doesn’t mean you have to drop a bomb. If you want to start sewing, it’s always worth asking around to see if anyone has a machine you can borrow. This gives you a chance to see if you really dig it before committing. Put an ad on Freegle or Freecycle and see if you get lucky. Failing that, head over to eBay or Facebook selling and see what’s on offer: the markdown on used machines is like cars.

Overlockers are hot darned amazing, I’m not going to lie. I would hate to be without mine now, but you do not need one. They don’t improve your sewing, they just make you faster and, dare I say it, sloppier (speak for yourself, Ruth!). Stretch fabrics are easier with an overlocker, but it’s a luxury. I’d wager your sewing is of a higher standard without an overlocker because you have to invest in couture finishes to keep those seams tidy. Keeping the overlocker on the long list is a surefire way to learn the ropes, and learn them well.

As for the rest of the endless sewing paraphernalia that is constantly being waved under your nose… You don’t need it. I have plenty of gadgets that make my life easier, but I could do without them and prior to owning them used something else for the same purpose (Prym point turner for a knitting needle, anyone?).

Now this isn’t to say it’s not jolly good fun acquiring some of these items. I’ve been sewing for decades so it’s no surprise I have a decent set-up by now. I always have a little list going in my head, in case anyone asks me for a birthday or Christmas idea. Low cost items build up into quite a collection over time.

If you do need to make a purchase, make sure you check out the amazing YouTube channel The Camden Stitch. In a whopping six part series (starting here), Jay Jay (aka @thecamdenstitch on Instagram) guides you through every aspect of sewing on a budget. It’s an invaluable series. Even if you don’t need to worry about the financial side of sewing, there are tips for everyone.

3. It doesn’t have to be perfect

So you haven’t enough fabric to pattern match? Skipping the pattern matching will save you a lot of fabric in the long-run. Your bobbin has one shade of blue, your thread is a different shade, and your fabric another – does it matter? Nope. Don’t sweat the small things. We are all far too critical of our own work when the reality is nobody else gives a rat’s derriere if your seams are wobbly. There are so many ways to save on sewing (again, pointing you in Jay Jay’s direction for a plethora!). For more ideas check out this blog on bargainous sewing from Alice of The Polka Dot Palace and pay Wendy Ward a visit.

As for your sewing space, it doesn’t need to be perfect either. You don’t need that trio of machines (sewing, overlocker, coverstitch) so constantly flaunted on Instagram. You don’t need a spare machine in storage just in case. You don’t need a separate machine for your kid. You don’t have to reach an immaculate zen-like state to get into your sewing (though I can’t deny it would be nice to have the opportunity). Take a make-do and mend philosophy to your sewing set-up and make the most with what you have. Feel free to dream, but don’t let that stop you starting the habit right now.

4. It doesn’t have to be new

I know second hand gives some people the shivers, but I would never have gotten as heavily into sewing as I have without having received just about everything that started me off as a hand-me-down. Most other things I purchased for pennies from a thrift shop or eBay, or sourced for nowt but gratitude on Freecycle.

Sourcing fabric doesn’t have to send you into the red

Let me give you an idea. See the picture of my stash, left? A lot of the fabric is old. It was my gran’s mostly, some of it mum’s. What I bought myself, I sourced from a variety of places – deadstock from The Textile Centre, market stall finds, wax fabric and ripstop from eBay, and some more expensive fabric (decent denim, silk crepe) as presents. A lot of these pieces are sub-one metre remnants; I will use them up for small projects as time goes by. As you can see from the labels, this collection has been built over a period of more than 20 years. It was bigger, but as I wrote here, it has taken a battering over the course of lockdown.

The buttons in the Kilner jars were mostly my gran’s, some my mum’s, and some from a good friend of my mother-in-law who sadly passed away a few years ago. When people know you are a keen sewist, they often think to pass things to you, which is a lovely feeling and creates an inter-generational bond between makers. The Kilner jars were bought from Ikea years ago when we had an allotment and I went through an extensive chutney phase. Yes, some of them still smell a bit spicy, it’s part of the charm.

The cupboard was a huge stroke of luck: it had been left in the house when we moved in. If you’re into midcentury, it’s a Minty bookcase, made in Oxford for libraries – since we’d just moved up from Oxford, where I had spent an inordinate amount of time bookworming, this seemed rather fitting. It soon became my sewing cupboard.

Most of the other stuff you can see is repurposed or a present (ahhh, my beloved clapper). The old metal box from Ikea I’ve had since I was an undergrad in the late-90s. It’s bashed up but the perfect width for storing patterns. Inside are mostly vintage patterns I inherited from my gran, or bagged on eBay for pennies (the rest of my patterns are stored in boxes in a cupboard on the other side of the room).

On the shelves above are books and manuals, several of which are very old, handed down or picked up in charity shops, a few thrifted handbags and boxes, and some toys from when I was a kid.

5. It doesn’t have to be forever

In front of the cupboard is one of my luckiest finds: my mannequin. It’s not the best dress form on earth (why are we always coveting the next thing, I wonder?) but it does the job. I call her Blodwin. She’s a decidedly odd shape, truth be told – although adjustable, she has Barbie boobs and all her girth seems to come in depth rather than width. She is, however, a useful clothes horse to get a rough idea of fit and look.

She came to me through Freecycle – I was still a student finishing my PhD while we were doing our house up, and I was constantly offloading random things like window stays and sinks, when I spotted someone was giving Blodwin away 10 minutes drive from our house. It was a dream come true. Many moons ago my mum found an Adjustoform in a charity shop. I’d only had it for a year when we moved flats and it was crushed to a pulp in the back of the van. Blodwin is made of polystyrene with a rod up her middle and some slightly-broken dials to adjust her size. But she does me proud. One day I might get a fancier version. Or maybe I won’t.

The problem is when we equate our creativity with consumerism, and measure our value by a barometer set purely by purchasing power.

I hope this post doesn’t come across preachy. Nothing could be further from my intentions. I am concerned that the entry point to sewing is being misrepresented – unintentionally for the most part – as prohibitively expensive. Our wonderful sewing community is interwoven with the business of selling. In many ways this is positive: giving new and independent businesses a place to grow. The problem is when we equate our creativity with consumerism, and measure our value by a barometer set purely by purchasing power. The fact is, if we are failing sewists with limited budgets then we are failing on every measure of inclusivity.

If you can afford to splash out on your space, then great – there is nothing nicer than being able to make it every bit as wonderful as your dreams. But if you are on a budget, or maybe have no budget, then please don’t despair. My hope is that the entry point to this activity will slide down a notch. You don’t need to part with your hard earned at a rate of knots to get going. It takes time to build a stash. But you can have fun being creative with your space, working out ingenious hacks to make things you already own work for you, and sourcing the things you need at cut price. I hope then you will forget about the sewists with four coverstitch machines and a cutting table the size of your entire flat. The true gold is in the sewing itself.

So, how did you start out with your sewing space? Whereabouts do you sew? Or are you just beginning to work out what you need and how to get hold of it? Let me know in the comments below…



26 thoughts on “Studio debunk: five mantras to save money on your sewing space

  1. A very thoughtful article! Some really good points too. I started out with a machine from Aldi, some pins and scissors I already had and one pattern. When I sewed in my teens machines were always borrowed from my grandma and then my mother in law. It’s amazing how many people are wanting to get rid of old machines! I found buying a book with a few patterns in a really good investment. The Stretch book by Tilly and the Buttons was about £14 but had 6 patterns inside!

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    1. Thank you Lisa! That’s a good point about sewing books. And so true about machines. When I think of all the people who now have two or three machines after upgrading a few times, there’s bound to be someone who would actually appreciate the chance to loan it out and save some space…

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  2. What a great post! I sew in what I call the dungeon, which is in my garage. I used to highly dislike it until the pandemic hit and I moved myself to the living room. I have an organized chaos thing going on when I sew that seemed to drive my hubby batty plus I kept finding pins on the ground so for everyone’s safety I moved myself back to the dungeon.
    As far as the fabric goes, the bargain hunter in me does not allow me to spend or buy fabric at full price. You can always find me in the clearance sections at all stores and fabric shops. I’ve also used sheets for some of my daughters dresses and PJ’s.
    Thank you for the post!

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    1. Hi Irene, Thank you for reading! Ahh, the curse of the pins! This is a constant issue where I sew as my husband has to cross the rug of doom to get to his desk! I always have a magnet at the ready these days. It’s good that you’ve grown to appreciate the dungeon now. And I’m also a hoarder of old bed sheets for projects! And also old ripped clothes for kids stuff…

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  3. I found this a really refreshing read as I often find when looking at sewing on Instagram things incredibly expensive. I see someone has used a fabric I like, I go and look it up and find it’s £15 a metre, way out of my price range and then notice they haven’t bought it themselves it has been gifted by the company. I am not silly I know this is how business works but it really takes the shine off reading about someone’s sewing adventures when you realise everyone one is sponsored.

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    1. Hi Shelley, Thank you for reading – I’m so glad you enjoyed it. The sponsorship side of things is really tricky. I have reviewed fabric occasionally (writing a review for a company’s website in return for fabric) – without it I would never have been able to sew as much as I did when I was still at home with the kids. But the flip side is I consumed far more fabric than I ordinarily would have done, which was not good for the planet! And then, like you say, it shows an unrealistic level of consumption. I never felt like I got the fabric for free because, as a professional writer, I would ordinarily be paid per word, so I did view it as a direct exchange of goods and services. But I can see that, in general, it probably doesn’t come across that way. Food for thought, indeed! Thank you for sharing.

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      1. Thankyou for answering, and it’s a great point that you are paid for your words, I will take that into consideration. After writing this I thought it came across more of a moan than I intended so sorry. I have loved reading your articles and like your considered way of writing thank you

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      2. Ah no, it didn’t come across as a moan. I’m interested to hear all viewpoints and it’s great to be able to see if from a different perspective. Your comment made me stop and think and reflect on relationships with business and how I represent in that way. Thank you!

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  4. I loved your blog post. It’s something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment. I started sewing a number of years ago and always found it hard to make anything until I set up a table in my sitting room. I am always on a budget, 3 kids, so I managed on a few tools and have spent a lot of time researching new tools to add to my set up. I no have a great set up but this has meant I have outgrown the sitting room. So over the past year we have been building an add on to my husbands shed for me. It’s been a slow process as each step has progressed when funds allow. We are currently putting in the floor! I am also upcycling furniture we already have so I will only need a few things from ikea. We have amazing friends and family who have offered help etc it’s all very slowly slowly.
    I feel like I’ve grown out of one space so now I need to grown into the new one.

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    1. Thank you so much and thank you for your comment! I love this story! It’s so wonderful that your hobby has grown and that everyone is working with you to create your sewing space. I hope it will be ready for you to enjoy soon!

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  5. I love this! I’ve been pondering on how there is so much consumerism tied up with a lot of sewing. I’m so generally disorganised and forgetful I have been adding to my stash without realising I already have stuff that I need. A lot is bought because I was afraid I’d miss out on it. This was an extremely timely bit of blogging, it just resonates perfectly with what I’ve been thinking about at the minute.

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    1. That fear of missing out is so powerful isn’t it? In the online environment we have to work on ourselves constantly if we don’t want to be constantly spending. I’m sure it will start to backfire, though, especially in the current climate when so many people are losing their livelihoods or having to manage on a reduced income. I wonder what extent creative communities will begin to reject the commodification of creativity?

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  6. I so agree! I started with borrowed vintage machine and scissors. Found patterns and fabric in a thrift store, and sewed knits fearlessly on that old clunky Kenmore.

    After a few moves I got my own machine. I sewed everything for my daughter on it, starting with underwear and leggings and ending with dresses, pants and coats! Most of the patterns came from magazines (Ottobre design, a fabulous kids sewing mag), a lot of fabric from sales rack and thrift store. I did get a serger at one point, maybe around seven years into sewing? That’s also when I set up a permanent sewing spot in the corner of the living room, basically a desk with a couple of cardboard boxes under it, to hold notions and such. If I had cropped it, it would have given an illusion of a grand sewing place! Same at my next rental, except it was the same desk in the corner of the bedroom.

    Honestly thought, you need only a machine, iron, scissors, pins, thread and fabric. I didn’t have a seam ripper for years, or ironing board. The most valuable thing for me was finding a corner to leave the machine up, that’s when it became easy to sit and sew and my skills improved visibly just because I sewed more often 🙂

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    1. It’s lovely hearing about the evolution of your sewing space. And I agree totally about what a difference it makes being able to leave your machine up. Mine is always plugged in, but pushed to the back of the desk if I’m working. It really does help being able to start up so easily 🙂

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  7. Wonderful article, thanks! I have an ongoing struggle with craft and my own consumerism/available space.I was given my machine (in a stroke of incredible luck similar to your Minty bookcase, my friend’s husband did a house clearance and wondered if I’d like this amazing sewing machine – yes please!) and my stash which is largely from charity shops.

    But buying from charity shops, while cheap and sustainable, is rarely intentional (I have way too many gorgeous duvet covers but no knits!) and I buy good fabric when I see it, because you can’t plan what’s in the charity shop. I aspire to a smaller stash but that isn’t congruent with the way I buy most of my fabric.I’m looking forward to reading your destash articles.

    Also, as an aside to your points, I believe that people with the means should feel free to spend on their hobby if they want. I think that traditionally female crafts are routinely undervalued, and you’d rarely find someone deliberating at such length over spending on golf clubs, or a motorbike in the same way that I see people feeling guilty over a sewing machine purchase. But that really applies to people with the privilege of choice. And is equality in consumerism really equality?!

    If you haven’t already, I recommend the #stashless blog series on http://www.thecraftsessions.com. A few years old now but a very thoughtful dive into one woman’s journey with her own consumerism via her stash.

    Thanks again for the food for thought!

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    1. Thank you for your comment Catherine. That’s a really good point about thrifting fabric. No point buying yards of cotton if what you need is lycra… I really hope this didn’t come off as me slapping about sewists who can afford more stuff. That’s definitely not what it’s about. I just want people who would like to sew to know that it is doable on a shoestring. Many of us started out that way before Instagram, and I wonder if I would have persevered if my only influences had been online. I agree we shouldn’t be shaming anyone for spending money on what they love, and that’s not my intention. I think a lot of what we see on Instagram is not women spending money, but women given things to influence others to spend money… When I am able to spend, I do. But in lean times I know it’s possible to cut back and keep sewing. I hope through talking openly about budgets and sewing more people will see that it is more attainable than it sometimes seems.

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  8. As one of those sewists with three machines (the extra two being overlocker and coverstitch) it’s been a hard-won pleasure to add those two specialists as my skills grew. Could I do without them? Absolutely. I can also honestly say that using them sparks joy though!
    There are a couple of consumption shifts I’ve noticed since I started sewing. I’ve completely stopped buying clothes. What’s just as important for me though is that I barely even go to the shops to look, which saves so much time and energy; I shall never miss the dragging feeling of not loving what I try on and thinking that I need to lose weight/tone up/change my . The second shift is that I haven’t bought, upgraded or even replaced my phone and didn’t bother replacing my iPad when the old one died. So my consumption isn’t up because of sewing, more that it’s shifted to support my creativity and passion. Happily, my mental wellbeing has definitely been boosted which was a totally unexpected Brucie-bonus 😉

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    1. The mental wellbeing boost is definitely a wonderful bonus! I really hope this post doesn’t come off as me criticising people who are able to spend more – when I can treat myself, I do, and like you say it brings real joy. My concern is for those starting out on limited budgets – if your only contact with other sewists is through Instagram, the whole enterprise might seem unattainable. I just want everyone to get a shot at that joy we all know and love, however limited their means.

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      1. When I got back into sewing it had nothing to do with Instagram. I know that your post isn’t about social media but it’s the place where this state of seeing sewing as ‘beyond my budget’ and even ‘beyond my level’ is most likely to strike. I only ended up on there because a fabric shop owner kept directing me to IG to look up their classes, sewing challenges, fabrics etc.

        Without discovering the sewing community on Instagram I’d probably have made slower progress in my sewing, in some respects. Whether being unaware of Instagram’s world of sewing would’ve been more or less joyful or expensive as a journey is difficult to know. I can only say for sure that sewing would’ve been a slower-growing habit.

        In truth, I find Instagram to be a double-edged sword. It’s hugely inspiring and ridiculously over-stimulating in equal measure, and highly likely to incubate this budget-measured level of worth that your post warns of.

        I am amazed by the output and frequency of posting of some sewists. Like, when do they eat, sleep, slob about? It’s inspiring but I used to think I was a bit too slow, if that makes sense? Thankfully, I’m over that, haha!
        But I do think that what’s worth noticing is how the output you see on social media affects you and your sewing practise. Can you just regard it as somebody else’s process without letting that rate of productivity or prowess prod you? 🙂

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      2. I think you’re right about it being a double-edge sword. I really do love Instagram, for quite a few different reasons, but sometimes as you say it can lead to us changing our behaviours and not always for the better in terms of our own wellbeing. I think so long as we regularly check in on ourselves, and others, then we can enjoy the perks while navigating the traps. And definitely helps to remind ourselves regularly that one person’s pace/style doesn’t set the bar. You do you, as they say 🙂

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