January 24, 2014

If you are like me you started sewing as a hobby.  In the beginning it was just fun, nothing I took seriously, but over the years I have learned a lot.  I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and education into sewing.  I am not sure if I would call myself a professional seamstress or designer yet, but I wouldn’t call myself a hobbyist either.  I’ve come a long way and am really proud of what I have accomplished.  With this newly honed skill there has also come a desire to make some money at what I do, but I have also found that sewing is generally undervalued.  As opportunities have come my way I have had some bad experiences, but have recently had some really great commissions.  I thought that a lot of you are probably in a similar situation so I thought it might be helpful to share what I have learned.

1. Get Paid By the Hour – For me this is by far the best way to charge for a project.  I am a stay at home mom right now which means that every minute that I spend sewing commissioned work is time away from playing with my kids, doing bills, making dinner etc…  I just don’t have a lot of extra time so when I spend time on these projects every bit of time counts.  If a project takes longer than expected (which it usually does) then it is important to me to be compensated for that extra time.  I also like that once the hourly rate is decided upon then I don’t have to keep negotiating prices every time a new project comes my way.

2. Figure Out What You Are Worth – Depending on how experienced you are or how much extra time you have will determine how much you charge.  I think a good rule of thumb is think of a rate that would make you excited every time you received a new commission.  If you are dreading every new job then you are probably not paying yourself enough.  I won’t tell you how much I charge, but I will say that in my opinion minimum wage is way too little to charge for an experienced sewer.  Be honest with yourself, but don’t sell yourself short either.

3. Say No –  When a conversation starts with “This will be really good for your portfolio.” or “I have a pair of old jeans that I was hoping to…” then I know that it’s probably going to be a no for me.  I’ve become pretty good at politely explaining how I am not really trying to grow my portfolio right now or how it’s often not worth it to fix a pair of ill fitting jeans.  There have been a couple of times that I have been sucked into saying yes out of obligation or coercion, and I always end up regretting it.  There is nothing worse than hemming your neighbors grandsons jeans – especially when you are not getting paid for it.

4. Refer a Tailor – One of the ways that I am able to stick to my guns on #3 is to know of a decent tailor.  I try to explain that they are much faster than I am and therefore it would probably be cheaper to just have a tailor do it.  If you already know of someone good then it’s really easy to just refer them on when it’s a job you are not interested in.

5. Teach Your Friends –  I know I’ve sounded like a real hard A in 1-4, but I do think that it’s important to be generous when you can.  My rule of thumb is that if one of my friends asks me to sew or mend something for them I usually turn them down, but offer to teach them how to do it instead.  Sure, it may take more time in the long run, but I enjoy the opportunity to hang out with my friends (and usually it becomes a play date for my kids too) and to teach them a new skill at the same time.

Well, that it’s it.  I am sure that many of you go about this in a very different way than I do so please share your thoughts.  I am still learning.  Hope this helps!

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  • Reply Seamstress Erin January 24, 2014 at 4:57 PM

    Those are great tips. I have to chime in about #5 – when I offer to teach a friend or a friendly acquaintance, many times it has become obvious what they really wanted was for me to just do it for them, so they begrudge my instruction, ask me to “demo” every step for them, and find something else to do while I sew. This has caused enough frustration for me to be VERY picky about who I agree to teach sewing. (Which in and of itself is kind of a bummer because I want EVERYONE to get excited about sewing!!)

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:13 AM

      I hear you. I have tried to teach friends to sew before and they rarely finish their projects. I have a hard time understanding when people don’t love it as much as I do!

  • Reply dixie January 24, 2014 at 5:47 PM

    I like the idea of teaching a friend to sew. Not only do they feel really proud afterwards and you spend quality time but they start to understand the work and time involved when making bigger projects. People who don’t sew sometimes think it’s quick and easy and often it’s not.

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:14 AM

      Yes, I think teaching others how much time and work is involved is totally key.

  • Reply LeeAnn January 24, 2014 at 5:59 PM

    Totally agree with all your points especially the last one. If someone wants me to sew I throw out my hourly rate, but if it is a friend asking and they bulk at the price I offer to teach for free. 1) I know I will enjoy the time spent with that person and 2) if they take me up on the offer they leave with a new skill and appreciation. Win/win!

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:15 AM

      You sound like a great friend. Friends built around sewing are the best friends 🙂

  • Reply Madalynne January 24, 2014 at 8:30 PM

    Don’t you hate it when people assume that you’ll become their personal tailor when they know you sew? I get so many questions to hem jeans, fix dresses, etc. They think I can do it in a snap, which I can, but it’s time away from my other work.

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:16 AM

      Yes! The assumption is the worst part!

  • Reply thequirkypeach January 24, 2014 at 8:55 PM

    Great article Kelli! I have been thinking a whole lot about this lately and really appreciate your tips and insight! I think I suckered into a few too many “fix it for a friend for free” scenarios that have ended up making me hate sewing! Oh no! I think these are some great solutions!

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:18 AM

      Oh no! Don’t hate sewing. Get a number of a good tailor. It will come in very handy.

  • Reply Meg @ Mood Fabrics January 24, 2014 at 11:30 PM

    Hey, I lost all my emails in my inbox today. Can you resend yours? Thanks!

  • Reply liza jane January 25, 2014 at 12:11 AM

    Oh man, I get asked to hem jeans all the time. I’ve become really good at saying no! Although I have some friends I’ll do anything for since they’d do the same for me. The point about getting paid hourly is a very good one. I find that commissions always take longer than I think they will.

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:22 AM

      Good friends are hard to find and it sounds like they really appreciate what you do.

  • Reply Juliet January 25, 2014 at 2:57 AM

    Such good tips! I son’t sew for money and I don’t sew for anyone other than myself, but you wouldn’t believe the trouble I have from my boyfriend’s stepfather, who asks me to fix something or sew something for him every time I see him. I’ve always managed to wriggle out of it, namely because I don’t want to see this man semi-dressed, but also, sewing is my hobby. Doing it for others out of coercion or guilt and for free makes it a chore for me… thanks for the reminders on what’s good to do if you do sew for cash!

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:24 AM

      Oh no! That sounds like an awkward situation to say the least. Half dressed boyfriend’s stepfather. Yikes!

  • Reply Jo H. January 25, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    Great tips! I’ve become very good at explaining firmly and unapologetically that I only ever sew for fun. People tend to be so surprised that I wouldn’t enjoy the alteration they want, they don’t bother pushing it. People who “get it” tend to only ask me to do interesting projects – which I’ll happily take on!

    • Reply Kelli Ward January 25, 2014 at 8:26 AM

      Yes, hemming, altering etc… Not fun at all.

  • Reply sallie oleta barbee January 25, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    These are great tips, Kelli! I’ve only taken on sewing as a paid gig once and I kind of wanted to kill myself! I feel like it’s important to keep some of the ball in your court – like not doing alterations or small scale changes to an already existing garment – or not doing something that is SO outside of what you would normally do (if you’re not a quilter, then don’t take a job making someone a quilt). It might make you seem like a hard-A, but it also will make you more pleasant to deal with when you DO take on a gig that you can get excited about!

  • Reply Kelly D. January 25, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    I’ve been starting to get those requests to hem something or make a pillow cover from coworkers and I feel so awkward about it. So far I’ve tried to take the position of, come over, use my machine, I’ll help with the tricky parts, but there’s always this awkward pause…

  • Reply emily.marie January 25, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    Yep, I can totally relate to all these points. I put my name out there a few years ago as an alterations/ custom sewing person and there’s always the good and the bad. Bridesmaids dresses are usually the bad, but you get a good chunk of change in the end! I have fixed prices on many alterations (some fixed prices have increased depending on how much I hate doing the alteration e.g. replacing coat zips) and am clear what those prices and hourly rates are before they hand over the goods. A.k.a, “I can do it, but it’s going to cost ya!” 🙂

    The idea of teaching someone to sew is great! I’ve done some private lessons before, but teaching friends just for their own good actually sounds fun!

  • Reply Andrea B January 25, 2014 at 5:51 PM

    I honestly hate sewing custom requests because they always want more, more, more added on and I end up undervaluing my time. I agreed to sew simple elastic-waist skirts for a stranger’s daughter. If I actually charged a decent hourly wage for the time I spent shopping for fabric as well as corresponding with the client, purchasing all the materials and sewing the thing, though, it’d be an outrageously expensive skirt. She asked me to add a zipper and contrasting pockets, so I told her it’d be $10 extra (which is a bargain considering I’d have to drive back to Joann’s, pay for zippers and new fabric, and spend extra time sewing that new stuff), and she told me nevermind.

    That’s why I get suspicious of (or feel sorry for) Etsy shops that sell “handmade” children’s garments for $19.99 and “hand-knitted” mittens for $12.99. Either they’re not charging at all for their time/labor and therefore losing a lot of money, or they’re not selling true handmade items!

  • Reply Clio January 25, 2014 at 9:13 PM

    I’ve taken a slightly different tact with alterations. When someone asks/hints, I tell them about the great tailor who does all of my own RTW alterations. Their surprise either shuts down any further requests or leads to a conversation that lets me gently explain things to them.

    I think your list is incredibly reasonable and not at all Hard-A!

  • Reply Lauren Digby January 26, 2014 at 1:30 PM

    Those are all great points. When I do commissions, I charge 5 pounds an hour, which I think is slightly above the minimum wage in England for under 18s. This is because I’m still learning, so it’s not going to be flawless. Even with 5 pounds an hour, it gets expensive very very quickly.

  • Reply sewstylist January 26, 2014 at 4:07 PM

    These are great tips! Much of what you’ve said reminds me of lessons I learned working as freelance wardrobe stylist. I especially like #1&2 and your point about setting a wage you can get excited about. That is such a great way to put it. It is so important to not put yourself in a position where you’re left feeling like you’re doing someone a favor when you’re actually applying your skill and talent to help them with something they want or need.

  • Reply afilimonb January 27, 2014 at 5:30 AM

    What a GREAT list of advice! My number 5 is a little bit different. Teach only friends, that can actually become sewest; otherwise, turn them down. Friends tend to ask big projects, but pay less.

  • Reply Monica --Adirondack Inspired January 27, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    I have had people ask me to make something they’ve seen on my daughter, which sometimes I’m up for and sometimes not… but several times, they think it’s going to be able to make them a dress that they can pay $15 bucks for. I don’t think people quite understand how much fabric costs, and of course how long it takes to make said dress. A huge disconnect between the commercial industry and the homemade one. At first even I thought, ooh, I’ll sew for the girls and save money! Oh, the irony… lucky me, I found a passion.

  • Reply gingermakes January 28, 2014 at 6:45 PM

    These are great tips! I’ve got a couple of commissions I’m working on and, honestly, they’re sort of a pain in the butt. The expectation for what it costs to make a garment and how much time it takes is just not realistic with most people. On the other hand, a friend asked me to do some work for her and because she’s routinely had custom suits made for her, I felt like even though the rate was great, my work wouldn’t be up to snuff (especially compared to, say, the Martin Greenfield suit she had made for her dad)! I tend to only take on these projects for close friends and do it more as a gift to them than as a work thing.

  • Reply kat January 28, 2014 at 9:59 PM

    I thought this was really interesting. As someone who has benefited from your #5, I’m very glad you do it. I have been having a lot of friends ask me to help them with stuff or offer to pay me lately and I always feel awkward because I really don’t feel like I’m good enough to sew for them or I’m way too slow to feel good about charging a decent hourly rate. They think I’m just being modest when I try to explain that I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time and wouldn’t feel comfortable taking money for it. I do think I’m pretty decent at sewing now, but feel like I can’t really charge for stuff since I never went to school for this and my times learning from someone with experience in person(you) have been so limited that I don’t think I have the right credentials to charge someone and make it worth my time. This post has given me food for thought. Thanks.

  • Reply robynsewsthisandthat February 9, 2014 at 9:36 AM

    I just came across you site and this post and I really enjoyed reading it. I have been sewing for money for several years and began teaching sewing a couple of years ago. I still struggle with sewing for others. I feel that unless someone does sew or really understands the process they don’t really appreciate what is involved with hemming those pants or replacing that broken zipper. But, in teaching sewing I find that people can begin to see what is involved.

  • Reply robynsewsthisandthat.com February 9, 2014 at 9:45 AM

    I have been sewing for others for many years and it is still difficult to charge my worth. Sometimes my quotes are turned down. Usually because the client doesn’t truly understand the work involved to replace that broken zipper or to create those custom roman shades. I also teach sewing and love that I am able to share my skills and knowledge with others. Most of my friends are willing to pay me for services requested as they either don’t have time or knowledge and they appreciate my talents. I have enjoyed reading your post and the comments.

  • Reply Erica February 10, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    I’ve not been sewing long enough to accumulate too many items so far, but I’ve wondered if I’d ever be able to give up items I’ve sewn in the past when the time comes. I’d almost want to make sure they went to loving homes (lol!), especially knowing all the time and effort I put into them. Luckily, now that I sew most of my clothes, rather than buying them, the expansion of my wardrobe has slowed considerably, so hopefully I won’t have to make any tough decisions regarding getting rid of my handmade items any time soon….

    Good luck on making your decision! 🙂

  • Reply Sewing Princess February 18, 2014 at 9:45 AM

    Thanks for these tips. I generally don´t get asked as I don´t really advertise my skills to avoid getting through 1-5. Only once I had to turn down a request for a wedding dress which I felt was not something I wanted to get into due to customer expectations and relationship.

  • Reply Suzanne March 14, 2014 at 5:04 PM

    Such great advice. I almost dread telling people I sew because so often people will say, “You sew!? That’s so cool…hey, I have this thing I need fixed…” One time I even had a landlord ask me if I’d hem his pants in exchange for dinner. What a gross way to ask someone out!

  • Reply Suzanne March 18, 2014 at 6:59 AM

    I dread telling people I sew because so often their next question is “Can you make some pillows for me?” IN fact, that happened to me just yesterday (it was another kindergarten mom), and my answer was “NO!” Then she said, “But that would only take you a few minutes, right?” I dodged that one, but seriously: if someone tells me they baked the cake for their kid’s birthday party, my next question would not be, “Can you make ME a cake?” Time is precious, and non-sewers have no idea how long it takes to do anything well. Also, they’re always surprised by the cost of fabric. Some things I sew cost just as much to make as it would if I had bought a similar item in a store. Your suggestion to teach instead is a good one.

  • Reply zoe February 22, 2015 at 6:38 PM

    You don’t sound like a “hard A” at all – you sound like a wise person! As someone who has 3.5 years training in the field of clothing production (design, pattern making, cutting, sewing, tailoring, you name it), in addition to industry experience – getting to the point of feeling comfortable enough to boldly wear this same attitude took me FOREVER.

    When the non-sewist can go out and buy a moderately complex garment (like a parker) for as little as $5, there is a disconnect from reality. For example – the average consumer doesn’t understand that, regardless of whether the garment is mass-produced or a one-off, the pattern for that garment is only drafted once (and maybe graded for size); but the cost of the hours spent making a pattern for a mass-produced garment is spread over the entire number of garments produced. One-offs (or home-sewn goodness) seem “so expensive” to the average consumer, because these sorts of costs can’t be spread out.

    Another thing I encounter all the time is that the average consumer underestimates the complexity of garments (it’s just a simple jacket – it has a front, a back, sleeves… forgetting that there is also a collar, facing, lining, pockets, interfacing, closures, etc).

    I often have people requesting that I make a garment/costume for them (for example, a superhero suit), and when we chat about the design/style/vibe, a client almost always makes a reference to the overall look being “very basic”, “simplistic”; or in the case of the superhero suit – to “look as if it were hand made by someone without sewing skills” (meaning it should be cheap, right?).

    The reality is, these clients will ALWAYS want me to do a lot more work on the “simple” garment I’ve made (at their request), because the non-sewist doesn’t usually know what makes a garment complex/more time consuming (though because we all wear clothes everyday, most people think they are experts).

    I learnt a valuable way to put this to clients who come to me for costume construction (usually for contemporary dance, small films, etc). I let them know at the start:

    You can have something made cheaply, you can have something made quickly, or you can have something quality-made. You are allowed to choose two of these three options, but never all three. Sometimes, one of these options is pushed to such an extreme that it excludes all others (ie, when you want something made yesterday, there’s no time to be cost effective or focus on precision).

    Don’t feel bad about valuing your skills (or saying no to those who don’t) – feel bad if you undervalue them – because when you do this, not only are you cheating yourself, you are allowing for the continuation of the false belief that garment construction is easy/simple (and therefore shouldn’t cost “too much”: by not challenging the standard, you are cheating your fellow garment makers too.

    Sorry for the long rant, it was just nice to read your post – be proud and keep sewing up a storm!!

    • Reply True Bias February 26, 2015 at 8:12 AM

      thanks so much zoe! i agree. i always hear those same words too – its simple. well, it’s never simple. thanks for the encouragement.

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