TIPS: Pricing for sewing services

sewing yellow_sI sometimes get questions from beginning costume-makers about pricing:

I design my own costumes. Recently I was asked to alter a costume and decorate a veil. I have no idea what to charge for the alterations.
I was also asked to design and sew a complete Lebanese style bellydance costume (bra, belt, skirt, veil, gauntlets, and head piece…the works). This person promised to provide me with all of the supplies.
Please help me create a costume alterations and custom-made costume (with and without supplies) price list. I do not want to overcharge someone, nor do I want to shortchange myself. ~Solayah

I have just gotten my first opportunity to make some costumes for a troupe. I was wondering if you could give me a pointer or two, please? Specifically, I am trying to figure out how to go about calculating labor. Is there an easy way to go about figuring this out? ~Abena

I am starting to sew for my fellow dancers. I do not know how much I need to charge for my services. I am doing the hem on a veil all the way around (hand stitch), so she is paying me $20. I think it is fair, but my friend says it is too high. Also, I am doing alterations, making skirts etc. I would really appreciate your help. ~Anju

SHORT ANSWER: It is not cost-effective to hem a veil with hand stitches. It’s too time-consuming compared to machine-stitching, and the difference in appearance is insignificant. Narrow-hem the veil by machine. It may take 20 minutes. Instead of $20, you could charge her $10 and still make way more money per hour.)

LONG ANSWER: Easy way to figure? I wish.
I myself would prefer to just be creative and let someone else take care of business matters, such as pricing. But that’s not possible. Even if I had a “Price List” for one client it may not necessarily work for someone else, because of the reasons outlined below.

Hobby or Business?
Just as with dancing, we must at some point decide:

  • Is this a hobby that I do for enjoyment and creative gratification, or a business, where I expect and need to pay myself a decent living wage?
  • If I do want a decent wage, how many dollars per hour is that?
  • Is there a standard formula, how much to charge for each costume piece or alteration?

It’s not easy to be a hard-nosed businesswoman when your customers are often your friends and others in the bellydance community with whom you share a passionate interest. Many of them will sigh about their financial situation. They want an professional-looking costume, but they can’t pay many hundreds or thousands of dollars  (although if they added up all the money they spend on lessons, music and videos…) Some will not want to pay much at all, yet they have no time or sewing skills to do it themselves.

sewingroom_72Compromises may be the best solution. Sometimes the customer will be able to do the sewing of fringe and other decorations herself, after you complete the basic piece, to save herself labor charges. And there are times when an exchange of costume work for private dance lessons, or classes, or other barter, is agreeable for both parties. But if you continually give customers a price break, you will find yourself engaging in a hobby rather than a business.

It helps if you have affluent customers, rather than struggling ones! One of my dancer friends is an investment banker; she told me her Christmas bonus was twenty thousand dollars. I felt fine about charging her after that.

Charging Fees
The logical pricing formula is: Hours worked, times X dollars per hour for labor, plus materials and overhead (expenses) equals total charge to customer.

That’s the difficult part. In some cases, it’s difficult to predict how many hours of work is necessary. Many people tend to underestimate the time involved. In fact, there’s another formula: Estimate how many hours the job should reasonably take. Then double that figure. That’s the number that will be closer to the actual hours!

Bellydance costume-making is a labor-intensive occupation. The speed of sewing varies a lot, however. Usually you become faster with experience, or with better equipment, but experience also teaches you to be fastidious about workmanship, which can add time. Some people are more perfectionistic than necessary. It’s hard to reverse that tendency for practical reasons. Ideally you’d excel in both speed and quality.

Other time factors are detailed below under “Considerations”.

Labor fee
The going rate in different parts of the country for skilled labor varies. Skilled labor, not minimum wage. But how much? A reasonable wage for alterations is $15-20 an hour, though you may be able to charge more. You may be willing to work for $10 an hour. Certainly no less than that. I would charge more per hour for small jobs, because it willl make up in part for the fewer dollars an hour you can usually get for time-consuming, complicated costume jobs (if you choose to do them).

No one gets rich doing costume design, outside of the Hollywood/Broadway industry or catering to wealthy clients. If you want a large income, charge $65 per hour for computer work.

Materials: The customer must purchase these herself, or pay you to purchase them for her. Shopping can be a time-consuming chore for you, but the customer may not be qualified to choose the proper materials herself.

Overhead: If you work from home, you have no extra rent/utility expenses, but sewing supplies and cost of machinery need to be accounted for. (Note: For the purposes of income tax, you may figure part of your home as a business, under certain conditions. But this is not about figuring business taxes!)

Production Work
If the costume pieces or alterations you do are nearly identical (making veils or circle skirts, for instance) this is called “production work” — just as in a factory that makes widgets. It’s easier to figure the hours of labor for each, and assign a standard price. The cost-cutting methods are buying supplies in bulk at wholesale prices (if possible), using fast, efficient sewing methods, and finding other shortcuts. As always, there’s a trade-off: too many shortcuts and cheap materials, and the product looks cheesy.

After the first sample, you will have a better idea of the labor required for the others that are very similar: troupe costumes, for instance. Then you can charge a flat fee. Usually the first one takes longer, because it’s a “prototype.” The rest go faster. If you do a high volume of such work, you must get it down to a predictable method in order to determine a fair price and make a decent profit.

Efficient production work is not fun or creative. It’s repetitive and grows tiresome very quickly—to me, at least. Some people may have a higher tolerance for repetitive work than others.

Custom Work
For custom work, restyling, and complicated alterations, each costume is unique and needs to be priced individually. Although parts of the work can be tedious, other aspects are creative and enjoyable. It makes sense to charge by the hour instead of by the piece, since there are so many unpredicatable aspects.

Charging a Competitive Price
If you charge much more than the mass-producers, you’ll get few customers who can afford it. If you charge much less, you’ll get lots of customers, but of course will work longer hours for less money.

It’s difficult to compete in price with mass-producers. They have the advantages of buying wholesale, employing cheap foreign labor in large factories, and don’t have to fit and please individual customers. The independent costumer has the advantage of pleasing the customer with individual attention, unique costume design and custom fit. She must charge for that service.

Certainly your customer should not expect to pay less for supplies and labor for a custom-made costume than what she could expect to pay for a readymade one, maybe more. Even adding in the vendor’s and importer’s percentages still will not bring you to a reasonable U.S. dollar-per-hour-wage. And of course, even the readymade ones vary tremendously in price.

Is the customer shopping for materials and decorations? If they tell you they will do the shopping themselves, nine times out of ten they will buy something that’s all wrong. Or maybe it just seems that way.

If you do the shopping, do you have to go to three or four stores to find matching fabrics, notions and trims? Driving time and shopping time must be accounted for.

Is it one-size piece (veil), a loose piece (full skirt), or a fitted piece (bra), which requires more adjustments?

Is the person a standard size, or is her figure hard to fit? How many fittings are necessary?

What type of fabric are you using? Is it difficult fabric, hard to sew? Does it need all the seams finished? Does it need much pressing? Added interfacing?

Does the piece need hand-sewn details or intricate decoration (coins, beading)?

Are you copying something the customer already has, or is it an entirely new design (which will be a prototype and thus more time-consuming)?

You may not know the answers to some of these questions yourself, until you’ve completed part of the work. So as I’ve said, you can only estimate the number of hours it will take. Tell your customer it may be more hours. Just as contractors for the city or the federal government are always running into cost over-runs (and charging millions more!) you may have to as well.

ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN! (likely possibilities):

  • The customer goes shopping and brings you unsuitable materials, so you end up having to go shopping yourself.
  • The customer changes her mind about the style. You have to tear out and redo some of your work.
  • The customer gains or loses weight during the weeks or months you work on the costume, then it needs to be refitted. More redoing!
  • The customer gets pregnant, or develops a health problem, and changes her mind about wanting a costume at all.
  • The customer is demanding, neurotic, narcissistic, insecure, or otherwise a pain in the derriére, and takes up a lot of your time.
  • The customer has unexpected car repair bills and whines about running out of money.
  • The customer’s dancing employment ends and she no longer needs a costume for that.
  • The fabric, construction, or decoration presents unexpected difficulties and adds extra hours to the job.

A customer of mine who was an architect said she understood; in her business, contractors often did NOT know how big a job it would be until they tore apart the old framework and found what was underneath.

On the other hand, you should be able to provide your customer with at least a “ball-park” figure, so she knows whether her budget will allow it, and doesn’t pass out from shock when presented with the bill.

With something as large as a full costume ensemble or several troupe costumes, you should write up and both sign a simple contract with details and dates of completion. That protects both contractor and client, because customers complain about seamstresses screwing up or not completing the project on time, as well. Collect a substantial deposit upfront so the customer isn’t likely to back out later. If she does, at least you have some of the money.

Story: I once was cheated out of half my fee by a dinner theater assistant manager, even though I did have a signed contract!! It turned out he had NOT been authorized by the producers to budget that much money for wardrobe. He was fired, but they refused to make good on the contract, since it was between him and me. I tried to take him to small claims court, but the address he had given the producers was false; no one knew where he was. A true “learning experience.”

In Summary
This all may sound daunting. And it is. If it were easy to be your own boss, everyone would be doing it!

I no longer do custom sewing. I prefer to write books and teach costuming. I also do photography and graphics.

There are lots of helpful websites and books for beginning small-business owners, professional crafters, and contractors. A search under these topics will turn up hundreds.

~Dina Lydia, Costume Goddess