A couple of years ago, I wrote a post for the blog around the cost of making your own clothing – both compared to ready-to-wear garments and also in the sense of how much to charge people if you’re selling something handmade or have a request to make something handmade for someone.
It remains one of my most popular posts on the blog, so I thought it could do with a bit of updating now I’ve got another couple of years experience under my belt, and especially since we’ve managed our Etsy shop for that time as well. The original post was very much focussed on the hard cost of actually making the thing, to create awareness of all the things that go into it (including all the incidentals that you might forget) and to also act that as a starting point for pricing your item if you’re thinking of selling it – but I’ve now got some other things for you to consider.
(In real life, I work in finance. If you didn’t know that already, it’s going to be blatantly obvious by the end of the post ? )
Homemade = cheaper, right?
It seems to be a common misconception among non-sewists that making your own clothes is cheaper than buying them, and therefore it must cost next to nothing to produce clothing at home. The same way that cycling to work must be cheaper than taking the train (not necessarily, depending on how much you splurge on a bike and alllll the kit you need ??♀️) and how cooking from scratch is always cheaper than eating out (fillet steak from the local butchers vs dinner at the greasy spoon down the road, tho? ?).
Fast fashion has a lot to answer for with their pricing. No, a T-shirt should not cost £5 – if you’re paying £5 for it and someone is making a profit on that sale, once you deduct the cost of the materials, how much do you think someone is getting paid to make that garment? You might think you’re winning by getting that T-shirt for so little money, but someone somewhere is paying the price. And it baffles me that these sewists can be paid SO little for skills that are really good – neater and better than mine, most of the time.
When I get comments like ‘OMG I love your dress/skirt/T-shirt (delete as appropriate), can you make me one?’ I usually just straight out say ‘no’ (but in a nice way ?) because it’s easier than explaining why it would cost more for me to make it for them than they would expect to pay for a dress they bought from a store. Economies of scale, anyone? ? #nerdalert
While it can be true in some cases that homemade can be cheaper than store-bought – an old duvet cover refashioned into a dress compared to buying a ready-to-wear designer dress for example – it is definitely not true in all cases. To start with, it depends on where you’re setting the bar with how much you spend on clothes, and how much you spend on fabric.
(Yes, I made a Kielo dress from that pink jersey on the right ?)
If you are buying the more pricey fabrics, then making your own clothes is not necessarily the cheaper option, when you compare the cost to some high street stores. I’m fortunate enough (at this stage in our lives, at least – it hasn’t always been this way believe me) that we both earn full-time salaries and I can spend a little bit more on supplies and feeding my hobby. Two metres of Liberty Tana Lawn for a man’s shirt will set you back the best part of £45 (unless you can find some on sale, or I recommend Shaukat), yet you can buy a cotton shirt in high street shops for under £20. And this fabric cost isn’t even taking account of all the other materials you need – buttons, interfacing etc – and the time you spend making it, so it’s starting to look like the expensive option pretty damn quickly.
But it’s not the handmade clothing that’s overpriced, it’s the stores that are warping our idea of how much clothing should cost. Fast fashion isn’t made to last – it’s made to be worn and washed just a couple of times and then thrown away. The quality of the fabric, seams and finishes reflect this as well – they just weren’t built to last.
But a lot of us sewists know this already.
TO MAKE FOR OTHERS, OR NOT TO MAKE FOR OTHERS
If you put it out there to people and ask whether or not they make garments for others, the response is generally that they will only do it for immediate family (husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings etc) and only on their own terms. Next-door neighbours who pop round with five pairs of trousers for hemming will be told, quite rightly, to jog on to the tailors on the high street. Makers can be expected to do it for nothing because they ‘enjoy it’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to help out the occasional friend who needs a quick repair on something to extend its life. For free. All it costs me is a few minutes of my time and a little bit of thread – in exchange they get to continue wearing an item for a bit longer. I’ve sat in the office cafeteria at lunch mending the coat of the freelance editor that sat next to me for a few months last year, altered swimming costumes for the daughter of a colleague, and offered advice to the young account manager whose hook and eye on his trouser waistband bust one morning (we went with stapling it, lol) But when people ask if I can make something for them from scratch, they usually change their mind before I’ve even finished totalling up the cost of just the materials needed. And that’s if I don’t say no outright. I mean, would you ask a mate who is an electrician to rewire your house for free? No, you wouldn’t. (Well, hopefully, you wouldn’t). So people shouldn’t expect it of home sewists, either.
The era of fast fashion has devalued the skills of the dressmaker and created the expectation that good clothing is something that can be made quickly and cheaply. So why would anyone pay twice, triple (or even more) the price of a RTW shirt to have one made just for them? And if I’m making a garment for myself, people wonder why I can’t make it for cheaper than it’s sold for in the shops, with all the expensive overheads that they must surely build into their sales price ?
I’m not going to talk in detail about the obvious factors here of bulk discounts and economies of scale for these huge fashion chains, or the outsourcing of sewing to countries like China and Bangladesh where labour cost is lower. These are the biggest influences in the cheap prices of the throwaway fashion we have nowadays, and something that a single sewist in the U.K. cannot even begin to replicate. Things made in developed countries will always cost more than those made in underdeveloped ones, simply because the labour cost is higher. Fact.
SO HOW MUCH DOES IT ACTUALLY COST TO MAKE SOMETHING?
Totalling up project costs is not something that I do on a regular basis, and not even to a precise degree even when I do calculate it. To me, it’s not so important, because this is my hobby. I do it for enjoyment. But if people catch on that you’re a sewist, the day will inevitably come when you’re asked if you will make something for someone.
Just because I was curious, I totalled up one of my makes to see what the overall cost was. Just for the lols, y’know.
So, what goes into a project? The main inputs into creating an item of clothing are the materials, the tools, and the time.
Before I start to talk about material costs, let’s discuss the real sticking point – the cost of labour. ‘Living wage’ here in the U.K. is £9.00 per hour. If you live in London as I do, that living wage becomes £10.55 per hour. These are the government guidelines for a fair full-time wage, in order for the worker to be able to live and pay rent and bills. This, of course, is the minimum that an unskilled worker should receive in exchange for an hour of their time – a rate which will obviously increase in line with the worker’s skills and experience. If you’re at a stage where you can sew garments to a good level, then you’ve obviously invested time and effort into honing your skills and could command a higher hourly rate. But for this example, let’s use the London living wage of £10.55 per hour.
Time spent on the project covers more than just the sewing time – there’s sourcing the right fabric and materials, time spent going to the shop to buy thread and buttons, and all the construction techniques such as pinning, basting and pressing. Don’t forget all of that.
Before you start buying materials, you are going to need a pattern. There is a cost for this too – this is true whether you self-draft (in which case the cost will be your time) or purchase a pattern from a store. I’ll admit to having a fair stash of patterns, and these have varied wildly in price from about £3 (on sale) to £15 which I recently paid for my Ginger Jeans pattern from Closet Case. (Yes, £15 is a little steep for a pattern and more than I would usually pay, but I’m hoping to get to a place where the template has been altered to fit me perfectly and I can then just reuse it, again and again, each time I want to make a new pair of jeans. So although the initial outlay is high, I’m hoping the cost-per-use will be a lot lower).
There’s rather a lot of people out there that don’t realise most of us use patterns to sew from when we make things. They assume that when we say ‘I made it’ that we mean we cut random shapes out of fabric without a guide, sewed them together and made a garment. They think that we haz mad sewing skillz. And when they ask if we can make them a shirt/dress/skirt they assume that we already know what shapes are needed to make their item in their exact size. Erm, no. They get even more horrified when you tell them how much patterns can cost.
Obviously, material costs will vary wildly – I tend to buy material in natural fibres, cotton, silk, wool etc (rather than man-made fabrics such as polyesters which can be cheaper, but I don’t like synthetics so much) and I always use Gutermann branded thread. Quality to me is important and I want the things I make to last as long as possible.
For this illustration, here’s a list of materials I used for my ‘Asia Calling’ shirt –
2 metres of Liberty lawn – £45
Vilene interfacing – £1 (for collar and cuffs only)
Buttons – £3.50
Pattern – £13 (today’s price on SewDirect)
Thread – 1 spool of Gutermann £1.80
So I’m currently at a total of £64.30, before I’ve even started making it. I’m leaving out the time spent browsing patterns and fabric stores for the perfect combo (as I do this for fun ?) but that could also be considered.
So once you’ve got your materials, you’ve then got the prep to do – and firstly you’ve got to pre-wash and press your fabric.
Let’s say a total of £1 for the water and detergent used in the washing machine, and your time spent levelling the fabric and pressing.
You then have your time spent tracing your pattern in the size required (using your own tracing paper), and cutting out the templates (30 mins = £5.28) If you’re making a muslin, you might have spent £2 on fabric and 1 hour making it to check the fit (£10.55).
Then you’ll be cutting out the real fabric and transferring all the construction markings. Total time – 1.5 hours x £10.55 = £15.82
The construction of the garment consists of sewing time, pressing time, and fitting time. I don’t track how many hours I spend actually sewing something (though maybe I will start just out of curiosity) but it will usually take a bit longer if it’s the first time I’m making it or it uses techniques that are new to me. Let’s say for the average dress shirt, construction takes 4 hours in total = £42.20
So far then, the total cost for the men’s shirt is: £141.15
Then we’ve got the cost of depreciation for everything you’ve had to buy in order to actually be able to make the shirt – tools, consumables and machinery. You might have bought these things a while ago, but you still need them to make the garment, so their cost has to be considered too.
For me, this would cover:
Pins, scissors, ironing board, iron, cutting mat, rotary cutter, chalk pencils, machine needles, tailors dummy, and of course, the sewing machine.
Let’s take an average, mid-range machine costing £500. I’ll assume that you keep it for five years, so £100 per year. Let’s say you make 20 garments a year – therefore the cost per item for your machine is £5.
For all the other consumables listed above let’s say £1.50, as blades will need to be replaced, scissors sharpened and needles replenished.
Therefore the total, all-in cost for the shirt is £147.65. Wowzers.
And this is without adding on any “profit”, which if you’re happy to go without because you’re making for a friend/family member, then you wouldn’t need to add anything more. You may or may not even want to charge for your time, if the item is for someone close to you, however it’s better to charge something from the outset otherwise you might find yourself being asked to make more things afterwards for the cost of materials only (of course, you can always decline in these situations).
If you’re asked to make something as a commission, you would expect to make at least some profit on it – which means that the total price to charge will need to be increased even further. Because there’s also things that haven’t been covered here, which would still need to be paid if you were a business – rent and rates on your premises, business insurance, advertising and promotion costs, the income tax you’ll have to pay on your profits.
CHECKING OUT THE COMPETITION
Since opening our Etsy store, I’ve come to realise that there’s a whole other aspect to pricing your handmade goods. Although looking at the costs involved in producing it is an excellent starting point, you’ve also got to consider the rest of the market – and the future. So let’s say, for arguments’ sake, that a shirt costs you £100 to make, all-in. You’re happy with that, as it’s a weekend hobby for you, which you run from your own home using tools that you already have. You notice that other sellers, like real businesses, are selling exactly the same shirt for £150 – which is £50 more than yours. At first, this seems like a good thing, right? People that are considering purchasing a shirt will probably go for yours, as it’s so much cheaper, and you’ll get sales. Winning.
Are you really winning though? No, not really.
You’re not winning because if, in the future, this little side business takes off, your prices don’t cover any of the overheads that I mentioned above which you’ll all of a sudden have. So you’ll be making a loss, unless you increase your prices considerably, which is going to nark off your existing customers pretty quickly. Plus, your ‘hobby’ sales prices undercut those sellers who are trying to earn a living from their business and have to cover these legitimate overheads – by selling at reduced rates because you’re a hobbyist, you’re devaluing the value of handmade goods from genuine small businesses. Not cool.
You also need to consider what makes your item special – I saw a post on Facebook a while back where someone was considering selling children’s leotards. There was a comment along the lines of ‘people won’t pay more than £20 for a leotard’, and so the maker believed that she couldn’t sell them for more than £20, even if they cost more than that to make. Even if they were better quality than these £20 leotards that are currently selling.
Let’s just back up a little here.
That’s like saying that ‘people won’t pay more than £10 for a T-shirt’. Granted, there are people out there that won’t, or can’t afford, to pay more than £10 for a T-shirt. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t T-shirt’s out there that sell for more than £10. Of COURSE there are. There are the people out there that are after a cheap T-shirt, and then there’s those that are after a quality T-shirt and don’t mind paying a little more for it, and there are the people with considerable amounts of disposable income buying designer t-shirts. Some people want to pay as little as possible for the garment. Some people will pay more for organic cotton, because that’s important to them. Some people like something a bit more niche, from a specific designer or with a specific print. Some people want to support small businesses that are local to them. There are SO. MANY. LEVELS. You can’t blanket the market with such a statement as ‘people won’t pay more than £20 for a leotard’. So yes, while there are people out there that won’t pay more than £20 for a leotard, there will be people that will. Consider why yours is different to what’s available out there – can they customise the colour? Are good quality materials used? Do you source your materials from other small businesses? These are all things that come in to play when considering your selling price, and things you should think carefully about.
It’s not just about the cost of the materials that went into your item – it’s the whole package deal.
So our Liberty shirt in question has cost over £140 to make, before any ‘profit’. Would I spend that amount of money on a RTW shirt? Maybe, if the fabric was absolutely awesome, the best thing I had ever seen and was a decent quality natural fibre. And the fit would have to be pretty damn good too. But I would still think carefully about whether it was worth it before I parted with the cash.
As I don’t mind using my free time to make a shirt for the husband, I’ll ignore all the costs apart from the direct materials used – £64. While this is still a lot of money to spend on a shirt, my perspective is that the £64 is not just getting him a shirt – it’s also getting him a shirt that fits well (which is so hard to find in RTW – the arms and body are always too wide and too long), in a fabric of his choice, with buttons of his choice. I get to develop my sewing skills and spend time doing a hobby I enjoy. And I get to give him this shirt that he designed and it makes me happy to see him wear it. But it’s *my* choice to spend my time doing this. Time is precious, and in short supply, especially as I also have an almost-full-time day job (boo).
It seems that from your average non-sewist’s point of view, the decision of whether handmade is worth it or not is very much focused on cost – if the cost of the handmade item is more than the cost of store-bought, people are put off. For me, it’s not until you start learning about things like seam finishes and fabric properties that you really notice which RTW items are truly quality (which does seem to equate to expensive) and which have been made as cheaply as possible. When you begin to sew your own clothes and learn about the processes and techniques involved, you find yourself inspecting seams and pattern matching in clothing stores, and looking at the labels to see what fibres it’s made from. You inadvertently become the strictest ever quality control manager.
SO IS IT ALL WORTH IT?
So when all is said and done, is it worth making your own clothes if it costs you more?
For me, yes. I’m paying for the opportunity to choose my fabrics and style. No longer do I have to walk away from an item in a shop because it’s the wrong colour, or too short, or it’s got a design element I don’t like (frilly shoulders – in fact, frilly anything – I’m lookin’ right atcha). Instead, I can just make one exactly how I want it. It’s worth it because it’s also my hobby – others would think nothing of spending £100 on food and drink on a night out, but I would prefer to spend £100 on fabric and make something for myself or my husband. It’s all relative, I guess, to what you value in life and what you want to spend your money on.
From a buyer’s point of view though, I totally understand that people probably don’t want to pay me £150 to make them a shirt. It’s a lot of money. But… you do get a nice fitting, unique (probably) shirt rather than one off the shelf which might not fit quite right. Perhaps I should start charging my husband for each shirt that I make him ??
Do you make things for friends/family? What are your experiences? What are your thoughts on the prices of handmade goods? Please share your thoughts 🙂
Next week on the blog is my Range Backpack – there’s metallic leather involved! ? Subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss out! ??