Apart from making a lot of historical clothing we also get to wear them a lot as we do a lot of work as Historical interpreters (shows, demos, talks etc 0 ore info here!). But sometimes we take … Continue reading
You are a creative person and would like to run a creative business full time. You have read the success stories, you have chatted to friends, and everything looks peachy – so you are leaving your mundane day-job and are … Continue reading
Over the last 20 years of sewing for other people this is one of the more often-asked questions – “Why is bespoke more expensive than ready to wear, off-the-peg garments?” And this request accounts for about 80% of the email I am getting nowadays too:
“I saw your off the peg riding habit/gown/corset and I love it – I would like it made bespoke for me, in a different fabric and colour and with more decoration – will the price be the same?”
The reason for the difference in price is simple – as already stated in one of my previous blogs, ( A Queen on a budget, please), nowadays ordering bespoke is very rare thing. People are used to all the cheap, ready made clothing they see in the shops, and even with specialised items such as corsetry and historical clothing, a lot of people do not realise the difference between the ‘off-the-peg’ and ‘bespoke’, especially when made by he same person or company.
So,to make things simpler let us have a look at what you are actually paying for – at least as far as my own merchandise is concerned..
Off the Peg items:
* Labour – a generically sized pattern is used to cut out the fabric, followed by assembly and decoration: the price will depend upon the complexity of the garment and time needed to execute it
*Notions – decorations, buttons, thread, embroidery, etc
*Packing/postage/delivery if required
*My professional expertise, knowledge and experience!
- Labour –
- initial measuring session with a client
- drafting their specific pattern
- making up a mock-up ( toile)
- fitting the mock up on the client (with second client visit)
- cutting out fabric based on final pattern from re-fitted toile
- assembling the garment proper,
- fitting session with a client – these stages may be repeated several times depending upon how many items are to be made or how complex the garments may be)
- final assembly of the garment(s)
- adding decoration, finishing touches, etc
- pick up session with finished garments – although rarely needed, there is usually time assigned for any last minute corrections, as well. In my case you are likely to get a free photoshoot with TimeLight Photographic too, if you wish 😉
- after-care – small repairs or minor adjustments are generally provided for free; bigger ones may be provided at a reduced hourly rate. People usually come back to resize a garment if they have lost or gained significant weight, or to add more decoration, reapply a hem guard if the original one is worn out, etc.
- time (apart from actual making of the garment)-
- fitting sessions, measuring sessions have to be scheduled in.
- consultation, either in person, on the phone or by email, giving advice on style, fabric choices, historical accuracy, etc. For a relatively simple garments emails and message exchange may take several hours to write, research, etc. In the most extreme case I received over 250 emails from one person in one week about her commission…
- research. Lots of research.
- sourcing the fabrics, embellishments and other providers for items we do not supply direct (blackwork, embroidery, shoes, etc)
- writing up contracts, quotes and invoices
- chasing up clients to settle on fitting dates, etc. Fortunately, a good contract means we don’t have to chase folks for the payment! (more on contracts for businesses running a business – contracts)
- notions – decorations, buttons, thread, etc
packing/postage/delivery if needed
my professional expertise, knowledge and experience.
- stress! I am an introvert and dealing with people, however lovely, and no matter how enjoyable it is for me, (and make no mistake, I love my work and so far all of my bespoke clients have been amazing – to such an extent that we often develop friendly relations afterwards and stay in touch socially), this stress still takes its toll. After a few ours of fittings I feel as if I have run a marathon and all I want to do is sleep:-)
See the difference? A riding habit that looks the same will take 3 times as long if made bespoke – and that is usually true for every other item.
Above – a bespoke habit worth over £1000 in quality cloth, fittings, handmade and hand applied braiding and an off the peg habit from our online shop – £370
Another thing to consider is the fact that I make off-the-peg garments largely to satisfy my own insane desire to create pretty things – I make them in the size I want, in a fabric I like and have available currently and in a style I feel inclined to – I don’t have to consult a client on what they would like. If I change my mind half way through – that is fine. If I feel tired and don’t fancy pushing myself to finish by a certain deadline – that is fine too. Full creative freedom.
Bespoke work is much more complex, since I have to adhere to the client’s ideas, body type, etc, so it provides quite a different feeling. Taking someone else’s ideas and making a fully functional garment, looking the way they want it too look, and fitting them well is immensely satisfying. All the hours of research, fittings, handstitching etc are worth it not only in terms of the financial reward- the look on the client’s faces when they see themselves in the mirror wearing their new clothing for the first time is a great reward too – and, I won’t lie, I love to see my work worn and admired. The last session when a final outfit is tried on is always stressful – no matter how experienced you are, you are always worried that maybe this button is a tad too tight, or maybe the skirt is 0.5″ too big. Paltry things, easy to sort out within minutes, but irrationally, I still always worry!
But when it all comes together – well, the moment is magic. And I don’t charge for that! 😉
This point has come up recently, but in quite a few places, and so I though it was worth discussing it here. I have mentioned ‘constant learning’ and pointed out how important it is if you want your business to succeed, but I neglected to mention one important thing:
…and believe me, ladies and gentlemen, mistakes are your friend. They show you clearly in which areas you need to improve, they make you aware that there is yet more research todo/ techniques to study, and as a result, you get better! The thing is, everybody makes mistakes- but not everybody learns from them.
I am often asked by folks for an opinion on their creations – and they all ask me for an honest opinion. And an honest opinion I give, highlighting both the points of excellency, and stating what areas could do with some improvement (as a college teacher I have had decades of practice on how to do this, at least now it comes handy for my own business too!); and guessed what? A few folks are happy, a few take the comments on board and apply in their future work, a few listen, thank me and ignore whatever was suggested – and that is all fine. However, quite a significant percentage are angry and actually resort to abuse, (“how dare you criticise my gown! I spent months working on it!” ; “You are just jealous, you must hate my work – all my friends are saying this piece is perfect!”; and even “go fuck yourself, you ‘know- it-all’, my work is faultless; afraid of competition, huh?”). They do make for an interesting read sometimes, and sometimes they leave me puzzled – so after some thinking and a few discussions with friends, I realised an important thing:
Very few people are able to view their work objectively.
It works in both directions. Some people create amazing things but in their own eyes they are nothing special, just ‘something I made’ . The are the perfectionists, never satisfied with the end result, and sometimes suffering from ‘impostor syndrome’. As a result they do put their own work down, and either under-price it or, if making things for themselves, they get disappointed with the lack of perfection. Usually they just need a bit of a boost, usually from another person whose opinion they feel they can trust, to start looking at their creations in a different light. Sometimes their sense of underachievement may come from comparing their own work to other artists to whom they look up – and that issue can be dealt with as well.
If you think you might be one of these folks, there are a few things you may do, to try to look at your own work in a more realistic light:
- Read up on the Impostor Syndrome and ways to overcome it; (a good start here)
- Set yourself realistic goals. Aim high, yes – but in small steps rather than one huge leap. Take small steps, each bringing you closer to your ideal.
- Identify the issues that you think your work has, write them down and then discuss – ideally with a specialist in the area, an outsider who will be objective, but if you have friends who are able to tell you what they really think, that can work, too. Seek out a few good, informed opinions – if none of them perceive the same issues as yourself, there is a high probability that the issue is really only in your own head! If they agree and state that there is something upon which you can improve, don’t despair. Simply note the advice and plan for how to deal with it. This is one of your targets, and gives you something tangible to work on, whilst on your way to ‘perfection’.
- Talking about perfection – well, it means something different to everybody. I usually assume absolute perfection is unattainable, but one can damn well try to get as close as possible! Do not over-obsess though – that one, tiny, skipped stitch you found on the inside or that one buttonhole 0.2mm out of alignment? It will most likely not be noticed by 99.9% of the population…
- Know your limits: everybody has different strengths and different weaknesses – use your strengths to your advantage. You can make a great piece of clothing with a commercial pattern, but when trying to pattern things yourself you end up in a mess?- either take lessons or a course in patterning, or just concentrate on doing what you are good at! Or, if you cannot follow a pattern at all and get lost in calculations, but can free-hand them with ease and the end result is amazing – well, ditch the patterns! There are may ways leading to the same result, all of them equally good.
- Don’t always compare yourself to the top of your profession. Yes, look up to them and learn from them, but also take time to compare yourself to your peers, and also to those who are just starting out. This is crucial – and works for many walks of life. I had a similar experience in Mixed Martial Arts quite recently – for the last year or so I have been trying to spar with the best fighters, thinking that these guys are the ones to learn from. I was right, but only partially. I was learning, but couldn’t see it, and the fact that I was having my arse handed to me again, and again, and again, wasn’t particularly motivating. I did some sparring with the beginners, and enjoyed the teaching and coaching part, but it was only when I came across somebody who was my peer, more or less, when I understood how much I had learnt. These guys were not the cage fighters I usually worked with, but blokes who had been coming for the last year or so – fit, young and looking quite formidable. I sparred with them a few times half a year ago or so and was just about able to handle it. So now I expected something similar – but it turned out much better. Suddenly all the moves that I wasn’t able to pull with the ‘pros’ now worked! I seemed faster and more agile – although obviously I wasn’t – they were just a bit slower than my usual sparring partners. My ego soared! At least until the next round when I was ground to dust by one of our pros… it is a lengthy example but I hope it shows how working with all, levels, higher and lower can help you understand your own capabilities: Working with the best can provide you with inspiration and will make you learn; working with peers will help you assess your own work better and you learn from each other a lot too; working with beginners will help you realise how far you have come – and will help them to improve as well.
* Take photos of you work and if you are feeling particularly low, have a look at the old ones. more often than not, you will see how far you have come!
*and a final note – Do not use the Impostor Syndrome as an excuse for sloppy work – if one sleeve is longer than another, if the collar doesn’t align or the hem buckles it is not you telling yourself you are trying too hard to be too perfect and most people wont notice it anyway. Grab that seam ripper and set too work, it will be worth it!
Now, let us have a look at the other end of the scale.
Some people are not able to see their own mistakes – and the reasons may be numerous, ranging from a case of Dunning- Kruger Syndrome to the fact that your family and friends may be pumping you full lies so that you stay happy. Or maybe you are starting on a long road and are so ecstatic about the first step as a whole, that you cannot see the details which could be improved (been there, done that, got the tee shirt. I now cringe when I look at those ‘masterpieces’ I used to be so proud of!)
Most often, the apparent confidence in one’s own brilliance comes not from an over-abundance of self esteem – but rather a lack of it. Often, people are bought up in the belief that mistakes are bad and to be avoided at all cost – and that admitting to one is just as bad. Years of self delusion, denying all possibility of any fault, usually re-enforced by the white lies that family and friends feed you, and you somehow loose the ability to see your mistakes – and most importantly, to learn from them.
Now, if you are making things for yourself, and love what you doing – that is really all that matters – especially when you are happy about your results. You are happy and that’s the end of it – enjoy it, and what everybody else is thinking does not matter at all.
However, if your professional career depends upon it, and you are making things for other people, this can be detrimental to the development of your business and indeed can stop you from fully realising your creative potential. It will also make you very unhappy – you are producing fantastic things, but nobody wants to buy them – why? If you want to succeed, you need to understand how to adjust your perception – even though your mind is telling you clearly that there is no fault with the product, it is just that all of those other people are wrong, and being awkward! ;-0).
There are a few techniques that may help:
- It is very difficult to judge your own work accurately – so seek the opinions of outsiders, just as mentioned above. Try not to get upset when critical advice is offered, but do take notes and decide which parts need more work. Make sure the ‘experts’ you are asking for advice are indeed knowledgeable folks with experience and not just a friend of a friend who once made a hankie….
- Assume from the start that what you have just made may have faults. Although lots of art is deeply subjective, at least in costuming things can be made easy – you cannot ‘objectively’ state how pretty something is, but there are measurable quantities and aspects – below are two of my check-lists, for corsetry and off-the-peg Victorian dresses. Lists like that are great, and you will soon find that in time they become mental check-lists, and that you are noticing a mistake as you work along and correcting it as you go – much easier than doing so after the garment is finished!
- Seam ripper is your best friend – it is frustrating, dull and infuriating, but it is really worth it to rip and redo a wonky seam!
- …as is the tape measure. You may not see that the collar is uneven, but you cannot argue with the tape informing you kindly that one edge is half an inch higher than the other…. These may be details – but oh, so often they do make a difference between a mediocre dress and a superb outfit!
- Get some distance – after you make a garment, put it away overnight, or at least for a few hours and go for a walk, or do something different. Then look at it with fresh eyes and try to asses it as somebody else’s work. I once spent a whole day working on a replica bolero jacket for a museum. I was battling with a lurgy and not feeling great, but decided to soldier through. I shouldn’t have. I felt better the next day and one look at the garment made me go: “Oh, crap, I need to do the blasted thing again”. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, but it just did not seem right, I went through my checks with a tape measure etc, and realised what was the problem : the bias bits were not done well enough, the trim was a bit uneven, buttons just a notch out of alignment… I spent the whole day remaking it from scratch. As it turned out, the client liked both – but I felt better knowing that I had made an item better suited for public viewing
- As in the opposite spectrum, perform frequent ‘reality checks’. Seek advice from people you admire, compare your work to your peers’ and study together, help beginners – a few times, I have realised my own mistakes only after seeing them on a student’s work. And the occasional bitch-and-stitch sessions can be not only educational, but fun 🙂
- As before, do take pictures. Compare your old work with new pieces; if you are learning and improving, there will be clear evidence of it, and it will sharpen your ‘mistake hunting’ senses. By the same token, if you look at the skirts you made over the last 3 years and they all feature an uneven hem – well, you know precisely your next personal improvement goal!
- Having said all that, don’t go over the top trying to find out the slightest faults in every single item. Improving is one thing – loosing your joy in making things is quite another, and it is never a good thing trying to make a living doing things you don’t enjoy any more…
Well, that is it – I believe my first blog ever with more text than pictures, a rarity! I hope my musings were not too hard a read and that they may help some people. If you have any ideas on other techniques people can use to learn how to assess their own work (more or less objectively), please share in the comments!
This will be a little bit different from my usual posts, and possibly a little controversial, but I feel some things simply have to be said. Running a business has its ups and downs, pros and cons , its challenges and its rewards. I love running mine – and the only thing that sometimes makes me pause is the interaction with some of my potential clients. Usually online, sometimes at trading events. I feel I have been very lucky in general, and my customers at least 90% lovely people (I became friends with many of them), but over the years there have been enough of the less-than-perfect kind to make up that the 10%.
To be honest, in most cases people simply behave in a particular way because they are oblivious to certain facts about the way of that life people in my line of work lead. They simply do not realize how rude they can sound – I believe if they did, they would be mortified! True, some people are dicks and nothing can change that, but most of them are simply unaware that their behaviour can cause offence.
This is not simply my own opinion – quite a few folks running small craft & art related businesses have experienced similar treatment, and probably for the same reason; I suppose that other small business may have been on the receiving end, too.
Below I am going to list the most common ‘faux pas‘ that I have personally come across. Usually small things, but small things do accumulate and can lead to a very negative client experience. And, hopefully, small things are also easy to amend. Some of the interactions mentioned my only be perceived as less than pleasant from my personal perspective – as a very happy introvert I tend to have a very specific perception I suppose – things that make me want to turn around and run away may make another costumer jump for joy, for example – but I think some of the situations are relevant no matter what your personal traits may be.
So without further ado, this is my private list of ‘issues’ – and how they may be avoided!
*Being polite matters!
Polite clients are a pleasure to deal with, and as a result I am willing to go the extra mile for them. I either offer a discount, or a free postage, or do additional high quality finishing work, just because they have been a joy to work with. If you are rude to start with, I am unlikely to accept your commission in the first place – despite what everybody seems to think, people in the creative industry rarely do sit around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for some work to miraculously happen to them, and are not therefore simply happy to accept anything from anyone – and so:
*Remember that written word can come across much more harshly than when spoken.
*I understand that nowadays formality tends to be often forgotten, but please when writing to me try to address me by my proper name, and not diminutives or ‘ huni’, ‘sweetie’ etc. This is a personal pet hate – I understand that some people just use endearments automatically, but neither my family, my friends nor even my husband call me ‘sweetie’ . For a complete stranger, in a strictly professional situation, it is simply off-putting, at least for me. My name is Izabela – please use it and we will all be happy.
*Please do not ask me to copy the work of another designer; Especially if you want it at a fraction of the original price, (more on the cost of bespoke, art items and pricing in the industry can be read about in the this post – A Queen on a Budget, please.) Also, do not be offended if I cannot take your order because it is something that we do not make – in such cases I will attempt to provide links to other people who specialise in that area, (shoes, fantasy and fancy-dress costume, etc), I simply know my limits and if I decline to accept an order, it is for a good reason. We specialise in historically accurate clothing – if you need a fancy-dress Victorian costume with medieval sleeves and Regency silhouette, in lycra, we may not be the best choice – but we probably know people who can make it for you, so we will endeavour to provide you with an alternative solution if we can!
*Book well ahead – I tend to be booked up to 6 months or more in advance. Yes, I can sometimes have an emergency slot available, but often I simply cannot provide you with a full Regency finery for ‘next week’ – it is nothing personal, there are simply not enough hours in the day for me to do the work – especially since those rare emergency slots are already digging into my personal time and rest.
*Be prepared to sign a contract and don’t be offended when we ask for a deposit; It is simply a part of running a business in a proper and effective manner, and avoiding running at a loss. More on running a business here – and even more, especially on contracts, here.
*Do not be offended if I do not accept your friend request on Facebook. I may be old fashioned, but I keep my personal account for family and friends – which means people I have met, interacted with, liked, and deal in person often. Having an item made does not make you a friend – yet. Over the time if we meet often enough and find we like each other that may change, (and often does), but since we are starting from a professional footing, simply keep in touch through my page until such a time comes when we may change the status quo.
*also – i do not offer a free advise/tuition/consultation service via fb or email. we do provide the service if needs be, but it is a hourly paid job. At the moment , if i was to answer every message/ email asking me for advice, opinion, etc i would probably not have time to do plaything at all – we get about 10-120 on avarage. Per day. so nothing personal, but i cannot help you unless you book us in advance for a specific thing, billable by the hour…
Dear customer, when you are coming to me for a fitting, please remember that I work from home, not from a studio, and so work and life are intertwined here – this may not be so common for many in the industry, but that does cause a few awkward situations. And so, please:
*Do tell me how many people are coming along – unless otherwise specified I expect only you. I need to know if there are more people as there are problems of space as well my personal issues. To me, the sudden invasion of 5 people when I was expecting 1 is just like a punch to the face. Suddenly instead of the controlled, serene environment I am used to working in, the situation is changed into chaos, when everybody is everywhere, all talking very politely no doubt, but nevertheless very distracting. I do need to concentrate when I am fitting toiles, taking measurements and discussing designs with the client. Loud chatter, however amicable, is not helping.
*Ditto children – my house is not at all child friendly – there are lots of sharp objects around, lots of antique stuff, lots of weaponry, and a pond, too – so unless you can keep your offspring under control (which means another person to do so while you are busy working with me), preserving any Health and Safety rules will cetainly be tricky – in which case I would have to decline the commission. Please let me know beforehand so that we can come up with appropriate solution to the situation.
*Do not ‘pop by’ without an appointment. Not only may I not be in, but I may be busy, either working on urgent stuff or working with another customer, (who may be in a state of dishabille), so I would have to turn you away from the door. Again, nothing personal, but it may feel like rejection, so please always ask when is a good time if you need to see me in person.
*Try not to be late. I usually have 2, 3 appointments on any fitting day, usually, for efficiency’s sake, one after another. If you arrive late, it may impact on another appointment, so please call to let me know if you are running late. If you want me to put aside a whole day, or afternoon just for you, that is fine – but my time comes at a cost. You don’t pop round to your lawyer, doctor or dentist more or less at the time that suits you, so please extend me the same courtesy; working from home doesn’t mean that I am any less busy!
* don’t expect me to work on holidays/ weekends. I often do, and I do suggest weekends to my customers who cannot make it otherwise, but please remember, that our line of work means we are usually away at the weekend. So if your contract says that the fittings will take place, as agreed, in the beginning of a month, please make sure you are available. we can adapt – but all summer we are away weekends, working at events, so if you forget to book a day off it may be another month or more before we have a weekend at home!
- please understand that we usually cannot come over to you for fittings. unless previously agreed on and arranged it is smply not possible as i will need to carry my tools with me ( and believe me, tha machiness ar enot light) and there will be additional charge for travel cost and time used.
*I am always delighted when people who follow me on social media come to have a chat at the markets. However, please remember that unless you comment/like/interact with the page, I will not know your name. And even if I do, I may not recognize you, if your profile picture features a fluffy kitten or happy puppy. Please introduce yourself and then everything will be fine – I know who I am talking to and will try to remember for the future 🙂
*Also, the mere fact that you follow me on facebookPA/twitter, etc, does not make you eligible for a discount at the stall…. or in the online shop. Sorry…
* Please remember that at markets, I am working. You may be visiting for your leisure or for business – though for majority of people the former is the case. You may want to come and have a good time, chat and exchange experiences tips etc – it is all fine, but , as I said, I am at work and need to treat everybody the same – which generally leaves very little time for idle chatting, am afraid. There are a few relaxed moments but usually the markets we attend tend to be heaving with public, and we have little time for lunch, let alone relaxed talk. So however much I might love to do so, I need to earn my living and serve paying customers instead 😦
Talking of lunch – please, let the stall holders have their lunch in peace! Trying to answer your questions with a mouth full of bagel is not a nice experience for anyone! We usually have one of us or a helper to front the shop when one person is eating – but people still manage to dodge them and sneak in at the back of the stall to talk to the person who is currently enjoying their lunch.
Do not ask me to work for free. Whatever tips and advice on costuming I can give I will, and a great deal of information is on the blog here anyway, but do not ask me to provide an ad hoc workshop/lecture for your benefit, for free. This happens quite a lot – a recent one was in Bath, during the market there; let me quote it for you..
-Two women were spending quite some time looking at the stays/corsets and other items, and by looking I mean taking off the hangers, turning upside down, inside out etc. After about 5 minutes of them discussing how the things go together (and meanwhile blocking access for other interested customers) I asked politely if there was anything I could help them with. The answer was:
Yeah, actually, we make stuff like that ourselves, for us and sometimes for sale, and we tried these styles before and they didn’t really work well, so we are just trying to work out the construction details – could you please explain to us how you put these together? Oh and these ones too? (at that point one of them took a notebook and a pencil out).
I looked at her and asked – ‘What do you do for a living madam?
‘Why, I teach the flute’.
‘Could you please explain to me how you play the flute? Could you teach me now, just the basics?
She looked at me, completely taken aback.
‘Why, well, I could, but I charge for my lessons!
My response? ‘So do I’….
She actually saw the point and was rather embarrassed, and apologized, but it sort of sums up the fact that a lot of people do not take what I do for a living seriously and assume it is ‘just ‘ a hobby – I suppose other people running craft or art based businesses are often faced by a similar situation.
*Another point – you don’t generally go to let’s say, a baker, or a carpenter, have a look around, finger the goods, sneer and announce that you can do it better than they, and/or possibly cheaper. So please refrain from doing it to stallholders at the markets. Even if you indeed, can make the items better and at a lesser cost. Just incredibly rude.
*please ask before touching the clothing. And make sure your children are under control – especially if they are eating at the time we did have a few mishaps involving children, dogs, icecream or a burger….
And finally, some interactions from the online shop.
To start with, let me quote some of the messages/emails directly
* am interested in the blue dress, but it is not my size, can you re-model it so that is 3 sizes bigger?
* am interested in the blue riding habit, I clicked on the link but it takes me to the shop based in the UK. Can you please post the link to your USA branch? Otherwise I would be unable to purchase as shipping and customs duty are expensive.
* am interested in the grey skirt, i clicked on the link to the shop but it gives price in pounds. Why is there no Euro? I don’t like working out the conversion rates myself.
* are the measurements American? How many centimeters in an inch?
* I like your corsets! I want one but in different colour, and in my size – can you make me one for this Saturday? Would the price be the same?
* I love the pink Victorian gown in silk, but is too expensive! I can spend max £150 on a thing like that, would you consider selling it for £150 (postage included), or making me a bespoke one for that price?
* the riding habits are lovely, but why are there only 2 available? and why not in a range of sizes, and colours?
* am interested in the medieval Burgundian gown, but can purchase it in July only – can you keep it for me? I am not saying I will buy it, just considering and would like to know it is still available in July.
* I want a bespoke one, when are you able to make me one? (my answer – am now booked till October) – whaaaatttt!!!! October??? this is ridiculous, I need one for June! how can you run a business like that! Can you not shift other people so that mine can be made first?
Here I feel the very fact that we have an online shop may be put to blame – people simply assume that we are a much bigger business than we are – and flattering as that may be, it often causes awkward situations.
Also, people assume that our ideology is the same as that of big chain stores and find it difficult to understand that we do not carry a huge stock of the same items in a range of colours and sizes. Our field is quite narrow, and I like to think that I specialise in unique and individual items – so our stock items, though usually in ‘generic’ sizes are still unique. I have no desire to create the same dress in 6 different sizes and 3 different colours – this would not only kills the joy of making an individual item to me, but poses a question of stock control, space, cost, etc. We are a small business, and I have no particular desire to grow into a huge one. Might happen – might not. At the moment I take pleasure in making items unique – even our stock corsets have individual touches that make them unique. Nowadays, many people are motivated by finance alone – and whereas, as a business you have to be, to some extent, I am in the happy situation where I can make what I want to make and enjoy it – and I treasure the enjoyment coming from creating one specific item much higher than profits coming from mass producing shirts.
And as for being booked well ahead – well, we often are booked for more than 6 months in advance. Asking me to move other clients around so that your stuff can be made earlier is not only disrespectful to me but to other clients as well – imagine that it is the the other folks who are asking me to shift you around…. just not professional. And it doesn’t mater if you are a Russian princess, a celebrity, local theater, or an individual – once the contract is signed, your order is treated in exactly the same way as everybody else’s. Full equality.
Well, that’s about it, I think – a bit of a rant, maybe, but as I have said, a lot of the problems stems from misunderstanding of the industry, and not malice. I do not wish to offend anyone and I think there are few people who go out of their way to offend others, especially if they want to develop a professional relationship, so I think maybe this post help both parts to understand each other a bit better.
And if you run a home/craft based business and you have experiences similar situations, or have something to add – please comment!
OK, so I do have a bit of an reputation for being a fast sewer. And because of that I have been exposed to a variety of opinions ranging from ‘ Wow, you sew so fast, you must be good!’ to ‘ It really must be crap, nobody can make it properly in that time’.
The fact is, however – neither of these sentiments are always true. You may be labouring on one item for ages – but that in itself doesn’t mean that the finished item will be a masterpiece – it may still be ill-fittng, badly stitched etc. Similarly – you can make items fast – and that in itself doesn’t mean they are poorly made. There are exceptions to every rule, but the most important thing is –
FIND THE PACE THAT SUITS YOU
To produce a quality garments you need to be working at a pace you are comfortable with. If you rush it – it will be reflected in the final look; but if you procrastinate too much, you may loose interest/heart to the project , get bored – and that will show in sloppy work too.
If you are in the comfortable position of sewing just for yourself, as leisure, do take your time. Unless, off course there is an unexpected event this weekend and suddenly you have an urgent need of a new frock… If you are earning your bread sewing things, you will need to find a pace you are the most efficient at without compromising the quality.
I get asked a lot, how I can make things quickly – and the answer is – not every item is made quickly – this simply depends on the purpose of the garment, the client’s purse and my own private time constraints . The most important factors are the purpose – and the quantity you are making.
The purpose of the garments will considerably influence the speed at which you can produce an item -. If you are aiming at historically accurate garments and are making everything by hand ( the ‘before Singer’ eras) because your garments will be shown to the public etc – it will take much longer than a garments that looks fine, has handfinished details but inside seams machined. But if you are making modern clothing and are free to use sewing machine, overlocker etc – that would cut the timing considerably.
a few examples
1. – 2 17th century gowns, one handmade ( 1660 style, in green silk); and a 1634 in blue satin with machined innards and the rest handfinished. The handmade took me 5 solid days of stitching; the other one only 3. But can you spot a difference ? unless you look very, very closely, you cannot… (more on making the blue gown and construction details here)
2. Tudor gowns – this one is completely handstitched – petticoat, kirtle, gown – every single stitch. Took 2 solid weeks
These two were made using a machine, with hand finish – all inside seams are machined, but lining is inserted by hand, all visible seams, eyelets etc are hand stitched. Each took about a week.
3. Napoleonic bling – military lace sewn by hand ( 6 hours each side)
and on a machine, with hand finishing – 3 hours each side
A short tutorial on the machine style is here
The other factor is the quantity – how many items of the same sort you make. In short – experience. The more doublets/corsets/bustles you make, the easier it will get and the faster you will become. This is mostly down to the fact that if you are making a new piece of clothing, you do take your time considering the best way of putting it together, you make mistakes – but this is a very valuable time, as with every mistake, ever minute spent pondering on how on earth do these two bits fit in, you learn. My first corset took 3 days as I was just experimenting with techniques. Nowadays I can make simple corset in 3-4 hours, and if anything, is is better and much more structurally sound than the one I made in 3 days…
With that in mind, if you feel you would like to speed up your sewing, these are the tips I found worked for me:
* quality sewing machine and tools. The machine doesn’t have to be expensive, but it needs to be reliable. You don’t need an industrial model straight away – though I love my semi industrial Janome for its speed – just make sure it does its job consistently and without mishaps. Also – do that the advantage of the many different attachments. I love my ruffler for example – without it it would take me much longer to make flounced petticoats, gathered chemises etc.
It is worth investing in some specific machinery if you make lots of similar items -for example, for corsetmaking getting an eyelet setting press meant shaving at least 30min off the complete making time.
*take notes. If you are working on a new project, just jot down bits that caused you problems – next time you wont have to work it out from the very beginning. I admit I had problems working our suspenders production – and since i wasn’t making a lot of corsets with suspenders , the first couple of times i had to work out how to make the things, made mistakes and wasted time. Once I started making a lot of them – I simply made a sample one and pinned it on a board, within reach if i ever need to be reminded how to put the thing together. Sorted, no more wasted time. you can always take photos and scribble on them too 🙂
* Practice – basically that’s where the experience kicks in. The more you make, the better you can get at it ( practice makes perfect!) but remember to practice only the bits that worked – repeating the mistakes again and again wont do you much good, o matter how long you spent practicing it :-(. The more you sew, the more you will learn about how different fabrics behave, which stitches, needles, setting to use – almost automatically, without sitting there and looking for the manual.
* if you are making clothes mostly for yourself, save the mock ups and make them into generic patterns, you can then adjust them ( neckline, hems, sleeve length etc) to fit in with a new project – and it will save you at least an hour or two on making a mock up from a scratch. The same applies to your repeat clients; or, if you are making a lot of stock items, a few graded hard patterns will not only speed the work up, but also ensure consistent sizing.
* Neat work environment. Well, this actually doesn’t work for me at all, by work space is consistently chaotic, cluttered -some would call it messy, even… but I generally know what is where. I have attempted a neat work environment, works for about 2 days and then get s back to its original chaotic state. But if you are a person who can tame the chaos, and organize the space well – that would help too!
* plan ahead. Time management is essential, especially if you are running a business – I have written a whole post on just this issue – here
*outsourcing. Sometimes it is simply easier and faster to rely on others who are better at certain things. I can make handwoven braid, lace, etc – but I know I cannot make the braid as fast as those who specialize in it. So when time is an issue, I buy my braid, points, laces from people who are expert. Money well spent!
* limit procrastination. Yes, I am guilty here too… when time is of an essence and I know I need to concentrate I simply try to eliminate the procrastination sources – switch off facebook, usually.:-)… I answer my emails once a day in the morning, then switch off the outlook too, so no notification, pings etc distract me. It is not always possible, but when it is, it is great. I found I work much faster when I go to my Stitch and Bitch sessions at Julia, at Sew Curvy – I haven’t got a laptop with me, I put the phone aside, and all I can do is work ( and chat) – and am at my most productive.
* set a time limit. If you like competing against yourself and enjoy a challenge – set a deadline. I work best when on a tight deadline, it motivates me far more than anything else – and I love it. Not everybody’s cup of tea as some people find it stressful – though there is a way around it, if you are willing to have a go. If you set a deadline on a bit of sewing that is not hugely important and failing it won’t influence your work in general, you can see whether you enjoy the challenge. And if you don’t – back to time management and planning….
*music. Again, different music works better for different projects – so find out which tunes motivate you, jeep you alert and happy. Similarly, for hand sewing I love audio books and learning languages. while stitching hems is pretty boring, listening to the Game of Thrones etc makes the task not only enjoyable, keeping your mind occupied and stopping if from looking for distractions, but you will sew faster too.
Having said all that – remember it is not always a race. I do often have to rush things for myself, as I ‘squeeze ; private projects in between the commissions ( best example , a ballgown in 24hours here_)- but I also have a few long term bits I work on and I enjoy taking my time – I am just finishing a lace making project I started about 3 years ago, for example:-)
So find your own pace, the pace that works for you, and stitch happy ! 🙂
A recent post by Wearing History shed some light on the weird phenomena that social media create – what people usually show is just the good sides of their lives, creating the illusion that this is the only side. But reality is in fact far from perfect:-)
The blog post is well worth a read – and Lauren also threw a gauntlet asking other bloggers to help dispel the myth that everything is always ideal ( another one by American Duchess here)- well, this is my contribution.
I must admit that I am a very optimistic and at the same a very pragmatic person – and to start with I just couldn’t find anything worth mentioning – yes, there have been good times, and bad times, but in the end, it all worked out ok, and that’s all that matters. I think I have been very lucky so far – no partucularly serious injuries, illnesses, tragedies, etc – just some boring everyday reality, really…. So I suppose a few of the bits below may seem trivial – but trivia are also a part of our lives, so, for whatever it is worth, I decided to include some banal thing here too.
Here we go!
York, circa 2006. Had a horrendous toothache – to such an extent that I spent half the day trying to get an emergency appointment with a local dentist – and then the other half with my jaw frozen up and dribbling – but at least pain free…
Wideacre muster with Grenvilles, August bank holiday, 2008
A fantastic event – made even more interesting by the fact that one of the troopers brought viral gastroenteritis with him… he spent the first day and practice in tent, recovering – the following day our CO got and and was busy ‘purging’ and so unavailable for action. The day after ( luckily Tuesday, so no battle) I spent early morning hanging out of my tent, looking at the contents of my stomach. Then had to drive back home, stopping ever few miles for some more stomach action ( though my man had provided me with a bucket, secured in the passenger’s seat. very helpful). I was able to get back to solid food 3 days later, was off work for a week. In total, half the regiment succumbed to the virus. And oh, one of the troopers came back with a broken hand ( and he wasn’t even riding.. )
2 more Grenville events – just before and after my wrist operation, when was in such pain I could hardly grip my sword… My right wrist is in a brace, carefully hidden in the gauntlet.
Peterborough, Katherine of Aragon festival – looking serene, but my car broke down on the way to the event, on A1. I was already in full kit, and spent 15min trying to coax the pile of junk into some semblance of life. A few well placed hits with a spanner did it in the end, so was able to get there, albeit late – and had no guarantee that I will have a car to go back home in….
Holkham Hall 50ties event. It was June, but I was freezing ! more on the event here – Being MM. Also, being a sex symbol had its price – some of the comments from the public, whispered, were indecent – and there were a few older gents, who, why posing for photos, cuddles with me and the rest of their family, let their hands stray…. not a big deal, just unpleasant.
Fortunately the company of friends made up for it:-)
On my birthday, 18th April. I had a very painful operation on the 13th – just a few days before. Heavily drugged with painkillers, suffering from blood loss and not able to move my hand, the shoot was not much fun – especially since I had 2 more models to dress up too. I had to stand in a very peculiar way to hide the dressing….
Medieval pageant. The owl crapped on my new silk surcoat. 3 times….
My wedding. It was the first time Lucas hunted with me in the morning – and then we rode after the ceremony ( more on the event here – Victorian Wedding) . But a few months later he fell of a horse when we were riding in Pland, and fractured his vertebrae. He spend 3 months in a corset, and it healed but the picture above is one of the last pictures ever of him riding – the risk to his spine is now too great :-(((
A very hot day in Hereford ( more on that here ). It was boiling hot and I was drenched in sweat. Moreover, with a heavy period, I suffered from cramps all day long – but the real problem was the fact that throughout the day I felt liquid running down my thighs, straight into my boots- and could not check whether it was sweat or blood…. Was happy to find out it was sweat, and was not leaving bloody footprints…
Holkham 2013 – just a fortnight later our garage caught fire. Lost all my stock, lots of private stuff and despite insurance cost me a few grand. Still we got a nice photoshoot out of it!
One of the effects of the garage fire was having to move house – we found a nice place, a pricey one, but just on the borderline of affordability. We moved on Friday, and on Monday my husband was made redundant. We did the shoot for the Summer dress while we we living off savings, in a limbo of unemployment, staying n a house we could not afford to rent. It did turn out ok in the end, but these were 5 very stressful months!
Georgian Ball, March 2015. Completely lost voice. Some may argue though, that it was in fact a blessing on that occasion :-))
Well, there you have it – life is not all beer and skittles, silks and balls – reality does creep in. And so it should, it would be boring otherwise! 🙂
And oh, the last one – my workroom looks like that. About twice a year. For about half a day. Then creative chaos creeps in – and on every other day it looks like a fabric bomb has exploded. A few times… and sometimes there is too much work to spend time tidying… :-((
‘I need an Anne Boleyn dress… my budget is £300. Can you provide the fabrics? ‘
‘I need a complete posh 15th century outfit ( hose, doublet, gown, hat), historically accurate, silk and linen, hose in wool. I can spend £250.’
‘Can you do a posh Victorian for £320? can add another £40 if you make a corset too.’
‘ I want a duchess gown, stays and underpinnings for a ball – how much would it be? I have about £280 to spend on the project’
‘ I found this steampunk coat on ebay, I want one just like that, but in different wool, with silk lining, and made bespoke – can pay £100. ( the picture of the coat was attached – and I found it online too…. it was a Karen Miller , offered for £200.
The newest one: ‘I cannot afford this gown in silk, because I have sick relatives and the medicines cost a lot, plus I have a lowly paid job and my car needs repairs – but since it is my birthday soon, maybe you can sell it to me at half a price?’
These quotes are direct lines from many of the inquires I get – and many similar ones abound too, and I suspect there are a lot of other costumiers who get them. And it doesn’t really matter that the price guide is on my website and facebook page, plainly visible to anyone, stating plainly how much labour is for a specific item. And if you look, you will see that the labour for, let us say, doublet, gown and hose will amount to more that £250 and that’s not even including the fabrics. People look, add, decide it is too much and go and find a hire service or make things themselves. And that is fine – if you need a fancy dress for a night, you wouldn’t be spending hundreds on it – but get something cheap on ebay, make stuff for yourself and have some fun with it, or ask a sewing friend a favour ( backed by gin and chocolate, usually… :-))
But some people, knowing the labour prices still email me asking if I can make the same things at a quarter ( or less) of their usual value… why? I had no idea, until 2 ‘prospective clients’ answered that question for me.
‘ I know it is much less that you usually charge, but at least you will have some work from me’
Well…. at least it was straightforward… Needless to say that sometimes their offer would not even cover the cost of the materials – and so I would be actually spending time working at a loss. Also, needless to say, it assumes I am sitting here twiddling my thumbs, desperate for anything to do, whereas I am usually booked for 9-12months in advance….
It would be an equivalent to me saying to a baker: ‘Here are 3 eggs and some icing sugar, you provide the rest and I want you to make me a 3 tier wedding cake, please’. Nobody does that, so why people assume costumiers ( or jewellers, corsetieres or generally small businesses) are any different?
I had a good think and I think there are a few reasons for it….
1. People simply apply the ‘fancy dress’ label to all unusual clothing, and think the prices are the same as the Chinese mass produced medieval/victorian/edwardian/lotr garb. Very often it is not badly meant – nowadays very few of us have things made bespoke as we can get good quality clothing from the local store. Occasion wear items are exceptions (wedding dresses etc), but otherwise, we are no longer used to commissioning gear to be made for us.
2. Also, cheap, easily available clothing leads us into the illusion that all clothing is cheap. The wool coat in M&S is £50 – but if I am to make it, the £50 will cover maybe the fabrics. The time used to research, communicate with the client, measuring and fitting sessions, patterning and making the garment would be all on top of that… But we are simply used to mass produced items ready to wear and have no idea ow much individual raw materials cost. May also have no knowledge of how much work, expertise, research and experience actually go into the item. Not really surprising since we are no longer taught specific crafts at school. Also, we don’t know how much quality fabrics cost…
3. People forget that they are also paying for the years of research, training, experience – and the uniqueness of the item. There are thousands of costumiers – but only very few specializing in historical items. To boot, the garments will be one of a kind – so a rarity value should also be considered.
4. For some reason people are convinced that small businesses are forever tittering on the verge of collapse and are desperate for any work at all. And although running a small business successfully means a lot of work and commitment, and it is not all plain sailing, I don’t think I know of any quality artisans ( and I do know quite a few) who would not be busy. Yes, sometimes the business gets slack, but that’s when many guys work on the basic stock – things that will sell at some point, whether at markets or on etsy, ebay or self hosted online shop. Those who do take commissions that don’t cover the materials, in hope of a bit of cash usually learn that in most cases, it is much more profitable to decline – and spend the time on a stock items or a showpiece that will be far more beneficial to the business in the long term. And if cash is desperately needed, well, then we do flashsales:-)
5. Small businesses are ‘more personal’ – so people ask for, sometimes outrageous’ discounts because they know the person running the business is responsible for the pricing – and have no doubt put a huge margin on the product. And so the ‘ pity me’ emails from complete strangers. The fact that a lot of us do not put much ‘on top’, but charge exactly what the product is worth is so unusual in the corporate world many people do not get it. You do not go to the BMW salon asking them to give you a 20% discount on the new model because your father is sick ( what on earth are you doing buying luxury products instead of medication and specialist care for the daddy then? ), husband unemployed and your salary is low – you go and buy a 10 year old Ford instead ( mine is 15 year old now and works great!). But the salesperson in a salon may not have the power to amend the pricing – whereas the individual might just be persuaded to do just that if they pity our situation.
I think the above are the most common reasons why we get so many request for the ‘royalty on budget’. People see The Tudors or White Queen and want a dress for their Halloween party – not realizing I am not the person who caters for such items.
It is slightly better in the established re-enactment ( though even there it seems there is an alarming number of wannabe queens, duchesses, princes and kings wanting royal kit for a few quid… ) as people realise that if you want to re-enact nobility, there will be a suitable price tag attached. In the past, a good quality, showy outfit to impress your peers at court would often cost several months of middle class salary, and although times changed, they haven’t changed that much – silk and cloth of gold may be more accessible and cheaper – but still beyond the means of most people. And to be honest, you can make a good quality kit middle class in decent wool and linen or cotton – it will look lovely and though it is not the cheapest thing ever, it will serve its purpose while you save up for the brocaded cloth…..
There are a lot of arguments floating about, how a polyester silk will look quite as good – and they cannot afford silk/handmade etc, so it will have to suffice. Well, it may be harsh – but if you cannot afford the king’s outfit ( with all the trappings it needs, jewelry, fur etc), than maybe start with a simple soldier’s kit instead and climb the social ladder – many people do exactly that and it takes years of saving to get higher class kit – but many stay at the middle class too, for a variety of reasons – and, to be honest, portraying a medieval farrier or an Elizabethan gardener is just as interesting and complex as a queen…
Obviously, lots depends on the purpose of the garment – if you need it for living history, educational displays and events, it simply needs to be correct fabrics, cut, finish etc, no matter what class you re-enact. If you participate in battles and nobody is likely poking at the seams of your doublet and fingering your collar, you may be able to get some money saving short cuts. And if you need a gown for a fancy ball, a social gathering, a photoshoot – simply an item you’ll love to wear – well, you can use whatever is suitable and you can afford – and produce stunning results with minimal costs:-)
There are a few shortcuts if you need/want a flashy outfit though, even if you want it made correctly and in correct fabrics:
*Save up! obvious, really, but there it is…. designate one source of savings a month or a week and it will happen – go our to dinner once less, buy less modern stuff you don’t actually need all that badly – or even simpler – set up a separate saving account and put an deposit there every month, deducted from your salary straight away – you won’t notice this much, and whether it is a £20 a month, £10 a week or £100 a fortnight, it will soon amount to a neat little sum.
*take small steps… you can often add on things to enrich your stature ( and clothing) in time. Opt for a woolen doublet and gown, add handmade braid on it or embroidered cuffs a few months later…. Also – buy bodice, but apply lace, braid decoration yourself
* Sell the items you don’t use any more….
* sell your products – and have one sale a month that goes straight into the new kit fund…
*barter – either skills or products. You make wooden pattens but a doublet is beyond you – talk to the costumiers who re-enact, many are happy to barter things like that. Your shoemaker needs driving tuition? a plumber? you’d be surprised how many things can be arranged this way….
*pay in installments – most businesses welcome the solution.
*learn to sew….. yes, may take time and investment in machinery or courses – but will pay off in the long run. Even if your skills won’t go beyond a simple chemise or a cap – you are already saving some money
* buy ready made items – stock items are cheaper, often quite a lot cheaper than bespoke items. If you find an item at a market or in an online shop that you know is of good quality and it fits you – grab it, will be much cheaper than ordering the same items bespoke ( then you pay for the time, fittings, individual patterning etc too ). Our stock items in the shop are often about half the price of bespoke ones – especially if i happen on a sale silk in a local silk mill…
* Hunt bargains! go to markets to look out for bargain quality fabrics – you can often save up to 50% on the fabric – and usually this is the factor that drives the price of the costume up.
And as I was often asked at how much different outfits cost – let us have a little display of different pieces and their prices…. more info on how much to charge can be read in the blog on running a costuming business
*please note that I do not subscribe to the idea of charging the retail price of fabrics if I get them cheaper at trader’s rates. If the silk from James Hare costs me £40 per metre, the client will pay exactly that, and not the inflated retail price.
12/13 century gown, middle class:
Gown in wool, lined with linen, all handstitched and hand embroidered – value £500
gown for a queen – in silk, with silk bands and girdle, lined in silk – with a kirtle in silk too. Labour (machine and hand finish) and materials £600 – £700. Together with the accessories – shoes, jewellery, crown etc, = well over £2000
Middle class kirtle and gown in wool – £300
Wealthy merchnat’s wife kit – kirtle and gown in wool, gown lined in linen with fur trim – £400
Lady/high status gown in brocade, lined with silk, all handstitched – the brocade itself ( needed 8 metres is now retailing at £140 per metre… the dress value is around £2000, plus the kirtle, shoes, pattens, jewellery – another £400
reversible burgundian gown in silk, with silk lining – – stock item – £350
Royal Tudor gown – over £3400 ( detailed pricing here ); high born lady gown in silk velvet, lined with silk – £550. same gown in wool would cost £350;
Upper class Tudor set in wool, silk and fur – around £1000. same outfit in quality, royal silks would probably double the price
off the peg high quality Tudor gown and kirtle form the shop – £400 and £240 respectively
High status lady outfit, in silk satin, with silver lace – with 2 petticoats – £850
middle class outfit in wool – £450
Courtier outfit in silk, lined with silk, silver lace, wrapped buttons – £800
Middle class kit in wool – £400
18th century set in wool and linen, with lots of handfinish – £ 600
similar set but in silk, though machine finish and blend fibre waistcoat lowers the price – £700
Day dress in cotton, £300 ( including petticoat and bonnet)
day dress in wool, stock item – £ 400
Visiting dress in silk, heavily decorated – £ 1000
WWI dress in silk with lace, £ 350
WWI dress in cotton, with a silk sash – £ 270
Victorian corset, stock item, part of our Bare basic range – £125
Victorian corset, bespoke work, with exterior channels and extensive flossing – from £300
replicas of 1885 riding habit in quality wool, with handmade ( the blue habit) and hand applied braiding, made bespoke, with a safety tailored skirt and riding trousers – coat around £1000
Also replicas ( but not exact) made as stock items, generic sizing, machine finish – pricing from £350 (these ones are actually in our shop equestrian section, here)
As you can see, it is often the price of fabric that makes the outfit expensive – or the fact that it is a commission and not a stock item.
Having said all that – I must stress that despite a few of the messages like that, the majority of people do appreciate the fact that their items are unique, made lovingly, and individually fitted. And it is those lovely people that make businesses like mine thrive – I used to teach in a college before, and the job, though rewarding, was nowhere near as rewarding ( both in hard cash and job satisfaction). I may be working longer hours, but I love my job, and would not be doing it if i didn’t – or if it didn’t pay my keep:-) 🙂
More on running a costuming business can be read about here: https://adamselindisdress.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/running-a-costuming-business/
Hope the post has been useful to you, if you are new to costuming. For those of you who are running businesses – have you come across similar experiences? if yes, do you have any other theories that would explain them? Feedback welcome!
It seems the first post on running a costuming business was very popular – it answered a lot of questions, but it also triggered many more! I have collated the most recent batch of questions, and here are my answers…
* Do I need to have a contract?
Absolutely. A contract protects both you and your client, it clarifies the job, establishes the parameters – in other words makes it easy. And yes, you need it also when sewing for friends….. even more so, perhaps…
*What should I include in the contract, on the whole?
Apart from your letterhead/logo, addresses, etc the following is the bare minimum:
* what garment is to be made. You can opt to put details in a separate ‘Specification’ document – I use that only for the most elaborate costumes, simpler ones don’t need it – though you still need to state what is being made, in what fabrics, styles, etc. I usually add a few example or reference pictures too.
*the cost of the garment – either all-inclusive or labour and materials costed separately.
* the deposit – usually it is either the price of the fabrics or 30-40% of the labour. Do state when this is to be paid (within a week, 10 days, etc of the issue of the contract), and the payment method. The deposit is non refundable, always – I book time aside to carry that work or use the money to buy provisions – if the client changes their mind, it is unlikely I will be able to book another client at short notice, so that deposit protects me from too much of a loss. If some people are reluctant pay a deposit, don’t take the order, it is that simple. The majority of people understand it and have no problem with it.
* Payment details – how, and when. If you offer installments do say so, and agree beforehand on how many installments will be needed. Provide your bank details, PayPal address, etc. I usually require the total to be paid in full on or before the delivery date. Tempting as it sometimes might be, try to avoid relinquishing your hold on the goods until the total is paid. It is different when dealing with public services and large organisations, but still make sure all the details are in place.
*delivery – shipping ( the exact shipping cost is usually included in the final invoice), pick up or delivery in person, to a market etc
* Timings: fittings schedule, deadline etc. make sure the client understands that their availability for fittings in the specified time frame is vital to completing the item on time. An example – I was making a 17th century set, ornate, with many fittings; deadline was June 2014, with fittings in May. One fitting happened and then due to work problems, family and health problems, etc, the customer wasn’t able to attend any of the fitting sessions till late august. And once he did, he said he would require all the work completed within a week. I refused – since his item was overdue, I was only able to work on it in the gaps between other commissions, and that meant at least 2 weeks. It wasn’t the most pleasant situation, but in the end the customer realized I wasn’t at fault – far from it. He apologized and a new deadline was agreed on. What made him realise? I mentioned that I need to respect all of my customers and cannot get behind other orders simply because his was overdue due to his problems, and not mine. I now include an additional clause specifying what happens if a similar situation arises ( a new deadline is needed, though if I have a gap in between present commissions the item may be finished early)
* what happens if the items are unpaid or uncollected. I usually state that all unpaid/uncollected items are kept for one month; after that they will be advertise on sale. This solves a lot of problems, though you may want use your own judgement – life is life, things happen – and sometimes it is a good idea to be flexible. I always advise people to contact me as soon as they can if they have financial problems – the sooner I know the more able I am to suggest a solution – by either moving the commissions further ahead, splitting the total into installments, etc. It is not easy to talk about money, but being straightforward is usually the best way of tackling the issue.
*also what happens if you have problems and default.
* How do you plan your commissions?
I have a system that works for me – it may not work for you in details, but I believe the general principle is sound.
I know more or less how long it takes to make most of the garments and can plan on how many ours I will need. (Remember you will need to factor fittings in to that as well), and so each client is allocated a slot – it may be 2 days, 5 days, or 2 weeks – really depends on the garment. Make sure that the client is available for fittings within that time too. I always overestimate, usually by at least a day – unpredictable things may happen, so it is good to have that margin. If you finish the item on or before the allocated deadline, you have a day to rest, work on stock or squeeze in an emergency order from the waiting list
This is what my monthly diary usually look like – you may wish to set it up as a digital one, but I am afraid I am still very much a pen and paper kind of girl….
I also put notes on week pages – it gives me focus and I know what I am doing day by day…
You may notice fitting days – I discovered that having fittings on many different days for different clients is not working very well for me – it disrupts the day and productivity flow, and so I try to keep 2-4 fitting days a month (depends on the season), usually for both weekdays and weekends. There are of course exceptions when a client cannot make any, but I have found out if I plan them well ahead, that doesn’t happen a lot.
I usually have 3-4 people in for a fitting day – more is usually to much and I struggle to think clearly!
I also keep a few days a month for stock making for my online shop, or for upcoming markets. I like making stock so these are usually fun days when I make what I want to make, or when I experiment with patterns. They are also useful if you happen to have an emergency order too 🙂 and since we are talking about emergencies….
* Do you accept last minute orders?
That depends on a given month – sometimes if my stock days are free or if I know I can finish a planned order beforehand, then yes – but I make it very clear to the client that an emergency order will be a subject to an additional fee, and that they will need to be able to attend fittings, sometimes day after day (in the picture above the regency dress as such – all done in 2 days, during which time the client stayed in a nearby b&B and was available for fittings as required – and picked up the dress at the end of her stay)
* I hate paperwork – how many documents do you usually issue per order?
1. quote, 2. contract ( sometimes with a separate specification), 3. final invoice
* What machines do you use?
I have tried a few over the last 20 years or so – mostly Janome, Toyota and Pfaff. Nowadays Janome is my brand of choice – I have had a few different models over the years and ended up with the best set up for me:
1. primary machine – dedicated straight stitch semi-industrial 1600PQC. perfect for everyday stitching, and FAST….
2. secondary machine – for back up plus all the fancy work ( embroidery, zips, ruffling, buttonholes etc) – Horizon – MC800QC
These are not the cheapest models – but since they are the tools of my profession I need machines that are fast, reliable and can deal with the amount of work. You don’t need to spend a fortune on hardware – mid price items from Janome are also good, and will suffice if you don’t stitch day in day out. I have used this models for years and they worked brilliantly too – SMD6019QC, and J3-20
Apart from that I also use a very old but very good grinder/sander for filing corsetry bones. It is old, it is noisy as hell, but does a fantastic job. update – I have moved on to a new Draper now – but the moment i find replacement sanding discs for the old one, i think it will be back in favour!
Steamer – Vaporella Easy
* what does your workroom look like? you must need loads of space!
Well, should I be so lucky….. 😉 I work from home so am using a combination of a reception and living room. No space for a proper cutting table ( for most of the dresses I would need a rather sizable one….), so the cutting of large bits happens on the floor… but generally, this is when all the costuming happens. when I am working on a lot of stock and need more cutting space, I simply hire a workshop nearby.
*Do you use commercial patterns?
Very rarely and usually either for myself or when a customer asks for an item to be made using a specific pattern.. Mostly I use either my own patterns that I developed throughout the years, or a combination – a commercial pattern adapted to my needs. When I use a commercial pattern I always run a trial and see if it runs true to size -. For bespoke items, I very rarely use commercial ones, and even when I do, I always make a mock up and fit it individually to a customer.
Also, many commercial patterns are licensed for only 10 or 5 garments ( Truly Victorian or Sew Curvy for example) so unless I had the authors permission, I would not be able to use them for many clients or for stock items.
* Do you have any tips for online selling?
* invest in a professional website. I use Create.net and love it, it was easy to set it up even for me, and it is not expensive.
*in the bespoke section include your price range – when people email you about commissions they will have already seen the pricing, so your quote won’t come as a surprise.
*specify posting dates. if you have a post office nearby and don’t mind frequent visits, that’s fine – for me Monday, Wednesday and Friday are posting days – unless someone asks for urgent sale etc. people will get their items in 1 or 2 days, and you know you have 2 days when the chore of tackling the post office queues is not looming ahead.
* Be as specific about the items for sale as you can – and be honest. You may have a few less sales, but a few less returns as well!
*make sure your T&C are clearly defined!
Well,I think that’s it for a while! as before, feel free to ask questions and comment, they are welcome and appreciated! and if we have more questions, they will be answered in another post as well 🙂
Over the last few years I had a few people asking me about doing costuming as a business – and since in the last 3 months I have had several graduates and future entrepreneurs ask me the very same questions again and again, I have decided to deal with them in one place – so that everybody who thinks of operating a business can benefit.
Just a short background note first – I am a self-taught costumier – my adventure started in 1997 or so, after spending a summer with historical interpreters from Past Pleasures. I first made a few medieval things for myself for a Christmas party of my group (I was taught the basics of sewing at school and my mum ), and although the garments were, to be honest, quite horrid, I soon had friends and other members of the club asking me to make them kit too.
Within a few years, I made loads of outfits for friends and re-enactors, and after 3 years of serious stitching and even more serious research and costume education, I had a side business established, adding a few good zloties ( I still lived in Poland at that time) to my normal income. For 5 years I ran it with a friend, making mostly medieval clothing for clients in Poland, Scandinavia, France and Italy.
When I moved to the UK in 2005, I had to start anew, more or less – and the first year or two I spent most of my professional time working, teaching in the colleges, getting more teaching qualifications etc. But then I got the bug again, and started attending more events, and as a result, was asked for more kit.
Prior Attire was born in 2009 – as a supplementary 1 woman business. In 2010 I was able to switch the college workload a bit, and work 80% – leaving Friday and the whole weekend to costuming and teaching the rest of the days. In November 2011 I left the college stint for good – and never looked back… It hasn’t been easy but since then I am usually fully booked up 3-6 months ahead, sometimes more – and although I do work more hours than ever, it is worth it!
If it all looks great and peachy for you – well, don’t be deceived. It does take years to establish a good customer base, find a niche in the market, and invest your time, money, resources… I am doing the job I love, and am quite good at (false modesty aside), but it was not an easy path – and it not so easy to maintain and grow either….
Still, hope this helps a bit – find below the questions I am asked most often:
* Do I need to have a degree?
Not necessarily – I read English at University, and it encompassed the history of the language as well as usual history. It did come in useful, as, being able to decipher Old English or Middle English texts during the research, it provides you with more data. So a related uni or college degree would be very helpful – but with or without it, be prepared to do a LOT of studying and learning on your own as well. and if you want to maintain your business, you will never stop learning….
* Had you already done a lot of work before you started bespoke historical costuming?
Yes. Yes. Yes. – as mentioned above I was sewing for years before I was able to dedicate my career to costuming entirely. It helps if you can phase it out, but it usually takes years. Work also means research – and when I was starting research meant actually going to museums, travelling to other countries to trawl the libraries, galleries etc. Nowadays, with the internet it is much easier!
*How do you advertise and get clients?
You can advertise on Facebook (not worth it, unless you study the algorithyms and can use it to your advantage)), google adverts, magazines, fora, etc. Not really sure how effective that is – for me the greatest advertisement proved to be – well, wearing my work! Due to my academic background, I am also an interpreter, and I wear historical costume for work. Seeing the clothes worn, on a person, is one of the best adverts you can get, in my experience – be it at an event, or a market, a gown on a person is much more interesting than a small add in a magazine.
And the same goes for my clients – 60 % of my customers find their way to me via word of mouth – usually seeing my work on another client.
Professional social media and internet presence is essential too – that’s the rest of the customers accounted for, mostly. Here you do need to put some time too – learning fb algorithms, posting regularly with quality content, engaging etc – but it is all worth it.
Do you work by yourself?
Yes, I am a 1 woman business. I have a loving and long suffering husband who helps at the market (he possesses much better people skills than I do!), but apart from that, all I do is just me and my needle pricked fingers! Recently I have started hiring a workshop space and some help for the busy periods when I need to make lots of simple stock fast though – and it proved not only fun but profitable too!
Do you work normal 9-5 hours?
Ha! Nope. My normal working day may start more or less at 9, but it does not finish at 5 – I do take breaks for lunch, to go training in the evening, etc, but it is often that I am still doing some stitching at 11pm, watching a telly or playing scrabble.
Weekends – yep, same applies. In fact I do need to plan my holidays better – in the last 5 years I had much less holiday than the national quota…..
I do like keeping busy though and cannot imagine it any other way – but you will need to manage your time efficiently (see my article on that here)
Did you research the market first?
Not much – as I started by making clothes for myself, to be able to work as an interpreter and for living history demonstrations, the market research was done more or less on the go. But it is essential if you are starting with a clear business purpose in mind. You do learn what people need and how much they are willing to pay for it if you are a part of the community – the basic supply and demand laws of economics apply. You might be making lovely Viking dresses, but if people don’t need them, you won’t make much profit! But if you have a particular product or line in mind – yes, market research is essential. Learn what events are popular, what periods, and how it works with your area of expertise. I would love to make more late 17th century mantuas – but there is scarcely any demand for them as there are almost no big events in UK for this period – so it doesn’t matter if my mantuas are exceptional pieces, if people don’t have a reason to wear them, they won’t buy them.
Still, I made one just for fun…. just in case, you never know…. 🙂
*How big was your profit in the first year? (Yes, people do ask that!!)
To be honest, forget about any profit for the first few years at the very least. For me, whatever I earned that didn’t go towards taxes, bills, living expenses etc, was spent right back on improving the business – getting more stock, making more samples, getting better websites, banners, courses, equippment,books. If you are after a quick profit, well, that is not the business for it, it seems! It does get better though, as you are becoming more established – I can now afford occasional treats now… ( read – more silks….) ;-0
Who are your customers?
Mostly re-enactors, historical interpreters, both professional, part time or hobbyists, museums, heritage sites, event companies; less often film and theatre; used to do bridal and Steampunk stuff too, but in the end decided it was not my cup of tea. Really varies!
How to you work out the pricing?
There are many ways to do it, but the general thing is – make sure you charge what is right for you – the cost of the material, the cost of time, research etc. Remember that undercharging just so that you get a sale is not a good strategy – but neither is overcharging. If you are an artist and price your items as unique masterpieces – be prepared to earn like one – and yes, from time to time there will be a person who would pay several thousands of pounds of a dress just because it has your name on it. But this is not a reliable income that would pay your mortgage and bills…. If you are in a happy situation that you don’t need to rely on your business to survive, that’s great – but very few of us are!
Generally my prices are mid-range – I don’t really do cheap stuff, and people who expect to pay £20 for a corset or £100 for a dress are simply not my clients. If I accepted such prices, I wouldn’t even begin paying up the costs of the materials in some cases, let alone time and profit! I sell off the peg items cheaper than bespoke – I don’t have to go through the measuring, consultation, fittings etc process – so they take much less time. Bespoke stuff is more expensive – but then you get a much more personalised item – my prices can be found on my website, if you want to get a feeling for it.
It is really important to learn to work fast and precisely. Not in a hurry, mind you – but if you take months to finish one dress, it won’t pay your bills. But with experience, you will be able to speed the process up with no loss of quality – my first bustle cage took me over a day, as I was puzzling out the construction, playing with design and pattern. Half a year later and a few cages more, I was able to make one in 6 hours. Nowadays I make one in just under 2 hours, maybe 3 is it is a fancy one – mostly because I know the process so well and don’t need to ponder on what goes where…
*Do I need to do my own marketing?
Hell yes…. As mentioned before, you need to be visible – have a separate page, website, Instagram account, update it often, learn Facebook algorithms to manage the reach of the posts – and yes, it does take time, and yes it is a part of the job. Set up promotional photo shoots, invest in making showpieces – it all pays up. When I was developing the bridal side of the business we set up 4 seasonal photo shoots in one year – I made about 20 gowns for these, in between work on historical items. It was an investment – in time, resources, fabric, organizing the shoots around the country, finding models, MUAs, and photographers – and it was worth it. Most samples sold anyway, and the commissions I got on the strength of my portfolio paid up more than once over the original investment.
At the same time – do not go over the top and over market – There is nothing more irritating than a starting company who is trying to sell in an overaggressive manner. Steady, moderate and tasteful – yes, loud, in-your-face, incessant – not so much…
*Do I need to have contracts etc?
Absolutely. Contracts protect you and the customer alike – they specify what is to be made, the deadline, the fittings, pricing, deposit, all terms and conditions. And yes, especially important when making stuff for friends. Always specify the non-refundable deposit (either a percentage of the labour prices, or the cost of fabrics etc) – if the client defaults, you will at least have something, as it may be too late to book another customer in the suddenly vacant plot. Also specify payment options and what happens to unpaid/uncollected items.
Remember the contract binds you too – so make sure to allow for enough time to make the garment…. It doesn’t matter if you produce a fantastic Victorian gown two weeks after the ball the client needed it for – they won’t be coming back to you, and will make sure their friends don’t either.
Some general points and advice…
*quality – goes without saying, strive for the best you can do. Always. And be proud of what you make – don’t cut corners on fabrics, styles etc if you don’t have to – well made outfit in quality materials will bring you more customers. A poorly made one, or one that sports inferior fabrics, finish or fit will most likely lose you some potential business.
*communicate – make a point of answering emails in a timely manner, keep people informed about the development, and if you have a problem – talk about it. It won’t go away just because you are ignoring the messages, phone calls etc. deal with it. Be reliable, finish things in time – the reputation for reliability will be crucial in obtaining new customers.
*Mistakes – accept that you will make them. Everybody does. So be prepared to deal with them and learn from them. If it means that you need to start stitching anew, and buy an extra length of fabric out of your own pocket – so be it, shit happens. You will remember next time.
* Don’t stop learning. Ever. There is always something new to learn, a new technique to muster, more in-depth research to do, a new pattern to develop. Don’t accept that this is it, you have made it and know it all, no need for more learning. As you learn, your skills will improve alongside with your reputation. I think we have all been there – we look at an outfit we made a few years ago, and we thought then it was brilliant, the pinnacle of our achievement – and yet now you see how much better you are able to make things now. I look at my past garments and cringe – there is always something I now know I could have done better! But that’s ok, next time I do similar style, I will make it ever more perfect.
Read articles, go on courses, watch how to videos on youtube even – and experiment. It is time well spent.
*invest in good quality. Good quality sewing equipment, good quality fabrics, boning etc – it will pay off.
* manage your time to avoid procrastination, digressions and distractions. Plan for every outfit commissioned, and plan well in advance.
* It helps if you have a unique product you want to sell. But remember that may not be enough. Also, if your product is not unique but your service is (you deliver on time, exceptional quality, etc) – it will work too!
* if you are an introvert, like me, markets, networking etc will be double hard. I am lucky in having my hubby to share the workload at the markets, but even then it takes me days to recover ! Still, it has to be done – but try and share your work at markets with a friend, spouse – or hire help, if necessary. Dealing with people is necessary – sometimes fun, sometimes hard work – but it is people who buy your products, so treat them right!
* be flexible. Some years you will find demand for different items is greater – the last few years it was mostly Regency, Titanic and WWI era – because there are events planned to go with the anniversaries. It meant I had to do more research on those periods, play with patterns and invest in shoots, etc – but it was worth it. I would never have thought that in the last few months our greatest earner would be a Victorian and 1914 style corsetry – but hey, so it is. No doubt a few years on, something else will be in fashion, and more research and learning will be needed – but hey, that’s fun!
*Network. work together with other people in the industry – help them out, learn from them, enjoy working together.
*Have fun – don’t forget you started your business because you wanted to do what you love doing. Yes, it may take a few years when you may be stuck doing 50 boring shirts – but this is your bill money. In time you will be able to choose the commissions you want to do, but before that simply award yourself by working on private projects – make a gown you always wanted to make , spend a day or two just on lace making, embroidery, simply re-affirm your love for the craft. If you have made a gown of your dreams, wear it – have a photo shoot in it, go to a ball in it, invite friends for a tea in kit !It will keep you motivated and keep the costuming joy going.
Do comment if you have any other questions you’d like answered!
And if you want a more in depth information on all the aspect of running a creative business – check this little book, Craft a Creative Business by Fiona Pullen. It covers all the basics and more in an accessible way, presents you with a nicely develop points and business strategy and offers invaluable advice on marketing, legal matters, planning – a must to read!
p.s. – part 2 of this article, answering more questions and dealing with time management, contracts etc is now available too – Running a Costuming Business part 2; we are dealing with perception of your own work in part 3 – The Art of Objectivity, and finally saying what it takes to make a successful business that lasts in part 4. Getting Real.