How to start a homebased handmade sewing business

I’ve been working on this topic intended as a series for awhile. It got too bloated and convoluted so I’ve decided to begin with the context that started it all:

I have had a home-based sewing business for over 27 years. I have a lot of leftover fabrics from all the weddings that I have done over the years and I thought I would use patterns to start with the basic design and go from there. Most of the tops would be one-of-a kind because I don’t know if I can get the fabric to make more than one size. I am willing to buy your book, but if I can’t sell these tops, I don’t think your book will help. I can’t draw worth a toot, but am willing to try. I do know how to drape on my mannequin, so maybe that will help. Thank you for your time. Pam.

The short answer I gave her is that I didn’t know (if she’s been sewing for 27 years, she’d like the book but that’s not what this is about). There’s benefits to making one-offs but I needed more information. I asked her to answer these three questions as best she could:

  1. If you did proceed with this plan, how might you sell them?
  2. Have you done a rough estimate of your costs? I’m not trying to poke holes in your plan, I’m trying to find a way to make this work for you.
  3. In your opinion, what are the downsides to your plan, what are your weaknesses? Worst case scenario, how badly can it hurt you?

To define limits, some people have found it helpful to assess themselves like so:
I can do ________.
I need help with ________.
I need someone else to do ________ for me.

Pam responded:

I will try to answer your questions as well as I can.

  1. I have a few people who know people that own specialty shops near where I live. They thought it would be possible to carry my garments. I also have my own website that I could sell them there.
  2. I’m not sure about a rough estimate of costs. Most of the fabric I would be using is left from weddings that I have done. There is just enough for tops, however, I would probably have to buy lining to finish them. I have a lot of resources where I can get fabric at a discount.
  3. I feel that the downside would be that I don’t sell them, but I would only be out a few dollars for notions and my time. I can usually make a top in less than 3 hours. My biggest weakness is [my fear] that I will make tops that the girls won’t like.

I am also afraid (this sounds crazy) that the tops might become so popular that I can’t keep up. Once I use up my leftover fabrics, I would buy the necessary fabric, but at a discount.

These days, a lot of people have resources such as time, materials and skills to convert into cash. I think it’s workable provided you are careful. If it matters, if I had the time and needed the money I would do it to clear out my stash. In this scenario, there is more to gain than lose. However, there is a point at which future problems can begin to smolder. Unfortunately, you may be so successful with your project that you won’t realize it when it starts.

Sales are seductive
There’s no other way to put it. When someone buys your stuff, it’s a big ego boost as well as financial. It’s validation and you’re hungry for it in more ways than one. Be very careful to step cautiously at the point you have to start buying new inputs. The point of increasing risk occurs when you have to start buying new materials.

Before you start, be honest with yourself to choose between two paths. Which of these will you prefer?
1. Short Term: Convert your materials and time into cash and then go back to what you were doing. You can always continue to convert job scraps and time into money on an ongoing basis.
2. Long Term: If your materials and time conversion into cash goes well, would you want to grow it?

If you want to take advantage of opportunity (option #1), your pricing can be low enough to cover your labor and continue to recycle excess materials into extra money as the opportunity presents itself. However, if you think you want to grow it if it takes off (option #2), your pricing must be different. Specifically, you must include the cost of fabrics even though they were free. Otherwise you won’t know if there really is demand for what you’re doing. The reason is, if your product is priced low because materials are free, that will drive more sales than if you were pricing your products to cover the cost of materials. More people will pay $20 for a top (labor only) and be less picky about it than they will be for a $60 top (labor and materials). In other words, don’t be seduced by a lot of sales for $20 tops and then buy material thinking it’s going great guns because sales will drop once your prices increase. To get a clearer picture of the appeal of your tops, you must add in the cost of (free) materials to get a better idea of demand if you think you want to pursue option #2. Worst case scenario you find that option #2 isn’t going to fly, you can regroup to pursue option #1 and be no worse for the experience.

For the sake of argument, the downsides to option #1 are that your friends friends don’t pan out. You can still sell these at local consignment shops, farmer’s markets (a big deal here), on Etsy, eBay or your own web site. If they don’t sell there, you can donate them and get a bit of a tax break. You could also contract with your brides to create casual tops of the material used to make their gowns they could wear any day. Wearing a top made of the same material of their wedding gown would be a special way to remember their wedding.

If you decide to go with option #2 (possible long range), you don’t really need to do anything differently at the outset -other than pricing- because you’re just testing the waters. If it pans out, meaning you sell at least 50% of your inventory in a relatively short period of time (say a month), you may be on to something. If so, I would recommend you buy the book before you even buy a bolt of fabric. Even if it did nothing else for you, the information in it could save you at least that much on your first wholesale fabric purchase. If it all goes well but you’re on the fence about about whether to proceed with option #2, leave a comment here explaining how it’s going and I’m sure people will be happy to help you sort it out.

Ah, one caveat. We didn’t discuss styling. I don’t know if Pam intended to make each top different from every other top. I was assuming she’d do it like I would but maybe she wouldn’t. If you make up one-offs, you won’t get a picture of which styles and sizes hold greater appeal. The way I would do it is to only produce a few styles and make them in different sizes, meaning duplicates. I realize each fabric would be different but the basic lines and shapes of each style could be important indicators. I would keep careful track of which bodies sold first and in which sizes. This will be very useful information in the future.

More on hand made enterprises and the ins and outs of managing Etsy sales and one-offs to come. By all means, submit your questions in comments. Specific scenarios are great and you can be anonymous. Do leave a valid email address though so I can follow up with questions privately.

Related:
Selma, I cannot imagine how you came to this conclusion. This series has been very positive and empowering. For your convenience, I include those links at close. Or perhaps you wanted the Pollyanna version? Then you’d be upset that nobody warned you about the downsides.

As far as your depression goes, (paraphrasing) nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent (E. Roosevelt) and, whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re mostly right (Ford).

The other entries you likely missed are:
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt2
How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt3
Why handmade is best

My test pilot project entries:
Design Paralysis: Why I’m not a designer
Prototype shopping bag Style# 4213
Prototype shopping bag Style# 4214
Going from prototype to production sewing
Going from prototype to production sewing pt.2
Design Paralysis pt.2
Prototype bag Style# 4216 & 4217.

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38 comments

  1. Mandi says:

    Thank you for this post, and please do more along this line. I have a similar idea, though I would work with fabric I dye and print (something I do, whether or not I sell it, so I’m buying the fabric no matter what), and I’m only thinking of doing etsy. For me, it’s the easiest way to make what I want and put it out there and just see if it flies.

    What’s holding me back on this is sizing. I can make a pattern, though I’m rusty at it, and sewing is a joy for me, but grading is so not possible for me. If I make anything it’s going to have to start at my size. From there if it sells, great, if someone wants a similar style in another size, then I’m worried. I can say no, but having to say no for that reason really bothers me.

    I’ve read through your book, and searched and searched for ideas on this in your archives. I found an entry that talked about hiring a grading service, but again, that’s money that I may not need to spend, and it just means that I’m going to question my pattern making competence… is a grading company going to do the work even if it’s not a super professional pattern?

    I did have grand dreams last year that I’d get this all figured out, dip my toe into the etsy thing, and then try to start doing higher end wearable art, perhaps over the next 2 years. But again, I’m stumped on a few details, and unsure if I can make garments (from sound patterns) that will sell on etsy that I can further translate into garments that I can make into a nice wearable art line.

    There are a few wearable art designers who I want to model my business vision on, but I don’t know any of them personally, so I don’t know that I could ever approach them with questions about their business.

  2. Connie says:

    Kathleen – once again a great post. I have decided to use up my stash to make bags, aprons etc. and try my wares at a local crafts fair. My family is enthusiastic. Your points about pricing are well taken and something I hadn’t considered thoroughly enough but will factor in. Thanks.

    Connie

  3. Claudine says:

    This is a really interesting post. Setting up this sort of business is something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while. I’ll be eagerly anticipating future posts on this topic.

  4. Maria says:

    I’m thrilled to see this article posted and look forward to more on this topic. I started a home sewing business two years ago and it is finally beginning to take off. My time is more limited with 3 small children at home, hence the two year starting period, but I keep finding ways to manage family and business in the same space to make it work.

    I did buy Kathleen’s book several months ago and it was worth every penny. I’m still struggling with pricing and often worry if my product is properly priced. My niche is crayon caddies for kids, personalized with their names embroidered on them. I recently picked up my first wholesale client and had difficulty distinguishing my retail price vs. my wholesale price. I would like to see more information on how to calculate these costs.

    Thank you!

    Maria

  5. Donna Sebastian says:

    Great topic! I have done custom dressmaking off and on over the years because I like to sew and can’t sew forever for myself. When I moved to Silver City I started making one-ofs for the Common Thread but have not continued with that for a variety of reasons. My biggest complaint with “home sewers” is they usually don’t charge enough. Plumbers and mechanics make more than dressmakers. I will be selling in another gallery soon and found I can crank out the ubiquitous bog coat for a decent price and not worry about sizing. I also teach a one day class on the Bog coat. I show how it can be a bathrobe or evening wrap. It also gives me a blank canvas for some surface design and embellishing. If I ever stay home long enough I will do some more silk painting for the coats.

  6. Donna Sebastian says:

    I forgot to mention that one of the things I learned is to factor in the cost of materials at the price you would need to replace the materials not the price you pay for the materials. I thought that was a good tip.

  7. Tonya says:

    Ditto on the great topic bit! I would consider also adding in costs related to online sales. Etsy does charge a per item fee as well as a listing fee. You may also have charges for using PayPal to collect revenue. Another area to think about if you go for option #2 are marketing and transportation costs. Many consumers like to get ‘free shippping’ and you may need to pad that into your final sales price.

  8. Mandi says:

    Ann K, thanks for the article link. Interesting read.

    LOL. I am no fool. I do not expect to get rich doing this, not on etsy, not anywhere. I used to make belly dance costumes. Expensive, custom fit down to the inth degree. And fully hand beaded. Doing that taught me all about never expecting to earn any sort of wage at anything people buy that isn’t heavily marketed by fancy PR.

    I did learn from it that if I would be getting next to nothing in compensation, then perhaps I needed to find a creative route that gave me pure pleasure to create, and just to expect only to cover my costs. That’s why I figured a start on etsy, making something I love and would be doing anyways, is at least a start. If I could get even just some experience from selling on etsy then it might give me more insight as to how to move further, or maybe I’ll learn that just a tiny bit of sales on etsy is enough.

    I would like some tips and ideas on how to put together something more professional than just a few funky mis-matched things into an etsy shop.

  9. Ann K says:

    Mandi, I, too, am a dyer and have sold at a wholesale market in New York………until I couldn’t afford the next season show costs based on previously slow sales. It’s rough out there. I’d be happy to share my experiences with you if you’d like to email me —— hope that’s ok Kathleen?

    katzenhanddyed@msn.com

    Ann

  10. Donna Sebastian says:

    This topic is really bringing up the memories. When I retired from teaching I had all sorts of ideas about occupying my self. One of my more memorable adventures was my sock monkey business. We started out as four partners and dwindled to two then i a was left with all the monkyes. I found the source for the original socks to make the monkeys and bought enough to make about a 100 of those critters. I found a networking group to give me pointers on the craft business. These were hard core crafters and we had a booth at Knotts Berry Farm at Xmas. Making those monkeys was pretty intense until I found the “stuffing lady”. As I stuffed their little arms and legs I kept thinking there has to be a better way. The “stuffing lady” lived in a trailer out it Temecula and had a machine to stuff things, so now I had to factor that into my cost. I am a fast learner and it wasn’t long before I figured out that these crafter ladies weren’t giving me an accurate picture of their earnings. $2000.00 at a booth was their grosss not net but that didn’t deterr them from bragging. I made a stunning booth of my own and called my business Monkey Business. First show was a flop because of wind. My little monkeys had costumes and plain naked monkeys. Everyone commented and reminicesed about the one they had as a child and moved on to the next booth. I had a catchy hang tag that said they were made by the loving hands of a grandmother and not to use them as footballs, blah,blah. Long story short, when I moved to NM I gathered up the sacks of monkey body parts and just dumped them. I had a lot of fun for a small investment and learned enough to write a book.

  11. Diane S. says:

    Interesting timing! I just paid for a booth at a local festival to give myself a kick in the butt. I’m going to put some patterns on manilla paper, familiarize myself with industry markings and templates, and use up some piles of jeans I bought for making totes and other supplies I keep accumulating. I was just thinking about selling at a wholesale price and trying to make a little for my efforts.

  12. ginevra says:

    So, is making a living in the fashion business as likely as winning the lottery (ie. not)?

    From Fashion Incubator, I’ve come to see starting up a line as a feasible way of earning enough money to live on. I’m not silly, I realise it will take a lot of effort plus sound business sense. I actively want to price correctly, learn accounting and also marketing. I already know I’m pretty good at project management and I have some customer service experience.

    Am I wrong? From the commentors here, it seems that wanting to have a women’s fashion line is like wanting to become a Hollywoood movie star or famous artist. There are thousands (millions?) of hopefuls, who train, have talent, work their buts off but less than 1% succeed (and those who do succeed accept the high toll on their sanity and family life).

    I just want to make a decent living for me and my family, and (mostly) enjoy what I’m doing. Is that possible (assuming I focus on getting the business side right) or should I give up now and find a decent office job?

  13. donna sebastian says:

    I believe you can make a living at anything you want so long as you are prepared to pay your dues. I went into teaching when there were 200 applicants for every job. It took three years of subbing before I landed a contract. I also worked in real estate and that was even harder. I would listen to Kathleen and follow her directions if I were younger and wanted to pursue another career in fashion.

  14. Vesta says:

    Ginevra, what’s being discussed here is “homebased handmade”. That’s completely different than manufacturing a line to sell wholesale at apparel markets. Be very clear about that distinction. I don’t sew our products, and would never consider doing so. I am too busy with the other aspects of the business, from hiring to strategic planning to designing. When you’re making homebased handmade, your income is directly limited by your time spent sewing. When you outsource the sewing (or set up a sewing shop in-house; the point is, someone else is sewing for you), you can absolutely make a living, although it’s not easy. I wouldn’t say it’s like winning the lottery, though. It’s much more under your control.

    Now, if you have dreams of becoming a superstar “designer”, then yes. Go buy your ticket. But if you want a small business to contribute an income for your family, with the potential to build something larger and more valuable (building equity in a business), just be smart and don’t do anything stupid like fund it all through credit cards. It’s totally possible.

  15. Dawn B says:

    Kathleen says: “(option #1), your pricing can be low enough to cover your labor [but not fabric, in this case]”. The huge problem with trying to sell on Etsy and other sites is all the scads of women pursuing scenario #1. Usually they are just trying to cover their materials cost and not charging much of anything for labor. If you try scenario #2 on Etsy, you will be competing with all these underpricers and may not get a true picture of whether your goods would sell at a “real” price point in a different venue.

  16. Nancy W says:

    Thanks for this post. I have been considering something along this line for quite some time, but have lots of questions. Mostly I’m considering online fabric sales, but I haven’t really put any kind of plan into action. Still at the “someday I’d like to…” stage. This information is helpful and gives good food for thought.

  17. Pam says:

    thanks for all the replys to my response to Kathleen. My biggest problem I have is that I was told that I can’t reuse the patterns for the same style for a larger size, that I need to have a pattern for EACH size I make. Is this true? I live about 15 minutes from a very good fabric shop that has sales all the time, so I am pretty sure that I can get some good discounts on fabric.

  18. Kathleen says:

    Hi Pam, I’m not certain what you mean:

    My biggest problem I have is that I was told that I can’t reuse the patterns for the same style for a larger size, that I need to have a pattern for EACH size I make. Is this true?

    If you mean the matter of having different sized patterns (grading), that would be true and I mentioned it in part two I posted today. If you are referring to the copyright ownership of home pattern companies and being required to buy a pattern for each individual item you make, I’d rather sidestep the debate which is vigorous on the internet. It is my understanding that most (all?) except Burda require you to buy a pattern for each product you produce. Like I said in part two, there’s no reason you couldn’t make a pattern for yourself. You get better with practice. You might not having any training but if you’ve been sewing as long as you said you have (not that I doubt it), you know more about pattern making than you realize. I suggest starting off with one size just to see how it goes. Keep your costs and time commitment low at this point. Wait until sales justify you taking further action.

  19. Pam says:

    in regard to your last post, you mentioned that I need to purchase a pattern for each product that I make. If the pattern is multi-sized(6-8-10ex), do I still need to buy more of the same pattern to make the larger sizes? The majority of the garments that I have sewn in the past I have used a pattern and just redesigned it for the client. My last wedding gown that I made, I did use a pattern for the base of the dress for fit, then I draped the rest of the gown to the clients design. I was hoping that I could use the multi-sized patterns for my tops of various sizes.

  20. Liz C says:

    Pam, I’m not a lawyer, just a pattern designer, but my understanding of current copyright/licensing law is that unless you have written permission from the copyright owner, with license to make multiple ready-to-wear copies of a garment from their pattern (multi-size or not), you’d be “out of bounds”, legally, to use the one pattern to make multiple items for different customers. You’d want to secure written permission for that specific commercial use.

  21. susan owen says:

    Kathleen,
    I am so glad this came up! I had been too shy to ask you about Etsy. Thank you for being psychic.

    The plan to launch my line in the traditional way has been sidetracked by the economy, and my job in the Automotive field. As I am an avid Etsyian, and feel my niche is there. I also wanted to upcycle my vintage textile collection, and it all seems to fit within the Etsy model.

    Your post is so informative as usual.

  22. Lisa B. in Portland says:

    Pam, if you look at the multi-sized patterns, you’ll see that the line for one specific size goes both inside and outside the other lines. So you can’t use the same pattern for all sizes because you’d have to cut off parts of the other sizes. If you’re not going to use your own pattern or have someone make it for you (the preferred ways), then you’d have to trace each size onto new paper.

  23. colleen says:

    Donna Sebastian, I love the Monkey Business story! I have an almost finished Sock Monkey in my studio and a tear sheet from the magazine, Selvedge, showing a variety of unique, vintage, Sock Monkey faces. The “Stuffing Lady”? If not a book, write a short story about your experience.

  24. donna S says:

    i believe there is a disclaimer on commercial patterns that states they are for personal use or something to that effect. When I teach sewing I have the ladies iron the flimsy tissue onto freezer wrap, then use artists tracing paper to trace off a new pattern. That way they can preserve a “master pattern” and make as many patterns as they want and do some design work with a basic pattern. i use these products because they are easy for most people to obtain, cheap and work quit well. The freezer wrap needs to be ironed slightly on rayon before adherning to the tissue. For my own work I use pattern paper and oak tag, but I have rolls from my So Cal days.

  25. Jody says:

    Kathleen’s insights never fail to amaze me. Pam’s situation is vitually identical to my own and Kathleen’s responses speak succinctly to the issues I was struggling with but couldn’t quite articulate. Specifically, I’m talking about the paths that Kathleen described. I’ve struggled with this feeling like I have foot in both worlds, working to inject more professional practices into my processes (in the sewing room and on the business end) yet wondering always whether I was going “overboard”. The reason for this doubt that has plagued me is that I didn’t know whether the fact that my production is limited to one-offs or small runs would be “enough” to build a reliable business model on. Kathleen’s guidance has provided me the roadmap I need.

    I also think that the issues of pricing are paramount to folks interested in selling one-offs or small runs. Kathleen discusses what Donna B and I have observed over the years, which is that there isn’t really a level playing field in this market whether you’re selling online or at craft shows. You are indeed competing with people who don’t know anything about how to price their goods and may not even realize or care if they are losing money. These folks are clearly in the business for reasons other than money (ego? liquidating hobby products?). This creates a lot of competition for those of us that consider this a business, not a hobby. I’d be very interested in ideas on how to address this issue in the marketplace.

  26. Selma says:

    OK, you’ve all convinced me not to pursue any sort of “craft” business. So, I have to work for a commercial empire in order to make a living and use my skills.

    thanks for the depression.

  27. Kathleen says:

    Selma, I cannot imagine how you came to this conclusion. This series has been very positive and empowering. For your convenience, I include those links at close. Or perhaps you wanted the Pollyanna version? Then you’d be upset that nobody warned you about the downsides.

    As far as your depression goes, (paraphrasing) nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent (E. Roosevelt) and, whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re mostly right (Ford).

    The other entries you likely missed are:
    How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt2
    How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt3
    Why handmade is best

    After which I’ve branched into my own test pilot project of handmade starting with
    Design Paralysis: Why I’m not a designer
    and running through this last one which contains links to all the other entries.
    Prototype bag Style# 4216 & 4217. I’ve been please with the feedback even tho it’s been largely agreed that my project is sheer insanity considering my price points and the economy. But then again, I keep Ford’s other advice in mind, “if I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”.

  28. susan owen says:

    I am having a horrible day, so thank you Kathleen for the giggle.

    “if I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

    Love it.

  29. Selma says:

    Kathleen!

    so sorry – but I was not referring to the wonderful info you have given on this site – but more the conversation following the article on etsy and especially including the article on etsy! I understand what the article is saying and it’s, well, depressing! Yes, prices ARE too low in the DIY craft world and they are brought down even more because a person competing in the US is also competing with others who live in places with different economies.

    Still, many of us have dreams to do-it-ourselves and it’s not just because we are housewives or stay-at-home moms. Some of us are just tired of the “marketable” pigeon holes we find ourselves put in by larger commercial enterprises that are completely motivated by high profit $$.

  30. Gabrielle says:

    I loved the post and your website is a wealth of information. I really need some advice, I have a store online and I sew and design all the clothing from scratch, but I’m not making the amount of sales I would like to be making. I know for one, I do not have a congruous line of clothing, but the problem is that I use a lot of vintage or one of a kind materials to make my clothing. So how can I make it look like a collection? I guess I’m just kind of confused about how to make this work. Should I pick out a line of fabrics/colors that go together and stick to certain styles? If you could check out my site and tell me what I’m doing wrong, that would be so fantastic, and I’m definitely going to pick up your book, I need all the help I can get. Thank you so much!

  31. Kathleen says:

    Hi Gabrielle, anytime you’re using disparate materials, it’ll be hard to develop a line with continuity; it’s the nature of the beast. I have a friend who makes bags out of old billboard materials but it works for her because the materials are so large. I don’t have a ready solution for you.

  32. Laura says:

    This post is great validation for me, just wanted you to know that. The steps you are describing are exactly what I’ve been thinking about so far. I haven’t had the time to read or post here much lately, but grabbing bites of info when I can. This is so helpful, and I so want to get your book.

  33. ThuyBich says:

    Hi,

    I’ve been toying with this home-based business recently when I realised I need tobe more present at home with my 3 year old daughter. Thanks you so much for all your posts with valuable guidance and opinions. I think will join you in this “world” very soon.
    Thanks again and wish you all success

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