How to start a homebased handmade sewing business pt2

Returning to this topic I started last week, if you have time and materials, this is a risk worth taking. The take away from the last entry is that sales are seductive; don’t be caught unaware midway up a slippery slope. Specifically, if you think you’re interested in growing if your foray takes off, your material costs (although “free”) must be included in your pricing at the outset or your sales will drop once you have to include them. To get an accurate reading of sustainable demand, price your items as though you had to replenish materials.

Tangentially related, I’ve been surprised at the number of Etsy sellers who say they’ve been approached for possible wholesale (DEs take note in the next paragraph). I see two reasons for this. One, the pricing is very low. Either buyers think you can knock it down some more (you have low overhead) or they think there’s enough room in supply/demand to keystone your existing prices. However, if you’re not rolling the cost of materials into the mix, you’re not going to be able to produce. In general, a wholesale buyer will want to pay half the retail price.

Second, I think that everyone should be paying close attention to this new trend of wholesale buyers shopping on Etsy, what are other reasons they might be doing this? Perhaps simplistically, I think it’s more than low pricing, it’s no minimums. Costs are so low they may as well order a sample to see if it’s a match for them. Getting a product sample at low cost is less hassle than having to go through a sales rep to finagle line sheets, get call backs, negotiate minimums and then you never know what the product is really going to be like until you get it -and that’s assuming you get it when you need it. This reminds me of an experience I had when I interviewed a store owner about a client. The buyer said the manufacturer was very good to small stores like hers. She said their minimum was one piece and they accepted returns, this was unheard of 12 years ago. This company is doing well in excess of 75 million these days so I think that grassroots strategy paid off. I’m not suggesting everyone can or should do this but it could be an option in today’s tough economy.

There’s intangible benefits too. When a store owner approaches a relatively unsophisticated seller on Etsy, the buyer has more opportunity to set terms to their liking. Knee jerk reaction would be to presume malfeasance is the primary motivator when DEs should be curious as to what those terms may be and how they can meet them.

On with practical examples, Mandi -who I think speaks for many- said in comments to the first entry:

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

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?

Off the cuff, this strikes me as a crisis of confidence and flawed risk assessment (no offense intended). There’s no easy answer for either except to blindly jump off into the abyss. As a practical matter, I’m currently reviewing two new-to-me pattern grading books and I’m not pleased with either. As my husband will tell you, there’s a lot of snorting and less than complimentary commentary involved. I really think there is a huge hole in the market for a diy pattern grading book but that’s a whole other animal. I am seriously thinking about writing one but it’s not going to be free and it’s risky because the diy community is notoriously reluctant to spend money. Once a segment of the market gets a reputation, it’ll be difficult to get anyone to cater to your needs (not speaking of you Mandi or my other lovelies specifically).

You can have a grading service audit your pattern and costs are relatively inexpensive so the question becomes, have you tested a style by selling it to see if the costs are justified? I realize it will bother you to get requests for other sizes you can’t sell yet but you’ll have to become accustomed to discomfort because no matter what you do, you can’t serve everyone. At this point it is academic, a what-if worry. Sell some prototypes. It could be nobody buys it so all your worry was for naught. Time to dust yourself off and experiment with another style. Painful but it happens.

I think a great deal of worry comes from being juried by professionals, we all fear it. I am telling you, there is no mocking pattern grader who will guffaw at your puny efforts. It is very flattering when someone wrests with the difficulty of our profession. We admire that, we don’t disparage it. I love to help people improve their pattern work, it is my absolute most favorite thing to do. It’s hard to do it from a computer screen, a forum or a blog. It’s easiest when we share a common reference point like your pattern and can discuss specifics. The only time someone gets into trouble is when they try to direct the work. By directing the work, I mean someone who is so consumed with their authority they can’t listen to the content of one’s objections. If your grade rules work out to increments of 39/64ths or 117/128th for a karate uniform (this really happened) no one will believe you know what you’re doing so it’s better to listen up so we can make this work for you.

Summary: The only thing to fear is fear itself and all that rot. Just get out there, put some stuff up and see what sticks. Take the first step. Anyone who would mock you is not likely a professional themselves so why would you care what they think?

PS. Long ago I was going to be a writer. From the time I was self aware, I never imagined I’d do anything else. Then, a teacher effectively killed that idea, said I was lousy and would never write. So I gave it up and was happy (really). I became a pattern maker. Came such a time I had no means to earn a living, I had a disabled child and couldn’t work. I had no other income alternatives than to write so I had nothing to lose. In the end my teacher is probably right and I really am a crappy writer but I’ve made a life of it. In other words, resolving to become a really crappy pattern maker could be your ticket to a comfortable livelihood you enjoy. What do you have to lose?

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  1. susie says:

    thanks for the post! i was wondering in your opinion (if possible) if you consider this to be a wise move for DEs (like myself) that want a homebased handmade business? i work full time and producing limited quantity of clothing on my spare time seems to be managable.

    thanks again.

  2. Dawn B says:

    I enjoy your writing very much, so there!

    “you’ll have to become accustomed to discomfort because no matter what you do, you can’t serve everyone” So true. And yet: In my first years selling online, this is exactly what I tried to do – serve everyone – as a deliberate strategy. Some of my best-sellers came from requests to change the styling. I tried to let myself be customer-led, as a way to learn on the job since I had no experience with selling.

    Now, three years in, I feel comfortable with my line and have much more of a sense of what will sell. I’m finally saying no and turning away requests. Too many one-offs can burn you out, unless they are priced with a nice margin to make the extra time worthwhile.

  3. kathleen says:

    Re: the delicate balance of trying to serve customers. Ford said if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

  4. Arnikka says:

    You’re beautiful Kathleen, your words are so incredibly encouraging–and you don’t have to be. I have gone through the entire blog and read every entry. Your book is on my list to buy this week(I have a weekly budget). It was one of a few things. Now its in the number 1 spot.

  5. Andrea says:

    Hi Kathleen,
    I’ve just bought your book! i can’t wait for it to arrive. If it’s only half as useful as your blog it will be an investment equal in worth to my beloved sewing machine. I’m really looking forward to developing my talents, knowledge and passion with you and your community.

    Your teacher was wrong- you’re a fantastic writer!

  6. Connie says:

    Your writing is forthright, eminently understandable and entertaining to boot; just a reflection of the great thinking that goes on behind it.

    I’m taking a 6 wk internet course now and the writing is so bad it’s annoying to say the least. No proofreading or editing. Just appalling.

  7. Leslie Hanes says:

    Remember the store that was called 5-7-9 (is it still around? I’m not that size anymore so I don’t care)…they only catered to 3 sizes. People who were that size shopped at that store.
    I wonder if you could experiment with just a couple of sizes. Test the waters. Who knows, you might be able to start a new line with just one size…very exclusive! But, there are a lot of people in the world.

  8. Maybe Kathleen’s teacher was right, and at that point she was not a good writer. Much of the focus of Kathleen’s blog has been how we can learn, change and improve. I would say the lesson is that we should be careful about others setting limits for us. About all we can tell now is that the person was not a good teacher. I’ve never cared for the poke-with-a-stick-to-challenge style.

    I’ve had a home-based business for over thirty years, although it started out of an external studio as I was afraid I’d never get up and going in the morning otherwise. It’s critical to integrate all the overhead you might ever have to assume when figuring your prices. I physically made all the connections with buyers.

    If I could do it out of south central Nebraska in the 70’s, without Etsy, anyone can do it from anywhere now.

  9. Sonia Levesque says:

    You? Not a good writer? Come-ON!! Pfffft! WE know better… ;-)

    But what Carol Kimball says before me makes so much sense. And by the way Carol, your story is inspiring too!

  10. Kelli says:

    “In other words, resolving to become a really crappy pattern maker could be your ticket to a comfortable livelihood you enjoy.”

    I LOVE this! It is sometimes hard to walk the line of managing a business and all of the fear/self-doubt that comes along with “never having enough time” and “doing it right” — but it really boils down to making a bit of money using a skill you enjoy. And, it seems like the skill improves fast once you just jump in and get started already….. Thanks for the great post!

  11. Crystal says:

    Very good thoughts. As a perfectionist, I am so hesitant to try things I’m not immediately good at (it took me forever to sit down at a sewing machine!), so I appreciate your input about “just doing it” and who cares if you’re not the best? For me, I’m learning to fight the fear of failing by just simply doing. Your book has been helpful too. Thanks again Kathleen.

  12. Amy Mello says:

    I think that she should go ahead and sell what she has. As far as sizing goes, my experience selling online has been that if I don’t offer a top in the customers size they will usually contact me and ask for one or one similar in their size. This leads to them getting a top made with their specific sizing and I can also offer them colors to choose from. As the business gets bigger and gains a following, she will better be able to determine what sizes sell the most and be able to change her sizes accordingly. Just my little bit of input from a “little guy”.

  13. kellyt says:

    Thank you, Kathleen, for writing on this subject. I think you are an excellent writer! I have had your book for many years and find myself rereading it. I have finally over come the fear of pattern grading just recently, and completed 5 sizes of a basic coat pattern that I in tend to use in an “art to wear” clothing business. I have one more style to go, and then I will start the next phase. Your article gave me inspiration to keep moving forward.

  14. Mandi says:

    Thanks for this follow up post, Kathleen. I appreciate the comment to just jump in and resolve to be a really crappy pattern maker. It shines light on my small fears, and that because I will suck at this one aspect, I shouldn’t let it hold me back. Embrace my less-than abilities at this point and just move on. If it goes well, then I will figure out the rest when I need to.

    Sensible straight talk!

  15. Zuzana says:

    I just wanted to say that there ARE good grading books…and good drafting books. It’s just that I haven’t found any others that would be better than the Rundschau Verlag in Germany. It is a company that publishes drafting magazines – on a professional level. Not easy to understand at first glance, you have to own many magazines to get some things out right – but you can skip this and buy their books – they publish books which are actually consisted of similar topics published in the magazines for the last…20 years? For example, they have a book on Jackets and Coats, a book on Trousers and Skirts and so on. They should explain you everything in the book… See their webpage:

    I guess you can order the magazines with English translation. I’m not sure about the books though…but once you get the start you’ll need no reading!
    I cannot recommend them highly enough. I wish there was another such company, so that I could compare their drafting systems…

    Their grading book:

    If you have any questions, email me at zkraemerova(at)centrum(dot)cz
    I’m so frustrated that there is such a good company and nobody knows about it! And what more…it MIGHT seem their prices are high, but…what you get is FAR more than what you pay.

  16. DesignerElla says:

    It seems to me, as I’ve been active on Etsy quite a bit – that sellers much more often factor materials and not time, rather than time and not materials. However many work with jewelry and most of that – and a lot of other items – don’t take much time compared to, say, knitting a sweater.

    I’m not supporting the decision, of course, to not price for our valuable time. Especially since if things sell well and fast, people then don’t make worthwhile (or any?) money.

    I know prices are often so low but I hope it’s not totally on the site. Yes I think it’s majority, but it’s not all of the Etsian minds. I know I don’t and have never fit in with the pricing. And yes of course it sets up obstacles for those who price “true” (my word here, it may not sound nice).

    I am glad you wrote this that directs some underlying advice to Etsy sellers and the like. It’s needed I think. I fear they’re taken advantage of, it’s obvious the way you put it.

    BTW the closing paragraph was beauty, heartwarming and something of great writing. If this means anything that comes from a naturally talented writer who went to college for it, with an eye for visuals too who loves fashion and bags wayyyy more.

    And now I comment on comments – I’m such a gabber.

    The comment against the concept: “serve everyone – as a deliberate strategy.” I’m glad I read this because I occasionally worry that people will be put off by the fact that I will not design low hanging shoulder bags. I hate the look, I want to love all my looks. (This does not stand for stylish cross-body bags.) (Oh and perhaps the very scarce low hobo, don’t shoot me if I turn away a BIT when I think it still looks alright. Even Manolo Blahnik, classy classy – never a platform and such [not that I know every last style], made a clear heel. Haha.)

    So many people absolutely detest what I love, which is a bag right under the armpit. But I have my aesthetics and even love that feel, and that sort of thing can help lead to branding, perhaps. Ah well, maybe people like I are my true customers.

    Besides many faved classics can’t even hang off the elbow. Heh.

    “And, it seems like the skill improves fast once you just jump in and get started already”

    This is very true. We can improve vastly quickly if we try – not just do but work at improving, too. And work at finding solutions to problems. (This was mentioned in the post, no?)

    Long ago I thought I couldn’t sew or anything, and I was even afraid that leather couldn’t be found and/or would cost a bajillions of fortunes. Haha.

    Google helps, too.

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