What does it cost to prototype a bag or clothing line?

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Now on to the topic at hand, this is a question I get all the time. I’ll bet many of you hear it too. Here’s two examples:

I have a friend who wants to prototype a handbag and she’s not sure how much to pay someone to do so. Any tips?

How much money does it take to create a small line (10 items) of children’s garments? Have a couple pointers?

Considering that these questions are usually sent to me via twitter, how can I give an answer in 140 characters or less? Considering the medium, my first thought is to respond by asking how much does a house cost. Are we talking a hovel or a mansion? What’s it made of? In what area of the country or even neighborhood, do you want the house to be? Will you buy new or build to suit? Since there’s so many differences between home and product building, we should limit the discussion to materials and service costs. As we go along, I’ll provide and explain an estimate for the jacket at right so you don’t think I’m holding out on you.

Materials cost:
I don’t know the proportion of materials cost to total price that go into a home but I’d guess maybe 35% to 50% depending on amenities and whether land (which can also vary wildly) is included. By comparison, the materials cost of building a prototype sewn product will be very low, maybe 10% of the total. This is not to say materials cost is unimportant because it matters a great deal once you start making a quantity of them in production. As a rule of thumb, your total materials cost (for production units) should not exceed 30% of your wholesale price. Figure one third materials, one third sewing and another third to cover overhead and profit. Or these days, with marketing being the end all, maybe that should be revised into quarters with marketing being a fourth.

Services cost:
In home building, you have a whole gamut of needed services, the two primary ones are building plans and construction labor. With sewn products, this could be the pattern and sewing. With homes, you can buy a template plan and hope a contractor can take it as is. Likely they can’t so you’ll have to pay an architect or engineer an hourly rate to customize it for you. With sewn products, I know a lot of people try to lower costs by using a home pattern but it’s usually a painfully expensive way to learn (sooner or later) that it doesn’t work. Usually you can’t get a good contractor to take it, only less experienced neighborhood sewing shops who will charge quite a bit more (30-50%) to do the same work. The summary is, you’re going to pay one way or another. The only question is when and how much will it cost you over what it should have. Do it the least expensive way you can but test, test and test some more.

I don’t know what architects make but professional pattern makers charge between $30 and $75 an hour. There’s a broad range of experience too and you never know who really knows their stuff. Some are really good talkers, but are pretty scary in my opinion. It’s best to get a referral from a contractor, another pattern maker or a designer if they’ll give you one (the forum is a great option too). Anyone you hire should be able to give you a break down of costs and services with options of opting out of things you don’t need. Speaking of and again, at the risk of being accused of venting my spleen, do not have your patterns graded until you have orders. If someone includes the cost of grading as a service they recommend you have done before you have any orders, don’t hire them.

Here’s a recent example of an estimate I gave to someone who inquired about having this design from Soia & Kyo made (pictured at top right). By the way, I declined to do the work because I don’t do knock offs. I provided an estimate anyway because I suspected the person was hoping to pay a lower than retail price ($273, msrp $390) and I wanted to illustrate that custom, even with my lower than average prices, is never less expensive than retail.

  • 8 hours of pattern work @ $50 an hour = $400
  • 3 hours of cutting @ $25 an hour = $75
  • 3 hours sewing @ $25 an hour = $75
  • 1 hour finishing @ $25 an hour =$25
  • Total labor = $575 minimum

However, an estimated cost of up to $1,000 for this design would not be out of line depending on who you hired, how good they were and market conditions. By market conditions I may as well mention handbags specifically. Handbags are still hot (at least with aspiring entrepreneurs) and there aren’t many handbag pattern and prototype makers so with all the competition in the market for their services, they don’t need to discount. On the other hand, a prototype may even be “free”. Some offshore producers will roll the development costs into your production order -which is why they stipulate minimums. I don’t think this is but rarely a good idea unless you have pre-sold the item and have enough orders to make the minimums. But nobody listens to me.

In the olden days (ten years ago), pattern makers used to charge a set fee for garment patterns, one price for a dress, another for slacks etc but very few do it this way anymore because service providers are increasingly required to consult with clients who don’t have a lot of experience in the industry. In fact, it’s become so difficult to quantify the amount of time a client may need that some are charging deposits in advance and refunding the balance. We’re also providing a broader range of services than before, everything from sketching and sourcing to tech packs. All of this contributes to increasing ambiguity about giving prototyping estimates. Speaking of, I wrote an entry on one stop shops (package vs cmt sourcing) before that you may find useful. In most circumstances, I think full package sourcing is to be avoided unless you have the money to pay for hand holding. I guess it makes for an easier entry, money does that but I do fret and worry that entrepreneurs will leap frog over having to learn production to their later detriment.

So if you’ve read this far and care to elaborate, what are the costs you’ve paid for prototyping? It would be helpful for context to also mention the range of services for which you contracted. Thanks!

Related: (read the comments of both!)
How much can you make the first year?
How much can you spend the first year?

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  1. Good to see this entry. As a designer of leather handbags, I found a producer in NYC, one of a very few who would produce small runs for me and whose quality met my standards- which included being able to see the shop the bags were produced in. This person charges 1000.00 for a prototype regardless of the amount of information I provided, or the simplicity of the bag. He requires a prototype to be made in his shop before any production, even if I provide a fully produced perfect copy, with pattern.
    For production of small runs, he also required I pay for a die cut pattern in advance.
    By comparison, I am now living in Europe and have been seeking production in Italy. There I can find small qality shops ( it has taken me a year) that will produce a prototype for materials cost and labor, and will not require die cut patterns until production reaches a particular number.
    Cost of leather varies considerably from 1.40 – 7.00 per square foot retail and often one does not get much of a break until purchasing rather large minimal amounts. at which point the price break is rarely substantial. If one is seeking a deal, allowing the shop to provide the leather might be cheaper, but the choices will be limited.

  2. great post Kathleen!

    Here’s some of my costs based on the following:
    1 childrens’ knit shirt
    2 children’s button down shirt
    1 children’s pant (2 lengths)
    1 children’s hat

    pattern costs – over $4,000

    Prototype sewing
    1 children’s knit shirt – 4 colorways
    2 children’s button down shirt – 4 colorways each = 8 total
    1 children’s pant (2 lengths) – 3 color ways each =6 total
    1 children’s hat – 2 colorways

    Prototype sewing costs about $1,700

    fabric and findings – $500

    this doesn’t include sketches

    Total costs for prototypes over $6,200.


  3. Elizabeth says:

    Is there a standard time range it would cost a patternmaker/ sample maker to do the patterns, cu and sew standard pants, skirts, jackets, shorts, dress shirts, dresses, jump suits etc?
    I know it varies from person to person, and from design to design but is there an average?
    What if the patterns are based on existing blocks the customer provides?
    Broad question, I know.
    Thank you

  4. Vicki Boldon says:

    The comparison I usually make when asked the question of “what would it cost to create a ???”, is–That is like asking how much a new car will cost without telling the dealer whether you want a GEO (do they still make that?) or a Caddilac. Usually the people who ask uninformed questions are not taken too seriously, at least by me, until they bring me more information

  5. Theresa says:

    I used to be the factory manager and pattern/sample maker for a US handbag, luggage, and office furniture company. I wonder if I should start thinking about it again. If there is really a need for prototype makers that specialize in handbags and with the power to connect with people on the internet, I might start looking into it. I still have all of the equipment and machinery along with grommet makers, walking foot machines, binders, awls, punches, etc. And it’s probably easier than ever to find hardware.

  6. cdbehrle says:

    Thanks for this post, (and Lisa’s comment esp.) while I no longer manufacture, I do still get regular inquiries as to making samples/prototypes. Which I used to do regularly.

    Lately though, based on the reactions I get when providing the occasional estimate, too many people seem to think that a sample should cost substantially less than a custom made garment. I’ve even recently gotten 2 calls, from the same party, re-wording their request from”sample” to “custom made” as if that would change the outcome. Additionally, there is this complete disconnect with regards to the patterns. Stylists, designers, whoever… all too often believe they can hand over a pattern- invariably created for fabric- and a version can just be whipped up in leather and be expected work! (NOT)

    The other recurring situation is getting sent incomprehensible sketches to give an “estimate” on. Here, much too often when I ask questions that would help me figure out exactly what it is they want & need, the response gets snippy.

    For these 2 reasons, I have not taken on any prototype work in ages and the word “sample” has become very off-putting.

  7. Heidi says:

    First, thanks Kathleen for the great blog and amazing amount of knowledge you have provided to us here! I don’t comment often, but I did have experience with this so I shall share…

    I had some simple vinyl purses prototyped about 2 years ago, they were extremely simple (see photos here: http://funklectic.com/90/ – the actual ones I had prototyped didn’t have the fancy inlays like the owl but were simple lines, mostly like the last one – brown / teal polka dot). I actually made a bunch of them myself initially, but then decided to work with a manufacturer here in Denver, CO as they were too much work to do by hand. I submitted my patterns to them (to which they made modifications and made their own patterns) and they were prototyping the actual bag portion. The vinyl handles I was going to get cut by a local laser cutter guy (I had been making them myself with a router). I was also going to do the attaching of the handles to the bags myself, which differs from what you see in the photos and were actually going to be attached with screw rivets. Anyway, bottom line is that they only prototyped the fabric portion of the bag, which included an internal zipper pocket and a small “open” pocket on the inside (not sure what the technical term for this is). I had 4 different purse samples made to take to a tradeshow, and my total cost was $637.50 ($75/hr at 8.5 hrs).

    This company had come highly recommended, but at the end of it, I wound up dropping the whole collection all together as they turned out to be a nightmare to work with. All signs were telling me to drop the line, the biggest one was my difficulties in working with this particular manufacturer, and the tradeshow was crummy and I didn’t sell enough to justify continuing. The biggest problem I had with these people was quality and meeting deadlines. My samples were 1 week late and I had to rush to their facility to pick them up the night before I left for my show. The quality issues were many and included pattern pieces marked with ball point pen (where the internal pockets were supposed to be sewn in, and the pen was clearly visible in the samples). They claimed that actual production would be drilled, but I thought this unacceptable regardless (am I being too harsh? Is this normal?). The stitching quality was also mediocre, some of the lines weren’t straight, and they didn’t sew my woven brand labels into all of the samples as requested. (All in all I felt like I could have made the samples better, but I wanted them to look more “professional” which is why I requested them to do it). I addressed all of these issues with them and they were answered fairly appropriately, but bottom line was that I left feeling really poorly about my experience with this company and couldn’t justify moving forward. It all felt like it just wasn’t meant to be.

    After this experience I felt discouraged (and am not really in the financial position to go into clothing/handbag production) and have stuck to jewelry production as it’s much simpler and cheaper. Maybe one day when I make enough money off of my jewelry, I will venture back into clothing/handbags. For now, I just hand make them, one of a kind, as I need.

    Hope the info was helpful! If you are in Denver, you can contact me about this company but I won’t mention their name publicly.

  8. celeste says:

    As usual always very insigthful.
    I don’t have any experience with protypes, but I have been looking into dyeing some small quantity of fabric. Which usually falls under the cateogry of sample dyeing. That to can add quite alot to the price. Easily another few hundred dollars depending on the number of colors needed.

  9. marie says:

    Thank you for your recent post and for sharing your experience so freely. It seems as though I am so far out of your league and that of your other readers but I am learning. I have had a small business in which I make leathergoods, mostly deerskin, and sell them at our local Artisan’s Festival. This business has produced at least part of my income since 1975. I make my own patterns (self taught) and do all of the production work myself at home. A few of my items are pretty popular, so I had dies made at a small shop in Maine ($80 each) and have the pieces clicked out in Brockton, MA (.20 a click). I also do custom work. At times this business seems overwhelming and I wish there was a way to have some items sewn by someone else, but I haven’t had any luck finding an individual or small shop to hire. Mostly, I feel fortunate to be in this unique situation where I do not have depend on anyone.

  10. S Reed says:

    Hi, Ladies. I have to weigh-in on this one. I live in a city where one of the major universities has an undergrad fashion design program. So, I’m mainly a self-taught patternmaker, but was able to drum up enough biz to help pay my way through college. Talk about the nightmares. I used to get people who only had sketching 101 trying to enter design contests around the world and trying to start clothing lines. My company would take the client’s ideas from conceptual to realized designs. I had lots of clients who had no idea how their sketch would work in 3-D form. When I would try to explain simple things like why a zipper or buttons or velccro for that matter might work on this garment or ask how the clothing would stay on the model’s body the designer would get snippy. When I did mock-ups sometimes the designer was so overwhelmed by the functionality that the item needed in order to go on a human body things would get even more messy. I grew tired of the sleepless nights slaving for someone who had no real idea about the serious time and energy that went into realizing their designs. Oh, and don’t let me get started about the designer’s who couldn’t sketch, but wanted you to draw for them as they verbally explained their garments… but guess what, as a wahm, I’m thinking of revamping my company. If you’re in need a prototype, please be considerate of the patternmaker and/or seamstress. We can make or break you on preview night…

  11. Theresa says:

    I still wish there were more small quantity manufacturers in the US. Every time I stop to think about what I would want to do if I started my own business, it’s get back to either custom sewing/prototyping or small quantity sewing. I was a factory stitcher for so many years but I ended up switching over to the importing and overseas manufacturing side of the business. All those 1,000 + unit minimums means too much is all the same and helps feed the push manufacturing problems. There are so few factories left in Massachusetts and the one I used to work for stopped doing handbags and accessories and now focuses solely on the leather furniture side of the business.

  12. Aaron says:

    Hi everyone,
    I apologize for my lack of experience and knowledge on this topic. For the last year or so I have had an idea for a new handbag line that doesnt exist at the moment and am so eager to go some where with this idea. I, for a small time worked with my friend who majors in jewelery design and has had some experience with handbags. Needless to say it did not work out so I am still stuck here without any resources. I guess that my question/questions would first be, what do you suggest I do about finding someone interested in helping design this product? My is, what if I can’t find someone, are there resources to help someone such as myself move a product forward in design and also production from no basic sketch? Again I apologize and thank you.


  13. Chris says:

    Hello, I feel for all the people in the trade that deal with (no idea) people, and I take my hat off to you all. I had a shop and wanted to make suits, had designs (my bad sketches), know pattern makers (would help me out), and ideas coming faster than I could write down. While I also wanted to make shoes (have contact in brazil), and a range of other general mens and womens wear, it became fast apparant that for me it was not cost effective. If I made the runway designs in low numbers the price would make it unsellable (just to cover close to costs). If I made quantities to lower price, I would need minimum 5 shops if not many more to handle and sell the goods (which if they are not my shops I lose the exclusivity). Now as I resurect (after staff member stole 2.5 months trade in cash which shut me down) , I am simply buying smarter, keeping costs to less than 50% of what was, and letting someone else test and correct their ideas so I can buy it on the cheap as a left over. Yes that includes all those designer labels from 85% off wholesale. And while I can’t compete with that, I can create a cost effective opportunity from it. BTW, while some of my ideas have been produced 6 years after I made drawings by others, there are still some that have yet to be done. If any one decides they are interested in collaborating please post, bear in mind it is custom fit suit shirt for exclusive market.
    Regards to you all and good luck… great posts btw, keep it up!!


  14. Bruce says:

    Look long and deep or just leap? Too much interspection can be paralyzing. I earned my BFA, and have been working as a fashion designer for less than a decade. Often I want to incorporate, but find myself over-analyzing the process/outcome. Largely based on the knowledge of off-shore pre and production cost. And feeling nostalgic for small U.S.A. maufacturers(which is baseless because I knew/know of none). Which inspired some practicality on my end; sewing, cutting, bonding and more sewing, cutting etc–practice. The genesis of any hand-held 3-d product offering, might be best realized when done by “loving hands at home”. This is reference to prototyping which has all but eclipsed the term sample. Is substainabilty* possible? It points in the direction of pre-orders and sales in direct opposition to production and then attempts at distribution. For the individual it definitely is an education in the free-market.

    Thanks for providing the forum for this topic. Thanks to everyone for the insightfulness.

    *Human sustainability interfaces with economics through the voluntary trade consequences of economic activity.

  15. Krista says:

    I along with 8 others have a facebook fan page(approx. 15,000 fans) for an industry & we recently opened a clothing line. It has exploded & we are making a huge profit. I noticed a litttle more than half of our fan base is women. I have a purse idea with 2 or 3 phrases on it (industry related) and I think it would really work. I just have no idea how to have (1) purse made to show them. I can find someone I’m sure to make it in bulk, find a quality fabric, price ect. But where do I go to just get this one purse made?? Thanks!

  16. jermaine says:

    Hi everyone

    I am in need of a manufacturer who will create my prototype for my bag. I was wondering if anyone had any contacts who can assist me with this? Any info would be beneficial

  17. Kathleen says:

    Sell for? You can buy them online and in stores for a wide variety of prices.

    If you mean specific to manufacturing, patterns aren’t sold per se, they are made to order and you pay the hourly cost of what went into them.

  18. Diam says:

    Any suggestions of where to find a sample maker in nyc? I have found two very affordable guys with great skill, however are very inappropriate and unprofessional.

  19. Priscilla says:

    Hello! I am Also looking to have some bag patterns/prototypes made. I worked with a bag manufacturer company in Nj but it was very pricey and we spent way too much money on just one bag. Now I would like to get additional samples made, but don’t want to spend too much. Does anyone know if any fashion schools here in Ny have their students create samples for projects?

    Thank you!

  20. Simone Simpson says:

    I am seeking help I need to find a manufacturer for my bags and clothing …….I don’t want anyone too expensive I am just trying to start a business so I can have a job.

    • Avatar photo

      Here are some links that may be helpful:
      How to find help in the apparel industry for nearly nothing
      How to find sewing contractors
      How to search for clothing manufacturers
      5 reasons you can’t find a sewing contractor

      Fwiw, I’m one of those people who started a business because I needed a job so it is possible to be successful for that motivation altho most business people advise against it. However, you need to be proactive above and beyond job necessity -a wholly different mindset. For example, since I’m a service provider that someone like you would hire, how would it feel if I’d stated my goal as “I don’t want to work with customers who only want the cheapest rate”? There is so much more to it than that. Obviously you have a constrained budget but be creative in ways to get what you need out of the arrangement. Think of ways you can do some of the work to lower your costs. Most notably, that would be in preparation and self education.

      As a service provider, I can tell you that me and my colleagues will avoid customers who are looking for the lowest cost option but not for the reasons that most people think. Being in business awhile, a pattern emerges in that people who seek the lowest price, tend to be the very same people who want to invest the least amount of their own time and energy. Meaning, it’s not just money but the effort of investment in themselves. This means that the customer is also expecting the provider to do more of the traditional designer’s job (sourcing for example) but more than that, consulting, usually for free. And sure, we occasionally find a customer who has covered all of the bases themselves, doing an admirable amount of work and you know, we often find a way to work with them even if they don’t meet our minimums (I have none for that reason).

      Anyone who is truly serious and is on a budget, can make no better investment than through educating themselves. It magically opens doors. I would recommend that one start by reading the book I wrote (see upper right hand side of the page).

      Good luck!

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