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Timing a sewing project

joann_caswell | Posted in The Archives on

I recently did some work for a friend who has a custom sewing business. I made for her a long fully lined dress with a zipper and set in sleeves(no collar used binding at neck). There was also a chiffon jacket with set in sleeves and collar (no closures). The dress had hand sewing in several places. I billed her 32 hours although it took me longer and she still felt it took me too long. Can anyone give me some feedback? Was I really slow?


  1. Karen_Vesk | | #1

    Yikes! As a professional dressmaker, I try to come to an understanding with a client before beginning the project, often with a contract in place. This establishes a price to work toward, and also what I call the client's "level of expectation." Do they want careful hand finishes? Or do budgetary constraints dictate pinked/unfinished seams? And I always stipulate that "client-directed extras will be billable at a mutually-agreed upon price." And I come to an agreement before making changes/extras.

    I have seen that some chop-shop dressmakers do commercial finishes, not couture finishes, and also charge less, and that may be what your client expected. It is hard to say whether you worked too slowly, or whether you did such a meticulous job that the garment will be found generations hence in a museum, without seeing the actual finished product.

    You may want to take your work to another unbiased but knowledgable third party (do you know another dressmaker whose opinon you trust?), and ask them what they think. But for now, you may be able to arrive at a mutually acceptable compromise, if you wish to get more business from her, which may (unfortunately) be less than you hoped for.

    One small word from experience: if you really love doing it, don't let this incident discourage you. Speed comes with lots of practise and through always pushing yourself to learn new technique, if you feel you may have been slow on this one.

    1. Debbie_Michels | | #2

      *Joann....I always approach my custom clients with the standards that I use. I base my prices on these standards. They know what to expect both in quality and cost. I rarely have problems. I hope you are feeling better about this today. If I were you, I would use this as a great learning situation. School is always expensive.

      1. joann_caswell | | #3

        *Thanks for you reply KarenI should have stated that the dress and jacket came to me already cut out.I had to change the position of the dart in the back neckline because the original pattern had been altered and the curve of the neckline was affected when the original dart position was used. I fussed getting the dart end to line up nicely with the dart end of the waist dart. All seams were pinked and pressed open.I was very meticulous all seams matched perfectly. Darts of the lining matched the placement of those in the interlining and outer garment and were pressed down or open where necessary. Hand stitches were uniform in spacing. The chiffon jacket had french seams. Everything was pressed lightly at each stage to keep the fabric looking nice. I did lots of fussing to get the curves and points in the jacket collar to lay just right.All replies thus far have been unanimous in that expectations regarding price/time should be clear up front. We both probably felt they were at the time; however, everyone has their own interpretation of a couple of days. If my friend requires assistance again, I will work for a flat price. Hell, I would have helped her out for nothing.

        1. joann_caswell | | #4

          *Hi DebbieYes, it was a great learning experience. I hope that my friend sees it this way and still calls herself my friend. She seemed almost in tears when she talked to me on the phone. The next day she left for a three week trip. I have had to sit and stew on this since. I really only wanted to help her out and do the best job I could for her. This is her business and I took it seriously. My work would reflect on her. As the saying goes, live and learn.

          1. Paula_White | | #5

            *I think that all of these replys are very kind, we've all been there. It is very hard to guess on the time on so many items.There have been times when I mussed and fussed too much that I had to realize that all of that extra was on my on time. But then I began to see things differently when I had others working for me. I am not happy when a garment that usually takes 9 hours ends up taking 16. I have to pay out more to my sewers than I am getting paid for the garment. Some of these times was eaten up by making dumb mistakes like putting the sleeves in backwards and not realizing it until the jacket was completed and hung on a hanger. I am paying this girl by time, so yes I still have to pay her for her mistakes but I have also explained to her that I can't afford that to happen too often. I have thought about what to do about this type of situation and wondered how best to handle it. Pay her more for work done right and not pay her for mistakes would be one option. She has developed into being by best friend. And I want to keep it that way. We are all learning, and she is getting better, She doesn't make to same mistakes over again.

          2. Sarah_Kayla | | #6

            *This discussion is pushing all of my buttons. I have been on both ends of the client/employee relationship. (and burned on bot ends too)An institutikn came to me to do a piece - after we had agreed on a price and a ready made piece - asked for custom work. i stupidly kept the origional price. Then they insisted on a 24 hour tunaround - AAARRRGGGHH! I compalined but i think that I just may not get any more work from them. A mixed blessing.I spent much of last year trying to find a sewer to wrok with me. I spend hundreds of dollars on work that is unsaleable. Some of it could be fixed with tons of time and labor on my part. Lots of it was just wasted time , money and materials. When I charge clients, i charge them for their screwups -"I decided i wanted a different color" but eat my own (stuff sewn on upside down). I work faster tahn I did 8 years ago when I started, but my work is much better and more complex so I charge more. All of us who work freelance and hourly have to figure out when to eat some of our labor time, and when you need to charge premium time. None of this is easy. I thought I had had this whole business of charging clients licked until I realized that I was consistantly being burned by this institution -It is very demoralizing. I can see why people have agents. Several people have offered to represent my work. I haven't quite trusted any of them tho. When I started doing this work i had thought that the selling end of it would be the most disagreeable to me. Instead i have actually come to love that end of the work. Aside from the hard work there is great pleasure in knowing that all I do is the fruit of my own labor. My clients like knowing that it all comes from my hands.Thanks for listening

          3. joann_caswell | | #7

            *Hi SarahFor this topic to push the buttons of someone with at least eight years experience in the business is not a very good omen to me! I won't be giving up the day job anytime soon. You must enjoy some aspect of the field to still be at it. In all honesty, I did not make any silly mistakes like putting a sleeve on backward. I just wanted to do a good job for my friend. Her business is in it's second year and word of mouth is important in this small community(1500 strong in the immediate vacinity). I did eat some of the time I took knowing that I was taking longer than she had anticipated. Also, I felt a good job was called for if I wanted further work. sew on

          4. Paula_White | | #8

            *....continued, part 2.When I wrote his morning I was interupted before I had a chance to finish. I have been doing custom sewing for 13 years in my own home. I currently work for an agent who markets and styles our one-of-a-kind and custom-made-to-fit productions these garments are sold over the internet. It was too much work for just me so I have extra girls to help me, whom I had to teach my methods of sewing to. They learn and they are getting better and they even teach me sometimes. Yes I have had to throw garments away that were near completion and start over with new fabric. My friend who works with me was trying too hard to please me that she was doing things way too slow. I had to show her the little speed tricks and shortcuts that I've learned over the years and teach her new technics.Joann, if you didn't CARE you would not have asked all of us what we thought. By doing so you were also opening yourself up to criticism. I am thinking that you are probably a very good, careful, and meticulous seamstress. You also may be a prefectionist, or at least you were on this dress because you wanted to do an extra good job for your friend. Even now your biggest concern is about what your friend thinks. I trust that this web site will be full of supportive comments from other sewers by the time that your friend gets back from her trip and I hope that she will find this and read it. You two should be able to work through this and become a better team than ever.Happy sewing.

          5. Sarah_Kayla | | #9

            *Dear Joann,I'm sorry. I didn't want to imply that you were doing a bad job. In fact, it is pretty clear that you were being very careful and doing lovely work.I was reflecting on my experience of the past year. One woman who insisted that she had for many years sewn all of her clothing, an expert seamstress... I gave her a piece that needed the last 6 inches of binding sewn on the edge. When I checked her work, I noticed (and noted ) that she had ripped the piece. She denied that she had ripped the piece and insisted that I had given it to her ripped. Several minutes later (as our work day was coming to an end) she asked what time she should come in the next day. After I took a deep breath, I told her that I didn't want her to come in. I told her that had she cursed or otherwise said "Oh no! I just ripped it!" I would have kept her on. I screw up all the time. You just have to own your mistake. I just couldn't trust her. Then she said, "Well, I guess I did rip it while I was ripping out my work." I felt awful. She was someone I had known for ten years. I just couldn't trust her.Another woman was studying fashion at Pratt, here in New York. She was terribly careful but couldn't sew a straight seam to save her life, despite super careful pinning that she spent hours doing. (I paid for every moment she spent pinning, and re-pinning and sewing crooked and unbalanced seams) The third woman I tried, produced TONS of work, she was really fast. Unfortunately, she couldn't do a smooth zig zag stitch ( a big part of what I need). She insisted that only my machine could do such nice work. So I let her work on my machine. Well, unless I was sitting on top of her, she couldn't do it on my machine either. Not only that, while she was on my machine, I couldn't work! (The rest of her work was messy too)Some of her work was salvageable, (after sometimes as much as 4 hours labor), other pieces sit on my shelf making me angry whenever I see them. I have learned some lessons though. The first is that because I am self-taught, I have always assumed that my skill -level is terrible. I realize that I'm actually pretty good. (Not a bad thing to learn)The other thing that I have had to make peace with is, that my production will be small. By the simple laws of economics, I needed to raise my prices. I have done that - to NO complaints from my clients. Those who have noted the change said that they realized that they were getting a huge bargain before. I need to raise my hourly fees a bit more. But when I explain to folks "X is my hourly fee. Y is the materials cost and this will take Z hours to make ", they usually get it. Most of my clients make much more per hour than I do. Putting it that way, usually keeps away noise about price.Anyway, this has been a very long response, probably, too long. I guess all of this rant boils down to: It is awful to have to eat your own time and work. It is worse to have to eat someone elses.Sarah

          6. Debbie_Michels | | #10

            *Joann, Paula, Sarah, and all else who have been pricked by this topic:The more I read of the comments here the more I realize that really quality work is valuable and I hope I am not correct in believing that this may be a dying art. I emthasize "art". I am one of those who too has learned the hard way ....by every method except school.I have lost sleep over mistakes I have made, I have had to purchase cloth at my expense when I have erred. You name it, I may have done it. But I am still progressing and along with the skill I have gained confidence to tackle projects that I would have run from earlier in my career.By what I am reading, I must not be alone in my attitude about my work...that everything that leaves my hands has to be done right. People talk and if my work isn't pleasing to my clients, I won't have clients. Not only are my clients paying for my skill, but they are friends and it pleases me greatly to please them. What a great bonus it is to make someone happy! I thrive on smiles. By the way..Do you belong to PACC? What do you think of it?Thank you for all your comments. Great to know I am not alone.

          7. joann_caswell | | #11

            *It seems to me that everyone has learned timing/billing by trial and error and that custom sewing business' evolved from an interest, to a hobby, to a profession. Perhaps this is why we undervalue our skills(and undervalue ourselves I think we do). We have few business associates to compare notes and probably lack confidence. But I suppose anyone starting a business in any industry experiences this. Too bad high schools do not offer courses such as starting a business 101, or dealing with the public 101 (or 999)

          8. joann_caswell | | #12

            *Hi DebbieI read the following in an article in Maclean's and thought you would appreciate it.Pablo Picasso was sitting in a cafe one day when he was approached by a tourist who beseeched him, with increasing vehmence, to do a sketch for her. Picasso, refused. Finally, she held up a napkin, and said that if he would create something on it, she would pay "whatever you tell me it's worth." Picasso nodded acceptance, and scribbled a squiggly drawing. "That will be $50,000," he said. The woman, aghast, protested that "it only took you 30 seconds to do that." But, Picasso responded, "it took me 30 years to learn how to do it this way."

          9. Karen_Vesk | | #13

            *One addage I have learned to live by is "measure twice, cut once"... and I have developed my own sewing "shorthand," but if I had to teach my language to someone else... I am sure it would take them a while to learn it.Seems like a lot of us don't really qualify under the word "business" as much as we do "self-employed."Just one more final word, that I stick to like glue: my prices may seem a bit high compared to ready-made clothing... but it comes with a guarantee that I will fit the garment til the client loves it (within reason of course - some clients would ONLY be happy if I could perform liposuction as part of the deal). So on some items I make more money than others, but in the end, I somehow survive to sew yet another day.

          10. Debbie_Michels | | #14

            *Thankyou Joann. You just made my day.

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