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:
- If you did proceed with this plan, how might you sell them?
- 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.
- 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.
I will try to answer your questions as well as I can.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.