Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Problem with Handmade Items

After a lot of deliberation, I decided to stop making children's clothes for my etsy store, liquidate what was left, and afterward only make kids' stuff for friends with kids. The problem is that these things just don't sell for any amount of money that reflects the time and effort I put into them. For example:

I made two of these little dress-and-hat sets recently, one each for two different friends who are expecting in November and December. The dresses are about a 6 month size, and the hats are about a medium for a baby. I enjoyed making them. The pattern is one I've used variations of before (Simplicity #4711, size "S"), so it wasn't terribly difficult. I was shopping at the fabric store for a different project when I found the red gingham fabric on sale, and figured I could do something with it. So I got it and some other bits and bobs, washed it, and cut and made the two sets in a batch. The materials cost: $6 for the fabric, $0.35 for the ribbon, and $1.60 for each of three cards of buttons, which amounts to $4.80 for buttons for both. Add on about $2 for thread, some interfacing, a machine needle and a little bit of Stitch Witchery; these are supplies I already had on hand and use small quantities of or can use on several projects (like the machine needle, if I'm careful), and should only account for a small fraction of the cost of any one thing. So: for two sets of dress-and-hat combo, $13.15 should cover the cost of materials (minus tax, which is about 8% here), with very little material left over.

To save myself some time, I made these sets in batch mode, starting with the hats, and working one step at a time on both items. I got the hats done and had made the bodices of the dresses when I decided to finish off one of the dresses that evening, because I would need to give it the next day, then finished the skirt of the other dress early the next week. Luckily, the skirts are very simple, gathered into the bodice and machine hemmed with lines of trim over the hem stitching. The only difference in the two dresses is that the first dress had two lines of trim at the hem, and the second dress only had one, since I ran out of trim. The labor from the beginning of cutting to stitching on the last button of the second dress took 8 hours.

The breakdown: I have been charging $10 per hour for stitching jobs, which I have been told is pathetically cheap, and I should be charging at least twice that. Anyway, $10 X 8 hours is $80 + $13.15 for materials = $93.15 for two sets. That's $46.58 per dress-and-hat set.

Who pays that kind of money for baby clothes?

Honestly, folks. These things are put together well, with decent materials and all the care you'd expect an independant seamstress to put into her work. They will last through the first kid, and probably on through the second and third as well. But when the kid grows out of the thing so fast, why on earth would a new parent pay upwards of $50 for one outfit? They're probably so tired from midnight feedings and scared stiff of future college payments that that pricetag would render them a gibbering wreck for a full 10 minutes. But when they can go to Walmart and get an outfit for $10 that will do the same job (and what does a baby care about where it's clothes come from anyway), why would you bother with handmade, especially when you don't have a personal connection with the maker, and if you did have a personal connection to the seamstress, why wouldn't she just give it to the new parents?

This is a bit different with adult clothes; adults don't change size nearly as quickly as little kids are expected to (most of the time), so a special, custom made outfit for an adult could be allowed to cost more if you couldn't find what you were looking for in the average shop.

Here's another example: Last Christmas I knitted my husband a hat:

I wanted it to be blue, because it goes with his eyes. I wanted it to be very soft, so it wouldn't irritate him at all. I wanted it to fold up very small so he could fit it in his coat pocket to bring along everywhere, in case the weather turned cold unexpectedly. And I wanted to use a quiviut blend because I love knitting with the stuff. The yarn is a blend of 40% quiviut/40% merino wool/ 10% silk. It is $60 a ball. Yup, $60. I knitted it on #5 needles, so it took about 24 working hours to knit it. The pattern is very simple; a variation on the hat pattern in the book Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson. Using the same $10/hour charge, if someone were to ask me to knit one exactly like it for them, I'd have to charge $300 for it to be worth my time. Yes, I could have gotten a ball of soft fingering weight yarn for about $5, but I'd still have to spend three days knitting the thing. And yes, the average person would have spent about $5 for a simple, functional hat and left it at that.

A word about spare time: My spare time is still MY TIME, and I want to use it to do the things that I love doing. One hour of spare time is not worth any less to me than an hour spent working my day job; in fact, it is often worth more to me because I can spend it learning new things, and not just doing the things I'm already good at.

So, long story short; I don't feel that the average person is willing to pay the kind of money I would have to charge for the kids' stuff I make for it to be worth while for me to do it any more. I had high hopes for these dresses when I made them, but now they just make me feel sad and underappreciated for the work I put into them. Sometimes I contemplate just dropping them off at Goodwill, or waiting for the next disaster relief collection so I won't have to look at them again (I would have dropped them off at the local Starbucks for them to bring to Joplin, MO after the tornado, but they said they had already gotten enough clothing donations at that point). For now, they make me heartsick.


  1. Awww, so cute! I love tiny clothes.

    That's why I'm kind of scared to invest any time trying to make things to sell, the average person just won't spend the kind of money the clothes are actually worth. I was thinking of looking into making clothes for those expensive ball-jointed dolls, people pay a ridiculous amount for them, and the sizes never change. I've also heard people pay a lot for pageant dresses for little girls (even if pageants ARE morally wrong ;) )

  2. and this is why I don't want to sew for a living any more...yes, I am trained as a tailor, and no, even adults don't want to pay me what I am worth. Most people are quite happy with Walmart clothes, so I just sew for myself now and the odd gift for people I love, who I know will appreciate the amount of work involved.