The Cost of Clothing

AKA you want HOW MUCH?! For a HAT?!

Allow me to start with the following statement: You are underpaying for your clothing. Yes you. So am I.

We live in an era of cheap, mass produced, clothing that is inexpensive due to globalization. $1.00 goes a lot further in Togo (GDP for 2015 $4.08 billion) than it does in the US (GDP for 2016, waaaay more than that).  A happy side effect being that we’ve gotten used to $10 tee shirts and breaking $100 for special occasion or business garments. Heck, HAVING special occasion or business garments rather than one or two outfits you wash and/or air out frequently.

This does tend to skew our perception of what clothing costs to make and what textile work entails. I mean, I can go to Local Big Box Store and buy a skirt for $10, so offering $20 for someone to make it for me is more than fair. Right? I mean, if it’s someone who likes sewing anyway I can probably just offer them what I’d pay at BigBox and that’ll be super fair. Not quite, dear heart.

This gets even more pronounced (in my personal experience) for commission work for reenactment garb. When you’re used to spending $10-$50 on a single garment and suddenly you need to commission something you can’t buy at BigBox for your persona, $300 for a dress seems outrageous. And it is! Just not in the way you might be thinking.

(Note: this is just an example. More will follow at the bottom that include spinning and using period appropriate tools and less luxurious raw materials, as well as one entirely modern example.)

Remember that French Hood I made and posted pictures of? Here’s a refresher picture 18698950_1529308743760396_786930571_o.

Hand stitched, hand woven silk, linen, real pearls ect. How much would you expect to pay for that? $100? Maybe $200? Lets figure it out together.

Silk thread (60/2, 2 cones in white) $70.00

Pearls (3 strands of 15in) $90.00

Linen 1/2 yard @ $15 per yard.

Wire 10 ft $7.00

Dye (red and black) $10.00

——————————————

Materials:  $184.50 (not counting shipping costs. To keep math simple lets say $200.00)

Great! That was on the upper end of what we’d be willing to pay for it, I’ll just hand a check to my weaver/fabricator and — hold up there tiger. You’re missing something very Very important in this calculation.

Labor.

Without this you don’t have a French Hood, you have a pile of string, wire, cloth, and dye with some pearls scattered all over the table.

You may be asking: Why should I pay labor costs? This is someone’s hobby! It’s what they do for fun! I’m paying them to do something they like!

My darling, it is a hobby and for fun when the laborer in question is either A. Making something for themselves, or B. making a gift for someone else by their own initiative. As soon as you ask them to make something for you or a friend it becomes a commission and a job, and they should have their time compensated appropriately. Just like any other job or service. You don’t ask an accountant to do your taxes for free because they love counting, you don’t offer to just cover your plumber’s material costs because they like laying pipe, don’t be that guy that assumes you shouldn’t pay your artist.

Sewing and weaving *are* skills. Textile work *is* skilled labor.  Skilled labor with artificially depressed wages. Where I live skilled labor pays $25.00 an hour and up from there. So that’s what we’re going to use. It takes just as long to get good at textile work as it does any other kind of skilled labor so I’m not going to dip the price just because it’s a bit higher than we’re used to seeing for handmade textile work (which, if we’re being honest, is generally $0.00 – $1.00 an hour).

This took 112 hours of active work to make. 88 hours of warping and weaving, 24 hours of patterning, sewing, and dying.

112 hours at $25 an hour is $2,800.00 plus the material cost of $200.00 is a total cost of $3,000.00.

Ok! Lets say we bought the silk instead of weaving it.

Materials:

1.5 yards of silk @ $20 a yard: $30

Pearls (3 strands of 15in) $90.00

Linen 1/2 yard @ $15 per yard: $7.50

Wire 10 ft $7.00

Dye (red and black) $10.00

1 yard silk ribbon $15

——————————————

Material cost: $159.50 not counting shipping. So lets say $175.00

Great! We’re saving money already!

Now to add our labor costs of 24 hours at $25 an hour ($600.00) to that and we come up with $775.00. Which is, admittedly, much more reasonable than $3,000. But still way more than I’m betting you were expecting to pay for a hat.

Maybe that’s just silk and pearls though. I still want an authentic garment, hand stitched, but lets go early period just to keep it simpler.

Ok. Let’s run through the tunic I made my husband a while back. Not completely authentic because it was a cotton/linen blend rather than straight wool or linen. But it was hand stitched. I’ll show the numbers for the simple tunic, as well as the embroidery and trim and you can mix and match as you wish.

Fabric: 5 yards at $11 a yard = $55.00

Thread: $3.00

———————————-

Material cost: $58.00, lets say $60.00 because round numbers are nice numbers. (add another $2.00 for thread for seam treatments, another $10 in yarn for woven trim).

Fitting/cutting patterning: 3 hours

Sewing: 20 hours.

———————————-

Labor time: 23 hours @ $25 an hour $575.00 + $60 = $635.00 finished tunic. No embellishment.

Seam treatments: 6 hours (add another $150)

Woven trim: 20 hours to dye, warp, weave, and attach (add another $500.00)

For the heck of it lets figure out how much a completely hand spun, hand woven, hand stitched, embellished Saxon dress would cost to fairly produce. Why not go for broke? Literally. Baring in mind a Saxon dress is an unfitted tube with sleeves. Not anything super fancy or complicated.

Fleece (raw gotland): $100.00

Soap for processing:  $6.00

——————————————-

$106.00 in materials.

Labor:

Washing fleece: 3 hours

Combing/carding fleece: 90 hours

Spinning fleece (at a rate of 20 yards of thread per hour): 1020 hours.

Warping (at a rate of 100 threads an hour – note this is fast): 18 hours

Weaving (at a rate of 2 inches an hour – also fast): 22.5 hours

Cutting/patterning: 2 hours

Sewing: 20 hours

Woven trim: 30 hours

Seam treatments: 6 hours.

—————————————————————-

Total hours: 1,211.50 hours at $25 an hour is $30,287.50 plus the material cost of $106.00 makes this a $30,393.50 dress.

Puts that $300.00 dress into perspective doesn’t it?

But ok, maybe you do just want a friend to make you the simple drawstring, cotton, skirt you saw at BigBox that you didn’t like the color on. A simple tube, with another tube on top, and some string threaded through the top tube. As dirt simple a garment as you can get.

Cotton cloth (1 yard): $6.00

Thread: $1.00

Drawstring: 50 cents.

__________________________

Materials: $7.50.

Labor:

Patterning, cutting: 1 hour

Sewing/serging/hemming: 2 hours.

____________________________

3 hours @ $25 an hour = $75.00 + $7.50 = a total cost of $82.50 for a reproduction of your $10.00 BigBox skirt.

Next time you want to commission something, and the price tag makes you choke a little, remember this one simple fact:

You are underpaying for your clothing.

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26 thoughts on “The Cost of Clothing

  1. So. Totally. Agree. 100%. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been asked “why don’t you sell this?” And to that my answer is “well, what would you pay?” Which normally is something that covers material cost, sometimes with a small tip. And when I say that, I’m told that I should be happy, because I get my materials covered. I get to be creative and do what I love, and don’t have material cost. That’s neat, isn’t it? Well, no. And that’s not even considering the creative straightjacket a commission is. Which is why I make, and gift what I make on people I love and who I know will appreciate it. I’m not selling for less that I’m worth.

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  2. Excellent post! Beautiful work!

    By the way if you are interested I can recommend some gem shows where you can get pearls of that size for significantly less than $90 for future projects. I am forever buying pearls for things.

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  3. When I was young and foolish, I did some sewing on commission. I learned my lesson. I sew for gifts and for myself. My lacemaking, well, I sell small projects, but at least that I’m also selling uniqueness; so I almost get paid minimum wage.

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  4. When I was selling artisan dollhouse miniatures out of my brick and mortar there was always someone who had Champagne taste on a lemonade budget. They’d try to shame me for selling pieces that took artisans weeks to make and try to bargain with me. There was no use explaining the artisans had to live off of something than compliments, or that I had to pay rent and utilities. One of the worst sayings was “I can make it much cheaper than that” which often came from people who didn’t have the tools or expertise to create breathtaking miniatures.

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  5. My partner’s Spanish-speaking seamstress grandmother always used to say, “¿Y mi tiempo?” And I have adopted the same. I make a lot of custom apparel as a side line and have a fully equipped studio filled with expensive equipment, not to mention a healthy stock of notions and findings together with a large stash of fabrics and trims and it still costs a significant amount to put together any garment. I’m not going to get rich and will never recoup the investment I’ve made over the years but I charge a fair rate for a skill I’ve developed over 40 years. I often send people away because I don’t want the hassle of explaining the cost. Prom dresses are my most recent fiasco. These are Truly couture dresses with sketches, fabric selections, muslin mock ups – sometimes two, a couple fittings and hours of handwork. Wholesale fabrics aren’t available for single dress yardage lengths. Customers are always shocked at custom work prices. The last comments included, “She’s 17. She’s only going to wear it once. I can get this for $80 offthe internet!” The last one is my favorite. If I’m particularly annoyed, I share a few websites that show internet dresses and the actual garment side-by-side. Custom apparel is also an physical experience that is nearly priceless. There’s nothing like the attention that is lavished on an individual purchasing a custom garment. This price problem will never go away, it’s nice to read I’m not alone.

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  6. It was interesting till you got to “real pearls” . if those are in fact real pearls then you undersold the hood by about a million dollars!
    Just say what they are and don’t exaggerate for emphasis, you lose credibility to any reader with a modicum of intellect

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    1. Lee, anyone “with a modicum of intellect” immediately understands that for the price, consistent color, and well matched sizes that they must be cultured pearls. It doesn’t make them any less real. Say something nice or get off the internet.

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  7. This is why I much prefer to barter for anything I make. Whoever is commissioning it pays for the materials, but pays for the time with their own labour on an hour for hour basis. I’m willing to halve that for something like knitting that I do while I’m watching TV if they’re going to be doing something that takes all of their time and attention. It doesn’t need to be skilled labour either – it could be cleaning my house or mowing my lawns, or anything that I might otherwise have to pay for, or don’t enjoy spending my time on. And I’ll also trade for goods that I want too. It works way better than trying to get a reasonable hourly wage for my skills.

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    1. I contracted by barter about 12 years ago something I am just finishing my end of the bargain now. I started growing flax, learned how to process it to get the fibres for spinning and weaving but needed several pieces of equipment you couldnt just go and buy at the store. So a friend offered to make the things I needed in exchange for a home grown, hand spun, hand woven linen medieval tunic, say shirt for comprehension. His end of the deal took several hours, likely less than 20 but say 50 to be generous. It has taken me many hours of ‘farming’ my flax crops and processing them, many, many more of spinning, which I enjoy, hours and dollars to learn to weave, buy a loom, and so on. I have about 9,000 yards of linen yarn to weave hopefully 4-5 yards of 36″ wide fabric. But I dont know exactly how much I need, and wont until I make a practice shirt, fit it on him (this week), take it apart to use as a pattern, and lay it out to 36″ width to determine fabric needs. Then calculate to determine yarn needs according to how many threads per inch, to make the fabric. But I agreed to the deal and am determined to complete the shirt. Wish me luck.

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  8. At the same time, I would expect a dress I paid $1000 for to last longer than a dress I paid $40 for, or a dress I paid $10 for. Fast fashion is fast… and expendable (the clothing waste around the world is insane). There is a popular clothing MLM company that sells their dresses retail for $50-$60 dollars and leggings for $25, but they fall apart after a few washes. I would say I am not underpaying for an item whose quality doesn’t last being worn on the human form and washed on delicate once, or fits wonkey because generic sizes aren’t really for everyone (in fact, I’d say that I’m over paying for that, but that’s just me).

    A lot of people don’t understand that the clothing they buy from big market stores will never fit them or last the way a custom garment will. Most people probably never will.

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    1. The labor is still there. Cheaply made fast fashion is a different beast all together, but those clothes did not spring fully formed from the void. Someone still had to make them.

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  9. Amen! Yes. Right on. I stopped making things for well-meaning friends years ago after one came by my house uninvited with fabric and a pattern in hand and a deadline for me. I now tell people that if they want a custom garment/knitted item they can take classes at the local recreation center.

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  10. I’m so much in agreement with this post! My grandmother made dance costumes for my dance class one year when our recital piece was based on a Ukranian folk dance. I remember watching her sew them and I know she didn’t get paid enough for the time she spent. I’ve been sewing for several decades and it still blows my mind how little people think about how much time goes into a custom garment. I had to have a conversation about this just last month. My oldest daughter competes in Irish dance and most dancers at the higher levels wear a solo dress- many buy them used, at a cost of $500, on average. But new, those dresses cost upwards of $750 at a minimum, and that would be a dress with very little decorative stitching or crystals. A woman asked me about my daughter’s dress (I made it) and we started talking. She commented that most of the dresses weren’t worth what people charge for them, and I had to explain that my costs for materials alone was $300 and if I’d had to pay for labor the dress would easily have cost 3 times that amount. After explaining it, she seemed to have a better understanding but I don’t know if I changed the way she felt about it. I did explain that if it’s a job, I have to charge others for the time, since I could be doing something else enjoyable (like sewing for myself) rather than working on a garment for a commission. If you take up my time, you have to repay me for it.

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  11. Recently on a market a child wanted one of my cushions: these are made from velvet fabric custom-printed with my photographs and then sewn by myself. The father tried to lower the price by saying that his child ‘was spending his pocket money on this’. Well, good for him! But first of all I DID NOT EVER have $50 pocket money to spend at 10 years old and secondly the kid was wearing VERY expensive designer trainers. I find it SO galling that people are happy to spend $$$ on mass-produced ‘designer’ stuff (probably sewn in some sweat-shop in Asia) and then try to scrimp when it comes to art/craft items. One of my standard replies to people trying to go the ‘but this is your hobby’ route (which it isn’t, I’m trying to make a living off my stuff) is: if you don’t pay me what I am asking, then I’ll have to go back to my office job, which won’t leave me any time to create these things, forcing you to buy mass-produced stuff’. Usually that shuts them up!

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  12. I used to make plushy character dolls. I stopped, even though I still get requests for them, because the time and effort that went into each one (cutting/sewing/stuffing doll body and head, designing facial elements and applying them, soft sculpting the face, applying the hair, designing/cutting/sewing the costume and any accessories) far outstripped what I was charging for them. Now I only make them as gifts for friends, and rarely at that because I just don’t have time. I wish more people understood what actually goes into manufacturing fabric items.

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  13. If you’re going off ordinary skilled worker wage prices, you’re undervaluing that labour. An artisan who is trying to live off their work needs to factor other things into their pricing, not just materials and labour. They need to factor in insurance, sales lulls, electricity, maintenance of machinery, accounting costs, and more – a non-hobbyist needs to price themselves quite higher than an ordinary wage.

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  14. Absolutely. We all experience much the same, and i usually takes several years before we learn to value our own skills adequately. I have a friend who is trained as a milliner, yet is regularly badgered into making beautiful custom creations for members of her re enactment groups…totally unpaid. She mutters and grumbles, then keeps saying yes.
    I’m currently working on a wedding outfit for a good friend, which was my personal gift to her, my idea. She has chosen fabrics with my help, and we have come to a design, working together. That alone has taken considerable time…she started saying that she wanted to pay me. I had to stand form and point out that I could not possibly volunteer to make her outfit, then charge her APPROPRIATELY for my work. When I explained that it would be like strong-arming her to the bank and making her give me all her cash, she subsided.
    If a skilled crafter offers you their time, pounce on it and be very happy. It’s not given lightly!

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  15. I am a Long Arm Quilter, so I quilt the tops for those who sew up but don’t want to, or can’t quilt their own. I have a queen sized quilt that the woman wants “custom” quilting done on it, special order thread color, plus I have to baste it up and all this for, “Not more than $300.00”! The thread will cost $30.00, the pin basting cost is $35.00 – that is $65.00 of the $300.00 so far. You want me to do “custom” quilting that usually runs $400.00 to $1000.00 for $235.00?! Not going to happen like you think it will. I provide an itemized receipt with the finished piece, so they can see where the money went. Most people want a bargain for their money – cheap goods from overseas have killed trade for those of us who work in the US!

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