The exchange started with her emailing me some pictures of puletasis, and saying that she had one already made which I could examine or use for a pattern. Her pictures showed fairly complex designs, with cut-outs at the neckline, color-blocking, and fitted bodices. (Even the simple example above has color-blocking and piping at the yoke and sleeves, unless it's printed that way.) I did some research on puletasis, guesstimated how long it might take me to sew one, and got back to her with a base price of $150 for my labor, and the caveat that the price may be higher depending on the complexity of the project. Her response was polite, but astounding to me:
Thank you for replying and for your time.
I debated how to reply to her. Should I just say "sorry we can't work together", or should I address the issue of pricing? In the end, I chose to reply in detail because I thought it was a teachable moment. And since it was clear she wouldn't be hiring me, I had nothing to lose. My response:
Thanks for your good wishes, and I'm sorry we cannot work together. In case you're curious, I'll tell you how I determined my number:
(Astute readers will notice that I did not intend to charge her for the pattern-work of rubbing off a pattern from her pre-made dress. I figured I could provide that service in the hope that my client return for more makes of the same pattern. For instance, when I made jeans for another client, I did a ton of pattern work for minimal charge, and my time investment was rewarded when he wanted three makes of that pattern immediately, and a fourth version later.)
Anyway, she eventually replied, apologizing for insulting me, which was not her intent.
THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
I believe her when she says she meant no offense. I even believe her when she says that Hawai'ian dressmakers charge $35-$40 to make puletasi, though I can't think that they all do. Maybe the $35 puletasis are less complex than the ones I found online and the pictures she sent me. Maybe they are just simple tunics and rectangles of fabric tied at the waist, made up in colorful fabrics. My estimate might have been based on a-typical examples, since the ones I saw had scalloped hems, cut-outs, fitted bodices, appliques, and color-blocking.
My friend with the regalia told me that the maker of same charged $75 for each outfit, but used a single basic pattern and didn't do any fitting or customization. She was also doing it as a labor of love, for friends, and to preserve her heritage, which are factors worth considering.
HOW I PRICE - PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
I freely admit that I'm not an expert on pricing my work... Like many craftspeople, I am often nervous to ask for a realistic price because high numbers scare me, and I fear will scare potential clients off. I compare apples to oranges when I compare my custom work to mass-produced ready-to-wear. And like many sewists, I have absorbed the cultural stereotype that sewing is not "real work". Everyone's grandma had a sewing machine, so it can't be a serious job, right? And I enjoy it, and I do it from home, so it can't be worth very much. I know, in my head, that these ideas are wrong, but they influence me. Sometimes, when I deliver the goods, I under-report my time because the real number seems too big for me. It might not be too big for my clients, though: several have told me I undercharge, and insist on "tipping" to bring the price up to what they think is fair.
When I started sewing for money, I charged $15/hour, because I was new to the business, had no reputation or clients, and knew I had a lot to learn about sewing efficiently. If I took extra time fumbling through something, I didn't want my clients to pay for my inexperience. But this was problematic: for one thing, people who knew that custom work was pricey saw my prices and thought they could treat me like trash because I was cheap; meanwhile people who were looking for a deal tried to nickel and dime me to death. One client flat-out refused to pay me at all, until I got all legal on him, and then we settled on a quarter of what was owed. This was not fun. At one point I wondered if I was on the wrong track sewing for others. Then I got a good client, and I--heart in throat, re-writing the email a billion times, fingers crossed and praying--quoted him $30/hour. He paid without question and was the best, most respectful client I could have asked for. I decided my work and my person were both worthy of that kind of treatment.
Last year, when I was doing a lot of alterations for people, I found that task-based pricing worked best, and I matched my alteration prices to what the local dry-cleaners tended to charge; for instance, to hem jeans, $10/pair.
For custom sewing, I use $30/hour as a base rate, but still tend to under-report my time and give discounts to friends and family. I also try to keep track of my hours for custom sewing so I can eventually say, "Oh, a polo shirt? That'll be...". It's easier for clients to make their decisions based on a number than to wait and see how long it takes me to do a thing.
Every trait exists on a continuum... confidence, skill, experience, price, perceived value, budget, spare time, patience, et cetera! My challenge is to figure out where I stand on these continua and then find clients. I'm still working on it. Right now, my prices drive some potential clients away, but do I want to use my limited time to court people who won't compensate me fairly?
. . .
I do feel bad for the Hawai'ian sewists who are reportedly working for less than minimum wage, though. I notice the woman consulting with me called them "seamstresses", which is a word people tend to use when they think sewing is scut-work. In my reply, I called them "dressmakers" because that's a profession. Call them "designers" (if they're actually doing custom work or designs), and pay them even more!
To the lady who prompted this post: if you're reading this now, please don't take offense at any of these thoughts. I am not offended or angry, just thoughtful about things which you brought up. I hope you found someone to make your puletasi!
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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