Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why do Costumes Cost So Much?

If you're here you probably recently suffered from custom seamstress sticker shock. Perhaps you are looking to commission a costume or dress for a special event. Maybe you want a corset or outfit made to your special size and body shape. Whatever the reason you wanted it to be perfect. However, when you emailed around you were quoted prices that seemed outrageous! Where do sewers get off in charging that much?

Honestly, sticker shock is common among first-time commissioning clients. In most cases, however, the price really is justified. This is to help you understand how legitimate stitchers price their creations so that you can understand why they cost so much as well as make you better able to spot a rip off if you encounter one.

First you need to understand that clothing in much of the developed world nowadays is grossly underpriced. Most clothing is sewn in China, where workers are paid an average of $1 a day for their work. Even the lucky few who work in the most elite shops are paid around $5 a day, which is a high standard of living (farm workers make less than .80 a day). Even clothes that are made in the United States are done much cheaper than minimum wage. Workers are not paid by the hour, they are instead 'contract workers' who are paid per piece they complete, often .10-.40 per garment. Even with three or four people working on a garment the labor costs are still minimal. Is this legal? No, not in the United States. These low wages, combined with grueling work hours, make up the infamous stitching sweatshops. Yet they still exist, and even prosper, in the garment industry, even in the United States. In fact, the US Department of Labor estimates that over 50% of garment shops in the US are illegal sweatshops. However there are not enough inspectors and regulators to shut them down, and companies keep hiring for lower and lower prices, encouraging the lawbreakers.

So when you commission a garment what are you paying for? Usually the breakdown is materials and time. You have to pay for all the fabric and tools the stitcher uses to create your outfit, and you have to pay for the time they take to do it. But that's a very generic answer, so we'll breakdown each part.

First, materials. Materials breaks down into two major categories: disposable and permanent. First, the permanent materials. These are everything the stitcher uses to create your garment that they keep after they're done. Things like sewing machines, scissors, pins, needles, and irons are not included in the garment you are given, but they are all necessary for making that garment. Also included in this price is the cost of the building where they are kept, electricity to run them, and materials and repair to maintain them. It's just like when you go to the dentist: your visit cost includes not only the salary paid to the dentist, but the salary paid to his assistant, receptionist, and janitor as well as the cost of the building, the chair you sat on, the magazine you read, and the elevator music you listened to.

Disposable materials are the ones that are used up in your garment. Things like fabric, thread, zippers, snaps, and buttons. These must all be purchased by the stitcher, who then passes the costs on to you. Also, these materials are not as cheap as WalMart's materials. They may be the exact same items, but when a stitcher buys four yards of cotton in a fabric store they are paying much more per yard than WalMart did when they bought 80000 yards for their clothing. Same with the buttons, zippers, snaps, and thread: bulk buys get discounts, and you are paying because the stitcher only needs a few.

Another large category in disposable materials is the outfit's pattern. Every garment that is made must have a pattern. Commercial sewing patterns today start at $15-20 each. They can be had for cheaper at sales, but even then they rarely fit correctly and the stitcher must alter them to fit. If there is no pattern the stitcher must come up with one, and then instead of paying for the pattern you are paying the stitcher for their time.

When talking about the stitcher's time there's more to it than just dollars per hour. The price per hour comes from an assessment of the stitcher's education, experience, and skill.

First is education. Yes, you're paying for the education of your stitcher. The same as jobs that require college educations pay more than those that just require high school diplomas. You are paying for how your stitcher learned to sew, the time, effort, and expense it cost them, how much they learned, and how well they learned it. This also doesn't just mean formal education. Stitchers that read books and magazines on their trade, who go to trade shows and browse internet sites, and who keep up with the latest techniques are more likely to know tricks that will make your garment fit better, sew faster, or use less materials, and you're paying less for them knowing it than you would have on wasted materials, which is saving you money.

Second is experience. When you pay your stitcher's experience you're paying them for completing your garment correctly and on time. When a project is first started a lot of time is spent in figuring out how to do something. When a stitcher is experienced in making something it eliminates this time, saving you the costly per-hour fee. You're also paying for their experience in working with a sewing machine, serger, rotary cutter, and any other special materials used in your garment, because the longer you do something the faster you get, and you waste less material in doing it.

Finally, you are paying for skills. There are many skills associate with sewing. You are paying not only for the stitcher to know how to put a needle through fabric, but how to use the tools associated with sewing and any other special skills the stitcher has. For instance pattern drafting or draping is a special skill that takes time to learn. A beginner will take a lot of time to make an improperly fitted garment that requires alteration, while an experienced pattern maker will take less time and be more likely to get it right the first time, saving you money spent on that time. Specific skills such as millinery, corsetry, and shoemaking are skills that you pay extra for because not every stitcher knows how to do them correctly and in a short amount of time.

Stitchers factor all this in when quoting you a price (or they should if they want to stay in business).   If you want something designed specially for you that will need to be added in as well.  The best thing you can do to help yourself out is to educate yourself.  Go to a fabric store or surf fabric stores on the internet and see how much fabric really costs.  Ask your stitcher to provide you with a breakdown of their charges and look at them critically (and yes, there's a difference between critically and nit-picky, don't attempt to barter the sections down).  Most importantly get quotes from another source and compare them.  And remember, if you want quality you have to pay for it.

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