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On Dressmaking...

The clothing industry has broken up the occupation of dressmaking into several specializations. Therefore, it is common today, when one’s occupation is labeled "dressmaker", that what is meant is "seamstress" – that is, one who can sew together, by hand or machine, all the parts that make a garment -- but a dressmaker performs many other activities as well.

A dress is composed of different elements. Being a piece of wearing apparel, it is a covering for the body, which it can also adorn. It is generally made from cloth, which has a two-dimensional form. As a covering for the body, this cloth must conform to a three-dimensional form as it encompasses the body’s curves and its projecting parts… The shape of each part must relate to the shape of the particular area of the body it covers. This relationship between cloth and the body is called the fit.

Madeleine Vionnet (Betty Kirke, Chronicle Books, 1991)

Running a custom sewing business can be an enormously satisfying way to earn a living, supplement the family income, or simply contribute your skills to the community. Alterations and repairs are fairly straightforward transactions, pretty well understood by most clients. However, selling invisible products and labor (e.g. a custom dress) can be far more complex arrangements. There are some great resources out there to get you started, or help you grow.

Below, are the basics to consider, whether you are or want to be a custom sewing professional.

Join a professional organization. Being a member of a professional organization will help you get the information you need to run your business effectively, and it will give you credibility with your clients, while letting them know that you are committed to the growth and improvement of your business. The Association of Sewing and Design Professionals is a great one to join, especially if you would like the support and guidance of other professionals. The Costume Society of America is another, and there are more groups for tailors, researchers, bridal professionals, and other specialties. If you want to work in certain fields (like Broadway costume design in New York City), you may need to join a union to get work.

Continue your education. Take classes taught by quality teachers, and learn the best methods for the types of projects you intend to pursue. Develop your own techniques, and seek to constantly improve your skills. Learn more about the profesion by reading industry data.

Develop a web presence. Don’t rely on the yellow pages or the local paper for all of your business. Most people with disposable income (who are more likely to be your clients) have internet access and use the web to find what they are looking for. If you offer something particularly unique, being listed on a website or developing your own website is particularly worthwhile. A professional organization like PACC offers listings for its members, and Find a Dressmaker will list the businesses which meet the criteria.

Invest in quality equipment, and keep existing equipment well maintained. Old, temperamental equipment will cost you time and money, and affect the quality of your projects. If you are just beginning, be project-oriented, not income oriented, at first. Establishing your rates will take time, and you will need to keep a time and expense log for a wide variety of projects before you will know how much you need to charge. There are many books that promise “foolproof” methods, but only you know your own pace and work style.

Love what you do, and love your clients. Let’s face it – there are far easier ways to earn a buck. If this isn’t something you are passionate about, you will grow to hate it, and lament the loss of your hobby. Know that things can and will go wrong. Establish a business policy and procedures for when these things happen. Difficult clients, poor time management, and projects gone awry happen to even the best of dressmakers. Whatever the agreement or disagreement, make sure that those policies honor the client, while maintaining your own integrity.

Work from home (if possible) and keep your overhead low -- at least in the beginning. It will take quite a while to build up the kind of clientele that will keep your rent paid on a storefront shop. While it is a wonderful thing to aspire to, just know that it takes time to build up a steady cash flow, no matter how great your skills and energy may be.

Make things! The best advertising is word-of-mouth, since most custom sewing businesses are local. Make, alter and repair great things for yourself, your friends and your family, and do not hesitate to let people know that you are in business, and how to contact you.
Last updated: 29-October-2009

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