Making For Others

Remember the ten rows of wedding bunting I said I’d make? They were up in style during my day at Oxfordshire. Two lovely people are married.

I’m very proud of the completed bunting and thought this exercise would be a great opportunity for us all to analysis that most common sewing predicament: people asking us to make stuff for them.

I don’t know about you, but people invite me to sew items for them on a fairly regular basis. On a fairly regular basis, I feel absolutely no compunction about politely declining. This is for a number of reasons:

  • I prefer to make things for myself.
  • Fitting is often a nightmare. It will be more of a nightmare when the person dreaming of a perfect dress lives in another county.
  • People rarely stop to consider what it is they’re actually asking you to do ie sacrifice hours and hours of your free time. This isn’t because friends are selfish or inconsiderate – quite the opposite. It’s simply that unless they’ve sat down at a sewing machine they can’t conceive of how many hours go into even the simplest dress.
  • Again, ignorance rules. People still equate home made with cheap. We all know it often isn’t. Asking a friend to make you a dress is no short cut to bargain basement style. But can you tell someone this? No, because they probably won’t ever admit that they’re choosing you to make something for them so that they can save money.
  • I don’t want to see the look of disappointment on a person’s face when it all goes wrong. Either the item doesn’t fit or they just don’t like it.

Ooh, I sound like a real grump, don’t I? I don’t mean to, but I think we owe it to our friends to be realistic about what we’re taking on when we say ‘yes’ to a request for something to be made. No one wants to be let down when you fail to meet a deadline and they certainly don’t want to be made to feel guilty when you learn to hate the WIP.

So my two pieces of advice are:

  • Eight times out of ten say ‘no’.
  • The two times out of ten that you say ‘yes’, say it for all the right reasons: because you care about this person, because the project intrigues you and because you are genuinely happy to give up your weekends on this. If you can’t tick all of these boxes, you know what to do.

So once you have said ‘yes’, what should you bear in mind?

A schedule

Having worked with schedules for more years than I care to remember, I know that the most important part of any schedule is the FUF. Or to translate, the F**k Up Factor. I always, always allow time for this. You’re going to get a cold. Or sleep in. You’ll forget about the weekend away you planned or there’ll be the day when you just want to tear someone’s head off if they even mention ‘sewing machine’ to you. These days will happen, and you’d better have factored them in. When making the wedding bunting, I first contacted the bride in March to start talking about colours. That was four months before the wedding. Think I was mad? That still had me working a solid Saturday to finish the bunting on time. You can never start early enough.

Thinking Time

Don’t underestimate this. I assumed it would be really easy picking out fabric for bunting. I mean, what’s to think about? But I actually really appreciated the time to pick fabrics out on whim as I saw them. You can’t go on whim if you’re up against it. Creativity needs room to breathe.

The Unexpected

At the eleventh hour I decided to add embroidery to some of the bunting. It was a gorgeously personal touch, but added another two hours to my schedule.

All three of the above points really come back to the same thing: Give Yourself Lots Of Time!

Finally, would you ever consider doing this as a business enterprise? I kept an eye on cost and time to make ten pieces of bunting. It breaks down thus:

Supplies: £33

Hours: 24

Paying myself the UK minimum wage of £5.93 an hour, plus costing for supplies and postage, I’d have to invoice £180.32. (That’s not factoring in VAT or any desire to earn more than the minimum wage.) Would someone be willing to pay £180.32 for wedding bunting? Even bespoke wedding bunting, made to order and with touches that are unique to a special day? Hmmmm.  This is my big reservation about turning crafting into business: I can’t see how it pays. People often say to me, ‘You should sell your stuff!’ I tell them, ‘It isn’t worth my time.’ Except this wedding bunting was worth my time: just imagining a good friend’s pleasure on her big day was worth every moment.

I hope this helps. It’s a thorny topic that I think needs tackling. I’ve certainly found it useful. Do you have other tips or advice to give? I bet you have!

Oh, I forgot to mention. I’ve just agreed to make a dress for a friend. Do as I say, not as I do.

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43 Responses to Making For Others

  1. ooobop says:

    You are soooooo right Karen. I get that a lot now. My latest ‘ask’ was to make some loose covers for a three piece suite because somebody else wanted to charge them £100. What did she think I was going to make them for? Of course my get out clause was that I had never done it before and I didn’t want to mess it up! I have even been approached by event organisers to make children’s clothes for a stall. Neither do I want to ‘churn out’ stuff to sell at a fraction of it’s worth. That’s what Primark is for! A very reassuring post!

  2. Lisa says:

    I feel excaclty the same about sewing for others! So far I’ve only sewed small things, like iPad sleeves and baby blankets. My first garment is coming up though: a shirt for my boyfriend. I only agreed to this because 1. it was his birthday 2. he is always around for fitting 3. he’s my boyfriend. Maybe a third piece of advice could be: how much of a perfectionist is your friend? Are they very specific and will they make you sweat over every detail, or are they more relaxed? They don’t know what sewing entails, and they will also not know how far your abiities stretch. My boyfriend is a perfectionist, and I will have to adopt a different mindset (eg PATIENT, PEACEFUL and PLEASANT) when I will sew for him. I’ll try not to get irritated when he wants me to adjust something for the 100th time. Which will be really hard! But you know, love and all that.

    • You raise a very good point, Lisa. One of the challenges of making for others is interpreting someone else’s vision – sometimes when they don’t know how to vocalise that vision and sometimes when they have criteria that they aren’t even capable of acknowledging (ie they hate a certain aspect of their body, but on such a sub-conscious level that it would never occur to them to flag this up to you). You need to be a mind reader and, as you say, extremely patient.

  3. Law says:

    Interesting post Karen. I make things for others as gifts (never clothes), but that’s my choice to do so. I totally agree about what you say about requests to make things. The pressure to fufill someones expectations would put me off 99% of the time.

  4. Lizzie says:

    Ah I just offered to make my brother curtains for his people mover so he can sleep in it. I can’t believe I actually offered! I think it was because I had visions of a van with pretty blue gingham windows – unfortunately not really his style, so now its dark green – at least fabric was cheap only 80p a metre!

  5. I’ve never been asked to make something for someone else, which is a pity as I’ve always quite fancied having a go if I could find someone with the patience to put up with the process. I do get asked to alter RTW, which I always run a mile from. Will be bearing your advice in mind if I ever do get asked!

  6. hebejeeby says:

    Fantastic post – I agree completely. I make presents for people but only ever things they haven’t asked for and coward as I am, I don’t hang around for the reaction – I dread the thought of them not liking it or (is this wrong to say?) being completely underwhelmed. I’ve decided it’s a hobby for me to enjoy and I could never work to request or for profit! Fab blog by the way (I’m working on my first lisette top inspired by you – 2 weeks so far so i think it’s kind of obvious why there would never be profit in it!)

  7. superheidi says:

    That’s ever so interesting! I decline as well, just tell them bluntly I don’t sew for others. I need all my energy, time and fun for my own projects and squeeze it somewhere into my schedule. Sewing can be very frustrating by times, imagine being frustrated on someone elses behalf.

    I made a simple sundress as a birthday present (my choice) and altered some small things for friends. And helped a friend on her way with the first steps of her own sewing. All fine… but there I draw the line.

    I always tell people who ask, they could learn themselves. Guess what’s the number 1 answer? “I don’t know how to find the time.” Thanks Karen, I have a better answer now. 🙂

    • Very good post! I run into all the same things. I had one person come over and say “I need this button moved over and lace put into this v-neck to make it modest for work.” It was a demand, not a question. Kind of concerns me that we’ve lost the skill to sew in a button!

      The hardest thing for me is saying no, but then I get frustrated when I’m left with no time to sew things for me. And I already have a full-time job that pays well enough so I’d like to keep sewing as a fun hobby. Makes me wonder though, would I be the same way if I didn’t sew but saw someone who did? Would I tell them they should sell their things on Etsy or ask if they could make my wedding dress? Hmm.

  8. Dibs says:

    My friends ask me to make clothes for them all the time, and I always tell them i’m not ready to sew for qnyome other than myself for now. which is true, i am still learning, and i dont want to spend hours making something for someone who might not appreciate it.

  9. Andrea says:

    I totally agree that it seems impossible to make a living at sewing … maaaaybe if you have an assembly line going to speed the “manufacturing” process, but where’s the fun in that? I timed myself once, and it took me 14 hours to make a lined shirtwaist dress, and there wasn’t even fitting involved since I’d made it before! Yep, does. not. pay. In the few cases where I’ve sewn for others, it has either been a gift of my choosing that didn’t require fitting, or for someone I was happy to make for and who could be very specific and realistic about what she wanted.

  10. Shelly says:

    That’s a very interesting post Karen. The only people who have asked me to make things for them are my kids. How could I say no! I made my daughter’s bridesmaids dresses ‘cos she asked. (Phew! glad it wasn’t her dress) Fittings were a problem as one girl wasn’t prepared to make herself available and the other (my other daughter) lives 4 hours away. I was terrified they would not live up to expectations as they were strapless and I hadn’t done anything like that before. The fit was ok, but now I know so much more about underlining and boning etc that could do a better job now. Anyway, she was happy with them so I guess that’s all that matters. Moral of the story I won’t make for others for all the reasons you put forward. I have trouble saying no but I will find a way if I need to and besides I have enough trouble finding time to make things for me.

  11. sarah says:

    some good points there, I’ve sewed for others but I usually asses what it is they are asking for before saying yes or no (usually no lol!)
    the cost of sewing is interesting, having spoken to people who have their own businesses most of them take on alterations as a side to custom makes. the alterations equates to being the ‘bread and butter’ of the business (minimum wage doesn’t really factor in with sewing) some places charge over £9 just to shorten a pair of trousers which you can do with in an hour. That then makes the custom makes seem more worth while but an easy tip that i was taught on a sewing course was to use mark-up price. if it’s going to cost £30 for the suplies then mark up this price by 150-200% (roughly triple the price) this gives you an idea on how much to charge a final price, so £30 equates to a £75-£90 final price (most shops use this system so if a dress costs you £90 chances are that it cost roughly £30 to make) obviously there are exceptions such as embroidery, beading and hand sewing these all make for charging a higher price.
    hope that helps
    (the buntings look lovely by the way ).

  12. Tamsin says:

    I sew for my girls, they are around for fitting and at the moment they don’t have things that need alot of fitting. And if it doesn’t fit one, it will fit one if the others! I have also got cut out a muslin for a shirt for my husband that I offered to to do. When people find that I sew, they usually ask me to mend something – which I hate doing my on own stuff, let alone anyone else’s!

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Great post! I agree with all your points. Amen! The money factor is the main reason I haven’t started my Etsy shop. I can’t work out how I would ever have time to sew for myself or make money. So why bother. I knew that before I decided to do it, but ignored it for some strange reason. Thanks for the wakeup call. 🙂

  14. Jane says:

    Great post Karen and your wedding bunting looks great by the way! I make bags, purses, cushions etc for friends as that’s what I sell on a very small scale anyway, but that’s my limit, I’d never want to sew clothes for anybody else. I’ll reluctantly do small alterations for good friends but I hate doing it and I agree with Tamsin, people seem to think I’ve got nothing better to do than take in their mending. One friend even told me she’d saved up a hook and eye for me to sew on and was a bit taken aback when I told her she could sew it herself! You’ve just inspired me to say no even louder and clearer next time! x

  15. Margaret T. says:

    I have been approached by people I barely know, asking me to do alterations. They seem to think that if they offer to pay me then they are doing me a favour. Strangely, I have never been asked to make anything from scratch, apart from curtains, which are a VERY definite no-no! The only people I make clothes for are my daughter and granddaughter, and that is my choice, and a labour of love. A friend of mine was asked to make some items for a church which she didn’t even attend. When she refused, she was asked to lend her sewing machine!

  16. Felicity from Down Under says:

    That wedding bunting was (is) lovely stuff and something that your friend will treasure for a liftime. Payment in love for a gift made with love is about the right exchange rate, I think.

    You’re quite right, though, any crafting doesn’t make for a good income. Friends who are beaders tell me this frequently. I knit for friends and family, and I have sewn small items for a few of them but I suspect that’s mostly because I come from a family where clothes were often made by a dressmaker auntie (I inherited her scrap bag, and I can identify many of my clothes and those made for my sisters and some of my cousins in there), so I don’t view it as anything very extraordinary *if you have the skills required*. (Nowadays I would not agree to knit a jumper for anyone because I really could not find the time, but gloves and mittens, caps and small things of that nature, I might; and I might sew aprons.)

    The part of the equation that enables me to say no if asked is: I’m not sufficiently skilled (and you did want it this century, right?). I don’t mind making my own clothes occasionally (and wearing them), and knitting for myself and others, but I have a very fair idea of how good or bad I am at what I’m being asked to do, which enables me to be truthful and not at all guilty when I generally say no. And, as we all seem to agree, the time and cost factors are huge. You do it for love or you do it not at all, it seems. It’s an interesting debate.

  17. prttynpnk says:

    I do alot of small alterations for people and my rules are similiar to yours. My big rule is that I always say no to anyone who approaches me with any variation of this sentence:
    “I’d do it myself if I had the time”
    Thanks. You just told me that this isn’t a valued skill and neither is my time!

  18. Spikeabell says:

    Hahaaaaa i agree so much with your post. Most people I know…know that I can sew. But every now and then…a new work colleague or something and I let the cat out of the bag. I agreed to help one woman because she burst into tears..hard to say no..but I still should have said it. My mum used to design and make clothes and the countless times she was ‘informed’ by family/friends. “Oh..and of course you would love to make the bridesmaid dresses!” One time they had even bought the fabric ready for her to make! It’s a fantastic to make something someone really loves for someone you like..but so often you have to be really ready to pay the price. Karen you have really expressed all the reasons why and why not….I think i’ll print it out and have it with me always…in case i ever weaken.:)

  19. stitchywitch says:

    I mostly get asked to do alterations, which I politely decline while directing them to the nearby “British tailors” location. I did sew elbow patches onto a friend’s jacket recently, because I was curious how it was done, but it did not fill me with joy. Since I’m a musician, I occasionally have people asking me to make them costumes etc, which… no. I don’t even sew for family anymore, as they don’t appreciate it as much as something storebought!

  20. Roisin says:

    This is a really interesting post and it reflects something I have thought many times – colleagues and friends often tell me I should go into business sewing, which would be a lovely idea if I was independently wealthy, or something. I don’t see how I could make a living at it, even if I was skilled enough to make things I’d be happy to sell. Additionally, it would be more difficult to find the time to make the things I want to make. Over the weekend I made a dress for a friend, but I had offered to do it (drunkenly, I might add!) with the thought that it would encourage her to spend more time sewing for herself and it has! She bought the fabric and I already had the pattern and notions in my stash so all it cost me was time, but as you know that’s the rub with sewing. I don’t in any way begrudge the time and I really enjoyed sewing the dress but had I been charging for it, it would have cost a lot – probably at least £30 for fabric alone. So I’ll do it occasionally as a gift, because I have enjoyed it. I’d still rather be sewing for myself though.

    My sister asked me to make bridesmaid dresses for her wedding next year. Me and my other sisters will be the bridesmaids, and luckily bride sister is fairly laid back. I’m happy to do it, but I have a suspicion that once she sees the price of the fabrics she’s going to want shop bought dresses. That’s fine with me!

  21. Kerry says:

    Totally agree with all your reasons for not making things for others, and I like that your first one is because you prefer making things for yourself – I do too! Sewing and knitting are my main hobbies and what I do for enjoyment, so the potential stress of having to make something for someone else at their request would take away all the fun. I do enjoy making presents for people I know will appreciate the work and sentiment involved, but if the person does not show (what I feel to be) appropriate appreciation, or I never see it used/worn, then that’s it, no more handmade for you!

  22. KC says:

    Here’s the non-sewist’s side of the story to illustrate why you should just say no. I make no defense of my entitled bitchiness, except to say it was long ago.

    Long ago I asked my mother to make my wedding dress and I have never forgiven her for it. I wanted something extremely simple–basically a simple peasant-ish blouse I had at the time, only long and in ivory silk. My poor mother, who really could have whipped this thing up in a day if it weren’t for the once-in-a-lifetime pressure, decided it was safer to sew the whole dress by hand, and to line it and introduce a host of other features appropriate for wedding dresses where the bride intends to wear shoes. I hated it and I’m sure she could tell.

    • Ooh, that must have been really tough for both of you. I sympathise.

    • Bethany says:

      I’m already dreading the dress part of becoming engaged in the future. My mom made my sister’s wedding dress and it was lovely. She really is talented and skilled. But 99% of what my mom sews for her she likes. Her shape (skinny) is easier, I guess. However…the vast majority of the things my mom makes me, while lovely and well-made are far from what I like, want, or wear. The worst was her mentioning having picked up some green silk that she thought I’d like and mentioning that she was thinking of making a wrap dress. I sent her a picture of a normal wrap dress (a J. Crew one that wrapped in the front).

      I ended up receiving a green plaid raw silk dress that gave me a uniboob and I’ve since seen on a vintage sewing blog as one of the ugliest patterns the blogger had sewn. It “wrapped” in the sense that the back wrapped around to the front and buttoned under the boobs with giant butterfly buttons. She suggested I wear it to the office. It was hideous and made me look 5 with giant boobs. I claimed it didn’t fit right when she pushed for why I wasn’t wearing it to a family wedding.

      I always feel awful for not appreciating it enough so I praise the skill and repeat every Christmas that I really don’t need any new clothes. Then I add to the bag of Never Wear in my mini closet .

  23. MrsC says:

    Oh Lordie! One of the reasons I hang out on these blogs is to remind myself that I CAN sew for myself as well. I hardly ever do, and when I do I have tended to throw things together – fine on the outside but unfinished seams stc. You know. Mostly, these days, I make quilts, or gifty items like tea cosies, and mostly I do it for others or to sell. And the ONLY reason I sell stuff is because the money subsidises the habit. I am a user/dealer of the drug S.
    I used to own a bridal shop! I made dresses for all kinds of women, and there are definitely two kinds of attitudes: 1. You are a service provider and occasional venting outlet because you are being paid to wear it and 2. You are a goddess sent to earth to let X have her dreams come true and you deserve every cent and all that chocolate and wine given afterwards.
    The first kind I learnt to avoid, the second to encourage 😉 Even now though, making a wedding dress, which I do maybe once a year for a close friend (thank goodness they no longer get married by the half dozen within a fortnight of one another as they did 20 years ago!) I nearly have to be hospitalised from stress! It is not like getting back on a bicycle- there are all kinds of things that one forgets in between. Makes me sound senile hehehe.
    So you are good for me. I work more than full time, but as I love to sew and make things and so do many of my friends and we get together to do it, it IS how I choose to spend spare time when I have it. I now spend way more time thanks to the excellent influence of sewing bloggers, making things for myself, properly. I am hopeless at saying no, however!

  24. Bold Sewist says:

    I really enjoyed making my friend’s wedding dress (maybe more so after the event), but it was a LOT of stress! Totally worth it though to be able to do something special for her. I can’t imagine doing it for someone who wasn’t a VERY special friend though, and I’m not sure I would enjoy making something that wasn’t also very special. The friend’s personality also has to be on the laid-back side.
    As for alterations – no WAY! I don’t even want to do my own.
    I’d love to do another wedding dress one day (maybe) but I have been promised a divorce if I ever agree to another one!

  25. Bold Sewist says:

    ps I look forward to seeing what you have agreed to make! 🙂

  26. stacyverb says:

    Definitely a thorny topic! I do make things for people, but as gifts, not on request. My husband has this uncle who knows I knit socks, and he keeps asking me to knit him a pair. Ummm…no. I don’t know him very well, so he’s not someone I would go to a lot of trouble making a gift for. He has offered to pay me, but I told him it would probably cost around $200. Of course he was shocked but, hello, it would take me about 20 hours to knit them, plus the cost of the yarn. People think we just sit down in an afternoon and whip these things out. Sheesh!

  27. Julia says:

    I’ve been asked to knit for others. And I always tell them how many hours would go into it and that in the end they might not like it, really not worth it. As for my sewing, people often say I should sell my things. I find this really funny because 1. I am a total beginner and mess up half the things I sew and 2. I don’t even have the time to sew what I want for myself and the kids. I usually tell them that the equivalent or their question would be asking someone who just learned how to make pasta with a canned sauce why he/she doesn’t open her own restaurant.

  28. Gabrielle says:

    Yes, yes and yes. Luckily not many people ask me to sew for them – but one colleague used to tell me when she liked anything homemade I was wearing “you could sell it on ebay!”. As if. Spend good money on fabric and pattern, spend precious time cutting, fitting and sewing and then – sell. Undoubtedly not cost effective or fun. My partner is always begging me to repair his suits as he hates buying new ones, but I am avoiding it like mad because suits are COMPLICATED. I would much rather he spend OUR money going to a tailor for repairs.

    • Yes, it’s interesting that many outside observers see the worth of a make in its potential monetary value, when I don’t think it’s really about that at all for most of us who slave over makes. To be fair, people are probably just trying to be kind and encouraging and that’s an easy shorthand for saying how good they think something is.

  29. Molly says:

    My sister and I have an on-going joke about the top I am making her – and have been for the last 5 years when I purchased the fabric and pattern! Its all still sat in the bottom of the UFO box (except the overlay fabric which I pinched for a different project).

    Since my daughter was born I’ve been trying to alter my work (theatre costume) to enable me to work from home more. One of the options I looked at was making children’s clothes. A quick scout on Etsy put me off. Thousands of pretty frocks for pittance being made by US SAHMs who are selling for pleasure not profit and who have access to far wider range of cheaper fabric and notions. It would be impossible to compete and make a decent wage from it. I realised the only option was to go for the high end of the market – e.g organic fabrics or elaborate/unique designs to justify charging a higher price. The obvious draw-back is the shoot up in costs and construction time, lack of available fabrics (organic is still quite rare here) and the amount of careful planning involved plus the uncertainty of the market. Its not totally written off, but its been put on the back burner for now.

  30. fabricgirl66 says:

    What a thoughtful post – you raise many points on which to ponder on.
    I do love the bunting you made for your friend – and you’re spot on in that you can never have enough time to complete a project. The luxury of being able to add details if time allows is the best part of an early start.
    I was a set seamstress for ten years for film and television – it is hard work, but the pay is great. I would still be doing that had I not moved away. Before that I spent many years sewing for others and have learned (the hard way) to see some red flags: the biggest is when someone says it’s so hard to find a ‘good’ seamstress. They are the ones that can never find anything they like, and all that have done work for them before have done a horrid job. This is code for they will be unhappy with your work as well.
    From time to time, I have made ‘gift certificates’ for a few special people for a garment or item of their choice. I do make nearly all the gifts that I give, and have started to sell some things that I make – the love of the doing is the motivator. Like another commenter said – the money mostly helps to support the habit.

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  33. Karenmca says:

    Lots of points I can relate to, Karen. I once successfully sold a number of homemade items on eBay. Next thing, I had people from France and USA wanting me to make these items for them to sell on THEIR websites. I knew the costs of my fabrics, so I added in the cost of my time at basic British minimum wage. (That stuck in my throat – I can earn more than that in the day-job!) Anyway, I did my sums and quoted a price that still allowed me a small profit. And what happened? “How can it cost that much? How come you were charging less when you sold them on eBay?” Simple – I wasn’t recouping my costs let alone profiting. At that point I stopped! Craft doesn’t pay, and doing “little jobs” for friends certainly wouldn’t!

    On a similar tack, my mum was once “discovered” by a well-heeled middle class country type who was overjoyed to think she had her own secret “little woman” to do her alterations. Oh, yuck! Poor mum got taken advantage of, until I discreetly got her off the hook with an embroidered family sob-story.

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