Why are seamstresses undercutting each other?

More and more, I’m seeing seamstresses undercutting each other in prices to try to get business.  This is really sad, but it’s due to people expecting us to compete with cheap prices out of China.  The reality is we can’t do that.  The costs out of China are often less than the cost of even cheap, poly fabrics that we seamstresses can obtain.  I’d like to go over the expenses of one of my dresses, and that one that I will use is my Tim Burton/Disney Alice in Wonderland dress.

The cost of the French cotton organdie, which I bought in Paris, that I used is 60€, which is about $75, and the child-size took 5 yards.  $375.  The cotton for the layer underneath was a total of 50€ for the full piece, about $60.  I got the striped fabric for the petticoat on sale, and paid just under $50 for it all.  The horsehair braid (not really made from horse hair) was about $80.  The buttons were another $35.  The rest of the notions, such as the cording I used as the core for piping, the embroidery thread, the stabilizer, etc., was about $50.  Stabilizer an embroidery thread are not cheap.  So we’re at about $650.  I very much underestimated it in my Etsy listing, now that I’m adding it up.  In silk organza and silk taffeta instead of the organdie and fabric I used for the petticoat, the differences would be about $$200 total for the organza, and $180 for the taffeta.  This is a savings of only $105.

So let’s use the lower price, $545 in silk instead of $650 for the French fabrics because, frankly, probably no one else happened to be in Paris and to have found that fabric, making that purchase an anomaly.  Right now, I have this gown listed at $1200, which leaves $655.  The child-size took about 60 hours of skilled labor.  Before all taxes and Etsy and payment processing fees, this is a whopping total of $10.92 per hour.  Most Walmarts are now starting at a higher pay.  Self-employed people have to pay the full 12.4% for social security tax alone.  Employers pay half, when your pay check comes from an employer.  Our expenses, such as the fabrics we buy, or the fees we pay, are no longer tax-write-offs.  So we now have to pay tax on the entire total we charge, in this case, $1200, even though the amount we earn after supplies an fees is less than half that.  But let’s just deal with the social security tax.  $148.80 is the tax owed now.  That comes out of that $655.  $506.20.  Payment processing fees are on the entire amount as well, and is about 3.5%.  There’s another $42.  Etsy fees are about the same.  Another $42.  $422.20 is the net, before even considering income taxes.  So, after just a few fees and one tax, this is $7.04 per hour.  Even if you want to try to say, “but everyone’s wage rate is before any taxes come out,” please remember that no one else has to pay taxes on the supplies.

But if you insist, let’s add that $148.80 back in.  At $571 after the payment and etsy fees, this is still $9.52 per hour.  A fair wage would be $25 per hour, especially since we have to absorb all the taxes on even the supplies, and this would put a dress like this at just over $2,000.  The absolute most I’ve seen it listed for is $1,500.  About $16 is better, but still very low when you start knocking out about 7% for etsy and payment fees, which is another $105, and then $186 for the full social security tax.

We also pay processing and etsy fees on the shipping, and we have to pay taxes on that shipping since that is no longer able to be written off on taxes either.  We also have to buy the machinery that is needed (my embroidery machine was $5,000 alone…).  We have to pay for maintenance, and for the extra utilities, and for the studio space in our homes.  $9.52, and we have to pay for so much out of that.

Yet I’m seeing this particular ensemble being listed at $1000, even $900, and one listing for $850, and these are all in silk.  Take a look back at how much the supplies in silk cost.  $545.  Before payment fees, taxes, or anything else, that listing at $1000 is going to be $455 after the supplies.  I’m a faster seamstress than many, but let’s still use that 60 hours.   $7.58 per hour.  At $900, that’s $5.92 per hour, and at $850,  that’s $5.08.  Again, this is for skilled labor, and is before payment processing and etsy fees.  My $9.52 per hour seems like good pay compared to $5.08, but it’s still $1.48 below my state’s minimum wage of $11.  I’m in Washington State.  In Oregon, a stone’s throw from me, minimum wage is $10.25.  So not only does Walmart pay more, literally every job pays more.

I’ll be blunt: When prices get low enough, there’s an incentive to start using different fabrics, such as poly organza, and hope that a client doesn’t know the difference.  I wouldn’t dream of doing this, and will even tell my clients how to tell the difference if they want to know, but I personally know someone who does this on occasion, and justifies it as “she’s paying me almost nothing for my time, and I really need to make something out of this to be worth it.”  No, that’s not okay, and she has gotten mad at me when I’ve told her she’s risking the reputation of this industry by making seamstresses appear untrustworthy if one of those clients find out, but it is a risk that you take when you start to look for the lowest price, or when you try to influence a seamstress who is already making so little to keep going down in price.  I’ve literally seen some things listed for less than the cost of the stated fabrics and fiber contents.  Barring someone destashing or using something they’ve had in their stash for a while (as I do on occasion, and I will openly state that as the reason I’m listing something for what it is), I can nearly guarantee you that you aren’t going to get what you’re paying for, and that those are probably seamstresses who are not making enough to get by, but who don’t want to give up on what they love to do, and so are hoping you won’t know the difference between a silk satin and a silky satin that they listed as a silk satin…or it may be possible that they found a cheaper polyester listed as silk (follow that link to see a chilling example of a very-well-known fabric store, one of the world’s largest and best-known, titling a polyester fabric as silk), and are hoping to use that as plausible deniability.

So please, when you’re looking for a deal, please keep in mind that many of us are already working for less than minimum wage, and then have to pay income taxes and social security taxes on not only that wage, but also all the fabrics and supplies we have to buy.  So please, please, do not try to get us to underbid each other.  It’s not fair to us.  We deserve as much of a living wage as anyone else, or at least minimum wage, especially considering that we pay taxes on even the supplies we need to buy.  We do this because we love to do it.  But here’s the catch–even if someone were to not pay taxes as required, this is still less than pre-tax minimum wage.  No one making minimum wage is only going to take home $5.08 per hour, yet that is the pre-tax for at least one seamstress, and that’s before the processing fees that she can’t get out of because, whether she’s using Paypal or Square, that’s taken out automatically.

I have friends making baby tutus for $15 with $5 in supplies.  That’s about $4 after shipping and fees, and even then, they’re being told that someone else will do it for $14, so will they take $13.  (There are a lot of Facebook groups for custom-makers to support each other, and yes, we discuss these things in furious detail.)  I know people making custom die-cut invitations for $3 each, or $2.50 if you buy 50 or more, and are being told that’s too expensive.  Folks, I made my daughter’s birthday invitations this year, using my die-cutter, and it cost me about $2 each, and that is just the card stock I had to buy (the gold–I had the parchment on hand and don’t count that in the cost) and surprisingly-expensive, surprisingly-short-lasting blades.  I made 60.  It literally would have cost me less to have someone else make them and use their labor than I spent on just two of the supplies I needed.  Something’s wrong with that, with them being told $2.50 or $3 is too much.  It’s really too little.  Thos invitations and tutus are almost an act of charity.  Yet $3 an invitation is too much.  $15 for a tutu is too much.  $1200 for a dress is too much.

I implore you, please do not try to get us to undercut each other.  I will not play along.  I, unlike some others, can survive losing a commission.  My husband’s income supports our household necessities, and I’m in a very fortunate position for that.  Some others aren’t so lucky, and would rather take $5.08 than nothing because they can’t afford not to, and they can’t because of how much prices are expected to be dropped when labor prices are often already below minimum wage.

It’s disheartening.  And yet we’re still expected to try to undercut each other.  And some do, because they can’t afford not to.  Please, folks, don’t expect us to work for less than you’d accept for your skilled labor, especially considering we have to pay high taxes and payment and etsy fees on even the supplies.  Doing what we do is already an act of love, and a bit of pride, but mostly of love.  Please, in return, love what we do enough to not make us have to undercut each other.

4 thoughts on “Why are seamstresses undercutting each other?

  1. Marie-Elena Baker

    Your blog is just heart breaking but oh, so true. I have stopped sewing for this reason. People copy ideas and then undersell and yet I know my work and fabrics are better. I now make only special orders that come to me. I love designing and sewing cool clothes, “things”, accessories, costumes – anything.
    I do not like the undercurrent of what is going on now. I feel sorry for those who have had to scrape by but I will not do it anymore. Also, people are so cheap and want to pay nothing. When I am asked to do something and get “all you have to do is this”, I respond , “Great, do it yourself then – you don’t need me …” ! So sad. But no one will ruin my passion for sewing, machine embroidery and creating, and I love it!

    • aria

      As elitist as it sounds, custom gowns are a luxury, one even I often can’t afford if I had to pay someone else. But seamstresses deserve to make a living wage per hour. If regular minimum wage or some over means someone is just scraping by, then what does it mean for the seamstress who is getting less than minimum wage, but then has taxes to pay on even the cost of fabrics?

      Regarding those who are like, “All it is is this simple little thing”: I just can’t even. Often something that looks simple is not. The simpler something is, the harder it is to conceal errors. I had someone once want something in a knit fabric that actually has a lot of structure to it, and is built over a structured garment so that it looks structured, yet made of knit. A cool concept piece. The overall aesthetic was very clean and simple, but one of those things that would be extremely easy to screw up. I had a gut feeling she’d think even $500 was too high for what was basically a gown that was built over a corset and had to have elements of it interlined with a stiffer fabric for support (and even that was risky since knit stretches and doesn’t always want to cooperate with interlinings), but that’s the price I gave anyway just because it’s a sort of design I hadn’t done before, and I wanted to add it to my portfolio. She shot back that I was ripping her off and that it’s so basic, and someone else offered to do it for $200. Realistically, the supplies were going to cost that. I don’t know if she really found someone for $200, or was hoping that would get my price to drop, but I stood firm on that.

      My daughter’s excitement over the things I make for her ensures my passion can’t die. Her love of it all, and how she is as thrilled with each new dress as if it was her first and only custom piece, boosts this passion. The need to create is already as vital as air for us creative-types, but that appreciation and how it lights up her face… Even if I’m making something for someone else, her excitement at seeing it all come together means so, so much.

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