Why handmade is more expensive, and why it should be

When my grandmother was a teenager, she had to drop out of high school to work in the textile mill when her father was injured on the job. After she got married, she continued with her sewing, making handmade clothes for her children. My mother learned to sew from my grandmother, but my mother didn’t have the same affection for it. In fact, the green metal Kenmore sewing machine sat at the bottom of the closet for months at a time, unless we had a chorus show that required altering dresses. As a result, my mother didn’t teach me to sew. I took a home economics class in middle school that taught us how to thread a needle, attach a button, and the basics of a sewing machine, although the shorts I made fell apart after their first washing. I went away to college, determined to be a programmer. When I discovered my math skills weren’t quite up to par, I switched to technical theatre. During that program, I had to take several costuming classes, including a class where we made costumes for upcoming shows. Sitting at that sewing machine, I realized how much I liked it — the hum of the machine, the hiss of the steam from the iron, the ability to take flat pieces of fabric and turn them into something useful and beautiful. It was art.

I kept sewing, and eventually fell into cosplay. My most challenging costume to date is an 18th-century gown. I built everything — the corset, the panniers, the linings, I even modified shoes to be historically accurate. The entire dress took me about four months to complete. And once I finished that project, I knew I could do it — if I could make that, I could make anything. And suddenly, I knew what I had to do. I had to sew, like my grandmother before me.

Since then, I’ve been sewing handmade goods and selling them online. I read all the articles about how to set your prices and did research on how to keep my costs low. For a time, I went to comic conventions to sell those handmade goods. My first convention, I was extremely nervous. I’d been invited by a friend who helped run the convention. I’d never done anything retail-related before. My partner is an amazing salesman, and between his skills and mine, we managed to leave that convention covering the cost of the table, hotel room, food and gas, and had $25 left over. So we went to a few more conventions. And then something strange happened — people would ask about our prices, then make a face and walk away. Or say “I could make that cheaper” to their companion before walking off. Or try to haggle with us. And as I looked around at fellow handmade artists, the story was the same. People expecting big-box prices for handmade goods. And the sad truth is, most of the time those handmade goods are underpriced just to compete with this mindset. These customers don’t see the hours of design, standing in the fabric store deciding between fabrics, emails back and forth if someone wants a custom piece, and the hours of learning and refining the craft. It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert on something. Since that first sewing class through today, I have accrued much more than 10,000 hours of sewing (17+ years and counting!). When you buy handmade, you’re not just buying a dress or a purse. You’re buying the entire handmade experience. The next time you’re considering buying a handmade item, remember there’s a woman sitting behind a sewing machine in her basement, surrounded by mountains of fabric and years of experience, putting a piece of her soul into that item, hoping that you will get as much joy from the finished product as she gets from making it, and maybe she can pay some bills too.

~ Jen

One Comment

  1. Yes! A lot of my stuff seems overpriced to the general public, but then people in that hobby frown at me and say it’s under priced. It’s frustrating. Pricing my items is my 100% least favorite part of my side business.

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