Managing big projects

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 Have you ever spent a night diligently sewing away till dawn so that the costume could be worn the next day?  Have you realized a day before the event that there is no way you can hand stitch as much as you wanted and you’d have to cut corners and trust to your sewing machine to speed the process up? Or maybe discovered that you forgot to buy that lining or trim and you need it for tomorrow?  If any of that sounds familiar (and to be honest I do not know of a costumier who would not have been in this kind of situation at least once in their life…), then read on – this article is aimed at the time-management issue that most of us struggle with.

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sewing the night away…

 I have spent many a night stitching well into the small hours when costuming was a hobby and I mostly was sewing for myself. Then it didn’t really matter too much that one or two things were not completed on time, and safety pins saved the garment on the day. True, it would have been nice to be more rested at the event, but last minute frantic stitching was all part of the fun, after all.

 It is different however, when you start making clothes for other people, especially if you are being paid for it. Then it is other people depending upon you, your skill and its outcome; if you do not manage to deliver the item on time, as finished goods of immaculate quality, it is not only the other people that suffer the consequences – your reputation suffers as well.

 And that really clinches it – when your livelihood depends on your reputation, you cannot ignore the time factor. Your creations may be of outstanding beauty and quality, but if you fail to produce them within the agreed deadline, you will find fewer and fewer people will place their orders, and their trust in you. I have had more than a few clients coming to me complaining that they have placed orders with other costumiers, have paid, and are still waiting for the outcome – in one case  the seamstress was 2 years behind her deadline, and that was considered more or less normal. I was puzzled at first, but after some market research I understood the reason.

 In the last few decades there have been very few established historical dressmakers in the UK, and people did not have a great deal of choice – they would go to a well known company and if that meant they had to wait for months, or years, for their quality garment, they did – there was simply no other option. And the dressmakers, knowing that, felt secure and grew complacent.

 However, recently there has been a surge of newcomers to the business of historical dressmaking – talented people who knew they need to get an edge in order to survive; they needed to provide quality services and quality products for their businesses to be noticed – and to thrive.  And that competition factor has changed the dynamics of the UK professional dressmaking scene situation completely.

Don’t get me wrong – competition is not a bad thing in business. It drives progress and improves quality of everybody’s produce and service – if a business cannot keep up with it, they will disappear. But it also means that lots of businesses have had to re-think their strategy and improve.  Some did – and as their work standards rose, their businesses soared. Some didn’t – they either went out of business, or still exist thanks only to a few loyal customers – surviving, but not thriving and expanding.

 In this article I will endeavour to provide some advice how to manage your time better; whether you use the time freed for your private pursuits or for working on more projects, it is up to you! Although I am writing with professionals in mind, especially those dealing with bigger orders, I do hope that the advice I am able to give will also be helpful to all of you who treat sewing as a hobby and do not have to meet imposed deadlines.

 Whereas it is not too much of a problem to improve your time management when working on small, individual projects, the moment I went ‘pro’ changed things a lot. When I first started my business it was easy to plan as I did have quite a lot of time available, and since I was costuming part-time, I took on only the commissions I wanted, and worked at a leisurely pace. When I went full-time, I realised that in order to stay afloat and to expand, I needed to improve my timing.  I managed to get out of the procrastination habit within a few months, (well, almost completely, I do sometimes enjoy a bit of a good old bout of procrastination), and soon candle-lit sewing and finishing garments mere seconds before the deadline became things of the past (almost…)

 However it is the bigger orders that have been the most difficult to manage, and the learning curve here was steep. My first big project was my wedding gown and my bridal party, comprising outfits for 2 bridesmaids, 1 matron of honour and my mother in law, all bedecked in late Victorian finery .   I didn’t really do too well on that, as I was stitching lace to my veil the day before the wedding, and the final work was completed at about midnight before the wedding – and not without my bridesmaids’ help!

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the Bridal party, all ready on the day.

 My next two big commissions were a bit better – I was making 4 complete sets of Elizabethan and Tudor clothing for children – and a commission that should have taken me perhaps 3 weeks took 5 for the first order and just over 4 for the next one. 

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 It was an improvement, but not enough – I needed to get my act together and identify the factors that were slowing me down. My next big order worked much better – and I will be using mostly the examples from that to show how to manage your time efficiently.

 My order was for a set of 12 early 16th cent robes, (‘rock’ or ‘wappenrock’ – the inspoiration board: http://pinterest.com/priorattire/german-garb-early-16th-century/ ), in the German style, with headwear, plus two Durer gowns. The contract was signed in January, the event was in the south of Germany at the end of August. Loads of time! The deposit was paid in February, fabrics bought in March, so now I could relax till August, you might think.  Taught by bitter  past experiences, I decided to manage this one better – so that everything would be done on time – more, in fact – with time to spare.   And with just a few slight changes, it was done – I finished the last plumed cap the day before the event and even had time to make my own German beret to fit in with the crowd when we delivered the order and spent a day  at the tournament. Not only that – I actively enjoyed making all the gear in a stress-free and relaxed way – a win on both fronts!

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all tarted up in the new beret:-)

The client in his new attire at the event –

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 The work in progress and some tournament pictures can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151023619121693.422290.140313531692&type=3

  and a post on the event – here

 And so, there we go…

  • Plan.  Not just in your head, but on paper/screen.
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planning …

Write down all the things you need for a particular costume/set, down to the last set of hooks and eyes, the last point and aiglet ( I forgot the last ones and was very lucky when they arrived with just a couple of days to spare…  Have all the components ready, ideally before you start.

  • Run a trial.  Not always possible, but if you are making a few similar garments, make one and time it – from drawing the pattern, cutting the fabric down to the last stitch and iron
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timing … each phase of making a coat is measured

I was lucky – one of the coats and one dress were needed in May so I could use them as examples. Once you have timed how long it takes, allow for mistakes, coffee breaks, admin, procrastination (it doesn’t hurt if you have 20min of Facebook browsing allowed for… 🙂 , and add at least an hour for the unexpected.  Once you have a figure, you will be able to plan how long it will take you to finish all the remaining items.  I worked out that it would take approximately a day to make 1 coat in this case.

  • Be prepared for the unexpected – think of all that can go wrong and assume that “Murphy ‘s Law” will apply. Have a contingency plan in case your machine breaks down, you get ill, you have a family emergency, or whatever. If you have friends who live nearby and can be on standby with their equipment or just able to help, have a chat with them and inquire if they might be able to lend their machine or give you a hand if needed. Most likely it won’t be necessary, but it will give you an amazing sense of calm and security! If you can afford it – buy a second machine. Even if it is an absolutely basic, cheap model, as long as it can do a straight stitch, you are covered. Stock up on machine needles and threads so that you don’t need to waste time going to the shops when you run out of blue thread… 
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hardware at the ready

  •  Also allow for the things going wrong at the customer’s end.  The Durer dresses for ladies were made with remote fitting options – I got the measurements, sent the toiles, and then the ladies were supposed to send back the toiles with any corrections and email the pictures. In the case of the first dress I waited quite some time for the return of the toile as they forgot they had to post it….  so do factor things like that in, and be prepared to chase your clients up- they have to understand that fittings, remote or in person are necessary and their delay may mean the delay in completing the order.

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the toile took its time – but in the end it was all done ahead of schedule:-)

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another Durer dress, also made with remote fitting

 

  •    Once the time arrives and you get going, try to shave some time off the original timing by working in batches.  If you have garments of the same size, cut them out together at the same time. The majority of my German coats were generic sizes – S, M, L, XL. I would cut out one size at the time, so 3 garments, machine stitch them and then hand finish them. Working this way meant I was able to make 3 coats in 2 days, if I worked my usual 10 hour day.
  •  Allow for rest.   Schedule lunch breaks, time for exercise, walk, reading a book. If possible, do allocate a day or two for rest during extended projects – just a plain ‘no stitching’ day, spent with your loved ones, or on a day trip – anything to get you out of the workroom and recharge your batteries.  It is worth it – you will go back to work with renewed enthusiasm. In the worst case, that extra time can be used if you happen to fall drastically behind.
  •  If you are having problems staying within the original allocated time, do not panic. Take a few minutes to calm down, switch off your computer, go for a walk. Rethink your strategy – ignoring the problem and hoping it will be all right in the end will bring you more stress and more late night stitching.  Face the problem, identify the factor that seems to cause the delay and deal with it. Find a solution, ask for help – if necessary, swallow your pride and call that friend to come over to give you a hand, (warning – it does not work if the friend is very chatty and talks more than actually helps…)  sometimes you can plan an unhurried ‘stitch and bitch’ sessions and  combine work with  pleasure

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Lucas and Eleanor helping out with some silk bunting for a friend’s wedding

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more bunting fun!

 

  •   Stay in touch with the client. Inform them about your progress – when they see you are keeping to the schedule and see the effect of your work, they will worry less.  You can either send a mail once a week or call – or, like me use Facebook. I simply added photos of each finished garment as it was completed and the client could not only see the progress but show their appreciation and give an early feedback too. In my case after the first two coats the feedback was – “loving the slashing!” So I was able to adjust the remaining designs to incorporate more slashing on the coats – it took me maybe 20 minutes more, but it was worth it. 

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slashing on sleeves…

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slashing on sleeves and back

 

  • If the worst happens and you do fall behind – again, grit your teeth and contact the client as soon as you realise that you may not be able to finish all of it on time. If it is early enough, they may be able to find someone else – or, if they are well organised, have a contingency option for just such occasions. It is much better to warn early, finish most of it and know that the client had time to deal with the situation rather than turning up at the event and informing them then and there that you were able to only do 9 out of 10 garments…  so communicate, communicate, communicate…..

  A few extra points on time management for business:

  • Take note of how long it takes you to make each new garment. Have a little notebook or a file and write it all down. Next time someone books you for a similar commission, you will be able to book a precise slot.
  • Tend to overestimate the time necessary rather than the other way round. I usually add at least a day to the expected time – and if I finish early, I can either take on a last minute commission from my waiting list, or simply enjoy a day off.
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enjoying a short break in between the stitching – a walk with the hubby

  • I know it is tempting to book everybody in, as the allure of the prestige, or money, or both can be strong – but be realistic and do not overbook. In my experience very few people are discouraged from booking because they have to wait – most will wait and will respect you for respecting other people’s orders – they know that when time comes, you will be concentrating on their commission only, and not trying to squeeze in 3 other clients in between.
  •  Always sign a contract with a detailed specification of the garments. A proper contract protects you as well as the client, and sets up clear parameters for the order and your working relationship with the client. Set a price on any changes your client may want to introduce – but above all, do not be afraid to say no to them if the contract have been signed. I have recently been dealing with a difficult customer who placed a  big order. I received about 200 emails before the contract was signed, but they continued after the final designs were agreed on, as the client was fond of browsing the net and every site she visited gave her fresh ideas. At some point, after about 327 emails, I simply had enough. I asked her either to stick to the original, with a few changes that were feasible at that stage – or the contract is null and void, and I will return the deposit. She opted for the former and the order was completed to mutual satisfaction. If I hadn’t signed the contract, I suppose I would still be negotiating the designs now… 
    •  The last but not the least – enjoy your work.  Not only take pride in its outcomes, but relish the process too. Even when the labour can be dull or repetitive, you can brighten it up and still enjoy it – put on your favourite music when sitting at the machine, listen to an audiobook when hand stitching ( I personally love it – either listening to books, or to a language course  – time flies away!), if the weather is nice, go and stitch outside in the garden or in a park.  It is your business, work, hobby – but it takes a great deal of your life too, so have fun!
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stitching and bitching while working on corsetry projects with Julia from Sew Curvy

   Recommended reading – 4hr work week, by Timothy Ferris. The idea of spending only 4 hours a week stitching is completely alien to me, but there are really good tips on time management issues – well worth a read!

And a couple of links to other bigger commissions …

https://adamselindisdress.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/victorian-commission/

https://adamselindisdress.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/victorian-commission-part-2-kiddies-stuff/

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7 thoughts on “Managing big projects

  1. timely blog post. I’m having issues right now with my schedule. And it’s because I didn’t PLAN.

  2. Thank you!! Very helpful tips as I am currently in the midst of my 1st big commission! [1710 gentleman’s garment; 2 pairs breeches, 2 shirts, 1 sleeveless waistcoat, 1 sleeved coat!] I’m enjoying every minute but tempted to be overwhelmed! This post gave me the boost I’m needing today!!

  3. Pingback: Running a Costuming Business | A Damsel in This Dress

  4. Pingback: Sewing Fast and Slow | A Damsel in This Dress

  5. Pingback: Running a Costuming business part 4:Getting Real | A Damsel in This Dress

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