Running a Costuming Business part 2


It seems the first post on running a costuming business was very popular – it answered a lot of questions, but it also triggered many more! I have collated the most recent batch of questions, and here are my answers…

* Do I need to have a contract?

Absolutely. A contract protects both you and your client, it clarifies the job, establishes the parameters – in other words makes it easy.   And yes, you need it also when sewing for friends….. even more so, perhaps…

*What should I include in the contract, on the whole?

Apart from  your  letterhead/logo, addresses, etc the following is the bare minimum:

* what garment is to be made. You can opt to put details in a separate ‘Specification’ document – I use that only for the most elaborate costumes, simpler ones don’t need it – though you still need to state what is being made, in what fabrics, styles, etc. I usually add a few example or reference pictures too.

*the cost of the garment – either all-inclusive or labour and materials costed separately.

* the deposit – usually it is either the price of the fabrics or 30-40% of the labour.  Do state when this is to be paid (within a week, 10 days, etc of the issue of the contract), and the payment method. The deposit is non refundable, always – I book time aside to carry that work or use the money to buy provisions – if the client changes their mind, it is unlikely I will be able to  book another client at short notice, so that deposit protects me from too much of a loss.   If some people are reluctant pay a deposit, don’t take the order, it is that simple.  The majority of people understand it and have no problem with it.

* Payment details – how, and when.  If you offer installments do say so, and agree beforehand on how many installments will be needed. Provide your bank details, PayPal address, etc. I usually require the total to be paid in full on or before the delivery date. Tempting as it sometimes might be, try to avoid relinquishing your hold on the goods until the total is paid. It is different when dealing with public services and large organisations, but still make sure all the details are in place.

*delivery – shipping ( the exact shipping cost is usually included in the final invoice), pick up or delivery in person, to a market etc

* Timings: fittings schedule, deadline etc. make sure the client understands that their availability for fittings in the specified time frame is vital to completing the item on time. An example – I was making a 17th century set, ornate, with many fittings; deadline was June 2014, with fittings in May. One fitting happened and then due to work problems, family and health problems, etc, the customer wasn’t able to attend any of the fitting sessions till late august. And once he did, he said he would require all the work completed within a week.  I refused – since his item was overdue, I was only able to work on it in the gaps between other commissions, and  that meant at least 2 weeks. It wasn’t the most pleasant  situation, but in the end the customer realized I wasn’t at fault – far from it. He apologized and a new deadline was agreed on. What made him realise? I mentioned that I need to respect all of my customers and cannot get behind other orders simply because his was overdue due to his problems, and not mine.  I now include an additional clause specifying what happens if  a similar situation arises ( a new deadline is needed, though if I have a gap in between present commissions the item may be finished early)

* what happens if the items are unpaid or uncollected.    I  usually state that all unpaid/uncollected items are kept for one month; after that they will be advertise on sale.   This solves a lot of problems, though you may want use your own judgement – life is life, things happen – and sometimes it is a good idea to be flexible. I always advise people to contact me as soon as they can if they have financial problems – the sooner I know the more able I am to suggest a solution – by either moving the commissions further ahead, splitting the total into installments, etc. It is not easy to talk about money, but being straightforward is usually the best way of tackling the issue.

*also what happens if you have problems and default.


* How do you plan your commissions?

I have  a system that works for me – it may not work for you in details,  but I believe the general principle is sound.

I know more or less how long it takes to make most of the garments and can plan on how many ours I will need.  (Remember you will need to factor fittings in to that as well), and so each client is allocated a slot  – it may be 2 days, 5 days, or 2 weeks – really depends on the garment. Make sure that the client is available for fittings within that time too. I always overestimate, usually by at least a day – unpredictable things may happen, so it is good to have that margin. If you finish the item on or before the allocated deadline, you have a day to rest, work on stock or  squeeze in an emergency order from the waiting list

This is what my monthly diary usually look like – you may wish to set it up as  a digital one, but I am afraid I am still very much a pen and paper kind of girl….


I also put notes on  week pages –  it gives me focus and I know what I am doing day by day…


You may notice fitting days –  I discovered that having fittings on many different days for different clients is  not working very well for me – it disrupts the day and productivity flow, and so I try to keep 2-4 fitting days a month (depends on the season), usually for both weekdays and weekends.  There are of course exceptions when a client cannot make any, but I have found out if I plan them well ahead, that doesn’t happen  a lot.

I usually have 3-4 people in for a fitting day – more is usually to much and I struggle to think clearly!

I also keep a few days a month for stock making for my online shop, or for upcoming markets.  I like making stock so these are usually fun days when I make what I want to make,  or when I experiment with patterns. They are also useful if you happen to have an emergency order too 🙂 and since we are talking about emergencies….

* Do you accept last minute orders?

That depends  on  a given month – sometimes if my stock days are free or if I know I can finish a planned order beforehand, then yes – but I make it very clear to the client that an emergency order will be a subject to an additional fee, and that they will need to be able to attend fittings, sometimes day after day  (in the picture above the regency dress as such – all done in 2 days, during which time the client stayed in a nearby b&B and was available for fittings as required – and picked up the dress at the end of her stay)

* I hate paperwork – how many documents do you usually issue per order?

1. quote, 2. contract ( sometimes with a separate specification), 3. final invoice

* What machines do you use?

I  have tried a few over the last 20 years or so – mostly Janome, Toyota and Pfaff. Nowadays Janome is my brand of choice  – I have had a few different models over the years and ended up with the best set up for me:

1. primary machine – dedicated straight stitch semi-industrial 1600PQC. perfect for everyday stitching, and FAST….

2. secondary machine –  for back up plus all the fancy work ( embroidery, zips, ruffling, buttonholes etc) – Horizon – MC800QC

Bedford Borough-20130702-03302

3. Overlocker – i used to have a  SMD744D and liked it, but since then moved on to Babylock Eclipse – it is faster and changing the threads is  easier due to the air threading:-)

These are not the cheapest models – but since they are the tools of my profession I need machines that are fast, reliable and can deal with the amount of work.  You don’t need to spend a fortune on hardware – mid price items from Janome are also good, and will suffice if you don’t stitch day in day out. I have used this models for years and they worked brilliantly too – SMD6019QC, and J3-20

Apart from that I also use a very old but very good grinder/sander for filing corsetry bones. It is old, it is noisy as hell, but does a fantastic job.  update – I have moved on to a new Draper now – but  the moment i find  replacement sanding discs for the old one, i think it will be back in favour!


Steamer – Vaporella Easy

* what does your workroom look like?  you must need loads of space!

Well,  should I be so lucky….. 😉 I work from home so am using a combination of a reception and living room. No  space for a proper cutting table ( for most of the dresses I would need a rather sizable one….), so the cutting of large bits happens on the floor… but generally, this is when all the costuming happens. when I am working on a lot of stock and need more cutting space, I simply hire  a workshop  nearby.


from the right – the work area…


on the left – cutting and patterning space


storage under the cutting space


pressing station and some of the patterns ( corsetry) on the wall.


reference books and computer desk 🙂

*Do you use commercial patterns?

Very rarely and usually either for myself or when a customer asks for an item to be made using a specific pattern.. Mostly I use either my own patterns that I developed throughout the years, or a combination – a commercial pattern adapted to my needs.  When I use a commercial pattern I always run a trial and see if it runs true to size -. For bespoke  items, I very rarely use commercial ones, and even when I do, I always make a mock up and fit it individually to a customer.

Also, many commercial patterns  are licensed for only 10  or 5 garments ( Truly Victorian or  Sew Curvy for example) so  unless I had  the authors  permission, I would  not be able to use them for many clients or for stock items.

* Do you have any tips for online selling?

a few!

* invest in a professional website. I use and love it, it was easy to set it up even for me, and it is not expensive.

*in the bespoke section include your price range  –  when people email you about commissions they will have already seen the pricing, so your quote won’t come as a surprise.

*specify posting dates.  if you have a post office nearby and don’t mind frequent visits, that’s fine – for me Monday, Wednesday and Friday are posting  days –  unless someone asks for urgent sale etc. people will get their items in 1 or 2 days, and you know you have 2 days when the chore of tackling the post office queues is not looming ahead.

* Be as specific about the items for sale as you can – and be honest. You may have a few less sales, but a few less returns as well!

*make sure your T&C are clearly defined!


Well,I think that’s it for a while! as before, feel free to ask questions and comment, they are welcome and appreciated! and if  we have more questions, they will be answered in another post as well 🙂

Happy reading!