Wednesday, June 14, 2006

June 16, 2006

You Have A Choice: Exit the Mass Marketplace!

If buying your clothing makes you look and feel miserable, what else can a woman do?

1. Use a dressmaker.

2. Learn to sew.

Use A Dressmaker

The process of having clothing made just for you is as old as time. Custom dressmaking is NOT just for rich people. Even as little as twenty years ago, many people of the middle to upper middle economic classes used dressmakers and tailors for their best clothes, and only purchased clothing that did not need to fit well, and for which long wear and sturdiness were more important than overall appearance, such as uniforms, work and play clothes. When I was growing up in the sixties in a pulp mill town in the Pacific Northwest in a economically depressed town of about 8,000, there were several custom dressmakers and tailors who had storefronts. People used to invest as much as they could afford for a few well made and flatteringly classic garments, and they wore them for many, many years. There was no cheap and disposable clothing.

Nowadays, many sewing professionals work out of their homes to help reduce the cost of running a business. We use a variety of job titles to describe what we do. Here are a few:

A Sewing Professional is the broadest term, and describes anyone who makes his or her living by offering sewing services. As well as sewing for others, this person may also teach sewing, write sewing books or articles, sell sewing supplies or fabrics, and so on. She may work part time, full time, out of a shop or out of her home. Most sewing professionals have specialties, such as those below. She or he may be any or all of the following:

A Custom Clothier is someone who makes garments one at a time for an individual customer to meet that customer's specific needs and preferences.

A Custom Dressmaker specializes in womens' apparel such as day and evening dresses, suits and other careerwear, sportswear, or lingerie.

A Tailor makes custom menswear-style jackets and the skirts or trousers that go with them. Tailoring encompasses a set of unique sewing, basting, and pressing techniques. Sometimes the word is used to refer to any male sewing professional. Note that there are male tailors who may work exclusively with men and there are women tailors who work only with women; the custom clothing process is rather personal yet strictly professional, so many sewing professionals work with both sexes of customers. Note that the term "tailor" is often misused to refer to someone who only does alterations, as in the expression, "I need to have this jacket tailored." However, a custom tailor is much more highly skilled than most alterationists. Any tailor can do alterations, but by no means can any alterationist do tailoring.

An Alterationist or Alterations Specialist adjusts the fit of ready to wear garments or restyles them. Taking in, letting out, and hemming are common alterations. She may also do repairs, such as replacing broken zippers or mending.

Designers think up combinations of line, texture, proportion, and color for garments. They mostly work for the ready-to-wear industry and may not work for individual customers. They may only sketch but may not be able to sew a stitch. Remember, most design schools in the US do not require that designers learn to sew and fit, and many do not even teach these skills at all.

Patternmakers, Sample Makers, and Fitters are professionals who usually work in the ready-to-wear industry but may offer services to individuals.

Home Decorative Sewing Specialists sew custom draperies and other soft furnishings for the home.

Wardrobe Consultants or Fashion Advisors may sort through your closet and recommend flattering colors and styles.

A Wearable Artist makes uniquely embellished garments as if they were an artist's canvas.

A Seamstress is someone who sews seams. It commonly refers to a machine operator in a factory, who may not have the skills to make a custom garment from scratch. It is also an old euphemism for "prostitute." In pioneer Seattle, for example, at the turn of the last century 80% of the city's revenues came from taxes on "seamstresses," who placed a sewing machine in their windows instead of a red light. No doubt respectable dressmakers and tailors moved their machines away from the windows and had to sew in the dark.

Do not call a dressmaker a seamstress!

How to Find A Dressmaker

Visit for a free referral. The referral service is organized by state and specialties are included with the listings.

Ask friends for referrals. Many customers want to keep their dressmaker all to themselves, so you may have to be persuasive.

Check with local fabric stores; many keep books of business cards or sales clerks may be familiar with local sewing professionals.

Check the Yellow Pages under "Dressmaker," "Designer," "Tailors," "Wedding Services, or "Bridal Shops," depending on your needs.

Screen by Telephone or Email

Determine the dressmaker's specialties, availability, and business procedures. Request a brochure or review her website. Next, make an appointment for a consultation. Most professionals charge for the consultation; many refund this fee with the first garment order.

During the consultation, determine her qualifications. Ask about her training and experience. Some professionals may have attended a design school, but may highly competent dressmakers have been taught by talented family members, sewing teachers, or employers, or they may be self-taught. Experience makes a difference. Someone who has sewn well for forty years will be much, much better than someone who has sewn for four years. Ask about professional affiliations. Be sure that she uses written estimates and contracts, and that she has written business policies. The contract should itemize all labor and materials charges, with as much detail as possible. Ask to see any sales tax or occupational licenses that are required in your area. Never deal with anyone who is working "off the books" or "under the table." That person is not a professional!

Learn About the Dressmaking Process

Remember, you're not in the mass marketplace anymore. Most dressmakers do two to three fittings. The fittings may last 10-20 minutes. The entire dressmaking process is less time consuming than the average shopping trip to your local mall. The dressmaker should explain exactly what is required of you, and should establish a schedule for the entire process. Does she custom draft or do you need to select a labor-saving commercial pattern? Who supplies materials? Note that no one "whips up a dress" overnight or in a few days. Most dressmakers need six to eight weeks per garment, and about six months for wedding gowns or complicated evening gowns. If you need something more quickly, expect to possibly pay a rush fee for the dressmaker's overtime. There's an old saying, "Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." If you do have a rush job, be honest about your availability for fittings. If you have three weeks until your event, but you will be out of the country for one of those weeks, say so!

Examine Her Portfolio

While some dressmakers keep sample garments to examine, most use a portfolio. These photos may be professionally modeled and photographed, or they may more likely be unretouched snapshots of actual customers, who come in all shapes and sizes and have all kinds of taste in clothing and grooming. Bear in mind that photos of garments that you see in magazines are pure fantasy. Lighting, skeletal models, and computer enhancements make media images completely unrealistic. When looking at a portfolio, look for good fit and overall attractiveness.


Custom Clothing should not be cheaper than a similar off-the-rack garment. If it is, something is wrong. Custom goods in general cost more than mass-produced goods. Remember that you are not just buying a mass-market dress; you are hiring a highly skilled professional to create a one-of-a-kind work of art especially for you. The exception to this pricing rule may be with very high priced luxury ready-to-wear. For example, a ready-to-wear French Couture house's off-the-rack suit might cost $10,000; a dressmaker might make a similar design using comparable materials and sewing techniques for $2,000, and it will fit. If you wear that suit once a week for 20 years, the cost per wearing would be a bargain. Similarly, an off the rack luxury ready-to-wear bridal or evening gown that retails for $5,000 -10,000 can be reproduced for about half, without hidden charges for alterations, because you pay the craftsman only rather than all the other many hands that are stuck into the retail profit pie.

Generally, custom clothing prices are commensurate with the skill, experience, and reputation of the dressmaker, and to the labor required and cost of materials for your desired garment . Note that not all dressmakers are equally skilled, and we don't all use the same construction techniques. Some use techniques closer to industrial production, while some use more labor-intensive and valuable couture techniques. (Couture is the artform of sewing.)If you want a "jacket," for example, it could be a simple, unlined, unfitted cardigan jacket in a solid color that might take 2-4 hours of labor using industrial techniques, or it could be a hand-tailored, custom drafted, princess-lined, lined and underlined menswear-style jacket with four welt pockets, ten bound buttonholes, three vents, and hand-applied trim in a plaid fabric that could take 40-50 hours of labor.

Dressmakers may charge by the garment or by the hour. Generally, payments are made as the work progresses, with a deposit and payments at each fitting.

Please do not choose a dressmaker by price! You need to have a clear and detailed understanding of exactly what you are getting for the price: what skill levels, what sewing techniques will be used, and what level of expertise and reliability you will be paying for.

Your Responsibilities

Decide exactly what you want before the consultation. Your dressmaker may offer guidance or design detail suggestions, but most would not be so presumptuous as to tell you what to wear. We cannot make you a dress if you don't know what you want. If you need ideas, throw out the magazines and catalogues, which only picture clothing that sells well in the mass marketplace. Look at commercial pattern designs, books on fashion, fashion photography, couture clothing, and historical costume for uncommon design ideas.

Select fine quality fabrics. It makes no sense to put expensive labor into cheap materials.

Communicate your needs and desires clearly. Dressmakers are not mind readers.

Don't change your mind about a design in the middle of a project and expect your dressmaker to make changes for free. Changing a design mid-project is not like cutting and pasting on the computer. Ripping and re-sewing for any reason risks damage to the garment. Some changes may not be physically possible, or the dressmaker may not have time in her work schedule to make them. If you have concerns, voice them as early as possible, and expect to pay for any additional labor involved.

You are not your dressmaker's only customer. Be respectful of her time, as she is with yours. Be on time for appointments. An appointment is a promise to show up in a particular place and at a particular time. Keep your promises. Do not call on your cellphone at three minutes before your appointment time and assert that you will be there in a half an hour or so. Your dressmaker may have another customer scheduled for that slot, and she must manage her time very carefully to stay in business. If you need to reschedule an appointment, give 24 hours notice.

Always wear the exact same undergarments and shoes at each fitting that you will wear with the custom garment.

When your garment is completed and you are happy with it and have enjoyed the dressmaking process, take a minute to write a thank-you note or email to your dressmaker. Your payment might help buy the groceries, but your compliments will feed her soul.

Next month: Learn to Sew: It's Not just a Hobby; It's Another Way to Get Your Clothes