Words to the Wise: Considerations before Starting an ID Dressmaking business

 (Thank you for writing this post, Susan.) 

Cardinal rule: Listen to Susan.  You think you know better and your situation is different, but it isn’t.  You’ll make the same mistakes for the same reasons as everybody else.  You’ll nod your head and say, “she’s right,” turn off your common sense, and do whatever that leftover part of your brain tells you to do.  (And you will regret it!!! ~ Ann)

Starting out is different from being “in.”  What I am going to recommend is not going to get you financially sound from the get-go.  This is purely to protect your mental health and the happiness of your home and family.  If you start out this way, and it clicks, you can always change the way you do things so that you earn a more stable income.  But, by then, you’ll know what you are in for and whether or not you want to be there.  So don’t plan on making any money.  Don’t spend on anything you can’t afford to lose.






What does it mean to be a “hobby business” vs a “Business?” This may be the key question.  Most get into it as a “hobby” business and think they’re going to be able to make as much money as a “real job” and stay home with the kids.  A real business doesn’t stop because the kids are sick or there is a school holiday (unless this is planned and built into the work schedule).  A real business makes sure that the emails/phones/mail are covered every business day during business hours.  A real business has a plan so the work is covered if an employee is absent. As a one-man operation, who will pick up if you drop the ball?  If you’re going to have contracts and down payments and act like a “real business,” you’ve got to be sure you’ve covered your side.  What happens if your machine breaks and it takes 3 weeks for a new part?  “Gee, I’m sorry but it isn’t my fault” doesn’t cut it.  


Start small. Very, very, small.  Do not be flattered or tempted to start a “waiting list.”  Don’t be afraid to offend people by saying “no.”  Since most of us start by making dresses for “friends,” pick the one that will be the easiest with whom to work, not necessarily your best buddy.  You know who’s crazy and who’s not.  Say “no” to crazy people, even if the TCRG begs.  Say “no” to crazy people even if the little girl is the sweetest thing who’s ever been born.  You don’t need crazy people.  You know exactly who I’m talking about.  You can list them. And they tend to cluster.


My first question to potential clients is, “Who’s your dance teacher?”  This is not because I’m snobby but because I won’t make dresses for ANYONE who goes to one particular school.  They’re all crazy.  You’ll learn which schools are more trouble than they’re worth, so you can be “booked up.”  If at all possible, DO NOT make dresses for dancers in your own school because they come with baggage.  Ann did not listen to me, took on her own school, and the stress became so bad that she almost gave it all up.  Thinking she was shutting down her business, she gave the school up…and the business was miraculously saved because the stress departed.  Right, Ann?  (Yes, yes…I thought I could handle it, but I had been so accommodating in the past helping with the school dresses as a mom, that changing the relationship to a business relationship was too difficult.  However, I also make the school dresses for the school we are with now, but I started my relationship with the TC as a dressmaker 3 years ago.  This situation has proved easily handled because of what we already had set up, and nothing changed when we joined the school this past year.) 


When you do venture out into another school, you need someone there you can trust, someone who thinks like you.  When Mrs. A calls to inquire, you call your friend and vet Mrs. A before you say yes.  Weed out the crazies.  When Mrs. A shows up and you figure out she’s crazy, don’t hesitate to say, “I’m afraid our visions/styles are not very compatible.  I think you will be much happier finding another dressmaker.” Don’t feel bad if the DD runs out to the driveway and cries.  Don’t back down.  Don’t weaken when they offer to change whatever.  If you got your guts up to say that, your guts were trying to tell you something important.  Listen to them.  When I started, there were very few sources of new or used dresses.  Threads of Green was “IT” and they had something like a 3 year wait.  So if I backed out of a dress, folks were really out of luck.  Now there are plenty of options for used dresses and OTRs.  So if a particular dress with you doesn’t work out, she won’t have to dance naked.  Don’t worry about it.


Back to small.  Your first customers, besides being sane, must also have another extremely important characteristic: no deadline.  I don’t care if the drop dead date is 6 months out, don’t promise anything.  You don’t know for sure what all will be involved when you “sew for strangers.”  You will not be comfortable and confident when you start.  This will affect your home and family.  Everyone will be uneasy. You don’t need deadlines on top of that.   


Do not take a deposit.  Have enough money to front the first few dresses entirely.  I have rarely taken a deposit, at least not until we’re well into finishing the dress, and never used a contract.  I know, I’m crazy.  But I wanted to be able to fire my customer if it wasn’t working.  Once you have that money or contract, you are stuck. I was probably stuck without it, but I felt like I could bolt if I had to.  Anyway, I was more comfortable assuming the costs in case I really screwed things up – at least they hadn’t paid for anything yet.  If this becomes a real business instead of a “hobby business,” then you can adjust your contract/deposit practices.  Don’t even think about doing a dress for someone you didn’t personally measure. And you will need to do fittings.  Do not trust anyone else to measure a dancer.  Not the mom, not the TCRG, not even another dressmaker (unless you really know her and have worked with her).  That will come later.


For steady income (but less creative fun), school dresses are where it’s at.  Schools are begging for dressmakers.  There’s a reason for that.  They aren’t willing to pay solo prices but want solo quality and extravagance.  Yes, fabrics are different and the design is repeated over and over, but when it comes to cutting out the dress and putting it together, there isn’t any difference between a solo dress and a school dress.  But they only want to pay you half a much for those hours.  At some point you’ll find a school that is willing to pay you any amount you want.  When that happens, there are lots of logistics to work out.  But even if you know in your heart of hearts this is the prefect, dream fit, do not take the job. You are in the driver’s seat – after all, if they had someone else, they wouldn’t be talking to you.  Agree to do ONE dress.  ONLY ONE.  INSIST AND STICK TO YOUR GUNS!!!  You will be donating your labor, and they will be donating the materials.  This is the prototype dress.  Make it to fit someone, but it is not “her dress.”   


Then everybody (parents, dancers, TCRG, you, your mom, etc) gets the opportunity to view the dress and comment.  (HINT:  be there when the dress is “unveiled” to the school parents.  Bask in the glow, but pay attention.  This is a good time to learn the ratio of crazies to not crazies in the school and you still have time to bail out!)  You and the TCRG work out which comments are reasonable and you decide what you’re willing to do.  Now you know how much work is involved in making this dress, and you can make sure the price is adequate (and work out the procedure for payment and ordering).  You can negotiate changes that will make the dress easier to make (“save money here”).  They’ll be able to see if the skirt is “too wide” or “too stiff” or “needs more appliqué” or whatever.  These are the things you don’t want to find out after you’ve delivered 6 dresses and all of a sudden they aren’t what the teacher expected.  And you’ll know how long it takes you to make a dress start to finish.  Add a week.  They’ll want to know “how long it takes” from time of order (measuring).  If you’re lucky, you can batch them and that will save some time, but don’t tell them that because then they’ll plan on it.   Remember, you will get the flu.  And, there will be a dress that almost puts itself together it flows so fast.  If you deliver that dress early to Mary, then Jane and Beth will be very, very upset if you take longer when they order their dresses.   What do you promise, and what is reasonable for the customer to expect?


This probably sounds like I think all ID parents are crazy.  Those that are will suck the joy of creating these dresses right out of you in one dress.  You’ve got two choices 1) prepare defensive business procedures to distance yourself from them (like ED and Gavin – no input, no returns) or 2) learn to spot them and cut them off before they start making you miserable.  I think most of us here opt for 2.  But you have to learn to say “no” and to fire customers. 


Ok, so what behavior am I calling crazy?  Simply, it is the act of trying to impose unreasonable expectations upon you. Please note that these expectations may come from the “mom,” the dancer, the TCRG or just a bunch of other moms in the school.   Specifically, watch out for:

  1. People who blame the dancer’s placement results on the current dress.  Your dress will be the next blamed.  These customers start out with statements like “All the other dancers in her competition have wrap/panel/Gavin/Elevation dresses and she NEEDS a new dress to get noticed” (and they mean NEEDS not WANTS).  Or “Her current dress is [not latest style for whatever reason] and it is costing her points.”   These customers NEED a different dressmaker because you don’t NEED them.  You want customers that appreciate the latest styles, sure, but who also know it is about dancing.  Let’s face it, how many World Champions can there be in a year?  Ten?  They are not your customers – your customers are the thousands and thousands of dancers who are NOT world champions.  And you really want customers who have enough grounding in reality to know where they stand.
  2. Run, run, run! if someone asks you to “make it so it is a perfect fit for the Oireachtas in 7 months.”
  3.  Nitpickers are poisonous.  I’m not talking about someone who has a reasonable request.  Usually it is the degree that separates the two.  Reasonable: “The sleeves are ¾” too long”.  Nitpicker: “The skirt is 1/8th too long.”
  4. Your PITA detector should go off when mom comes in and dumps all the decisions on you and the DD, who is 12.  The age is important.  At 12, the child understands expensive, has no way to contribute anything towards the cost of this dress, and is scared to death she’s going to make a very expensive mistake in whatever she picks out.  Therefore, she says nothing.  You will feel the need to keep the “conversation” moving and pull every single item in your stash out waiting for an eyebrow to twitch encouragingly.  If you must carry on with this project, make a dress you like and know you can sell off.  Guaranteed you will misinterpret what they want and go against what you think would be best in order to please them and fail.  Momma is just hanging back so she can complain later.
  5.  Avoid those with an “I’m doing you a big favor (seeing as how you’re not a Big Name) by letting you make this dress for my daughter” attitude.  They are only there because they want a cheap dress.
  6.  If someone comes in with swatches, file folders and index cards and says “We’re really open about designs and colors.  But I asked my daughter to draw up a picture of the dress she wants.  It is just so you have an idea…”  They’re not going to let you change ANYTHING about that design, no matter how awful.
  7.  Decline if someone comes in and says “We want this dress,” hands you a pic, and will not listen when first you point out ways to emulate the style without copying and then second, you state that you will not copy a design or a dress.  Don’t go there.
  8.  Oh, and if mom makes an appointment and shows up with DD and 8 other kids under the age of 9 (which she had to bring because she home schools but didn’t think it was important to mention that the whole crew would be showing up) – well you won’t see your cat or the remote control for at least a week.    

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mnwalshes
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 16:10:05

    Oh, Susan! I’m going to print this and read it over and over again. You’re right, I can go down the entire list and say, “yup, I did that and it didn’t work”. So, for the rest of you, SHE’S RIGHT!!! If only I would have had the information 3 years ago, and with that knowledge the ability to just listen and believe that you know what you are talking about. Our pastor today talked about the difference between knowing and understanding. He used the example of knowing what will happen if you stick your tongue to a frozen pole by hearing or seeing someone else do it, and the understanding of what would REALLY happen if you did it yourself (would it be the same?). Sometimes it takes us to learn things the hard way, and many of us have stuck our tongues to that pole even though we knew what would happen. (I’m the president of that club) But, everyone, listen to Susan and know that she truly understands all this by already having done so herself.

  2. spudsnsalsa
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 16:19:59

    Right on!!!! My first BIG slam came when I ‘fired’ my first customer and it burned a little but the mental relief was well worth the singe.
    90% of the time my PITA’s are the moms who have sweet kids who wish their moms would butt-out! But another warning sign is an older dancer who freely SLAMS her competitors in front of you! That is the type who will SLAM you as well. Frankly, this doesn’t leave very many customers in this new era of disrespect and anonymous message boards. The ‘sane’ families don’t run out to buy a solo minutes after qualifying for it and even when they do they often hit the used rack FIRST.
    My next ‘gut’ check are the moms who call saying, “I just love your work and want to order a dress AND MY DAUGHTER IS BRINGING SKETCHES OF HER DREAM DRESS”!!! My standard answer is “I do not color by number” or try to make the exact replica of a sketch. There are too many variables that can intervene (ie not being able to find that just right shade of fabric) which will result in disappointment in your attempt to create “HER DREAM DRESS”. Arrogantly, I feel if they ‘truely’ loved my work and wanted one of ‘my’ dresses then they shouldn’t ask me to ‘paint by number’ the sketch they provide.

    Oh, this post hit a nerve! I have 30 years of PITA’s under my belt and I could write a book….then again it looks like I just did! Sorry for the long post.

  3. Susan
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 16:22:24

    I had that “dream dress drawing” on my list, but Ann took it off for some reason…

  4. taoknitter
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 16:23:36

    Please don’t apologize for long posts…I love them! I learn so much about you when you write a lot. Go for it!

  5. idance2
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 16:36:52

    I loved this post. Being a TCRG and a mom! I don’t know a thing about sewing but I can give my opinions and thoughts. I remember Susan showing up at a class to deliver a dress – and it was beautiful – the girl was in her glory with all her friends watching! (actually to this day it is still one of my favorites!)

  6. Susan
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 17:06:38

    One last thing – I’m surprised I forgot it. You may want to print this out and hang it up someplace where you can see it when you consult with your clients.

    “I have better things to do than make ugly dresses”

    Seriously, you do. You don’t have to make dresses you don’t like. Ugly dresses take twice as long (or at least they feel that way), you cringe whenever you see it worn or in pictures, and you never get that feeling of pride. This all is a subtle form of stress. You’ll worry that people will think that you think it is wonderful. You’ll worry that it will attract more of the same. Who needs this?

    If her vision of the “dream dress” is, to you, butt ugly, suggest they go elsewhere.

  7. ginafoster
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 19:05:35

    Yep yep and yep. I know some of these apply to me, I also have a school whose Dresses I won’t go within a mile of (even to alter). I actually had the TCRG try to dictate the MM of the stitch width!

    Go with Susan’s advice. My advice right now is to keep this a hobby – as I pay off the bills my company ran up before it died a painful death due to my illness.

  8. spudsnsalsa
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 21:26:36

    ROFL!! Please give a Depends warning for us ‘old-timers’ next time! I am going into my art program immediately to create a banner for my sewing room. How exactly should I word the author credit?…Susan?…Susan Gowin?

  9. dianecohoon
    Jan 14, 2008 @ 11:06:48

    I can’t tell you how many of these things have been on my own advice list to other people over the years! And many of these had been given to me by my buddy Suzanne – the most importany one – being able to say NO!!!! She taught me that one very early on and I use that regularly. Thanks Suzanne! I hope many of you heed her advice on those two great letters of the alphabet and Susan’s great woods of wisdom. I could not agree more with the whole thing.

  10. mendylady
    Jan 14, 2008 @ 14:03:35

    This is good advice for dressmaking (or knitting, or making things for others in any craft) in any genre. The issue hasn’t really come up for me, as I haven’t been active enough in my chosen geek fields to be asked for dressmaking services very much, but I had a friend who helped with the costuming for her Renaissance Faire guild, and her guidelines seem very reasonable to me. If the person was helping and learning and generally not being a pita in the process, she called it “sewing lessons” and charged nothing – the person came out of the process with a good set of skills (I watched a few times, she was a very good teacher) and wouldn’t need help the next time. If the person didn’t want to help in any way, but just wanted her to do all the work, she charged something exorbitant (I’m not sure if my memory of $50 an hour is accurate) and gave it her best shot – in between house and relationships and school and so on (she was in school to become a large animal vet). I have occasionally discussed sewing commissions with friends – but they were always people who understood the value of what they were asking and when to bow out of the design process. I wouldn’t have considered working with anyone who didn’t. I have also been lucky in the people around me in regards to knitting, but I have heard some real horror stories about people who just don’t get how much work it is; this is getting long, so I won’t go into that, but I’ll leave it at that I’m happy that the people around me (right now, anyway) understand the value of the work and appreciate the effort that goes into it. I don’t make things a second time for people who don’t appreciate what I make the first time.

  11. maryhorton60
    Jan 14, 2008 @ 22:13:28

    Thank you Susan and Ann, Great advice, I really wanted to keep my dress making as a hobby, earning a little out of it, I was enjoying making the dresses until this one. I only new how to make Susan’s pattern. Just put petals on them, when my first dresses were danced in I felt pleased and happy that they looked well and everyone loved them, but the phone never stopped. It was hard to say no. I got a phone call yesterday and had to say no but when my sister and her friends heard that they nearly had a fit as the lady was an aducator. But im only one person and I cant work miracles. I’m learning to say no. I dont want to feel sick every time I start a dress. I really like the Mum of that last dress but I dont think I’ll make for her again. As it caused some disagreement. But thats another story.

    Mary H.

  12. jiggedyjig
    Jan 15, 2008 @ 09:21:33

    Hi Susan: I WAS listening to everything you said the other night. And here it is in print! Yes, I too will print it out and read it over and over and over. One dress, one dress, one dress, one dress!

    I thought I would share the saying from a plaque I just bought at a little Irish shop that incidentally was going out of business…

    “If your outgoings are more than your income, your upkeep will be your downfall.”

    I’ll hang Susan’s post right next to this.
    Thanks! Jennifer MacLellan

  13. catirish
    Jan 16, 2008 @ 22:35:18

    Boy am I glad I asked! This all sounds like very sound advice, and I am taking it to heart. In the meantime I’ve had fun making costumes for a play, so maybe I’ll just keep ID dressmaking as a hobby. LOL! Thanks so much Susan for sharing your wisdom.

  14. alex22152
    Jan 23, 2008 @ 18:12:38


    A few of your points hit uncomfortably close to home for this former client (dancer now retired, for those of you who don’t know me), and yet we’re still friends. Excellent advice, done in your usual thorough, dissecting style.

    I’m not a DM (knitter), but I certainly can appreciate the business advice. My husband, BTW, is a self-employed and adds a 15% PITA surchange when his ESP kicks into gear. He has no trouble telling potential problem clients that he is booked for the foreseeable future.


  15. Susan
    Jan 24, 2008 @ 20:13:52

    Hi Stephanie! I can’t imagine which of my “rules” you think you may have violated! You, Darcie and Maddie are all sweethearts. Opinionated sweethearts, but I can deal. And you never even CONSIDERED dancing for my problem school.


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