Tuesday, September 6, 2022

How to Get Started with Alterations for Money

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How to Get Started with Alterations for Money

If you know how to sew, chances are that someone has asked you to do alterations for them (sidebar, if you're an avid baker, do people ask you to make bread for them?). If you aren't comfortable doing alterations, I strongly encourage you to shoo those people away. Your time, energy, and skills belong to you and nobody has a right to them. But, if you think you're ready to take the first steps into making alterations for money, I'm here to share my do's and don'ts and what I've learned!

Overcoming fear

I got into alterations the way most people probably do...reluctantly. It started last year when a good friend asked me if I could help out the high school marching band with a costume they needed made. It was around the time when all my kids started elementary school for the first time, and I suddenly had hours during the day to take on work. Long story short, the band ended up leaning on my ideas more than my sewing skills, but I made a little bit of money and got experience meeting with clients I didn't know.

That first meeting...I was SO scared! What if they asked me something I didn't know? What if I was totally out of my depth? What if they wanted something impossible, could I finesse my way out of it? What if they took one look at me and decided I wasn't professional enough? Yes, I have anxiety, but I imagine any sewist would think some of these things.

I did three things to help myself overcome these fears. First, I bought a binder. Yes, it sounds silly. I bought a brand new, professional-ish looking binder, pens, and a fresh tape measure. I already had business cards (super generic, just my logo, website and email address) so I stuck a couple in the binder. I am 100% a believer in fake it until you make it, and giving myself the things that made me look successful was a part of that.

Second, I charged way too little for my time. Only you can choose the price that makes you comfortable, but for me I went with $15/hour. I have since started calling this the "friends and family rate" but the truth is, that was my introductory, low-stress, low-pressure, take-a-chance-on-me price. It was enough money that I felt I wasn't wasting all my time, but not so much that it stressed me out. I did not charge for my mileage, for my consultation time, etc. though I'm sure professionals do. Looking back, I'm super happy I started with a low rate and took that pressure off myself.

The third thing I did to prepare was to give myself permission to refer out a job. In addition to the custom costume, the marching band needed some alterations done to their drum major uniforms. They wanted a factory pleated, plaid kilt without a hem allowance lengthened. Once I looked over the kilt, I knew there was no way I could give them what they wanted. I was doubtful anybody could. But rather than take on the job because I was embarrassed to say no, I admitted that it was beyond my skill set, and gave them the names of two local shops they could call instead. 

The Right Clients

After the band costume, it didn't take long for someone else to hear that I was sewing for money and ask me if I made alterations. Again, the person who asked me was a very kind friend, the sort of person where you don't want to say no. The alterations were for her teenage daughter, and we started with something like 5 pieces. 

This time, I went the extra mile and created some invoice sheets (you can buy them in my Etsy shop, they are editable and you can add your own logo). This paperwork was the next step in my "try to look professional" plan. Again, I showed up with my binder and took notes and measurements and gave an estimate of my time for completion. It happened to be December and I was honest that handmade gifts for my family would be taking priority over alterations. Because I was working with sweet, super nice people, they made no demands on me. 

Over the next 8 months, I ended up doing alterations for these clients two or three more times. I charged my low, $15/hour rate. I made trips to their home for fittings and didn't charge extra. I think one single time I charged for a spool of thread. While I didn't make a huge profit in dollars, that work was invaluable to me for other reasons. I got the opportunity to work on everything from pants to hoodies to a prom dress. I practiced pinning on a real person and taking good enough notes to work from later. I was forced to estimate my time for a hem, for changing a sleeve, for moving a zipper. Basically, it was a paid internship.

The Next Step

After months of alterations for one teenager, she graduated high school and moved away to college. It felt like the natural time to both raise my rates, and also to make it more publicly known that I was doing alterations. I posted on my personal Facebook page and landed another job right away. This time, I charged $20/hour, and she came to my home for her fitting and item pick up.

After almost a year of on again off again alterations, I was astounded to find that I was *gasp* enjoying it! I cannot describe the way it felt to alter a garment, message someone that it was ready, and have them immediately pay me electronically. Sewing, this thing that started as a hobby and grew into a passion, is valuable. It's a skill. It's worth paying for and I CAN DO IT!

Other Opportunities

At this time, I have also gotten a few contract sewing jobs via Upwork. These are not alterations, they are more like sample sewing. There are often regional sewing jobs posted there, but I've seen quite a few that are remote. To protect clients and freelancers Upwork handles all the payment details (for a fee) but so far it's been a good experience. I can choose my own pay rate each time I bid for a job. It's easy to apply for jobs within the app, to log my time there, and to get paid.

I've also poked around on Indeed and there are sewing jobs there, but usually local ones with a more traditional application process. It never hurts to send an email and ask for remote sewing work even if the job is advertised as local.

Heading into the holiday season, I've also toyed with the idea of making some small items for a pop-up shop. Zippered bags, reusable gift wrap, etc. We'll see if I end up having the time, but as a side gig, once a year only thing I don't hate the idea. 

Further Reading

Angela Wolf wrote a great book in 2012 called How to Start a Home-Based Fashion Design Business. I've pulled it out again recently with fresh eyes, it's a great resource if you're curious about different ways to turn sewing into a business. 

If you need any reminders about how to stay firm in your skills, your value, and the crazy kinds of things people will ask you to do, check out the Instagram account Can You Sew This For Me

Do you make alterations for money? What has your experience been like? Let me know in the comments!

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