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The Cost of Commissioning (Again)

Michael Holmes and Ollure Fantasy Photography posed some questions/comments about how work should be priced/valued.  Out of all the questions I've ever received for the weekly Q&A, these really have weighed on my mind the most!  Pricing out costumes is something that I have to do all the time, and I think there are a lot of misconceptions that potential commissioners have about this process.  I've done a similar note to this before, but I thought I'd elaborate (and invite other commissioners to throw in their $0.02) on it a bit more.  Along with my writing, I have included a few pictures of my work with the general material costs for each project shown.


There are four parts to most commission estimates:


- Costume and wig materials/supplies

- Costume and wig styling labor time

- Contract labor

- Travel time


Hector (Fire Emblem)

Approximate Materials Cost: $500.00 to $600.00


Gathering Your Ingredients


Let's start with costume and wig supplies.  A customer wants a Black Canary costume.  Simple right?  Well...that depends!


Black spandex for lining, 1 yard = $9.00 (Spandexworld)

Black matte vinyl for exterior, 1 yard = $13.00 (Spandexworld)

Gold metallic spandex for piping, 1/8 yard = $1.50, $3.75, or $12.00 (will explain below)

Gold zipper, 1 = $5.39 (local Jo-Ann's, tax included - priced via webstie)

Black leather gloves, 1 = $22.00 + $8.00 shipping (eBay)

Fishnet stockings, 1 = $9.00 + $5.00 shipping (We Love Colors)

Boots, 1 = $65.55 (Shoes.com)

Rectangle buckles, 10 = $32.29 (local Tandy Leather, tax included)

Leather strapping 72" length, 2 = $53.98 (local tandy Leather, tax included)

Wig, 1 = $25.00 to $35.00



AND, that isn't even everything.  I still need to account for shipping from Spandexworld, thread, gold spray paint, and rivets. Want to get really nit picky?


What about that gold metallic spandex?  Well, I can get it from Spandexworld online for $12.00 per yard...but I have to order a minimum of one yard.  If I lived in New York, I technically could go directly to Spandexworld and buy just 1/8th of a yard for $1.50 plus tax.  But, I live in Atlanta.  I've seen the gold metallic spandex at Gail K, but they sell it for $30.00 a yard.  That means I can get 1/8th of a yard for $3.75 plus tax here, but I need to take the time to drive all the way in to town for it.


See the problem? 


Do I drive to Gail K just to get a tiny bit of fabric for piping, fight traffic (even without traffic, it still takes a little while to get there) or do I buy the one yard minimum, spend a bit more, and take advantage of the convenience?  That drive takes me about one hour for a round trip, and that hour could be better spent sewing, patterning, leather working, etc.  Alternatively, let's say I buy the full yard from Spandexworld online.  Do I send the remaining 7/8th yard to the customer, or do I keep the rest of the fabric, use it for other projects, and only charge them for the 1/8th I used?  What if no one ever orders Black Canary from me again?  Now, I've eaten the cost of that fabric.


Can I get some of the above supplies cheaper?  Of course I can.  My Black Canary boots were about $30.00 when I got them (ahem, in high school) and I got my gloves at Walmart for $10.00 on winter clearance.  Well, now it is summer time, so finding black leather gloves at Walmart isn't very likely and while I could scour all the thrift stores in town for knee high black lace up boots (like mine), I could literally spend the entire day just driving around everywhere trying to find one pair of boots and one pair of gloves.  That time is much better spent actually...well...sewing the costume together.  So, to save time, I look online for the boots.  My local beauty shop probably has black fishnets for about $5.00, so we could deduct $9.00 there.  But...let's say I have a lot of projects going on that all require tights.  I can order ten pairs of tights online, all from one vendor, in just a few minutes.  I can spread out the shipping cost amongst many people (even zero it out with enough pairs of tights), and it leaves me more time to sew.


Black Canary (DC Comics)

Approximate Material Costs: $250.00


Stop, labor time!  Duh nun nun!


Commissioners can't just charge for material costs alone if they want to make a living off costume making.  They need to charge for labor, too.  Since sewing is a skilled trade, it isn't quite fair to charge just minimum wage.  Also, if the commissioner works for themselves, there are a lot of hidden costs that they need to cover.  Working for an employer...things like machine maintenance, new machines, health insurance, supplies, taxes, business license, etc. are taken care of by that entity.    Remember, just like the rest of ya'll with regular 9 to 5s, I have to pay taxes, too.  I just fill out a different set of forms!  If you need to cover these things yourself, you need to account for them in your hourly rate or add on to each project (if you charge per project rather than per hour).


I won't disclose what I charge per hour, but think of it this way.  Federal minimum wage is $7.25.  I've worked under master skill level seamstresses (i.e. decades of experience) who bill $40.00 per hour.  It isn't amateur hour in my studio, but I also don't have decades of experience behind me.  My rate is somewhere in between.


Kei and Yuri (Dirty Pair)

Approximate Material Costs: $250.00


Paying Other People


I'm not a prop maker or a master wig stylist.  So, if I need a fancy prop or really big teased hair, I go to someone else.  I know what my strengths are, and having the sense to go to someone else for specialized things can save you a lot of headache, time, and as a result, money in the long run.


Whatever price a contractor charges me, that is the price and I calculate it in just like another set of supplies.


On the road again...


Think really hard about your most complicated costume.  How many places did you have to travel to just to gather supplies?  Just as an example for me:


- Gail K Fabrics in midtown Atlanta

- Jo-Ann fabrics on the north end of the Atlanta area

- Tandy Leather Factory over in Tucker, GA

- Home Depot for extra bits and pieces

- Wig shop for hair

- Walmart or Shoeland for footwear

- Hair stylist to get big hair

- Prop maker's house to pick up a huge sword

- UPS store to get packing peanuts and a box

- USPS for shipping because it is usually the least expensive


I just went to ten different places for ONE costume.  Think of all the time it will take me to drive around to all these destinations, find my supplies, and head back home.  If I don't charge some sort of hourly rate for material gathering, I've literally lost an entire day (or two) of paid work.  This is the exact reason that I prefer to order a lot of stuff online (wigs, shoes, notions, etc).  It is a HUGE time saver.  Alternatively, if I absolutely need to drive out to various places, I do my best to purchase supplies for multiple projects.  By doing that, it actually saves money/time for everyone involved.


Sailor Moon Wig in 24B

Approximate Material Cost: $150.00

This one is fairly pricey in materials because 24B is notoriously difficult to match, so I order two extra long base wigs and shorter wefted extensions for the criss cross.  I also get metal parts for odango covers, a wig head, hair nets, wig cap, and don't forget the shipping box and packing peanuts.


Answering Emails


I can't say that I really enjoy answering emails.  I'd certainly rather be sewing!  In the three and a half years that I've been commissioning for people, I have received and sent, literally, thousands of emails.  How many projects do I take on each year?  Certainly not thousands, or even hundreds.  That means that a very large percentage of those emailed commission requests I get become abandoned by the potential customer.  Quite often, when I get a request, I need to do some amount of research to figure out if it is feasible not just from a sewing standpoint, but also from a budget standpoint.  Some requests are fairly easy to figure out.  For example, when people send me requests for a Fai coat (Tsubasa Chronicles) and their listed budget is $250.00 to $500.00, I know that I simply can't work within those parameters.  Just to put things in perspective, the airbrushing alone was about $250.00 and the labor put into this was quite intensive (around 90 hours from what I remember).


Fai D. Flowright Coat (Tsubasa Chronicles)


Other times, I'll get a request that is very open ended (i.e. flexible budget), which is exciting, but that means I need to research general material costs and make an educated guess at how long it will take to create.  Not everyone is the same size, so even if I've made the outfit before, it may take me a bit longer to create one for a different size.  Beyond just making a new pattern (or modifying one I already have), if I need to change proportions, colors, etc. that all adds to the labor time.


So, let's say I have fifty commission requests in my mail box.  Let's also say that I average about two and a half minutes to answer each email.  Well, 50emails x 2.5minuteseach = 125minutes / 60minutesinonehour = 2 hours just to answer those emails. And, you know what?  I don't get paid to answer emails.  All the time I spend answering emails is time I can't spend making someone's outfit.


So, at the end of all that, not everyone gets back to me.  That is totally expected and there are many reasons for this.  A lot of people are simply shopping around for prices.  Some people are just curious and had no intention to purchase a costume to begin with.  Then, there is a small percentage of people that do want a very high quality piece of clothing.  Those are the people that end up on my schedule.


Remember, the next time you send that commission request to any commissioner, think really hard about the service you're asking for.  You need to be prepared to pay someone else for the luxury of catering to your every costuming need.  This includes the difficult stuff like sewing, styling, and building, but also the not so exciting stuff like driving to the fabric store and the post office.


Thanks for reading, and I really hope this was informative!