Sewing to Sell: Is it right for you?

Previously I’ve posted about saving money by sewing….but how about MAKING money by sewing?  Or at least covering the costs of a sewing hobby?  For decades I’ve made extra money by doing alterations, but during the past 3 years I’ve also sold my sewn  items online.

This month I’m celebrating 1,000 online sales through the Etsy website…mostly sewn items, with a few “supplies” and “vintage” thrown in.  Etsy is a fantastic venue for small home-based businesses to sell handcrafted products to a worldwide audience. The cost to set up a shop is tiny, and the exposure is huge. Have you ever wondered if selling your sewing projects online could be a good option for you?

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If you love to sew, and feel comfortable selling what you make, an online shop might be a great choice for you…but it does take time and effort. In this post, I’ll share what I’ve learned over  3 years of sewing to sell on the web. (Note: I’m not going to discuss the technicalities of setting up an Etsy shop, because that is all covered on the Etsy website in Forums,  Teams, and  Tutorials that are available to sellers. From now through January 27th, 2017, you can sign up for an online program to help you set up a shop on Etsy here: https://www.etsy.com/resolution?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social_organic&utm_campaign=success_etsyresolution)

First a short background on my little shop. How did I decide on Etsy? Several years ago, I was a Technical Designer at Puma athletic-wear in downtown Boston, Massachusetts.  During lunchroom conversations with co-workers, I discovered that several of them designed and created fashion accessories that they sold online, through Etsy.  I’d been selling  household items on eBay for several years, so the online part of selling and shipping was familiar. There are many venues for setting up shop online (Big Cartel, Amazon Handmade, StoreEnvy, etc) . I recommend anyone who is interested to do some basic research and see which format appeals to you. For me, Etsy is fun and creative, because of the Etsy online community. Other people prefer the autonomy of their own stand-alone website. And depending on where you live, there may be better opportunities to sell in markets, face-to-face with consumers….or in boutiques.


Are you thinking about sewing to sell? Here are some common questions many sewists ask:

1. Is my sewing ‘good enough’ to sell?There’s a huge difference between having friends and family tell you “Oh that’s so cute, you could sell those!”….and actually having strangers hand over money in exchange for your work. Selling handmade-by-you is very different from selling name-brand product (such as selling used games and books on eBay) : not only does the customer need to trust that you will indeed ship what you sold, but they have to go beyond that to trust that your workmanship is worth the price.

Ask friends to be ruthless.  Question them with “What do you think someone would pay for this?“.  Since they have no clue how much it cost you to make, they can be more objective about the market value. Some sewing projects are truly “labors of love” that require far too many man-hours to make a profit (ahem, tee-shirt quilts)….others have the possibility to bring in real dollars in relation to the effort required to make them (headbands, infinity scarves).

Practice making samples to perfect your techniques, and to figure out your costs more accurately. This will help you in determining your prices….many new sellers actually lose money in the beginning, as we tend to underestimate the amount of time needed to finish a project. Time is your most valuable asset: time yourself when sewing each sample, so that you can price accordingly .


 

2. “Do I really want to sell what I sew?” Is this a hobby,  or a potential business? Selling involves a whole lot more than just creating pretty things. There is actually a tee-shirt with the saying on it “I just want to make pretty things“….an inside joke for online sellers who know that “making pretty things” is only half the story. The other half involves:

  • photographing your product
  • writing product descriptions
  • pricing your products and your shipping rates
  • purchasing supplies for making, labelling, packing, shipping
  • keeping track of supply inventory
  • conversing with potential customers, answering questions
  • wrapping, packing, weighing, shipping
  • paying income taxes on your sales (state and federal)
  • collecting and remitting sales tax (state)

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Is there anything here that you hate to do, and can hand off to somebody else? Personally I don’t like doing taxes, but I’m blessed with a detail-oriented husband who does the books for me, and we hire a very professional accountant to review and file our taxes.


3. “What should I sell?”  This may sound obvious, but your product line should be something that you love to make, not just what’s “in” at the moment. For example, little girls tutu skirts are always a best-seller…but I hate using tulle!  It would be torture for me to make tutus all day long. Embroidered tee-shirts are also super-popular, but I cannot for the life of me figure out my embroidery machine.

One key to success is to sell items that are in the critical balance between unique and popular. Being too unusual (or too early for a trend) can mean that nobody understands what you are selling, and therefore not enough customers buy it.  Following too closely to trends (or being on the waning side) can result in 2 issues:

  • Being copied by other shops…or worse, by mass-manufacturers who can do it cheaper and faster
  • Being in competition with lots of shops selling similar product, which can result in 3 problems:
  1. Needing to compete on price
  2. Needing to spend lots of time and effort on social media to make your shop stand out from the competition
  3. Not being able to put your shop in “vacation mode” whenever you feel like taking a break, or catching up with orders…because customers won’t wait for you to return, they will simply buy from another shop making the same product. The more unique your range, the more likely that interested customers will wait for you to re-open your shop and take new orders.

4. “How can I figure out if my product idea has sales potential? Luckily there is a ton of free information for you, right online!  No matter which sales site you choose, you can log into Etsy and search for any item on the search-bar on the front page of the site, and instantly find out if that item is being sold already, and how many items (or “listings”) there currently are for sale. Then you can click on any one of them and find out what it looks like, how much it’s selling for, even what customers are saying about the products after receiving them.

As an example, let’s say that you have an idea to sell baby bibs in the popular bandanna shape, in trendy arrow prints.  A quick search on Etsy would tell you that currently there are 1,000+ “arrow bandanna bibs” listed, from several dozen shops.  Some of those sellers have long histories, with loyal customers.  I would strongly suggest coming up with a different product idea.

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This information can help you decide if the items you are considering selling are already offered in quantity (making it difficult for a new shop to stand out), are in demand, and what prices they are attracting.  You would never want to look at other shops just to copy their product though…the key is to be fresh and new and give your customer a unique reason to purchase. Copying is uncreative and therefore hard to maintain without getting bored, plus it means competing on price: a no-win for both shops.

The goal is to find your own product niche:  to be inspired by trends, whether in magazines, blogs, media….but give your shop a twist.  For example, right now fashion is in a Tribal/Ethnic/Afro-Punk/Bohemian moment. Personally I don’t make “Boho” (fringe trimmings, tassles, wild colors and eclectic print mixes); my shop  is more Romantic/Classic (delicate laces, Victorian whites).

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However, I can adjust my offerings a bit by using heavier Cluny laces, more substantial crochet edgings, and natural un-dyed fabrics instead of white….more Rustic/Shabby-Chic?  Whether your “look” is Preppy/Athletic, or Glitz/Luxe, your shop should reflect personal style and taste.

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5. “Should I make stock, or take custom orders? Each has benefits and shortfalls:

  • Stock: sewing “short runs” of products can be less stressful than the time-pressure of custom-made orders….however you need space to store your inventory, and may need to take mark-downs on slow-sellers, which can cut into profit. You need to be very attune to the trends in the market, not just in current styles and colors, but also in what sizes sell best and how much to make of each size. Obviously it’s easier to manage short-runs if you sew accessories or bags, since they don’t require multiple sizes.
  • Custom orders: less space is needed to store merchandise, all you need is room for photo-samples, and fabric yardage. The only markdowns needed are for samples of discontinued styles. The trade-off is that each order is stressful due to time crunch. Customers are only willing to wait a certain length of time to receive their order, and often emergencies arise that require re-scheduling your order queue (birthdays, photo-shoots, baptisms, etc).

Also there is the matter of copying: if you take custom-orders, or make one-of-a-kind pieces (OOAK), there is less chance that your items will be copied by mass-manufacturers.

I started out hoping to sew short-runs of product, but quickly found out that it wasn’t feasible for me. Since I didn’t have any client-following built up from craft-fairs or “brick-and-mortar” shops, I was starting from scratch in building a customer base: I wasn’t getting enough sales to “turn” the stock. Once I switched to taking custom orders, my sales grew.  It took me about a year to develop a cohesive shop, and reach the point where I had consistent sales. (I usually have about a half-dozen orders in my queue):

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In sum, here’s my advice for anyone considering sewing-to-sell:

  1. Work on perfecting your sewing until you are confident in selling it
  2. Decide if you want to go beyond “hobby” sewing into a business, even if only a small 1-person operation
  3. Do your “due diligence” to see if your range has sales potential
  4. Find your “niche” product line
  5. Decide on selling stock items, or custom-orders

One final thought: there are many side-benefits to selling what you sew, other than making a bit of cash to support your fabric addiction, or allow you to purchase materials to sew for charity, or upgrade your sewing equipment.

  1. It can be tremendously fulfilling to interact with customers who appreciate your talent and abilities. Often I hear about sewists making lovely things for friends and family who don’t seem to show thankfulness. How much more fulfilling to create something for a customer who loves what you make?
  2. It can push you to go beyond your comfort zone, especially if you take custom orders: you never know what somebody will ask you to make! Some of my favorite pieces in my shop came about at the request of customers.
  3. It can boost your confidence in your sewing, as consistent daily sewing improves your skill level, and can make you a more efficient and prolific sewist.

So, who already sells what they sew? And who has made it a goal for 2017? Is anything holding you back?


Postscript: 3 days after I posted this, Etsy published this guide, which reinforces just about everything I wrote.  Great minds think alike LOL

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4 Responses to Sewing to Sell: Is it right for you?

  1. Julie R says:

    Thank you so much for this information! I have thought a lot about opening an Etsy shop and I appreciate the information you laid out here.

  2. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Thanks Julie! It took me awhile to make the jump, but meeting people who had already done it made things less daunting. This could be the year for you!

  3. Monica Mathias says:

    Thank you so much for this information! My daughter and I have been discussing setting up an etsy shop for two years now.

  4. 7pinedesign@comcast.net says:

    Hi Monica! That would be an amazing adventure to do it together. Etsy is such a great place to start a business, because you don’t need a full “store” as you would in a stand-alone site. I’ve seen very successful Etsy shops with only 10 listings….whereas that would look silly in a BigCartel store. You can begin by sewing just a handful of items, photograph them and set up listings, then take custom orders from there. If you make a variety of sizes and color options, then it’s like having a full shop, but without needing to sew all that inventory! What are you thinking of selling?

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