Seamstresses and consumers will likely have two different answers to this question. Why is that? Because the world of fast fashion has accustomed consumers to the low prices that are only achievable through massive quantities of garments produced in overseas factories where workers are paid the bare minimums that keep them in extreme poverty.
Another problem is that many of us who start small businesses often undercharge at the beginning. This may be because we have feelings of inadequacy, we wonder if we will ever be successful, or we feel that we just need to gain some clientele before we charge what we actually wish we could charge. However, as time passes we realize we have essentially shot ourselves in the foot. We have trained the consumer to believe that our time and labor is only worth the price tag we originally put on it. But, is that so?
If you are currently employed, or wish to be employed, I want you to think about how much you expect to get paid when you go to work. Here in the United States, most jobs pay between $10-20/hour. For skilled labor, let's say $15-20/hour. For those with full-time jobs, these earnings many times come with health benefits.
The self-employed (which is the category independent seamstresses fall under) do not have those benefits. That means that when unexpected medical expenses arise, we are on our own. When our machines need to be serviced or when our tools need to be replaced, it comes out of our pockets. When we pay credit card or marketplace fees, again, we are the ones paying for it. All of those things need to be factored in, but just for the sake of this argument, let's take $15/hour as a middle ground. When deciding what your hourly wage will be, remember you deserve to make a living too.
So let's talk about what goes into the process of creating a made-to-measure skirt for a client, since that is usually the simplest of the garment types. Just sewing some fabric together, right? Not even close!
To start off, there is the first contact with a client, in which the style of skirt, type of fabric, and size is discussed. The majority of people have no idea what type of fabric is needed, so you find yourself sourcing a few fabric choices for them. You estimate how much fabric it would take to complete their order and then wait to hear back. At this point you have already spent at least 20-30 minutes....$5.00-7.50 of your time.
You get the fabric ordered. You launder the fabric for them. You iron it. If you have to go to a laundromat like me, there's at least $3 in cost and another $5 of your time. (running total: $10.00-12.50 plus cost)
Then, a pattern needs to be either drafted or purchased and then cut out. Drafting takes paper and drafting tools. A straight skirt, the simplest of skirts, takes a minimum of 15 minutes to draft. Complex skirts can take an hour or more. Even when a commercial pattern is used, there is the outright cost of the pattern and then the time to trace and cut the pattern. If it's a digital pattern, getting the pattern together can take an hour or more because of having to tape together all the pieces of paper before tracing and cutting out. So let's go with a range of $7.50-15 in time plus the cost of paper or pattern and tape. (running total: $17.50-$27.50 plus cost)
Finally we get to cutting and sewing. Depending on the fabric, the cutting may not be so straightforward as most people might think. Is the pattern directional? Does it have a print that needs to be "fussy cut"? Is the fabric difficult to work with? Does it need to be interfaced? How many pattern pieces are there? Difficult fabrics also present a challenge when sewing. Many pattern pieces obviously contribute to the length of sewing time. What type of closure will the skirt have? Does it have a vent? Does it have pockets? For the simplest skirt, this process can take about 4 hours. For more complex, ready-to-wear style skirts, you can be looking at 8+ hours. (running total: $77.50-147.50 plus cost).
Finally, we get to ship the items. This includes the cost of packaging, branding, time spent packaging and shipping the items, possibly gas money. Actual postage is usually charged separately, so we wont include that in our estimate. (running total: $82.50-152.50 plus cost)
We are at a grand total of $82.50-152.50 in labor plus the cost of materials--fabric, buttons, zippers, interfacings--,money spent laundering fabric, and packaging items. Sound like a lot? It is a lot. It's a lot of work...work that we deserve to get paid for.
This simple exercise used skirts as an example, but if a garment includes a bodice, especially a fitted bodice, you're looking at 2-3 times the amount of work with the addition of multiple fittings. If it's a special event garment, you could be looking at a full work week. Again, if you're currently employed, how much do you expect to get paid for a full work week? Why should seamstresses get paid any less? And, seamstresses, why shouldn't our time be worth just as much as everyone else's?
So, next time someone asks, "Can you make this for $50?" (shows picture of couture evening gown), don't be afraid to say, "No." Take some time now to think about what your time is worth to you. Establish a reasonable wage for yourself. Be honest with yourself about how long it will take you to make a garment, and have a price list readily available so you can confidently refer your clients to it. Don't forget, seamstresses deserve to make a living too.