“I’m a US size 8,” said my European client in our third email exchange. I’d just been hired to help her realize her dream…pajamas she’d planned down to the last detail with a side-closing mandarin collar, accent cuffs, and roomy pockets that were sewn into the side seams but weren’t uncomfortable to lay on. The devil is in the details, and it was time to meet the devil head-on so I could draft her pattern. The problem was, I was an ocean away and had no plans to travel just to sew together some flannel.
I’m a seamstress, among other things, when it suits me. I learned what I know the old-fashioned way: by pretending my mother was trying to kill me when she’d stop sewing to teach me a trick or share an invaluable tidbit, and once I left the house I had the benefit of tackling projects far greater than my skill because I could always call home and have her throw me a lifeline.
The natural ability I got from my mother wasn’t sewing or alterations, however. That’s always been an uphill battle. Rather, I got her creativity which has served me very well in the 21st century, where the internet has made it easier to find the craftsperson who can help you acquire the perfect homemade item, but distance has added an entirely unique set of challenges.
“I’m going to need these measurements from you,” I replied, and rattled off what must have been a confusing list. She was asking me to cover her properly from neck to ankles, in a custom outfit, after all. She replied that it was no problem and she would get them to me that evening, and I set to work raiding my stash of patterns to see what I had in her size range that I could draw from to draft her pattern.
That evening the measurements around and I found myself in a pickle. One of several things was going on here. Either she refused to admit what size she really was, she’d been out of the states so long that her size had changed drastically but her worn-in clothing was more forgiving than a new item would be, or she had no idea how to measure herself. I’d never seen her, so I didn’t know which was most likely, and I was stuck trying to figure out how to tell a woman I didn’t know that something was terribly wrong, without it sounding like I was committing a terrible faux pas on the stranger who was kind enough to hire me.
“Um…the measurements you gave me are closer to a US size 18,” I wrote. “Can you tell me how you measured?”
Now, being that my mother is a seamstress who has worked miracles with cloth as long as I’ve known her, I have long dreaded having to stand there to have my measurements taken. I assumed that everyone knew either directly or at least from television in movies that a tailor’s tape is what is used to take measurements, so imagine my shock (and relief) when she replied that her husband had taken her measurements with a carpenter’s retractable tape measure.
“People are not boards,” I responded. “You’re using the wrong tool for the job, but you can either go buy a tailor’s tape, or you can wrap a string around yourself and then use the retractable tape measure to measure the string.”
Her next set of measurements was much more reasonable.
The Internet is for…well…not JUST that.
Custom orders via internet have become huge business. The reason for this is twofold. The first is that seamstresses who can draft patterns and like a challenge can easily find new clients who understand what they’re worth by going virtual. The second is what I like to call a PG version of Rule 34 (don’t google it), which is “If you can dream it up, there’s going to be someone, somewhere, who can help you fulfill your wardrobe wishes.” Often, they have an entire online portfolio full of other peoples’ wishes that you hadn’t even thought of, in whatever genre they tend to cater to. If you have the money, someone has the time and ability to grant (almost) your every wardrobe wish. As such, people are flocking to sites like Etsy and Artfire to get that thing they wanted but not in that color, these drawings brought to life, and this in a size it doesn’t come in with wings and fairy dust by 3 weeks from now.
If you’d like to perhaps commission someone for your dream piece, there are some things we’d like you to know/remember:
1. We know you don’t know how to sew or we wouldn’t be getting the opportunity to help you.
If you could succinctly tell us what you want, preferably with pictures, focusing on the details you really need instead of hitting the fabric store and asking us if we can make that flowing blouse you want…except in vinyl, you’d save yourself some disappointment. Focus on what attributes you’re going for. You want it to do this or look like that. Perhaps a tall collar. You’d like this type of texture or color. You’ll be wearing it outside in winter so it needs to be warm. You’re hiring us. Have confidence that we’ve already established that you can’t make your winter skirt in lightweight fabric (I know…it’s beautiful) and probably know what type of fabric clothes and linings are made out of. Stop asking us if we can line sheer skirts in fleece (you know who you are, and I still love you). Ultimately, details count, but not necessarily the details you think should count, so add it all if your seamstress will let you to make sure you’re getting your exact point across, but learn to leave some things to the pros.
2. You are hiring a professional, and you get what you pay for.
We all want the perfect shirt for $3. The internet is not always a bargain rack. Materials are very costly, and there are more than you think because we also have to buy threads, buttons, zippers, and whatever other notions you won’t be paying attention to, especially if we’re drafting a pattern. If you’re trying to buy a custom clothing item with elaborate detail for $20 and you actually manage to get someone to agree to it, I don’t even want to know what you’ll be receiving. By offering a reasonable sum and being willing to work with the people you actually want to hire, you’re showing respect for their knowledge, which wasn’t cheap or quick to get. If it was, you’d be making your dream item. I’m not saying at all that you have to pay a fortune, but you can’t expect a custom piece to cost the same as something you pick up at the mall. On the plus side, almost anything you get that’s properly handmade will last you for years (so you might want to make sure you’re going to love it for a long time).
3. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it.
Many of us who take custom orders do it for the challenge and a bit of money on the side. You can make sure we still love it after you hire us by making sure you know what you want. Once we start cutting, you can’t change your mind, so come prepared with either pictures, drawings, and descriptions, or an understanding that finding out what your abstract desire is is going to take time and won’t be done in 2 weeks. If you know what you want, make sure the seamstress you’re hiring can duplicate it. Check their portfolio and talk to them to make sure they know their stuff. If you’re the more abstract client, you’re going to want to go with a seamstress who’s also half-artist so they can help fill in the gaps for you, and those are sometimes harder to find.
Good luck with your internet shopping and do consider the possibility of adding a few custom pieces to your wardrobe. You don’t have to be rich to have nice things that are designed just for you. If you want to see what types of things other people are looking for and making for others, check out Alchemy on Etsy or Artfire’s Forge, and if you need to find me, my name is Rabid on both sites.