How to Price Your Work to Make a Living

I’ve heard and read so much bad advice for those in artistic fields trying to start businesses. So let me start out with some bad news.

It is really hard. Being a one person business, or small business with few employees (I have 3 people working part time for me at the moment) is really having several full-time jobs. You have to be your own accountant, salesperson, social media manager, employee manager, and creator. Every single one of those takes a lot of time, and a lot of that is time most artists do not charge for. Working 60 hours a week and only getting paid for 30 of them is not sustainable.

So let’s talk about what is. 

A lot of people suggest the hours plus materials formula, but that formula has a lot of holes in it. This… Does not work. This will only lead to suffering and crying and feeling like you can never get caught up, no matter how much work you get. Trust me, I learned that from experience.

Why is this? Because there are so many things that this formula doesn’t account for. This doesn’t cover your machine maintenance, your time answering emails, buying that one thing in bulk because you ran out. It doesn’t cover the thing that went wrong last minute that you had to redo, because your quote assumed it would run smoothly start to finish. 

So. For this to actually work, here is the formula:

Hours + materials = cost

Cost x 2-3 = wholesale

Wholesale x 2-3 = retail

Your cost is to pay yourself for your time and cover the things you had to buy for the project. Make sure you’re accounting for the time you spent answering emails, the thread and hooks and eyes and tiny things that add up, the trips to the store, both in gas money and time. 

The wholesale markup is to cover your time spent marketing, the costs of buying in bulk, machine maintenance, and new equipment; so that you aren’t dipping into your salary.

The retail markup is all about sales. It covers the time selling, responding to potential clients that haven’t booked yet, or paying those under you to sell. This also covers whatever space you need to sell, booths at festivals/conventions, etc. 

So. Let’s take a look at how this translates into actual application.

I currently do not charge anywhere near what I’m worth per hour. I charge $15/hour. If I had fifteen years of experience in another trade, say plumbing, it would be expected to charge a minimum of $60/hour. But sewing is often devalued; possibly because it’s a women dominated industry.

For a standard size barebones underbust, construction takes me 5-6 hours. Let’s round up on that to the six, so I’m not sometimes working for free. That’s $90 that I should be paying myself for labor.

Materials include:

Coutil: ½ yard ($8)

Boning: 20 bones (~$25)

Channel tape: 6 yards ($7)

Thread: (~$0.50)

Binding: ~2 yards ($6)

Busk: ($4)

Grommets: ($5)

Lacing: ($8.75)

Which comes out to $64.25, putting our absolute-bare-minimum cost to maybe not lose money at $154.25.

But as I pointed out above, this doesn’t cover so much. This doesn’t cover rent for studio space, this doesn’t cover the hours ordering coutil and boning or runs to the fabric store, or the fact that to get that price on coutil I have to buy $250 at once, or that my orders of boning are often between $500-$1000. This also doesn’t cover the research and development that went into new techniques.

So our wholesale cost is $385.63. But wait. That doesn’t cover the rack space to sell it, the booth fees from that event, the hours I spend lacing people into various things or the several messages a day to prospective clients. This also doesn’t cover sick days, expenses for learning new skills to apply, etc.

Now the amount that actually creates a comfortable business for this corset is $771.25. One where I can actually pay myself and my assistants (because they get paid before me).

Right now, I’m charging closer to wholesale, but I’m stuck in this strange place because so few corsetmakers are actually charging what they need to. The market doesn’t support that cost until a maker is extremely well established and their reputation solid. 

But because no corsetmaker can make a living until they are extremely well established, burnout is incredibly high. 

And none of this covers the physical toll corsetmaking has on your body. My hands and arms are a mess from difficult fabrics and the force needed to insert the boning, or set grommets. Coutil is difficult to cut. Those were the first things I outsourced. Hand-stitching lace onto coutil or beading it is kinda a nightmare.

At this point I need to have regular bodywork done just to be able to keep going. And that’s not included in any of those markups, so a very large chunk of my hourly wage just goes to making sure I can physically continue doing the job. 

So please, the next time you wonder why something is so expensive, think of this, and please don’t insult an artist for charging what they need to. If you find one that seems to be much more expensive than those around, that may actually mean they’re the only ones charging what they need to in order to live, instead of just surviving.