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How Much To Charge?

icon freeIt's the sixty-four million dollar question: how much should you charge for your work, without either selling yourself short or discouraging potential clients?

I'm going to give you a lot to think about here. I'm going to challenge you to think again; I'm going to tell you the biggest pricing mistakes that corsetieres make. Most importantly, I'll show you where to find the confidence to charge what you're worth. Take heart: success is out there waiting for you!

This is how I see pricing work in the real world, how much I charge at Harman Hay and why that figure works for me.

How much should you charge for a piece of your work? It’s a very big question. It’s an issue that should be simple, but in practice it's a practical and emotional minefield.

Falling into pricing traps can doom your business before you begin, either resigning you to a life of hard, underpaid work (if your price is too low) or leaving you with no customers at all (if it’s too high). The solution is to step back and take a stark, sensible look at what you’re embarking upon.

This applies whether you are, indeed, formally starting a business or whether you’re simply taking a one-off commission from a friend. Let’s look at the main issues you need to work with.

The trap that 80% of corsetmakers fall into

So let's get one thing out of the way right now. There's a single mistake that I see over and over again - don't let it catch you out. New professional corsetmakers will typically have a need to appear "nice" or "affordable". What do I mean by that?

A new corsetmaker will typically want to be kind to her customers. She’s a nice person; she doesn’t want to rip people off; she wants her friends to buy her work. She’s going to make sure that her corsets are “affordable”. She will attempt to pick a figure that she thinks she or her friends could afford.


Fisherman's wife sewing, Anna Ancher, 1890

It is your customer’s responsibility to decide whether she can afford your work, or whether it’s worth saving up for. A low price betrays a lack of confidence and experience. (It takes guts to tell the world that your work is worth a high price, and that comes more easily with time.)

If you're new to this, get clear on what it is you're selling. You may be used to buying your clothes on the high street, but your corsets do not belong there. A bespoke corset is a luxury item; a bespoke anything is a luxury item. Bespoke cars, wedding gowns and suits cost teeth-suckingly large sums of money. Savile Row tailors cannot afford to buy the suits they make. So why are we trying to make bespoke corsets "affordable"?

A bespoke corset is a privilege; it can be a status symbol. It needs to be priced uncomfortably; it should be something to aspire to and save up for. A woman will only buy a bespoke corset occasionally, hankering after each new one and looking forward to the euphoric day when it arrives. That fits with the exclusive image; that keeps them special. When selling luxury goods, a price that causes a sharp intake of breath actually helps send the message of quality and exclusivity.

We’ll talk more about how the price tells a story later. For now, stop trying to be "nice" and get clear on how valuable corsets are!

What do you want your customers to think when they see your prices?

I just bought a pair of Jack Wills "lounge pants" that cost me twice as much as any other pajama pants I ever bought. Why? There was a difference that I liked. The fabric is softer than any other pajama pants I ever bought, and the seams are bound in a contrasting colour that I think is cool. Being a sewing dork and a lover of soft, warm fabrics, I thought that was worth the extra money, and I plunked over £50 ($80), even though the recession is biting and I’m counting the pennies.

What I won’t admit is that the price helped to convince me of the extra value. At first I sucked in my breath at the price, but then I found myself looking for the reasons why they cost so much, imagining how much longer they'd last, thinking about how much I deserved to treat myself, even wanting them more because they were farther out of reach. That helped to make them seem even more valuable, and I made a conscious decision that today, I was going to buy Quality. (Actually, I bought two pairs. Sorry, credit card.)

What thought process do you want your customers to go through when they see your prices?

Cost and Price

Choosing the Wedding Gown, William Mulready, painted in 1846 but based on a novel of 1766

However many hours you take when making a corset is right. Don’t be intimidated if you hear that someone else uses half the time or twice the time that you do. They’re making different corsets.

Now you accept it: you need to price your corsets fairly as the luxury item they are. So how do you pick a figure?

Even the average corsetmaker realises that she must cover her costs, and she’s right. Begin by working out how much the fabrics and notions cost, how many hours you take to make a corset multiplied by your hourly rate, and so on. Include as many of your “overheads” as you can put into figures. Items like servicing your machine, wear and tear, electricity, and advertising will have to be divided between the number of corsets you expect to make per month or year. Eventually you will come to a figure that gives you the COST of producing each corset.

COST, however, is not the same as PRICE. Cost is what it costs you to make the corset; Price is what you charge your customer.

The COST is the bare minimum that the PRICE must cover. Make your Price lower than your Cost and you won’t be in business next month, but don’t make Cost and Price the same, either. If you charge exactly what your corset cost to make (notice that the cost includes your time), you will never be able to expand and develop your work. You’ll never have the funds to learn more, to grow, to experiment. You won’t be able to save up for the new machine you’ll need in a few years, or for the new one you’ll need if the old one dies suddenly.

Young Worker, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

The difference between Cost and Price is your Profit. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of profit, think of it as your future; it's an investment and a safety net. It's the course you'll be going on next year; it's the museum exhibition that'll inspire a new and unique direction in your work. It's a new grommet setter; it's that new sewing machine you'll need one day.

By making your Price equal your Costs, you will always be stuck working hand to mouth, and hand to mouth is not success. Resigning yourself to working hand to mouth is like being forever stuck at square one (and hoping that none of your equipment breaks or wears out).

Don’t just charge what the corset costs; don’t even charge Cost-plus-a-bit. You need to come to a PRICE.

Setting a Price

So if COST is what it costs you to make a corset, how do you set a price?

Here's the second big mistake that 80% of corsetieres make. In order to make the leap from Cost to Price they will typically begin to make rules based on the costs in order to fabricate a price – double the materials cost, charge $40 per hour for your time, and so on.

But the truth is that Price has very little to do with Cost, and this is where businesspeople and consumers sometimes fail to see eye to eye. The consumer learns that the businessperson paid $10 in costs but is charging a $100 price: how dare he pick such an inflated figure out of thin air?

Answer: he knows that the price of a product is about the value that the customer places on it, not on what the component parts cost. In order for his product to be a success, he must charge the Price that the market will stand.

Example: a new perfume

Perfume bottle

Take perfume. Once you develop the chemistry of a fragrance and design the packaging, it’s not costly to produce each bottle. Even when you figure in the cost of the vast celebrity advertising campaign, the cost of each individual bottle of perfume still works out to be relatively small. We’re not in the perfume business, but let’s imagine that it COSTS $20 to make and market one bottle of top-quality perfume.

This year's new starlet, Trudi Tattershall, wants to launch her own fragrance. She gets the right people to develop a drop dead gorgeous fragrance; it has fancy, up-market packaging and an ad campaign in which she looks ravishing. She makes her signature scent affordable for all her fans by charging $30 per bottle - after all, that's what it cost to make, plus just a little extra. She’s the face of this year; she’s in the biggest movie and all over the magazines; all the men want her and all the women want to be her – and yet her perfume flops dramatically. Why?

You only have to look around at all the other perfumes in the store. There’s Nicole Kidman advertising Chanel no.5 - $62.99 per bottle. There’s Anne Hathaway at Lancôme, $55 per bottle. There’s Sarah Jessica Parker, $48.99. Keira Knightley’s selling Coco Mademoiselle for over $100.

Next to all of these expensive gifts, our poor girl flops because despite the flashy ads, despite the great aroma, despite the stylish bottle, $30 has “trash” written all over it when it’s placed next to other perfumes priced around $50-$100. In order to succeed, Trudi needs to price her perfume so that it tells the customer where her image fits into the marketplace. Perhaps she puts herself up there with Keira as the hottest new thing; perhaps she goes for the long-lasting classic next to Nicole. Either way, the price will help to tell the consumers what they're buying. You need to do the same.

Price sends a strong subconscious message that speaks in different ways to different people. Some want the most economical option, and will always pick the cheapest because they think of themselves as smart or thrifty - or just poor. Some people think of themselves as uncompromising; they will only have the best, and they measure this partly by the price – consciously or unconsciously. They will always buy the expensive option, and that will help them to feel good (hard to believe if you're a Wal-Mart customer, I know, but they do exist - without these kinds of buyers, no luxury brand would survive.) Some people will always stick in the middle, believing that the cheapest option is probably trash but the expensive one is probably overpriced.

The Seamstress, Joseph Decamp, 1916

Which category do you fit into as a consumer? If you’re not a high earner, you may feel forced to buy the cheap option – think again. When you’re buying low-ticket items in the grocery store – do you buy the very cheapest economy loaf of bread, or do you assume that the cheap one will be terrible because of the price? When you’re buying something that’s an investment, something that’s really important to you – do you take the cheapest option, or do you pick a more expensive, branded version because you convince yourself that the quality is reflected in the price? Be honest: the price tells a story. We make assumptions based partly on price, and businesspeople know this.

So what does this mean for you, as a maker of fabulous corsetry magic?

Do some research. Find out what products other corsetieres make, how they present them, whom they try to present them to, and how they price them. Decide where your corsets fit into that marketplace, and make sure that you charge what the market can stand. If it’s more than your cost price and it tells an accurate story of what your corsets are all about, then the price is right – however different you Cost and Price are.

What if my Costs are too high?

If your Costs are as high as most people’s Prices, you're going to be restricted in what price you can charge. You have two possible courses of action.

Bring your costs down - if you can find corners to cut, you'll have lower costs and more scope to set a price that fits.

Set a higher price than anyone else, and work hard to teach your customers why your corsets are worth a higher price than what’s already out there.

Don't dismiss the second approach - it can be done, and is often very effective. If the corset warrants it, you have enough confidence and you have a clear enough campaign to convince your customers of the extra value, this approach can be dynamite. And remember - quality and experience are not the only things that are worth a high price; they're just the most obvious. What else might a customer value over all other corsets? Is there a need for corsets amongst a particular group of people whom no-one else is catering to?

Example: Making the most of being a British corsetmaker

Here in the UK it's pretty hard to compete with the American corset prices that we're used to seeing online. Materials cost a fortune in this country, where the cost of living is much higher than in the States: it's not difficult to spend over £100 ($164) on materials for a single silk corset. So we're in a tough position in Blighty: how do we compete when our costs are higher than some people's prices?

Don't forget, those of you in London, Leith and Llandudno, that your biggest problem is also the ace up your sleeve: your corsets are made in Britain. How could you use this to make a high price work for you, even in attracting American customers? (Clue: look at brands like Harrods, Vivienne Westwood and Jaguar. What does Britishness mean, especially outside Britain?)

Obviously, it’s not ethical to try to pass off trash as luxury goods by putting a high price on something that costs almost nothing. But notice that people have done it successfully – one Christmas an American entrepreneur made a fortune selling “Pet Rocks” for a dollar apiece. Ethics aside (I know you have those already), notice that people do sometimes fall for a price without looking too hard at the goods themselves. The price is that influential. Don’t ignore the story that your price is telling.


American beauties, Harrison Fisher, 1907

The difference between setting a good price and looking like a rip-off merchant is value. How much is one of your corsets worth to a buyer? Do you customers VALUE your work enough to pay the PRICE you charge? Cost and Price bear little relation to each other, but Price and Value go hand-in-hand.

Value is different for everyone. One woman's trash is another woman's treasure: Anita balks at the price of bespoke corsets because she doesn't value them; Belinda saves up faithfully and adores her corset collection because she values a good corset highly. Because the value she perceives matches the price, she buys and the first girl does not.

What can raise the value of a product?

  • Quality of the materials - in the case of corsets, we're talking silks, steel, antique lace.
  • Quality of workmanship - superior skills and experience made clear and obvious in the finished article.
  • Quantity of workmanship - embroidery, flossing, handstitched binding.

These are generally the only factors that corsetmakers consider. But what about the following ideas?

  • Rarity - there aren't many people making S-bend Edwardian corsets or using Scalamandre fabrics - do something different. Find out what corset-wearers consider rare and wonderful, and make that.
  • Occasion - how important is the occasion on which the buyer will need your corset? If you only made bridal corsets, could you charge more?
  • Uniqueness - What other unique traits could give your corsets value? Where are they made? What kind of service do you offer? What does the packaging look like? How fast can you produce a rush order? If you can do any of these things just a little bit better than your peers, then you've added extra value. The list of possibilities is endless!
  • Branding and image - here's where you get to use your creativity in a new way. Can you use some or all of the ideas above to create a reputation that's so strong, your customers feel they must own one of your corsets, and no-one else's? Before her professional demise, Joyce at L'Escarpolette did it with her sinuous curves and contrast flossing. Tanya Rohler ("thebatsmeow") has done it with a friendly attitude and an uncompromising thirst for smooth lines. Alexis Black has done it with Electra Designs, and Dark Garden have certainly done it.

Here’s something to think about. If you wanted to produce $600 corsets, what would you do to make them worth $600 to your customers? What would an $800 corset look like? $1000? $5000? Don’t tell me you’d gold plate it – think seriously. What could make a corset worth that much to a buyer?

Harman Hay prices

Seamstresses, 1904

Here's where I spill the beans (there's a currency converter here if you want to translate). For a standard Victorian corset, my COST works out as £335 per corset. My rule of thumb is to charge a Price of around UK£450, a mark-up of about a third.

Nose-bleedingly high? You’ve seen bespoke corset prices on the Internet that range, I’ll guess, from $150 to about $500 at the top end, and mine translate to about $740. So why would I spend so much on materials and charge such a high price?

The answer is that I’m not pricing my corsets for the corset market. Although average bespoke corset prices are low in comparison to my prices, the bridal market is different – and that’s the background I come from. My customers are used to paying around £2000-£3000 ($3300-$5000) for a wedding dress (that’s the average price in the UK bespoke bridalwear world). The corset is the most complex and expensive part of a corsetted wedding gown. If my price for a corset was lower, the bridal market would look at my prices and assume that I’m making trash (like poor Trudi and her perfume), so I aim high, at a customer who will pay a high price for a very special kind of corset.

Also, I have a lot on my plate with two websites to run – pricing high keeps the number of orders I receive at a manageable level. This is a perfectly reasonable strategy that many small makers and artists use. In fact, I believe that pricing too low was part of the reason for L'Escarpolette's demise. French Canadian corsetmaker Joyce got popular, became overwhelmed with orders for her beautiful, unique corsets because most people could afford her work, buckled under the strain and began letting people down, and the damage to her reputation soon destroyed her business. Don't let that happen to you.

I’m still learning - I’ll raise my prices later

A Tired Seamstress, Angelo Trezzini

Lowering prices is easy. SALE!! Everyone loves a sale and will take full advantage of it. But don’t be fooled that it’s equally easy to raise your prices as your skills improve.

Remember what we’ve said about the story that a price tells. If you start out as a student corsetmaker – “My prices are good because I’m just starting out” – then that is the image you will retain. Much as we’d like to think that the customers will grow with us and see the improvements in our corsets, it’s very difficult to change your image once you've defined yourself as the bargain basement. It would take a heck of a lot of effort to make Dave's Bargain Pizza into Fortnum and Mason, if such a thing were possible at all. In practice, that’s a tough story to sell.

The people who buy an apprentice’s first few $100 corsets are not the same people who will buy fully professional $600 corsets five years later. You will need to change your target market (the people you try to sell to) over time in order to make it work. Selling to different people means continually starting over at building an image, and convincing present customers that now you're something better than you were when you sold them their last corset will, frankly, tick them off.

If you have only made a very few corsets and you truly feel that you have a long way to go (more experienced people, don’t underestimate yourselves!), then wait a while before going into business. Otherwise, if you’re pretty good and getting better, it’s time to sit up straight and start living up to the image you want to project. Make your quality as good as it can be for now, learn as fast as you can, and “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Start with high prices, and bring them down gradually until you get a level of orders that you can cope with. Coming down is a lot easier than going up.

Mates’ rates, or what to charge friends and family

The Lace Maker, Julian Alden Weir

Charge them the same as any other customer. Now, go back and read that again.

If anything, you’ll want to put more time and care into something for someone you love. Protest that you wish to create something of the same quality as you would for a regular customer, and that costs the same as it would to a regular customer. You love them and you wouldn't dream of making them settle for second class goods! Do not allow people to devalue you and what you do – expecting special treatment is one of the first signs of a difficult customer, and friends and family can be some of the worst if you're not ultra-careful.

Assure them that you want to treat them just as professionally as you would a regular customer, treating them to the same high standard of service and the same beautiful craftsmanship. Be calm, be professional, and don’t be afraid to turn them away.

In conclusion

I confidently predict that most of you are not charging enough. I also predict that the reason you're not charging enough, underneath all the practical considerations, is probably about confidence. That's understandable: it’s pretty scary to look someone in the eye and say, “That’ll be three hundred and sixty-nine euros, please.”

It's not just a newbie problem. I’ve been doing bespoke for fourteen years, and when I had my first order for a historic house last year I got really nervous. They ordered two full Tudor costumes - multiple layers upon layers of clothing, accurately reproduced from the skin out - and the total price was multiple thousands of UK pounds, more than I’ve ever charged anyone. I was shaking when I delivered the quote, but in the end, here’s how I coped.

Tip 1: Break it down

Make sure both of you know exactly what they’re paying for. This much for the basic corset; this much for the flossing; this much for the special fabric. That’ll help confidence on both sides.

Tip 2: Instalments

Remember to offer the customer the option of paying in instalments. Have a written agreement of what those instalments are and when they’re due. It’s easier for them to come up with the money that way, and you don’t have to ask for the whole lot at once (among many other great reasons to work in instalments).

Tip 3: It's just a number

Here’s a very simple trick that works a treat. When you hit that scary moment in which you have to ask for the money, don’t use the name of the currency. “Four and a half thousand” is a lot easier to spit out than “Four and a half thousand pounds/dollars/euros.” It’s just a number. “So that’s two hundred and fifty, please.” There. You said it. And look! There’s a cheque in your hand!

I've given you an awful lot of information in a very short time in this article. I hope I gave you some things to think about! Do comment below on what was most useful, on anything that was unclear, and on anything you'd like to see me write about in more detail. You're paying to see these pages, and I want you to get exactly what you need from them, both now and in future months.

Furthermore, not everyone reading FR is in business or wants to be in business, so I’d be very interested to know what you think of this article in the comments below or by emailing me. Does it belong in FR? Would you like to see more of the same?

  This article has really helped me a lot I have been lectured at lenghth from a good friend that I don't charge anywhere near enough for custom work and I am to nice for my own good and need to get a business head on and place more value on my work
And reading this article has made me realise she was right :-)

I also enjoyed the bit about family and mates rates as this is a problem I often worry about.
  Very nice article with a lot of insights.

A note though to the moderators. The text is over the photos after the second one. I assume though this is just from the site up date.
  Thank you Anthony, we'll look into that. In the meantime, reloading the page should solve the problem.  
  Very valuable information. I love the business side of things inclusion.  
  This is very useful information - thanks. I assume that your Costs (before mark up) include your labour costs. Do you work on an "X hours at Y rate" basis or do you use some other method?  
Cathy Hay  
  Hi Sandie, yes, the cost of labour is included before markup - just as if you had to pay someone else to make it on your behalf. Yes, an hourly rate is a good start to ensure a fair basic rate, but always look at "what the market will stand" aswell.  
  Ooops - just realised you've answered all that at the beginning!  
  I thought this was a great article. I would love to see more along these lines.  
  HI, I have to same problem as Corsetina 101. This article has been really useful and has given me loads to think about. More of the same would be really valuable.  
  I found the article quite interesting, as one of my instructors and the few of us producing corsets for a steampunk 12th Night had this very discussion. I think we came down to pricing the corset I made at about $450 . Which was a great shock to me as I would have never considered charging that much.  
  Brilliant. Yes. This is a very helpful type of article. The selling to family and friends, and the initial (while I learn) selling are KILLER. I once heard someone say 'well, but your costs for custom work are prohibitive'...when I mentioned this to my aunt, she said " the proper response to that would be 'then what you want is prohibit-ed!'" I've thought about that often since then.
  Merci Cathy pour ces bons conseils8
J'ai trouvé les réponses à toutes mes questions.
Brilliant Designs  
  I think I held my breath several times whilst reading this. This very frank and amazing article gave me far too much to process in one single sitting. I shudder to think how exactly how many of the classic errors I have made. This article came highly recommended and now I know why. thank you.  
karen delahunty  
  this is a great article and just at the right time for me. you are right I am not charging enough. I need to find more afluent client base that appreciate skilled workmanship. or should that be womanship!!
I would love more of the same, more help on the business side of selling and marketing would be great.
love the site even though only new to it so far.
thank you very much
karen xx
  This article is brilliant, and left me with the same "eureka!" feeling as your older article about pricing wedding dresses here:

These concepts are articulated in a way that it's easy for me not just to "get it" myself, but I'm able to explain it to customers more easily.
karen delahunty  
  what a brilliant article. i am just embarking on uping my game ant his is just the thing i need. just when i was thinking i ccould b charging too much and thatswhy i dont get as many orders- it more to do with where i pitch my market i think
well done and thank you
Upon seeing your article I wanted to let you know that it was quite helpful. There are a lot of things discused within that could be a touchy subject. I would defiantly be interested in seeing more articles on this subject but in the mean time I was wondering if you could clarify the way you deal with imstalents. How long of a period is reasonable? When would they receive the corset? What should you do if someone pays only once Or twice then does not wish to purchase it anymore?
Thank you
Cathy Hay  
  Hi Arielle, thank you for your questions. The period is up to you and the client; I would love to give a hard and fast rule, but the truth is that I've paid for things myself over a very long period in the past because of the trust of some very kind and patient artisans, and I would not have been able to afford to be their patron otherwise; the long instalment plan made the sale possible.

They would receive the corset once it is paid for in full, and a good contract giving details of the instalment terms should cover you. If they want the finished garment, they need to finish paying for it. If they change their mind, you can take it further legally and/or resell the garment.

Honestly - you should be able to tell upfront if the customer is not serious. You will develop a sort of radar for it!
  The way I got around family and mates rates when I was 'learning my trade' was by charging *nothing at all*.

Instead, the friend or family member had to be a willing guinea-pig, and got a corset in the style and fabrics and construction method that *I* wanted to practice and use. If they didn't want to stand still in their underwear while I drew on the toile with a felt-tip pen - or even on *them* with a felt-tip pen! - then the deal was off.

It worked for me. They gave me the gift of time, patience and availability; I gave them a corset. A corset which was priceless in more than one way.

I would rather work for love and learning than for a derisory payment which would lead only to resentment on my part and entitlement on the part of the recipient. Does that make sense to anyone else?
  After reading this incredibly helpful article, it has left me with a few questions.

1: It's all standard that the cost includes the fabric used, etc... However, what about the fabric used to make the mock ups? How do you afford that? I would assume that it is inappropriate to make them pay for mock fabric.

2: You say to start with your prices higher and then bring them down, however, how do you know that the price is too high and that you're just not getting enough clients because of lack of adverts, word of mouth, etc... I understand that the lower you go and still having no clients will show that its a problem of advertising, but when you are first starting out, how do you advertise without wasting money that you're not bringing in?
  Excellent article! In my experience, I have had to set my prices to cover those intangibles that waste your time, no matter how much you try to avoid them (like hand-holding crazed clients and the like). The worst thing are those who try to change the design mid-way through the project. I finally had to add into our contracts that any design changes will incur a cost of 100% the original order. That pretty much put an end to that.  
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