Saturday Sayings: When OCD Stands for Obsessive Color Disorder

Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment  — Claude Monet

Well, it was yesterday, anyway.

The problem I have doing anything is my tendency to obsess over every tiny detail.  Last week I decided the photos I have of the fabric in my store really stink; the color is completely off, and obviously it looks different on every single device we have in this house (and with a husband who works in technology, that number is pretty substantial).  So I spent all week obsessing over this, and yesterday I finally decided to go out in search of a Pantone color chart, so that I could include the Pantone number in every fabric description for folks who don’t have time to order swatches and wait for them to arrive.  Little did I know that said color charts are actually around $400.  Uh, no thanks.

So then I decided to just use Pantone’s $7.99 app instead, which includes a color picker, allowing the user to point the device’s camera at something and the app gives you the corresponding Pantone color names/codes.  Perfect.  But in researching this, I discovered that without calibrating the color on the computer screen, the app is useless.  I then spent three hours researching this whole calibration thing, just to finally conclude that I simply can’t do it; not because I’m particularly dense, but because, short of “rooting” the tablet (don’t ask), it just can’t be done.  I spent the next few hours trying unsuccessfully to figure out work-arounds, short-cuts, or cheats.  Nothing.  I did, however, learn all about computer stuff I will probably forget by tomorrow.  Thus my torment.

Finally I came to the realization that fabric manufacturers use dye lots.  Each dye lot has slight variations; a bolt of fabric that matches Pantone 188 today might end up a Pantone 186 when I re-order it.  So if the entire world of fabric is ok with slight color variations, why in the world was I obsessing over a minor color variance on my tablet?  If I tell a client that a piece of fabric is a Pantone 280, will they really reject it based on the fact that it is actually a Pantone 281?  Obviously not.  Finally, I achieved “joy,” the third and final portion of Monet’s famous quote.


$400 worth of color chips. No thanks.

I decided to use an excellent and free download from a 21-page Pantone color chart.  I also found this one, which also gives RGB and CMYK translations, but since it’s web-based, I figured I may not always be able to access it.  I looked up the Pantone color that most closely matches each piece of fabric in my shop (and with, oh, 100-ish shades of blue, this was quite an investment of time, energy, and discernment), and included the number in my self-generated SKU’s.  This way, I can call a vendor and ask for fabric not by color name (I found hundreds of ridiculous color names online while in the course of my obsessive research, including “Cal Poly Pomona Green” — too obscure, despite the fact that my husband is an alumnus and kid #1 is currently a sophomore there — and “Sunset” — useless, since last night our sunset included about sixty colors, pinks, blues, purples, and oranges), but by Pantone color.  Plus it makes me sound super intelligent.

Obviously I’d rather reorder fabric by dye lot.  But this isn’t always possible, and if I focus on it too much, I may fall back into the obsession phase of Monet’s quote.  For now, I’ll include the warning to all clients that they may not always be able to come back later for an exact color match, and focus more on the second part of Monet’s quote — just how many different shades of blue mesh I actually have in my shop at the moment.  It’s truly a joyous thing to behold.

Saturday Sayings: Deciphering the Message

“Do what I want.  Not what I say.” -Brian Fitzpatrick

Brian Fitzpatrick may not have much of anything to do with sewing costumes.  As the head of Google’s Data Liberation Front and its Transparency Engineering Team, he probably knows less about encasing elastic or princess seams than my 18-year old son (granted, my other two sons know more about these things than they’ll admit, simply because they skated from the time they could walk; but my 18-year old “retired” at the ripe old age of seven…but that’s another story).  Instead, his quote comes from a lecture he gave, outlining various aspects of customer service in the modern age.  And when dealing with garment design, nothing could be more fitting — no pun intended.

When I first started creating custom outfits, I used to adhere exactly to what the customer told me she wanted.  If she said “light and flowing,” she got it.  If she said “low cut front,” she got it.  And if she said “17 gross stones,” then dammit, that’s what she got…even if I secretly knew light and flowing would make her look like an Easter egg with wings, low cut would make every spin a flirt with Janet Jackson-ism, and that many stones would make a skirt so heavy it would bruise her partner every time they changed positions.

However, over and over I was stunned when, after producing an exact copy of a drawing the customer had provided, or after creating precisely what I was told to create, the client wasn’t satisfied.  Often she’d ask for alterations, changes, complete re-dos, etc…even though I followed her instructions perfectly.  It confused me, and since, for me, the line between being confused and being infuriated is extremely short and straight, I spent much more time hating this work and the people involved than loving it.

Listening to words rather than needs

The last straw occurred when I worked for a very, very long time on an outfit with intricate inset appliques and cut-outs that had to line up over sleeve seams, back seams, and hip seams…not an easy task.  Plus they were white (more on this type of fun in a later post), and the edges weren’t going to be stoned — so they really did have to line up precisely.  They turned out perfectly; really, just perfect.  I was so proud of the work and so excited to show them; but when I did, rather than share my own personal ecstasy over the surprising success of the endeavor (my first mistake — expecting other people to understand these little personal engineering triumphs), the client’s mother told me she wanted more room in the outfit so that the skater could grow and it would still fit next year.  I was frustrated; defeated, but complacent.  I reworked the entire design, cut a little here, added a lot there, until, once again, everything lined up perfectly.  Then after putting it on, mom said oops, she liked it better fitted, let’s just put it back the way it was in the first place.  Furious doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt; but surprisingly enough I wasn’t angry at her — I was angry at myself for listening to her words (“make it bigger”) rather than her unspoken desires (“make this kid stop growing because she’s a huge complainer when things get snug and I am frankly too tired to even listen to her anymore”).  In case you’re wondering, yes, I did fix it, once more, and it looked wonderful.  But will I go through that ever again?  No way.

I learned that what people really want isn’t necessarily what they tend to say upfront.  “It needs to be tighter” is often an adult performer’s way of saying “I want to look thinner after having these three babies,” and making a fitted garment tighter isn’t going to be nearly as successful as using a different design, cut or fabric.  “Copy that dress for me” is often not a desire for an exact clothing replica; usually it means “I’m not confident making design decisions and I don’t yet trust you to decide for me.”  When a man says “I want white pants,” after barfing a little in my mouth, I stop and realize that he really just wants what’s familiar, and in the case of skating, those (nasty, disgusting, hideous) white pants were all the rage when today’s middle-aged skaters were young and oh-so-cool.

I now ask questions.  Lots of questions.  I also won’t sew something that I know is going to look horrible.  People would ultimately rather be wrong than look bad, honestly.  These days, when I know that what the client says she wants is something I’d never want to admit I made, I gently guide her to a different outlook or vision; but if that doesn’t work, I make something I’m willing to put my name on, knowing very well that since it doesn’t fit the client’s request there’s a chance it will end up on my sale rack.  So far, this has worked beautifully; each time I’ve listened to a customer’s wants rather than her words, she’s been thrilled with my interpretation — even though it doesn’t look exactly like that picture she drew.  I know the day will come when a client won’t be happy with what I know is best, and when it does, I am in a place to politely but firmly suggest she try a different designer.

In the meantime, I’m not ignoring the voice in my head, the voice with twenty years of experience, telling me “ohmygod don’t put that woman in neon pink spandex, no matter what.”  I know I’m not alone, but it certainly took me a long time to get here; so I can only hope that more craftsmen and women do more listening to wants rather than words — even if that want includes neon pink spandex.

Saturday Sayings: Thomas Paine and Charging What We’re Worth

That which we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.  — Thomas Paine

Ok, I know Thomas Paine was talking about freedom, not figure skating dresses. But bear with me here.

One of the hardest things I encountered when starting my business was evolving beyond the strange guilt I felt over charging a fair price for my outfits. For years I only charged for materials, but I gave up that practice when I had to pay for a hotel room, schlep my four tiny kids several hours to a meet I wasn’t originally planning to attend, and stay up 48 hours straight just to tailor and fit dresses for people who were “too busy” to come to me in the weeks leading up to the meet. In the beginning it was very difficult to justify charging people for my time and work (it sounds weird now, but it’s really not that uncommon), so I spent more time apologizing for my insane $45 bill than I ever should have. I figured out that even when I didn’t have to draft a new pattern, when everything worked perfectly, and nothing had to be redone or refitted, I was still working for about 1/6 minimum hourly wage. I don’t even want to think about the very lavish outfits that took more than twenty-five hours to design/cut/sew/fit/stone…and for which I also charged $45. That was completely unacceptable, and dare I say it, stupid.

The final straw came when I accidentally discovered one of my dresses in an eBay auction.  The seller’s reserve was, no joke, more than ten times what she’d paid for the dress when it was brand new.  I was so angry that I didn’t even check the final bid amount, but it didn’t matter — the fact that someone else not-so-happily paid my stupidly low price and then turned around and sold the item for its true value, of which she was obviously aware all along, was a huge wake up call.  For someone who can’t stand feeling stupid (me), nothing could have been more of a slap in the face.

I know I still don’t charge what I should, but I’m increasing my prices slowly.  I made a conscious and huge mental shift from “this didn’t require my college degrees, so why should I charge a lot for it?” to “if you don’t want to pay my prices, that’s ok — others do.”


The only one who gets free outfits these days...

The only one who gets free outfits these days…

And guess what?  I’ve sold more than ever.  Sure, some people still experience sticker shock…until they have a bad experience purchasing super cheap outfits on eBay and realize that you truly do get what you pay for, or until they try to explain what they want to an otherwise excellent though cheap seamstress who may be great with linen but who can’t begin to wrap his/her mind around the weirdness of Lycra and four yards of elastic (and the weirdness of skating people, I might add).

I also found that when I sold outfits for the price of the materials only, I ended up redoing them over and over because people were never satisfied and they expected an unending chain of extensive tailoring and design changes. Now that I charge (almost) what they’re worth, people don’t complain and most expect to pay for after-the-fact alterations and adjustments.

I used to resent it when, on rare occasions, people were not completely satisfied with their finished product.  Rather than focusing energy on trying to make them happy, my energy was instead funneled into a strange cycle of anger and frustration over the knowledge that every other industry professional in this state would have charged six or more times my price, and I daresay quite a few would have turned out something worth half the measly amount I was charging.

I  also realized that my work was beginning to mirror its pricetag, and that was just plain wrong.  Occasionally I’d stop sewing to discover I was getting sloppy, and my designs were tired re-runs of stuff I’d made years earlier that I knew was no longer in circulation.  Rather than increase prices to match my abilities, I had decreased the value of my products to match their pricetag.  So charging what items are worth (or at least attempting to do so) actually has a psychological effect on the manufacturer, too — willingness to increase the level of workmanship is much easier to come by when you’re actually making money rather than losing money in the process (i.e., the hotel story above).

But I think the best part about charging for my services is that I no longer feel so guilty about quitting my “regular” job so that I can sew during normal business hours rather than hours kept only by vampires and one of our house cats. I used to feel like a schmuck for wanting something for which I was earning less than $1/hour to actually turn out beautiful and perfect.  I may still be earning less than minimum wage for these creations, but at least there is now some degree of justifiability for my anal retentiveness.

This is still a work in progress, of course.  I still feel a little sheepish as each invoice prints, but it doesn’t last as long anymore.  I still want everything to be perfect, but I am willing to make outfits to fit the budget rather than my vision.  Sure, I still throw on too many extra stones and I still don’t charge enough.  But I’m getting better.