Behind The Scenes / From The Workroom

becoming a designer: how much money do you need to start a clothing line?

Say hello to the loaded question of the century!

I get a lot of questions about starting a clothing line – but this one seems to come up most often. It’s a hard question – and a touchy subject, i mean who likes to talk about money? not me. I find it super awkward.

Anyway, i decided to write this post after I read something a few months ago that stated a person would need around $20,000 to start a small clothing line. This really irritated me – because it’s so discouraging to people who want to start something and take a leap. Here’s the thing, it depends how you want to start your clothing line, and what kind of line you are starting, how big you want to start, and what your background is.

Lets say you know nothing about sewing, or design, or pattern making, and you have absolutely nothing in the way of equipment etc – then yeah, you will probably need a giant lump of cash to start a line. Why? Because you’ll have to hire people to do everything for you. You will need a pattern maker and you will need a sewing contractor of some kind. And that’s just for starters.

But lets say you already sew. You know how to pattern make. You have some experience making things. You have equipment. Then you can probably do this on very little. I promise. Because i did.

So shall we chat about real numbers?

I started my clothing line with $500. That’s it. I launched my line at a time in our lives when Chris and i had very little money. We had just finished paying the epic hospital bills from Bunny’s birth, and were saving heavily for the next lot of huge birth related hospital bills (i was 7 months pregnant with Buddy)… right as Chris’ company was feeling the economic financial pressures, and so they stopped paying raises. We prayed, took a leap of faith – and i took almost all of our savings… our very small savings to launch my line. It was scary, but Chris believed in me.

So how did i spend it? I spent it on three things.

  1. A display form. It cost me $79 on Ebay
  2. Some lighting equipment. Also from Ebay, i think it was around $100.
  3. Materials to make collection samples.

You see, I had everything else already. I had all the equipment i needed, I had the skills I needed as I’d been spending the last few years working really hard at refining them, and i had the time to sew. I got to work and created my collection. Since i was tight and had specific ideas of what i wanted, i hand dyed most of my fabric. I tried to be efficient – and used the same base patterns for a number of designs – and made sure to use the fabrics for more than one design. In the end i had my samples ready for the lookbook – and had enough fabric left to make a few pieces of stock. But honestly not a lot. Then I mailed the samples to my dear friend Jessica, who was helping me with the lookbook. (She was just so wonderful – honestly, good friends are worth so much, and to this day i will never forget how much she helped me get the word out in those early days)

Chris set up my website for me using a wordpress blog and paypal buttons– and we were ready to go. Gulp.

So how did i get past the issue of no stock? Everything was made to order. I made sure my customers knew it would take a few weeks for a garment to be made and arrive – and once an order came in I used that money to buy supplies. Was it hard and stressful? Yes. For sure. But it worked.

I repaid the money i had borrowed from our savings in the first week of my launch. And then i was able to save, and put the profits away as the seed money for my next collection.

My customers were so wonderful. So understanding and supportive – and most of them continued to purchase from my future collections as well – which is probably the most gratifying feeling.

Yes i made mistakes. We all do when we do something new – but i made it work. Would I have liked more capital to start? Of course!! It would have made the world of difference!!! it was only after a year of sewing like a dog, that i had reached a point where i could afford to pay outside contractors to do the sewing for me. But here’s the lesson: It was possible. And it still is possible to start a clothing line on a shoe string. You just need to be careful, and think it through, and make sure you are happy to do all the work yourself for a while.

So here are my tips if you don’t think you can afford to start a line but desperately want to:

  1. Save. Even if its a really really small amount. Because though you can get by on a little, you will still need some seed money. If you just have an inkling of a dream, a whisper of hope – start saving now. Just a little, so that when (or if) you’re ready, you’ll have something to help you start.
  2. Learn to sew.  You can save yourself a lot of money if you can manufacture in house. The end.
  3. Learn to pattern draft. As above – you will save yourself a lot by being able to pattern draft. I learnt from books, you can too :)
  4. Spend wisely. Be very careful how you spend your seed money. Plan it out. You could probably start with less money than i did if you are careful. In retrospect i feel buying lighting equipment was a waste. The display form was important to me – but you could probably get by without that too. You could simply lay things flat on a white surface, or hang them on a wall with a pretty coat hanger.
  5. Ask a friend to model for you. One of the things i’ve learnt through all of this, is how supportive good friends are. I’ve been incredibly blessed that friends have modeled all of my lookbooks so far – and it has helped me immensely. I couldn’t be more grateful to these wonderful girls.
  6. Take good photos. I cannot emphasize this enough. Bad photos will kill your brand, and make your product look like crap even if in fact it is the best thingymajig ever made. You don’t need fancy equipment to take good photos. I took my first product photos on a display form, with a point and shoot. Nothing fancy. Chris and i just planned it really well so that we used the best light of the day, plus some lighting equipment – and took all the furniture out of the room with the plainest walls to use as a backdrop.
  7. Start small. There’s no need to go overboard. A collection doesn’t need to be big. You could make 3 things. Done. I wish i had made a smaller first collection, that’s one of the mistakes i made :) It will make your workload more manageable, and allow you to be more efficient.
  8. Make to order. If you are unsure of how well received your designs will be, don’t go all out on investing in lots of stock. Try the “made to order” approach. It will help you if funds are tight. Remember who you are – you are a small company, you don’t need to act like a big one.
  9. Price appropriately. Another touchy subject. But you need to think carefully about pricing. Too high and no-one will buy anything, so you’re shooting yourself in the foot. But too low is even worse – too low and you’ll probably lose money, even though you think you’re making money. Too low is also bad because then you can’t afford to wholesale. I regretted pricing too low in my first collection in an attempt to be affordable, but it didn’t help my business.

So what if your dreams are bigger than your budget? Don’t let me money stand in your way. Hard work is worth so much more.

Becoming a Designer series by Megan Nielsen

About Author

Meg is the Founder and Creative Director of Megan Nielsen Patterns, and is constantly dreaming up ideas for new sewing patterns and ways to make your sewing journey more enjoyable! She gets really excited about design details and is always trying to add way too many variations to our patterns.

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11 years ago

This is a very generous, informative post.

11 years ago

Wow, Megan. I cannot thank you enough for sharing all of this invaluable information with us. It’s like getting great advice from a close friend that already went through what you want to pursue.
This might get a bit long and I am sorry for that but this touched me a lot because it’s my dream, it’s what I’m aiming at, it’s what I’ve been working towards since I was 12. I want to start my own collection, I have the sewing and pattern drafting skills down because I have been sewing since I was a child and I taught myself pattern drafting some years ago and then reinforced that at school. Yet, I don’t have a budget to start my own collection yet. But imagine my relief when I realized it was actually closer than I thought. Your story is the first one I’ve know of and it has put me a bit at ease. It’s still super scary to dive into something like that and I am consumed by the constant fear of taking that leap and failing but that is no reason not to try.

I can also draw so my plan is to save up money for my first collection by working as a freelance illustrator and selling prints and custom portraits but that hasn’t picked up yet so I’m collecting spare change from under the couch cushions for now.
Wow, I knew it was going to get really long. Sorry. I really wanted to share my situation, how helpful this was and offer a heartfelt thank you for opening up about this even though it makes you uncomfortable.

11 years ago
Reply to  Meg

Oh Megan, you are such a sweetheart! Thank you very much for your sweet and kind words. It’s so encouraging just to read such a supportive and inspiring message.
If there is one thing I know is that I am learning a lot and I am absorbing all the knowledge, practice and experience I can.

Thank you so much for being so sweet. xoxo

11 years ago

Thank you for this post Megan! Starting your own business can seem like it’s out of reach but often it’s not as far out of reach as you think. I just started my own business a few months ago after several years of thinking and dreaming, my partner told me to stop talking and do something about it. I started mine on around $500 too and have already made back my initial investment. Having a STRICT budget is definitely very important, and I also agree starting smaller is easier, less stressful until you find your feet. :-)

11 years ago

Thank you so much for this post, I’ve been wanting to start my own business for a while and so many people have told me they think it would be a waste of time! Thank you for making things seem more simple and achievable, you’re an inspiration!

11 years ago

Thank you for being so generous with your experiences and lessons learned! This is such an excellent, encouraging and inspiring post…you’re an absolute star for shring!

11 years ago
Reply to  Meg

Just out of interest Meg, you say you taught yourself how to draft/design from books etc, but did you have any formal lessons or qualifications at any point? I’m trying to figure out if someone would need formal teaching in order to successfully do what you do, or if it can be essentially self-taught. Many, many thanks again!

11 years ago
Reply to  Meg

This helps a lot Meg and makes complete sense! Thanks once again for your time and wisdom!!!

Nicole Lebreux
11 years ago

Right on Megan! I started my clothing business with nothing and it was the best investment I ever made. As a fellow designer I can attest that your words are accurate and your advice is spot on. One “help” book I read said you needed $500,000 to start, nonsense! One more thing that I would like to add that was vitally important to me; BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Believe that failure is not an option and it won’t be. Ask my mirror, it’s been told “you can do it!” and “everything is going to work out exactly as its meant to” a million times, haha.

KATIE! Forget about the naysayers! These are people that are too afraid to go after their dreams so they’re trying to ruin yours as well. You can do it! And absolutely nothing is a waste of time. The biggest mistakes and failures are the ones that you learn the most from. A bad idea can be so much more valuable than a good one! Good luck following your heart!

11 years ago

Thank you so much for this post, such valuable information!

11 years ago

Hi Megan,
I have being reading your blog for awhile and always enjoy what you have written or designed, this post was particularly inspiring though as I am at the moment a fashion design student (1st year) and have being worried about money and time and breaking into the industry but this blog post has just put a lot of those fears to rest and instead has filled me with inspiration and motivation! So a huge thanks for taking the time to write about your experiences :)
– Tracy

11 years ago

Thank you so much for this post. I have dreams and I think I am about to start pursuing them. I am sooo nervous but I really want this!!
Thank you, again!!!

11 years ago

This is such a sensible, well thought out post! What good advice! I really hope that it inspires others to take the leap!

11 years ago

Wow! How inspiring! I love that you tell everything how it is and don’t suger coat anything.
I’m not really at a point where I’ve decided to start a line, but I love sewing and I love pattern drafting to a point where I think I want to do something that involves that as my career.
I walked into a boutique a few days ago with a shirt I made and the woman who runs the boutique loved it so much she offered so sell some of my clothes consignment. now, of course this isn’t the greatest deal for me but it’s a feel of the industry.
how do you feel about selling through consignment? I’m assuming that once you get to be as well loved as you are you don’t have to use these methods, but I was just wondering your general thoughts.
thanks Megan for inspiring us again!

Rochelle New
11 years ago

Thank you so so so much for this!!! I’ve bookmarked this post and will refer to it often. It’s so nice to hear that yes it is possible to make the jump and make it work with very little monetary resources to back it. There is hope for me yet :)

Thank you for being such an inspiration.


[…] qualifies as stash/remnant-buster. I loved following her blog while she was pregnant and she shares great tips on starting your own business on a small budget. Rate this:Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookDiggPrintStumbleUponRedditLike this:LikeOne blogger […]

Kendel Mineo
11 years ago

You said you had enough fabric to make a few extra pieces, did you ever have the problem of someone ordering something and then you went back to buy the fabric and they no longer had it? If so what did you do? I get so nervous about that.

Kendel Mineo
11 years ago

Thank you for your help. Yes price is a big one especially when you are trying to keep your prices affordable for your customers. I wish there was somewhere like Spoonflower but cheaper (and good quality still though), but I understand they have to make money too so it is a catch-22.

11 years ago

Thanks so much for this post Megan. I have started sewing again in the last year or so, my only other experience was what mum taught me when I was in my teens. I’ve been slowly teaching myself bits & pieces to build up my arsenal of sewing expertise, pants still scare me!

I absolutely love the process of coming up with an idea, picking a pattern, finding the right fabric and bringing it all together into something I can be proud of. It’s so lovely to be able to feel the passion you have for you what you do, and it’s that same passion that I want to experience in my life. I’ve been thinking long and hard about changing careers and learning more about what I love to do. I’ve just signed myself up for a 1 day workshop with a college which is a taster on their Fashion Design & Business course. I’m so excited and anxious at the same time, at my age I don’t know if I should be making such a bold move like this when all I’ve done is work in an office for most of my working life.

Hope you don’t mind me asking a question though, did you have any experience working with a fashion design company or any other industry experience?

11 years ago

Your information was so common sense and straight forward. I have been tossing and turning over my decision to take my hobby and turn it into a business and your perspective was helpful. The fact you call your savings a ‘seed fund’ really strikes a chord with me.

Thanks for your honesty.

11 years ago

Hi Megan, Wow, your story is so inspirational! Thanks for sharing. I’m interested to know how you approached the marketing side of things. Did you rely on word of mouth to start with, or did you employ other strategies? I’m in the process of nutting out the logistics of putting together an online range, but I get butterflies thinking I’m going to be one of the million plus online ranges out there in cyberspace. I don’t have a huge amount of capital, and all the design, pattern making and sewing skills in the world are no good unless you have presence….If you could share what you found helpful, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you :)

10 years ago

WOW! This was so NEEDED!! I really needed to read this. I have prayed over my situation, and I have asked God to help steer me in the right direction. I am 22 years old and a mother of twin girls. But this has been a dream of mine since I was 11. I have always been into fashion. Although I cannot afford to go to any prestigious fashion school or take fancy classes in NYC. I have ready plenty of books and blogs and have taught myself how to sew. I love your “tips for a small budget” I am one of those people who always think that big is always better. But I have to realize that patience is key. I have so many ideas, it is just time to get it all out. Thank you for your help! This was extremely helpful. It saved me some money too! I have just one question. Did you have a business license when you first started or did you wait a little while? Don’t answer if this can get you into any trouble O_O idk!

Robyn Tonnet
Robyn Tonnet
9 years ago

I have loved reading your design diary. Thankyou so much for sharing your knowledge. I would love some advice. I have an online facebook presence and am in the fortunate position of demand way exceeding what i can physically produce. For instance last night i put 30 garments on line and they all sold out within 1 minute. I am so greatful, but am really struggling to see how I can sustain production as I do everything all the sewing , original patterns and design , graphics and photography……..I am completely obsessed and passionate, but at the end of the day am really in a ‘sweatshop’ I am turning people away, including wholesale opportunities – which is obviously not good business sense. I am in dire need to go to the ‘next phase’ and outsource, but I have know idea how to go about it here in Perth. Ideally i’d love to keep things local. I tried employing a seamstress at one stage but it really wasn’t viable. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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