It’s a question I’m sure most people have wondered about. You can go to a fabric store and buy a whole metre/yard of fabric for cheaper than you can buy 1 pad for, so what are you paying for? and why do some pads cost more than others when they seem to be the same?
No, it doesn’t cost $10 in fabric to make a pad… but just like you wouldn’t walk into a restaurant expecting to buy a steak for the same price you can buy it raw from the supermarket – a lot more goes into producing a pad than just the cost of the raw materials. Not many people really know or think about what goes on behind the scenes with pad making, so I thought I’d give some insight.
Firstly there are 3 main types of cloth pad sellers….and this is probably the biggest factor in the price of a cloth pad, because it usually defines the way they price their pads. Not because one type of pad maker is better than the other, but because of the way they do things.
These pad makers are just interested in making some pads – mostly for a bit of fun or perhaps with the intention to make a few dollars for the novelty. Sometimes using second hand (“reclaimed”) fabrics to keep costs down. They tend to stick to fabrics they can buy locally…. so usually not using things like PUL, Hemp or Bamboo. Usually a hobbyist pad maker will be pricing their pads low out of the desire to make an affordable product, and is probably not actually making much of a profit on their sales. Usually they sell from personal blogs or community websites without websites of their own. Unfortunately the hobbyist pad maker can “burn out” after a while…. realising that they are working hard for little money, and deciding not to continue doing so. Or they often step up to the next level…
These pad makers are sometimes looked down on, under the impression that they are driven by making money alone because their prices are sometimes higher than the “average” cost of a pad. Which isn’t necessarily the case. What separates the pad making Business from a Hobbyist is the way they run their business, the fact they run it as one. It may include “proper” business practice like keeping receipts and filing a tax return and declaring their income, but it is also other things like having a name to trade under (a business name), website/online store and other business-like things where they have made an effort to achieve a business profile. Business pad makers will generally realise that there is more to the pad than just fabric cost, and price them accordingly, which usually results in a higher priced pad than one made by a hobbyist. Sometimes the business pad maker will make more “deluxe” lines of pads, with hand dyed fabrics, organics and other speciality fabrics, producing higher priced pads. Business pad makers can include “WAHM” (Work At Home Mother) or other types of work from home pad maker, who don’t have other employment outside of the home and treat their pad business as their “job”, or use their pad business to supplement their income. Because they run their pad making as a business, they are often more able to use higher priced and imported fabrics and buy fabric in larger quantities, giving them more range in fabrics than a hobbyist.
By this I’m meaning the very large businesses who employ staff, where the business owner is not the one sewing and running the business. These types of pad makers often supply other businesses with pads, so are able to get their products well known, and they sell more because there are more outlets stocking them. Company pad makers have the advantage of being able to buy fabrics in bulk at greater discounts, so the cost in fabrics for each item is lower, but they employ people to sew them, so that extra cost has to be added in. They also don’t have the freedom to offer hand dyed and specialty pads because they need to have a constant range. As a result the pads from a Company can either be cheaper than the average business made pad (since the fabric cost is lower and their turnover is greater), or more expensive (since the cost of wages and other expenses is added).
So….if 3 layers of flannel costs less than $1, why are they charging $4 for a 3 layer pantyliner?
For a start it needs to be sewn up…. so you are paying for the finished item, not the fabric it is made from. The fabric doesn’t just magically transform into a pad, and what you’re also paying for, on top of the actual physical product, is the time and effort the pad maker has put into creating that product.
Some fabrics also cost more than others…. a pad made with flannel from a local fabric store is going to cost less (in raw materials) to make than the same size/shape pad made from bamboo velour and other more expensive fabrics. Also some fabrics have a print all over, or are plain, and some have an obvious print that needs to be placed in a particular spot within a pad, which can mean you get less pads cut per piece of fabric.
Some pad makers, usually the more hobbyist, will price their product thinking mostly about the cost of actually making the pad… the fabrics that go into it, and not charging extra to cover other expenses that come into making pads. That is where the above pad maker types will influence how pads are priced. A Hobbyist might be happy to run at a loss if they are making pads for fun and not concerned with making a profit. A business pad maker however will realise the extra costs and price their product to cover those, and may have more expenses they need to cover (such as web hosting) that the hobbyist doesn’t.
A pair of jeans doesn’t cost the manufacturer anywhere near what you buy it for…. but part of the price of the jeans pays for advertising, worker wages, transportation and dozens of other things…. It’s exactly the same in the cloth pad industry.
Costs of Padmaking
Lets look at some of the costs involved in making pads commercially.
Getting the fabric
First the pad maker will probably either drive to a store to buy the fabric, or have it posted to them. So there is the cost of petrol/wear & tear on the car (perhaps parking cost), or the cost of postage to be added. Usually when I buy fabric online its imported, and the shipping charges are often more than the cost of the fabric. Basically whatever postage costs incurred are added to the cost of the fabric, so when working out prices if you’d bought a $10 a yard fabric and shipping was $10, then the fabric cost is $20 a yard. Adding on extra for petrol/car wear and tear will be less than cost of shipping, so most people wouldn’t consider adding it, but it is worth considering. Some businesses may even keep a vehicle log book to track business trips to work out the actual cost of getting there. If buying fabric online, the pad maker may have spent considerable time locating suppliers of the fabric, while the time spent yields nothing tangible, it is still time spent on the business.
Washing the fabric
The pad maker should “prewash” the fabric, which means to wash it before they use it. This is to remove the excess dyes, starches and other things in the fabric from manufacture, and because most natural fibre fabrics shrink when first washed, so they need to be washed before anything is made from the fabric, or the resulting product can distort when the fabric shrinks. Some pad makers pay extra to use eco-friendly detergents and you want to hope they wash fabrics in a dedicated load – not with their personal laundry! So onto the cost of fabric needs to go the cost of washing the fabric (electricity, water and detergent – also cost of running a tumble dryer if that is used). I calculated once that my modern energy efficient machine, on cold wash, with line drying and middle-range cost laundry detergent only cost around 30c a load for power, water and detergent cost. It’s about doubled for a hot wash. If the pad maker uses a laundromat then the cost will be much higher. So while it’s not much over a whole load of fabric, it does add up, particularly if smaller loads are done to wash fabrics separately. Fabrics such as hemp or bamboo should be hot washed 2-3 times before use. Some fabrics must be ironed before they can be used as well, adding more time and electricity used.
Art meets Functionality
Sometimes the pad maker will “hand dye” the fabric – take a previously plain coloured fabric and dye it themselves. This generally involves quite a lot of work (hours spent washing fabric and doing the dying), which adds time for which the pad maker will want to charge more for, and also the cost of dye and extra washing to wash out the excess dye adds to the cost of a hand dyed fabric. Or perhaps they spend hours matching and planning so that the top and backing fabrics and the thread colours match perfectly. They may be custom embroidered, hand sewn…. The fabric might have a print that the pad maker wants to make a feature, so cuts out their pad shapes to best show off the fabric. Even the simple step of using machine embroidery to make decorative channeling lines can double the time it takes to make a pad.
Sometimes the line gets blurred between what is a form of “fibre art” and just a piece of functional menstrual garb. If a pad maker spends hours hand dying fabric for a pad, the resulting product is no less artistic than a painting you would hang on a wall…. and you’d hardly walk into a gallery going “I’ll give you a buck fifty for that piece of canvass over there some dude scribbled on”
Now on to making the pad. The fabric needs to be cut out and sewn together. There can be around 5 layers of fabric in a pad, all hand cut. Presumably large companies have the pad shapes cut by machine as they do in clothing manufacture, smaller scale pad makers do it with scissors, or some may use a rotary cutter to make this a little quicker. Then the layers assembled, and the pad sewn up. It can take around 10-30 mins each pad to make from cutting to completion, depending on the layers and complexity of the pad. If it has decorative channel stitching, or is a more complex pad, that will take longer to make. The fabrics may need to be ironed before they are cut out, and the pad may need to be ironed after its sewn. If someone was being paid for their time doing another job, how much would they earn for 20 mins work? An average hourly rate for a seamstress is around $10 to $20 an hour. So the wages for sewing up a pad (not including any other expenses) may be around $2.50-$5 per pad. There are also the costs of the sewing supplies, which often need replacing – needles, threads, bobbins, machine oil, pins, fabric markers, scissors, roatary cutter blades, overlocker/serger blades, electricity for running the sewing machines (and room lighting) etc. Sewing machines need repairs and maintenance, and you can’t charge a customer $150 if the machine breaks while making their pad, so a pad maker has to price their product so that they are making enough profit to be able to afford machine repairs/maintenance. And don’t forget the fasteners and labelling…. adding snaps or other fasteners onto winged pads, as well as any branding tags also adds a small cost per pad and adds to the time it takes to finish the pad.
Getting the goods online
Most cloth pads are sold online… depending on the scale of the business there will be different costs involved with that. Ebay, Etsy and other such venues for selling your goods from cost money to list an item and take a percentage from the sale, others charge a monthly fee. If the pad maker accepts paypal (as most do), then there are paypal fees that come out as well. Some sellers offer bank deposit, and their banks may charge fees for their account. If the seller has their own website, then they will most likely have a domain name (www.them.com) which they pay a yearly fee for, and may have web hosting fees ontop of that. So for example, if you sell a $5 pad (including shipping) on etsy and the customer pays with credit card paypal, paypal will take out around 45c, and etsy will take out 38c. Leaving you with $4.17 left from the sale.
As well as the costs of selling online, there is the time involved. As with sewing up the pad, it doesn’t just list itself. Often pad makers take time to set up a backdrop and photograph their wares in an attractive fashion. They may then upload the photos to their computer and crop, resize and do other things to them, before uploading them to their store/website and writing up the descriptions to make them available for sale. This can take around 15 mins per pad.
The time spent at the computer uploading new products isn’t the only thing a pad maker does online. They also reply to e-mails from customers. Sometimes these can be numerous. Just as a receptionist or other employed person would get paid for time spent on customer service, a pad maker may factor in time they spend doing this into their pricing. Some pad makers charge extra for custom made pads because of the large amount of conversing with customers that takes place with providing a personalised service.
Advertising & Other Expenses
Some sellers purchase advertising space on websites or publications. This costs money. There can be other expenses to running a “proper” business too, such as product liability insurance, registering a business name, having an accountant do your tax return. All things to consider.
Packing the orders
Orders in, it’s time to pack and send them off. Sometimes pad makers wrap the order in ribbon or tissue paper, write a note on pretty paper, include little freebies…There is sticky tape, envelopes, printer paper and ink, biros, return address labels, business cards…. As well as driving to the post office to send orders, and to buy more packing supplies. Those all cost the pad maker money. Some pad makers charge extra “handling” with the postage price to help cover these costs, if they don’t then it comes out of the profits they need to make on each pad.
An unfortunate side effect of being a human is the inevitable mistake. They happen with pad making, and you’re left with a “second” – a pad that isn’t quite up to scratch. Often these are for very small visual imperfections…. a bit of loopy/wonky stitching for example, that do not effect how the pad works at all, but in order to maintain a level of workmanship in their brand, a seller may mark them down. Sometimes customers complain because the “seconds” pads aren’t significantly cheaper than a regular priced pad, but the thing to remember is that it takes exactly the same amount of time and expense to produce a “second” than a normal standard pad. Infact, often the pad maker spends more time trying to correct the “second” than they would otherwise. Its also worth mentioning that often a pad maker will be very critical of their sewing, and consider something to be a “second” even though a customer wouldn’t. So if a pad maker takes $1 off the price for a “seconds” pad, you’re quite likely still getting a great pad at a great price.
Freebies & Special offers
When a pad maker has decided on a price they want for a pad, offering a “sale” price is cutting into their profits. Often pad sellers will offer deals and even give away free products, all of which cost them money (and time). Some pad makers even give away pads to charity or for other reasons. A Pad maker needs to consider specials and freebies, so that overall their business still runs at a profit even though they are occasionally giving things away for free.
Paying for the name & Market led pricing
With some of the more well known brands, the prices they charge may be higher than that of an equivalent pad made by a different maker. Just like with brand name clothing, a pad maker who has built up a reputation will often charge a higher price for their work. Here you’re paying extra for the pad maker’s expertise, knowledge, customer service or other aspects that may stand above other brands. Also sometimes the reason well known brands are well known is because they have spent time and money advertising their brand. Perhaps they spend hours sourcing special fabrics to make their pads more unique. Or simply be because there is a higher demand on them so they need to make sure their prices are such that it is worth their time. Which is why sometimes pad makers give up making pads, when they realise they are sitting there sewing for hours on end and only making a couple of dollars for their efforts. Often a lot of orders and custom work is done behind the scenes, so pad makers can be quite busy when their websites don’t seem to be updated often. There is also a lot of market led pricing. If customers are willing to pay a certain amount for a pad, and other pad makers of equivalent standard are charging a certain price, then often a pad maker will price their pads at a similar price to be in keeping with what is on the market. This actually helps to maintain an “average” price in the market. Interestingly there is often backlash in the pad maker community when new sellers price their pads too low…. undercutting the current prices is not only harmful for the other businesses, but in the long run pricing a product too cheap doesn’t benefit the cheap-pad seller, when they realise they are creating a sweatshop for themselves.
Adding it all up
So… lets take an example of a basic 8 inch (20cm) regular absorbency pad and break down the costs that go into it. In US dollars and amounts.
Fabric – lets assume you can get 23 pad layer cutout from a yard of fabric. This is sort of a best case scenario, where you would be able to cut the pads out with minimal wastage, each pad shape slotting along side the next (this doesn’t always happen, particularly if a pad maker is cutting several pad shapes). Now fabric prices will be different in different countries, and depend on what type of fabrics you’re using… but for example take a $5 per yard fabric for the backing, which works out to be about 20c per pad layer… $7.95 a yard PUL works out at 34c…. $3 per yard flannel for the top at 13c….. and 3 core layers of bamboo fleece at $12 per yard for around 12c. So all up that’s around 79c for the pad. Yes….. you can pick your jaw up off the floor… not much is it. Although, for good quality fabrics, or if you’re somewhere like Australia or the UK (where fabric prices are higher and/or you need to import fabric), you can pretty much double or triple those costs. Also those fabric prices don’t include postage or washing costs. But as a basic guide, we’ll use that amount, as a cheapest case scenario.
Use a bamboo velour top for example and that might cost 78c just for the top piece alone. Also, a fabric that has an obvious print that needs to be positioned within the pad shape in a pleasing fashion will give you much less pads from the one yard of fabric. For example I’ve got a printed fabric where I get only about 20 small pads from one yard of fabric, where a plain fabric would yield more than twice that number. That fabric also cost me $30 a yard! So that makes each pad shape piece $1.50! When I top that with bamboo velour that makes the cost of that pad about $3.40 to make. You can see how fabric choices can make a HUGE difference to the cost of a pad.
Time – Lets assume it takes 15 mins to cut out and sew up the pad, including adding snaps and labels…. using $10 an hour as the price of labour, that’s $2.50. (If you’re giving yourself a decent wage as a skilled seamstress, double that) Now lets assume it takes another 15 mins to set up, photograph, crop/resize, upload and write the description for the pad…. that’s another $2.50 worth of labour. Now this labour is paying for the time spent, just as you’d be paid if you worked out of the home at a cafe, bookshop etc. So all up, making the pad and putting it online adds $5.00 worth of cost to the pad. Starting to add up now isn’t it! We’re at $5.79.
Fees – You’ll want to make sure you cover the fees, so if listing somewhere that you’ll incur paypal and listing fees, add an extra $1 to help offset that (of course making the pad $1 more expensive means more fees will get taken out than if it was $1 cheaper – since it’s based on the value of the item…). So that makes it $6.79….
Other costs – If the seller prints the invoice page or prints instructions add around 10c – $6.89. If the seller is wrapping in tissue paper/ribbon or adding a fancy note, you can add on another 20c or so…. $7.09. Snaps for the pad, another 5c, a label, about 10c perhaps… $7.24. Still we’re only really at the level of what the pad costs to produce/send. The pad maker might add a few dollars on to help cover the other expenses their business has… all those things listed above, such as domain name, buying office supplies etc. For example if the business has a website for which they pay $4.99 a month web hosting for… and they sell 10 pads a month, each pad would need to have 49c added to the cost to pay for the cost of the web host…. $7.73 (and if you want to add a domain name, that works out at about 8c per pad)
So there you go….
About $7.73 for a basic 8″ regular pad…. the kind of pad that you’d probably see being sold on etsy for about $6-$8 USD. Which some people might grumble at being “too expensive”. So you can see how a $10 price tag on a “basic” pad can be justified.
Also it’s very important to realise that the fabrics actually make up a very very small portion of the overall cost of selling someone a cloth pad…. it’s a LOT more involved than just working out the cost in fabric. Also, a pantyliner and long night pad will still take similar amounts of labour time and extra expenses to make. So if a pad maker takes 15 minutes to sew up a pantyliner that they charge $4, they are probably not pricing their product as high as it should be to cover their expenses. The only saving thing is that a larger night pad is expected to cost more, so it can be priced higher to help offset the lower profits of pantyliners.
While most of us are on the hunt for a bargain, cloth pads (even expensive ones) are cheaper than using disposable pads in the long run, and while a $10 or $15 pad may seem expensive, you can buy one or two a month to build up a stash at a more affordable pace. See also my article on What are the Cheapest Pads. There is also the option to make your own.
Remember that a lot of time and effort goes into each one made. They are made by people, often in their homes. Not churned off a machine in some big factory like disposable pads are. Someone might have searched for hours to find that particular fabric print. They might have sat there sobbing while the machine refuses to sew properly, or they might have sung a happy tune while sewing. If only pads could talk! By customers buying their pads they might be able to afford their child’s swimming lessons, or buy themselves something nice to wear. Or you might simply be helping them be able to afford to feed their family. Or providing a business for a women who can then stay home with her kids instead of going out to work.
Buying a cloth pad can be so much more than just accumulating something else to bleed on each month.. you are supporting small business, contributing to a drive towards cloth pads, aiding the environment and getting something lovely to put into your underpants!
So lets not quibble too much about the price.