Why do you quilt?
Valid question with so many answers. I quilt because I love the creative process, it puts me in contact with other creative people, and it’s a huge stress reliever. There’s just something about needle, thread, beautiful fabric, and endless possibilities which excites me. There are probably as many answers to this question as there are quilters. Now let me ask you another question: Could you – or would you – consider making money from your art?
Now there’s a loaded question that could give some explosive answers. Obviously, some quilters (as well as other fiber artists) make this transition or else we wouldn’t have the myriads of beautiful fabrics, wonderful patterns, and great magazines, web pages, and books. Afterall, quilting is a multi-million-dollar industry. There are quilters who are constantly engaged with manufacturers to produce all the quilty things we love. And if this process wasn’t successful, all those wonderful quilt shows we adore so much wouldn’t be happening. So, it’s obvious some quilters do bridge the gap between quilter and quilt entrepreneur quite successfully. Same thing with long arm artists. Once they feel proficient in their craft, often they will agree to quilt for others.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
When I began sewing in the early eighties, I wasn’t a proficient quilter. Yes, I made a quilt or two, but I primarily made garments. More specifically, children’s garments and (believe it or not) equestrian wear, sorority sweatshirts, and square dance costumes (it’s a long story). I became fluent in children’s garments because I had two kids, although the journey specifically began with my oldest child, my daughter. I couldn’t afford to dress her like I wanted to, so I learned to sew. During the eighties, it was still less expensive to make clothing than purchase it (Target didn’t appear in Greensboro until much later). I learned to smock and make the heirloom children’s dresses. Word spread. Soon I had orders from other mothers and (most often) grandmothers. Then I was asked to teach smocking and heirloom sewing. Somewhere in this chaos, the wife of one of my husband’s friends asked if I could hem the pants she wore in horse shows. From there I made her a jacket. Then the word spread I could make horse show attire – something I had no idea there was even a market for. In between English Riding clothes and christening gowns, someone else asked me to make them a square dance skirt and word spread again. Same thing happened with a local university’s sororities and their sweatshirts.
Soon my sewing was nearly a second full-time job – which in hindsight was a good thing, because my next child, Matt, was born with severe meconium aspiration. I won’t go into what a wild rollercoaster ride this was, but one of the end results was I could not put him in any type of childcare until he was two. Colds, respiratory infections, and the like had to be avoided at all costs.
Suddenly I was home. I wasn’t working. But my sewing supplied a stable income with flexible hours. One day I was working on some super cute overalls, but the pattern’s directions were horrible. By this time, I had five solid years of garment construction under my needle, but the instructions were still confusing me. So I did what people did in the days before you could Google a pattern: I picked up the phone and called the pattern company. I asked for clarification. Somewhere in the process of being transferred for the umpteenth time, I muttered “I could write these directions so much better.”
To which the final customer-service-representative-with-an-attitude told me (quite snippily), “We have professionals who write our pattern instructions.”
“Well, you need to get other, better professionals,” was my reply. In my defense, I was tired, had two fussy kids, and was behind the eight-ball with this project. Needless to say, the call ended. I still had no better clarification, but customer service no longer seemed to be interested nor did they care.
Long story short, I went to bed that night angry. The next day, I got up, caffeinated, and made the overalls.
Then I re-wrote the directions….
And I sent them to pattern company’s head of customer service, along with a
long letter about how their customer service was pretty lousy and so were their directions.
Two weeks later, I get a call from the company. They want me to re-write some pattern instructions. They would send me some patterns and a check for fabric. I could make the garments and then re-write the directions. Afterwards, I could keep the patterns and the garments. The company would retain the copyright on the directions, but they would pay me for my time and use of my “sewing studio” (which was a corner of my kitchen). Nothing to lose, I agreed. A week later, two boxes of patterns show up at my doorstep.
I wrote all of this to say one thing: It’s fine to monetize your quilting if given the chance and you want to. In my situation, I really didn’t have an option but to sew for money because my family needed my income. Would I have done the same thing if I didn’t have to? In all honesty, probably not to the extent I did. I loved making the christening gowns and seeing the delighted faces when I showed my customers the final product. I reveled in the fact I made a family heirloom. However, the deadlines were sometimes difficult to deal with and there always was that one customer, who no matter what you did, you couldn’t make happy.
Would I monetize my quilting?
I know some of you have taken classes with me, and you know I do get paid for teaching, but I consider teaching quilting a joy and lots of fun. So, yes, this part of my quilting life is monetized. However, it’s only a small, small part of what occurs in my quilting life. So why would I decide to make money on my garment sewing, but not my quilting?
The first obvious reason, of course, is my financial situation at the time. We had to be super-careful with Matt the first couple years of his life. I needed to bring in some kind of income, and God, happenstance, Karma – call it whatever you will – worked out a plan for me to do this. However, I began seriously and exclusively quilting at a later time in my life – around 1998. Matt had long been declared perfectly healthy and I was working full-time again. I didn’t need any additional income quilting could contribute to our household budget.
The second reason is a little more complex. I didn’t like what all the pressure and deadlines did to my creativity. When I made garments for my kids, I could choose my own fabric, my own embroidery or smocking plates, and my own pattern. The only person I had to please was myself (and the kids, once they were old enough to articulate their preferences). There was freedom in this – I could stretch my creativity as far as I wanted it to go. However, after a couple of years of sewing for other people, I felt really stifled. I was making what everyone else wanted, and even if the product was lovely, it wasn’t what I wanted.
I soon lost my joy of sewing and creating. I dreaded sewing. I didn’t want to look at my sewing machine. I had no desire to stitch a stitch. And this feeling lingered until the time I went back to work on a full-time basis and told my customers I had constructed their last garment. My sewing machine basically gathered dust as I came to the realization my children were growing faster than I could sew and clothing purchased at Target had less price points than the ones I made. I was at a crossroads. There was a fifty-fifty chance I would sell my machine and all but my very basic sewing supplies or find another sewing project easier to manipulate than garments.
This is when I began quilting in earnest. People won’t outgrow quilts. I can take as long as I want to make one. I determine the colors, the fabric, the pattern, any embellishments, the quilting design, and the recipient (if any). As the freedom of choice returned to me, so did my creativity.
I learned that, at least for me, monetizing my sewing dumbed myself down. I was so focused on the sole intent of making money with my craft, I was losing a bit of my magic…my sewing mojo…my precious hobby which kept me sane. So, am I telling you I believe no one should make money from quilting?
Absolutely not. If no one tried their hand a quilting entrepreneurship, we would be at a loss. No beautiful quilting fabrics. No wonderful patterns. No marvelous quilting teachers with awesome workshops. No nifty quilting notions. What I am saying is this – there must be balance and sometimes finding that balance is tricky.
If you’re the type of quilter who is perfectly fine trading all your creativity off for cash-in-hand, a full-time quilting business will work wonderfully for you. But if you’re like me and you need at least twenty minutes a day to turn off your “work” brain and engage your “creative” brain in order to feel your best, having all the creative time sucked out of your life could possibly be emotionally crippling. This is why “professional” quilters/quilt personalities still find time for their own quilting. They need this creative space in order to be their best.
Finding this balance boils down to two motivations described by psychologists – extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the drive to make money and gain achievements. In other words, an extrinsic quilter would make quilts only for financial gain or to compete and win big prizes in quilt shows. Intrinsic motivation is the drive to do what you love – not for money, fame, the end result, the finished quilt, or the used-up stash. Intrinsic is internal. You’re quilting for the love and joy of the process. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Every quilter who becomes proficient in the art usually knows what type of quilter they are – extrinsic or intrinsic. And there may come a time in your quilt journey when you have to cross from one type to the other because things change, and life has plot twists. Sometimes opportunities present themselves to you which are too good to pass up and you find yourself tiptoeing from one camp to the other. And I’ll be the first person to tell you, switching camps can really make you grow as an artist. Don’t shy away from the opportunity.
Now, after nearly 2,000 words of quilty psychology, let’s get down to brass tacks and talk dollars and cents. Even the most intrinsic of quilters will probably be asked at some point, “How much would you charge to make me a quilt?”
I will tell you what my standard answer is: My starting (and I put emphasis on the word “starting”) price is $1,000.00. I have a good reason for flipping this amount out – I figure if the person wanting the quilt doesn’t run for the hills with a $1,000.00 starting price, we could possibly have a serious talk about me constructing the quilt of their dreams.
This starting price – and your starting price – should be only for your labor and only for a definite amount of time. Let’s say your hourly rate is $20 an hour (do not sell your quilt know-how short – don’t go for minimum wage). When we divide $1000 by $20, the result is 50. A thousand dollars only covers a 40-hour work week, one additional eight-hour day, and two hours of another day. Knowing what we know about how long making a quilt can actually take, $1000 doesn’t seem too much to charge, does it?
The customer should also be part of the price equation. If you’re lucky, the customer will give you a color palate and you can purchase the fabric, backing, and thread. Should this occasion arise, be sure to mark up what you spend on these as well as other items purchased for use on the quilt (such as specialty rulers you will probably never use again) by 10%. Just incase you may feel like balking at this, let me reassure you this is broad industry standards. My husband and I own an environmental company. If we are undertaking a time and materials project, all materials we purchased are marked up 10%. The 10% covers your time and fuel. I would advise, if the customer wants to choose the fabric themselves, ask if you can go with them. Many non-quilters have no idea about the type or quality of fabric needed to construct a great looking quilt.
The two last items which need to be considered are deadlines and the complexity of the quilt. In their defense, most non-quilters have no idea how long it takes to make a quilt. If the needed-by-date is unrealistic, don’t hesitate to turn the project down. Explain the process of quilt construction, with a rough working timetable for each, as well as how this wouldn’t fit in your schedule. The complexity of the quilt also needs to be considered. Some quilts, such as a double wedding ring, can take weeks to construct, even if all the parts go together well. And if the quilt pattern is beyond what you’re comfortable with in your skill set, don’t be afraid to say no.
If you do want to sell quilts, it may be a good idea to have some “stock” quilt patterns – those patterns you know exactly how much time and material they take. Perhaps have a few choices for baby quilts, wedding quilts, and queen-sized quilts (these are the most used sizes). If you’ve used the pattern several times, you are aware of how much time it takes to make the quilt. These would be fairly easy to price. If a customer really wants a different quilt, you can either tell them only those choices are available, or the quilt they want would cost more than your “stock” quilts.
Be clear about the actual “quilting” part of the process. If you long arm, use a sit-down machine, or your domestic machine, will that be an additional up-charge? And if you don’t plan on undertaking any of the quilting, be transparent to your customers about it. Tell them you don’t quilt the quilt – just construct the top – and they will need to find a long armer. If you have friends who long arm for profit, you may want to recommend them, or have a list of long armers in your area who they can call.
Above all else, don’t let anyone “guilt” you into making their quilt. I’ve had friends and family who have attempted this with me. They believe because quilting is my hobby and passion, I will jump at the chance to make another quilt at no charge if they supply the fabric and other materials. I have too many quilts I want to make for me to even let theirs be a blip on my radar. I know that may sound harsh, but it’s a difficult lesson I learned a long time ago when I made heirloom children’s clothing – they won’t stop with just one. And if you don’t say no the first time, it’s even harder to say no the second.
Considering how making garments for others almost completely tapped out my creativity, I don’t think I could ever monetize my quilts. I won’t even long arm for anyone but myself and I have no plans to monetize my blog. However, this may be a good option for you. Just don’t sell yourself or your talent short. Both are valuable and precious.
Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!