[Setting: small town library reading room. Characters: paint artist and quilter.]
Artist: You should sell those!
Quilter: No one would pay me what they’re worth.
[Setting: quilt shop. Characters: quilt shop clerk and quilter.]
Clerk: For the women who make the quilts we sell, it’s really a labor of love.
Quilter: If I’m going to put that much love into a quilt, I’ll give it to someone I love.
[Setting: quilter’s living room. Characters: professional musician and quilter.]
Musician: You should sell those!
Quilter: No one would pay me what they’re worth.
All three of these scenes have happened to me in the last few weeks. I relate these to you because there’s been a lot of discussion recently about the value of hand-made crafts. I’ll use quilting as my frame of reference, but the discussion surely applies just as well to other crafts.
The question focuses on value. How much is it worth? My take on the question is shaped by my own quilting, but also by my education in economics and my knowledge of the history of quilting.
My quilts are my original designs. A small quilt I made recently had at least 50 hours of work in it, for both design and execution. The value of materials was about $40. That includes fabric (including waste,) batting, and thread, but doesn’t include mileage or search time for the fabrics I used. As a skilled designer and high-skilled laborer, my time is worth substantially more than U.S. minimum wage of $7.25/hour. I don’t work another job now, but the value of my time is the minimum I’d require if I rejoined the workforce. Given that, to charge for time and materials for that little quilt, I’d charge between $1000 and $1200.
Who would pay that? Would you?
Today Kate Chiconi posted about the value of craft. It’s an excellent post and I hope you will go read it. But I’ll excerpt a little here:
I know that many, many people make quilts on commission. Some are considered artists and command impressive prices. The rest of us, and I include myself, having sold a fair few quilts in my time, could not hope to recoup a reasonable hourly rate for the time we put into our works of the heart. This applies particularly to items like large quilts which are entirely hand-pieced and hand-quilted.
I think we have to move away from the idea of our time as the thing with value, and start perceiving the item we make as the thing with value. And that value is only equal to what someone else is prepared to pay. After all, I’m compulsive. I would make quilts anyway, and I enjoy the process, so that has value for me.
Now, based on what I said above her quote, you can tell I agree with her in many regards. I will quilt regardless. In addition, yes, a thing only has dollar value of what someone else is prepared to pay.
But there’s a lot more here. Stick with me a little longer…
When we talk about a one-of-a-kind quilt, we are talking about a different type of object than a blanket we can buy at the discount store. Remember, even in colonial America, only rich people had nice quilts. Woven coverlets were considerably less expensive, and “patchwork” wasn’t a widespread concept yet. A woven blanket was an appropriate substitute for almost everyone who needed cover at night.
So imagine three chairs: one is a molded plastic chair typically used in the yard, made as a commodity. One is a wooden chair purchased at a mid-level furniture store, seat covered with decent but ordinary upholstery fabric. One is a hand-carved wonder, more sculpture than furniture. All three are things you can pull up to the table and perch on while eating. But they will command very different prices from very different buyers.
If the artist who carved that last chair priced her work like either of the other two chairs, she would be cheating herself, and she cheats other furniture artists. And it doesn’t matter if she must carve just as she must breathe, if her soul depends on her art. Underpricing her work is wrong. It’s wrong if only because it allows a market expectation that other artists should take poor pay.
There is some notion out there that we should do what we love, and because we love it, we should do it for cheap. That argument is used for teachers and health care workers and child care and … all kinds of fields that are predominantly staffed by women.
What I think is most important is not each person’s decision whether to sell or not. It’s, if they will sell, for how much? Do you negate the idea of value for your time? Do you sell for just enough to cover costs? Do you suggest that oh, this fabric is older and I’ve had it in my stash for a long time, so I’ll let this one go cheap… ? Do you ignore the cost of replacing that fabric in your inventory?
Do you think other people shouldn’t value your time? What other claims on your time do they get?
I don’t see monetary reward as a “pleasant fringe benefit.” I choose not to sell my quilts, largely because I know I could not make quilts I love and sell them for what they are worth. I will not dilute prices in the market by underpricing my own work. And I will not set myself up to feel resentful and angry and obligated by selling quilts for too little.
Instead I’ll continue designing and making beautiful things. I will keep some. I will give some away. And if I ever choose to sell them, it will be for a price that recognizes my artistry and time as well as the materials in them.
If you’d like to read my posts on quilting as a business, you can find them here:
Quilting for Pay — The Longarm
Conversations with Artists
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 1
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 2
You Should Write Patterns
“It Feels Weird Asking for Pay”
Pay for Quilters (And other Crafters and Artists)
You Should Sell Those: A Play in Three Short Scenes, With Commentary