You Should Sell Those: A Play in Three Short Scenes, with Commentary

Scene 1
[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.

Scene 2
[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.

Scene 3
[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.

The End

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

Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?
Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?
Cotton — Weaving Fabric
Cotton — Batik Production
Cotton — Printing Designs

49 thoughts on “You Should Sell Those: A Play in Three Short Scenes, with Commentary

  1. jimfetig

    Sadly, many people don’t know the difference between textile art and a machine-made artifact. As in oriental carpets, practicality often trumps artistry. Much like photography, anybody can do it, right?

    There’s a textile art museum across from the White House, and a good place to get an education on the differences you point out.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      And if they don’t know the difference and don’t care, it’s okay with me, I guess. They won’t pay up for a piece of art, because they won’t appreciate it as art. Like me, I won’t pay a lot for a bottle of wine, because I don’t know enough (or care enough) about the difference between $12 wine and $30 wine. There is not a value difference for me. But that does not mean that the maker of better wine should price it lower, just to get me to buy. Their market is not me, it’s someone else. Just the same as my market is not the person who only wants to spend $60 on a king-sized bed quilt. Good luck with that. Mostly I feel badly for all the Asian ladies making pennies per hour to provide that type of product.

      I could go on…

  2. katechiconi

    Totally agree. I no longer sell quilts because I found it impossible to make people realise why I placed such a ‘high’ monetary value on them. Occasionally, a recipient will ask to make a contribution to pay for the fabrics used in a quilt I’ve given them, which is always welcome, but when people can buy something they consider equivalent (a cheaply, badly made mass-produced quilt from China) for a fraction of the price, buying my work seems like a difficult choice to them. Thank you for linking back to my post. Let’s see where this goes!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Even after I posted I thought about how I could say things differently. I guess the real point is, *I* value my quilts more than the market would. There is a dollar value to me (sort of), even if someone else won’t pay it. So the person who values it most (me) is the one who owns it.

      Your post was terrific, lots of good points. I liked the way you broke out the hours for your hexie work in the prior post comments.

      Another great source for this discussion is Hunter’s Design Studio. She blogs regularly about it. Note the tab on the far right for We are $ew Worth It.

  3. TextileRanger

    I love the comparison to chairs. I think most people would get that they have such different values – maybe because furniture was traditionally made by MEN? Hmmmm? 🙂
    I know that the general public doesn’t understand the effort that goes into a quilt and therefore may think a price is too high. What I don’t understand is when fellow quilters ask me about buying one of my silk, hand-painted, hand-woven shawls, and then think that price is too high. I would think the appreciation for unique handmade objects would translate across crafts.
    Anyway, I am like you, and lucky enough to be able to make and give away the things I love, so that I don’t have to worry about communicating their worth by agreeing on a dollar figure.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Their appreciation for value of unique handmade objects may not even extend to their quilts. They may not value their time, and only see them in terms of material. If so, they’d have no means to appreciate your work correctly.

      One post I saw suggested having a range of pieces appraised, so you can refer to that to “justify” price. Seems like then I’d have to recoup the appraisal cost by raising prices! 😉

    2. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Chairs vs quilts: think of the bedroom as a place of luxury… most people don’t. It’s serviceable. They wait to replace bad mattresses and threadbare sheets, fill it with hand-me-down furniture, buy cheap artwork for the walls. When looking for a bedcover, they think “the room is sage green, so a quilt in fall colors will work.” That’s the whole thought process on it. Chairs are more public. Perhaps that is part of the difference…

  4. socialstitcher

    I agree that it’s a problem Melanie. Friends often ask me to make a quilt for them without realising the cost in terms of time, materials and skill. Like you I also rebut all those who suggest I sell my quilts, as I doubt people would pay what they are worth.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’ve even been “volunteered” to make quilts for people! One relative suggested to another that I would make her a large wall-hanging. When I agreed and told her that I would, and for that size it would cost several hundred dollars, she didn’t say more.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Thanks for reading. I’ve been thinking this through for a long time. When I found my comment on Kate’s post was blog-post length itself, I decided to finally put it here.

  5. EllaDee

    You also have expressed the topic beautifully. I never think the price being asked for beautifully hand crafted, created items is too high… I simply wish I had more funds at my disposal to support the talented people behind them. And as I mentioned to Kate, I get a little sad to see old handcrafted items sold second hand but I console myself that in their next life they will be loved & used, and not consigned to a cupboard or box.

  6. Granny Maud's Girl

    I hopped over here from Kate’s blog. Like you, I have had those conversations many a time and I have never sold a thing. I have given away and donated to people I think will appreciate the work, but I know any price I set would have to reflect the real costs of labour and materials if I did sell something I made.
    A handmade quilt is not an Ikea blanket. Too right!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I enjoy giving quilts and have almost always had grateful recipients. One thing about that — I don’t take orders. No one else gets to decide what their quilt looks like, only me. 🙂

  7. allisonreidnem

    I so agree with these comments. But I have to break in with a ‘but’ – sometimes I do sell my patchwork quilted items for much less than their true value (in terms of being originals, the cost of materials and my time) just in order to buy more fabrics/tools so I can carry on doing what I enjoy. I don’t like that my selling items for less than their true worth undermines the market of handcrafted goods for other producers. I guess I’m not alone in making this big compromise?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Not a bit alone in it. I don’t know what the market is like near you (or if you’re selling only on internet, so your locale doesn’t matter.) You might check Sam Hunter’s blog and items she writes about valuing our work. She includes cost/value worksheets to help give a true sense of this.

      1. allisonreidnem

        Local craft fairs are not helpful. Most visitors spend less than £10 per item so as much as my work may be admired it’s rarely purchased at fairs. I have sold items on Folksy (UK version of Etsy) but that has tailed off as the number of sellers and items on the site have increased (who is going to look through over a 1000 tote bags before making a choice?). Nevermind, I’ve found offering occasional patchwork and quilting classes for beginners has been a steady little source of income. And I haven’t run out of fabric yet! 🙂

  8. Ann

    An excellent post and thoughtful topic for discussion. I am relatively new to quilting and it is a hobby for me, none of my quilts being as detailed or beautiful as the ones I see here and elsewhere on-line.I know that no-one would buy my work at a price to recoup the outlay on fabric let alone the time I have invested. Very often I cannot justify buying a beautiful fabric and have to settle for a less expensive one.
    I give my quilts away to family and friends but it is expensive in both my time and fabric costs to do so. Unfortunately, by just giving my work away, I maintain a sense of ‘ownership’ and would be devastated if I thought one of my quilts was being used as a dog bed, for example. Does anyone else feel this too?
    However, I love making quilts and would like to continue, but I realise that my relatives probably don’t need any more, so my ‘market’ is drying up. Just this weekend I gave a cot quilt to my Sister for her to raffle for charity at her place of work. This does not help me to buy more fabric but I feel that this way someone else can have the pleasure of owning a home-made quilt and the charity will gain a few pounds.
    It is tragic that the public do not recognise the skills involved in quilt-making, nor are willing to pay a reasonable price to the people who craft them with love.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh yes, the dog bed syndrome! We ALL feel like that!! Well, probably we all don’t. But yes there is some sense of ownership I have, at least. I believe and try to feel that a gift is no longer mine once it’s given. However, if I thought someone who received one of my quilts wasn’t using it the way I hoped, they would not get another.

      As to outlets for your skills, if you have a local quilt guild, they may well do service (donation) projects and appreciate your enthusiasm. My guild has an enormous stash and would love to have people dedicated to quilting through it. That could relieve both your supplies problem and your market problem.

      1. Ann

        That’s something I hadn’t even thought about. Thanks very much for the tip and I will check to see if there any guild meetings near to me.

  9. tialys

    I’ve blog hopped over here from Kate’s post also and agree with everything that’s being said. Ann – I only ever make quilts now for people that I know and love, who appreciate the time and effort that goes into them and who ask me (and who will be forgiving of any imperfections!). I decided this after I once made a beautiful quilt for a new baby and it was obvious, by the way it was received, that the mother had no idea how much time, effort and cost had gone into it. She wasn’t really our friend, it was her husband, but I felt a little bitter about it afterward and vowed never to make another ‘unsolicited’ quilt as a gift. I have supplied most friends and relatives now and I have far too many myself, but I just can’t resist making more because I love it and, although I sell other craft work, I wouldn’t sell my quilts partly because I don’t consider my quilting stitches good enough and partly because, as everybody else has said, I don’t want to undervalue my own work and the work of others.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m sorry you learned this with an unhappy experience, and I’ve had that, too. A beautiful baby quilt never used and never seen again… A 4-year-old assuming his OTHER grandma gave him that quilt he’s never seen… If that was my only experience with that family on quilts, they wouldn’t get more. But this was the sad exception. Still, yes, it makes one more careful in choosing recipients.

  10. snarkyquilter

    A friend has a little side business making modern style quilts. She asks that her customers pay for the materials up front (they choose the fabrics together) and then she charges $100 for her labor for up to lap size quilts. She offers 3 to 4 different designs. I think the charge is higher for a bed size quilt. I suspect she’s still making only about $5 an hour. Another friend makes quilts as gifts for loved ones, but she insists they participate in choosing the design (she presents a few options) and fabrics (at least the colors) so that they’ll be more inclined to use the quilt. Honestly, the only people I know who make money making quilts do tee shirt quilts.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, and even most of those who make t-shirt quilts likely don’t get paid a lot. Professional long-arm quilters (who charge appropriately) can make a living wage. They may be the only ones.

      1. snarkyquilter

        I would posit that long arm quilters can make a living wage partly because they sell their services to other quilters rather than the general public. Also, they offer a wide range of services, from overall pantograph to heirloom quilting, and most quilters understand enough about the differences to know why these services are priced differently. I don’t think the general public understands enough about the differences between a quilt made in a week and one that took countless hours to care. And yes, there are people who wouldn’t have one as a gift.

  11. Nann

    There’s a woman in my community who is a commercial crafter. She makes placemats, potholders, table runners, baby bibs, etc., using quilting fabric. Evidently she does well enough. She shops for bargains and I’ve sold her some fabric. (And if you find any Chicago Blackhawks quilting cotton, she’s interested.) I couldn’t / wouldn’t do what she does. I don’t like mass production. I like scrappy quilts. I like adapting patterns to suit me rather than making copies. (I don’t buy kits for that reason.) I don’t make quilts for the express purpose of selling them, but I do sell quilts on occasion. I take a couple of commissions a year but I don’t seek them.
    P.S. Here is another post about the cost of quiltmaking.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It’s good for her if she enjoys it, but that isn’t something I could do. I like the fresh challenge of each new quilt, and yes, scrappy quilts do that well. Thanks for the link. I’ll take a look at it.

  12. Cjhaab

    An interesting topic. When considering whether viewers appreciate or value quilts (or other artwork, furniture, individually made jewelry or whatever) for what is put into them in terms of materials or time and skill, it’s impossible to judge their basis. By that I mean, are they educated in art or design? We may not know. Are they familiar with current market prices? Maybe not. Would they be able to afford the price anyway? That depends on their own budget and spending priorities.

    It would be harder for me to understand why a price is “out of reach” if I hadn’t drooled over various types of art at local art fairs, museums and Antiques Roadshow for years, things that I would love to own but no way to afford. So we have to give them that. Maybe if we take it as a compliment when some one says, you should sell those, and recognize the viewer is trying to pay a compliment by affirming that the quilt is valuable, “worth” something to others, a thing of beauty, we won’t need to justify why we don’t. Next time someone says that to me, I’ll just say thanks.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Good comments and suggestion. Yes, indeed they mean it as a compliment and that is how I take it. What surprises me, though, and why I used the examples I did, is these are people who have some understanding of the value of original creative work. A painter, a musician, and someone who sells quilts.

      In truth, value is always very personal and subjective. What is valuable to me is not to you, and vice versa. Price is the thing that is objective, and then we decide whether or not to pay the price based on value.

  13. JaN

    Here I was, reading through the comments before adding my own – and there it was – already said! “Dog bed”! When I think of giving something away, I recall a lady telling me how heartbroken she was to visit her son and see the quilt she had labored over was in the garage as a bed for the dog. She wanted to spare me that and I am very cautious about gifting. This is a frustrating issue and thanks so much for airing it out!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      There’s nothing you can do, though, if that’s how they choose to use it. It’s too late to change that choice. BUT those people don’t get another quilt! Fortunately most of the people I’ve given quilts to don’t do things like that, though I’ve had a couple of noted disappointments in my gifts. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  14. weddingdressblue

    I have sold three quilts for more than $1000 each. But only three. They were exceptions. I don’t “make ahead.” If someone asks me to make a quilt my standard answer is, “I would be glad to. They start at $1000.” Oddly enough, there are those that will say, “OK.” For the rest, I am OK with that. I give a lot of quilts away, and I am OK with that, too.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Sounds like you have the right answer to the question. Have you ever tallied your time or have a sense of how long for sizes or types of quilts? Thanks for the comment.

      1. weddingdressblue

        The “My quilts start at $1000” answer applies to queen-size-ish quilts. Also, ones with quite a few pieces, but, really, that is all I build. I am not sure on time–perhaps I’ll keep track of that next time I build one from start to finish.

  15. KerryCan

    You clearly hit on a subject people feel passionately about, Melanie! I’m glad to see the discussion being, at least in part, about re-thinkng the value of “women’s work.” Because I’m a hand stitcher and hand quilter, I haven’t made all that many quilts over the years. I really can see the dilemma faced by the folks who finish many quilts in a year and want to see them loved!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Pricing anything based on beauty or design, rather than function, will always be difficult. And even those of us who agree that these items should be priced “fairly” will disagree on what that means. We don’t have an industry standard for what we should be paid, either. And is hand-stitching more or less valuable than machine-stitching? Arguments could go both ways. I think part of why we feel passionate is because those are all open questions. We can’t just point to a resource and dispassionately agree that someone did the research or analysis and hence they have the right answer.

      I’m writing more on this topic. Thanks for reading so far.

  16. denmck

    I was recently asked by my son’s long-time girlfriend if I would make a quilt for her sister who is having her first baby in August. She asked me how far in advance she’d need to “book” me because she wanted to give her sister something “really special” and that cost was no object. I can’t tell you how that warmed my heart! She was flabbergasted when I told her it was no charge for “family”. In fact, I’ve only sold one commissioned quilt ever, and those who asked me to do it compared things selling on Etsy for setting my price. It was awkward and uncomfortable for me to put a price on my work. This topic really makes one think…

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I’m glad you checked in. If you took a job in any other field, you would probably have some sense of what you should be paid for your efforts. Just because you love quilting does not make it less valuable (than if you didn’t love it!!) Your offer to your son’s gf was very generous. If it isn’t too late, you might ask her to help cover fabric costs, or at the least make an appropriate donation to a charity. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  17. katechiconi

    I have found after years of quilting that not only do I no longer want to sell quilts because I cannot make it a commercial proposition, but I also no longer much want to make quilts for strangers.
    To me, knowledge of the recipient, their likes and loves and dislikes, is critical in the process of designing a quilt which is just for them. I don’t use commercial or traditional patterns. Every quilt I make springs from an original idea and evolves during the process. I have an internal vision of what I want to achieve, whether it’s for me or someone else.
    So perhaps it’s no longer just a question of I don’t sell quilts but I can’t sell quilts – because I don’t know the future owner well enough to make ‘their’ quilt. The only exception to this rule is quilts I make for service people or charity. And it’s odd that these are the ones I find hardest because of the lack of information and knowledge of the recipient.
    So tell me please, how do I put a dollar price on one of my quilts? I can only go back to the point I originally made in the blog you’ve responded to: I now assign value (not price) to a quilt based on the pleasure it gives me to make it, rather than the time it took and the cost of the materials. A ‘realistic’ price is not required, since my work is not for sale.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      I fear this discussion (including some aftermath) has caused you some personal pain. Please know that was never my intention. As I’ve said, I agree with you in many respects, and especially that the value is in the quilt. No one really cares (or at least not much) about how many hours it took me to make a quilt. It has two layers of value for them: 1) functional (does it go with my living room so I can use it on the couch) and 2) personal (does it mean something to me on a deeper level.) MY agony in deciding which color to use does not enter their value calculation.

      I also agree that I’m not interested in “pricing” my quilts, because I do not (at this time CANNOT) make them for sale. And I’m lucky I have that option.

      I think the brouhaha that arose was due to a fundamental misunderstanding (not mine) of what you said. And perhaps a little misunderstanding in return. The other blogger who (did NOT do that well) responded to your blog post has stated before that those who give quilts are not those she is concerned with. She actually doesn’t care about you and me. Her concern (if I understand correctly) is with those who sell their work, but sell for a price that is “too low.” A price that doesn’t recognize all the costs involved, and hence has the potential of cheating others of the ability to sell for a more true value. She’s written about it several times, and so I may have a more full understanding of her intention. But that’s not how it came across in the recent post and for that I am truly sorry.

      It would be wonderful if there was a more complete view in the world by quilters and non-quilters alike of the process that goes into making a quilt. We could all agree that it is time intensive and costly and sometimes includes a lot of emotional joy and pain. But we don’t even all see what goes into teaching 8-year-olds and how time intensive and costly and emotional that is. And that is an occupation more of us are exposed to. So while that would be ideal, the ideal will never happen.

      We can make progress in that regard. We can promote education about the quilting experience so others can know it, too. It would be great to never hear again of quilts lovingly made and given, being used to pad furniture in a move, or line the pickup truck bed, or bed down the dog while she’s giving birth. It would be great to never hear again about the wedding quilt being sold at the garage sale for $25. Or all the tops some aunt made and get tossed in the trash when she dies.

      We’ll never get there, but we can move in that direction.

      Pardon me for this excessively long response. You’re welcome to email me if you want to continue this discussion. catbirdquilts at gmail dot com

      1. katechiconi

        It’s done, past and I’m over the momentary pain of feeling inappropriately targeted. I’m grateful for your explanation, since it was never my intention to enter this debate, I was not familiar with her extremely worthwhile campaign, which I fully support. I simply could not understand why I was targeted for her ire when I was not and never will be an example of what she is fighting against. Like many of us, I have known the pain of seeing loving work discarded and disregarded, and I too would like to see a more widespread understand of the time, thought, care, energy and sometimes agony that goes into making a personal quilt. My work is not at all commercial for the reasons I explained on your blog, and I will always have more emotionally invested in it than anything produced for sale, so perhaps I have even more of an axe to grind than she does… Pardon me in return for such a long answer in return, and I hope you will continue to follow, comment on and enjoy the doings in my part of the world. K xx


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