Pay for Quilters (and other Crafters and Artists)

I was curious this morning about how well crafters are paid. What should we plug in to that wage figure, when we calculate cost of labor? Well, guess what, folks — there is a way to find out! In the U.S., the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps records of wages in thousands of labor categories.

The most recent statistic for 2012 shows a median hourly wage of $21.34 per hour. “Median” means it is the middle, with half of workers making more than that and half making less. Federal minimum wage is $7.25, so the median is approximately three times minimum wage. Below is a screen shot of the page I viewed. Click through here to see it for yourself and read more detail.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 4.02.36 PM

Let’s go a little farther with this look. Suppose we want to compare the textile crafter or artist in the U.S. to a textile laborer in another country. We know so many of the “bag” quilts are made in China. This isn’t necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison, as the workers are not making any decisions. But maybe this will give us a sense of scale.

An article from 2014 looks at textile workers’ pay in several countries. It shows Chinese laborers have a minimum wage of €175 per month. This works out to approximately US$200. If you assume 160 hours of labor a month (40 hours x 4 weeks) that works out to $1.25 per hour. In fact work hours are typically longer than 8-hour days, so this is a high estimate.

Are you outraged to think of Chinese textile workers, working over bedding and clothing for a dollar an hour? I hope you are. They deserve more.

You deserve more, too. If you “sell” your quilts for direct cost of materials and don’t include your time in the price, you are making less than a Chinese textile worker. It can feel uncomfortable to ask for fair pay. But it is not wrong. It is right. You deserve more.

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

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17 thoughts on “Pay for Quilters (and other Crafters and Artists)

  1. Quilt Musings

    While those making quilts in China make very little and may well deserve more pay, to make the direct comparison with the US is a bit deceptive without context. For example, average household income in China in 2010 was about 10,000 USD compared to 84,000 for the US, and the average income of a salaried worker in 2013 was about 8,000/year. Costs of housing and food are also correspondingly lower, though of course in China there is a vast difference in living costs and purchasing power in places like Beijing and Shanghai vs rural areas. So the very small wage or per piece payment to a factory worker or piece worker may well make an enormous positive impact on her family. Many factory workers are rural women who come to the cities to work for several years before returning to their villages, The money they send home can be essential for the family, and as bad as factory conditions can be (not all are horrible), it is not necessarily as exploitative as the number, looked at from a western context, might appear. I don’t mean to defend or justify factory conditions in China, just to try to put the number in a relevant context.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, that is a more accurate look. Of course cost of living is relative to wages, and you’re right, that isn’t reflected in what I’ve presented. The real point, clumsily made, is being paid nothing for your work, IN THE US, is not right. Our cost of living is not so low, and our workers’ wages should be relative to our economy. Thanks very much for chiming in.

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  2. Thread crazy

    Melanie, odd that you should choose this topic today, as I was recently sorting out some books to donate and came across “The Crafter’s Guide to Pricing Your Work” by Dan Ramsey! Even though the book was published in 1997, the information it provides is still good for today. I won’t go into alot of detail but there are 19 “general” categories, (i.e. estimating material costs, estimating labor costs, etc) which are discussed in detail. There’s also a category for making/selling quilts which I found interesting. Due to needlecraft and fiber crafts being labor intensive, the “markups and multipliers” are somewhat different from other craft pricing, breaking the cost down to materials, overhead (which would include tools), labor, profit and sales costs. Materials, overhead, labor and profit make up the “wholesale price” which is equal to 50%, then double totals (i.e. sales costs) to come up with a retail price. Either way, a “less experienced” individual would possibly charge only $20/hour, while an experienced individual would charge $35-40/hour. Interesting analysis any way you look at it. By the way, have you seen the “you tube” on how “Moda” Batiks are made? They are made in Indonesia and yes, very labor intensive. I presume those workers are paid very little for their work as they as they are in China. To think – the hours of labor that goes into making one bolt of fabric and to think what little they may be paid for their work, is mind boggling. I say they are the true artists.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Sounds like a great book, very helpful. Are you planning to donate it? I might be interested in buying… No, I haven’t seen the Moda video, though I’ve heard it mentioned. As another commenter said, what they earn relative to their own economy may well be appropriate. The part that gets me is that we PAY them so poorly. Is that exploitation? I’m not sure, but it certainly makes me prefer to buy local when possible. Thanks.

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  3. KerryCan

    I wish more crafters were educated to think along the lines you’re discussing. At our quilt guild these things are never discussed but, in the biennial show, some bed-size quilts are priced at $150 and some at $1000. That confuses buyers and undermines the whole idea that there is an objective way to set a price.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, those who own quilts (through purchase or gift) won’t understand unless we talk about it, and we (as a group) don’t talk about it much, because it’s hard to wrap our own arms around it. In your own academic background (gosh, if I have that right,) was arts/crafts business a subject of discussion and study?

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      1. KerryCan

        I have an undergrad degree in art (metalsmithing) but my academic career was in communication. As an undergrad they NEVER talked about the business aspect. When I was a faulty member, I know that some of the courses in the design department did talk about the business issues and about thinking in terms of “production pieces” but I also know that, every year, at the student sale, the pieces were seriously under-priced. My feeling was that faculty in the design department may have felt that to talk about business and pricing was “anti-art.” Sigh.

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        1. Melanie McNeil Post author

          I read an interesting blog post the other day about the dangers of making one-of-a-kind crafts. It basically said for any lower priced items, the costs of making a sale (in time, for photography, description, posting, monitoring, etc.) is just too high. So lower priced items should be reproduceable in larger quantities, so you only do that sales process once for a lot of items. Got me thinking about the value of original work. Things to think about…

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          1. KerryCan

            That was exactly the thinking behind the “production pieces” students were assigned to do. Everything was still entirely handmade and well-crafted and, in some cases, made with slight variations so they were still one-of-a-kind. But the pieces could be made in a modified production-line fashion and sold for a reasonable price. I was glad to see the faculty introducing this idea to students–it seemed a practical way to alert them to one of the difficulties of making a living as an artist.

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          2. Melanie McNeil Post author

            I guess the question it brought up for me is who should pay for original design? IF I were interested in selling my quilts (and I’m not, other than in an academic sense,) it’s hard to imagine anyone would want to pay for my design time. So how to deal with that? Either they get a truly original piece and pay up, or they get a variation on a stock design for a lower price. If that is the case, is it better to write and sell patterns, where the price of the design is spread across a larger number of people willing to buy the pattern? I dunno. Not sure how that would work out either.

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  4. Alexandra

    I have a friend who is a musician who makes about $50 an hour singing. She also makes crazy fantastic custom bags for herself. They hold her music perfectly, there is a water bottle holder and a sized specifically for her tea mug cup holder, etc. When I see her, she shows off her latest and I (and everyone else who’s watching) just want her bags so badly. When people ask how much she’d charge to make one, her answer is “at least $1,000”. People are always aghast but she did the math. She spends a lot of time planning her bags and sewing them with care. That’s what they are worth. She’s sort of an in your face person so she doesn’t mind that people are offended by her rate (they are literally OFFENDED!). I totally get it and have explained when they’ve complained to me about it. We really need to get the word out on the actual value of hand made stuff. Unfortunately you can get stuff SO cheaply from Asia, etc. that the value is completely diluted. It’s a real shame.

    (My favorite offer was “if I buy you the wool, will you knit me a sweater?” Um, no.)

    My boyfriend was asking me how much the current project I’m working on is worth. It’s a 60″ square quilt, about half-handstitching. I said, you’d see something like this on Etsy for $200, but the materials alone are probably $100. And I’ve spent about 10 hours a week for 6 weeks on this so far and not even 2/3 done. So it’ll end up being about $1 an hour for the other $100. No thank you.

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Good for you, and your friend. What we do is valuable. Our time is valuable. Our thought process is valuable. If other people do not value my time, that doesn’t mean I need to go cheap. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  5. singingbirdartist

    Very late to the party, but a thought l frequently try to share is how to get more custom and cash from each OOAK piece as a way to make it affordable without selling yourself short – and that is to have good images and make postcards/greetings cards/bookmarks made from them so your ‘stall’ eg at an art fair/ exhibition has low cost items that also respect your right to fairtrade rates. I buy my own design postcards from a business who print on recycled card with soya inks, with an image of my work and often a favourite quote too. Then the next group of low cost items are upcycled remnants, as a fibre artist l get more of these than quilt artists, but there are plenty of scraps from cutting which even if you picked the best bit for the ‘fussy’ cut, still have beauty – make a string quilt and slice it for greeting cards where a large postage stamp can hold its own on a large card and also offer commission possibilities [wedding invites etc]. The next group are small complete objects eg mug rugs, framed ATCs etc. Respecting that people may love your work AND not be able to buy a quilt at a fair price, to me is better than underselling yourself, and l have fallen out with a few ‘hobby’ artists over it…because they are undermining the market and making it twenty times harder for an artist to earn a living by their art. Most artists have to support themselves by a mixed portfolio before they get to the point of being valued highly, teaching and tutoring and retreat organising are other possibilities, but making each OOAK pay its way is often missed. In Britain the artist retains the right to the image, whether they sell the artwork/object or not, and l’m pretty sure that’s true for the US and Australia too 😉

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    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      You make good points. Most artists (of 2-D work) around here also having cards, small prints, unframed and framed versions, etc., as well as their primary works. And yes, those who are willing to sell for less than even their cost (and there are many!) damage the market for everyone. For me, I would rather not sell at all than have to diversify by making mug rugs and pot holders. But many are willing to do that, and that’s for them to decide. One thing is for certain, few people make a good living from their art, and those that do know a lot more than simply how to create art. Thanks very much for the comment.

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