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Last November I dashed off a blog post about calculating the value of a handmade quilt. At the time, it got modest attention, but in January the post saw a flurry of views, most of them coming from Pinterest, and a week later, Ravelry (it seems that this question applies to more than just quilting in the world of the handcrafted item). And then a week or so ago, it exploded across Facebook, resulting in a landslide of comments coming to my inbox.

Thank you! I loved reading what you had to say.

This is something I’ve thought about deeply over the years I’ve been making quilts, and by the responses from so many people, I’m far from the only one. Many of you wrote to tell stories of the times you were offered a pittance for the beauties you’ve made.

We have some obvious passion here, so let’s have a dialog about this. I’m really interested in your thoughts, and I want to use this social group-think to advance my perceptions, and so that I can be part of what turns the tide to a higher regard for what we do.

So first of all – a couple of ground rules. By DIALOG, I mean a well-reasoned conversation of give and take, where we address the concepts rather than nit-pick people’s grammatical prowess (or how homely their dog is). I am, after all, inviting you into my house for a chat, and in my house we play nice in disagreement. I find myself wanting to say up front that OF COURSE I don’t speak for everyone (how on earth could I?) and OF COURSE my generalizations don’t apply to everyone (how on earth could they?) And for the record, OF COURSE I’m a feminist – as in a person who will fight for the rights of women (aren’t you?) and OF COURSE I’m not uptight about profanity! And that said, if you hate what I write, please just quit reading and unsubscribe – no fanfare needed. Please don’t be the person who keeps watching porn so they can keep protesting how terrible it is!

So let’s begin!

I recently read a wonderful quote about complaining… don’t complain – either fix it or let it go. I’m not willing to let go of the idea that we can elevate the perception of the value of a quilt (and for the sake of ease I’m going to use “quilt” instead of “handcrafted item” but feel free to substitute what works for you – my intent is inclusive). So how do we fix this?

I think we have several perceptions to work on – external and internal – and by that I mean what others think of what we do, and what we think about it ourselves. 

So in the world of external perceptions, it seems that people think what we make does not have the value of a living wage. And when we try to claim that wage, there is outrage and disbelief, and even smack-down – like we have no right to even ask for payment. How did we get to place where we will pay a plumber $40 an hour, and deny a quilt-maker $5 an hour?

I think part of it is good old fashioned patriarchy: the guys got to set the rules about men’s work having a higher value a while back and the mostly female craft world is still playing by them. Some of us willingly, the rest of us because that’s often still the playing field available. Men in general don’t seem to have an issue with monetizing things – for example: a friend told me about the time she got into jewelry making. She made some beautiful earrings, and showed them to her husband, saying wouldn’t this be a cool gift for so-and-so? Her husband immediately asked where she was going to sell them. Women in general have not been cultured to think this way, and many of us still need to drop-kick the idea that earning good money is a sordid affair.

Another part is the availability of cheaply made goods – stuff that comes from overseas, made for barely subsistence wages in developing countries. We’ve become used to a $6 T-shirt, and a $100 bed-in-a-bag (sheets, pillowcases and comforter, all Martha-matchy-matchy). The general public is so removed from a truly handmade item that they have no frame of reference. A quilt is a quilt is a quilt, right? While we were getting used to the low prices, we got used to the lack of quality – the T-shirt lasts only a season, the bedding maybe two or three before the colors are out of fashion and the fraying begins. And thus spins the wheel of planned obsolescence and consumerism (and this is such a huge topic that I’ll just poke it and move on rather than disappearing down that particular rabbit-hole today!)

These factors also weigh on our internal perceptions. In a culture that has bred a disregard for the work made by women, we’ve adapted to the discomfort of this particular pot of boiling water like the proverbial frog.  And in a lot of cases, we’re not being held down by the old rulebook as much as we’re pushing our own heads under the bubbles. How many times have you seen a woman give away something too cheaply? How many times have you been told by a woman that what you made isn’t worth what should be charged? How many times have you thought “She’s asking WHAT for that?” and walked on to the next booth?

I’m treading carefully here because, like many of you, I’ve given my time and fabric to some wonderfully worthy causes. I believe in the karmic value of these gifts, and I can’t imagine how the world would look without the thousands of quilts (pillowcases/knitted hats/etc) made by the big hearts and nimble hands of We Who Make Stuff. These are specifically not the quilts I’m talking about, though I do wonder if the fact that we give these so freely doesn’t hurt our cause.

I am talking about the fact that many women don’t value the work of other women. We secretly roll our eyes at prices we feel are uppity, rather than honestly calculate what it took to make it. We don’t support other makers by paying a fair price for what they make – instead we think, hell, I can make that at home, forgetting that it’s not just the materials in the price tag but the creativity and hours of construction too. Of course you can make it cheaper – you’re not charging yourself for the time. We guilt trip our friends who skip the charity sewing day into feeling like they grew horns and a tail for choosing to sew on something of their own instead. We photocopy patterns to distribute amongst our group, rather than honor the effort it took to get it into our hands by buying a second copy. We cave when someone barters us down, not because the barter is fair, but because we’ve been told that looking like we have a spine is unattractive. We hush our friends into caving too. As guild program chairs, we grumble that the speaker who would like to stay in a hotel (rather than a member’s home) is a bit big for her pantyhose. Just last week I got asked to lower my teaching price for a guild I’m told can well afford me (and I know from research that my price is hardly out of line).

On my original post, quilt appraiser Bill Volckening commented “Quiltmakers are intelligent enough to know how to produce cost-effective quilts for the realm of commerce, should they wish to do that, but they don’t seem to wish to do that.”

I concur that we women are incredibly smart and creative in our business endeavors. But I would argue that making the quilts cost effective is the only part of the equation (and before you pillory Bill, it was not the only point he made – go read up before your fingers leap to the keyboard). There’s only so much money to be saved on materials and only so much time to be efficiently squeezed unless we think that creating a different breed of sweatshop is a good thing. The root of it is a bigger game… we have to UP our own perception of worth, and we have to UP our support of others that are doing the same, and BE SUPPORTED in this by ALL, men and women both. That cost-effective price that Bill speaks of needs to go UP, up far enough to support the making of the quilt, and it can’t all be done on the shoulders of efficiency and sale fabric.

So I go back to my original call of action… keep records to accurately calculate your price. State and own your worth. Make sure your under-informed customer gets some the education as part of the transaction. And even if you have to settle for less, do it less often, and never without the lesson. I get that we can’t change this all in a weekend, but I bet we can up the game together.

And I really, really would love to read your thoughts!


Image credits here and here.