Transparency in the quilt industry
If you’re interested in the business side of quilting, or just like taking a peek at the workings of the quilt industry, you’ve no doubt seen some depressing news in the past few months. Manufacturers shutting down. Designers walking away from long-term relationships. Creators struggling to make ends meet.
Is this a normal part of any industry, or is the quilt industry in a downturn? It can be hard to find reliable information for the US market, not to mention overseas. The business side of the industry is rarely covered in much detail (or at all) in mainstream press, and is only really hinted at in personal blogs. Abby Glassenberg has done some great reporting in this space, but she can only report what people are willing to tell her.
As a non-crafty business owner (in my day job) and a crafter (the rest of the time), I’m interested in this stuff. I like talking to quilty businesspeople about their work and how they’ve made a living out of their craft. I love hearing from fledgling entrepreneurs about their plans, and how they make decisions about moving their businesses forward. I want to know if it’s feasible for me to find my own niche in this potentially oversaturated market. There’s plenty of encouragement to “follow your passion” and “do what you love, and the money will follow”, but is that realistic?
I’ve been writing quilt patterns for magazine publications for a few years now. If a magazine is interested in a design I’ve submitted for their consideration, they pay me a flat fee to write the pattern and make the quilt. Often they’ll organize fabric straight from the manufacturer, but sometimes I need to buy it myself. I also need to pay for the thread, batting, basting spray, machine needles, rotary blades… and postage for sending the finished quilt to the magazine’s head office. Not only are shipping costs to the US more expensive from Australia, but many of these materials are more expensive here too.
The publication fees cover my direct costs (usually), but not my time. Looking back on the quilt patterns I’ve had published so far, I estimate I’ve spent between 30 to 40 hours on each one: from picking fabrics, cutting, piecing, basting, quilting and binding, to writing the pattern and creating graphics. The payments also aren’t enough to outsource any part of the process (such as quilting).
I love creating quilt patterns for magazines, and I hope to keep doing it, but I treat it as a self-sustaining hobby. It’s not a sustainable business model.
I’ve given a lot of thought to selling my quilt patterns directly under the Geometriquilt brand. But I can only afford to invest more time and effort into this venture if it’s likely to be financially sustainable. Otherwise, I can’t justify the cost (which could include the cost of fabric, graphic design of my pattern template, and a website upgrade to sell them online, among other things). Unfortunately, I have no sense of the size of the potential market; there’s no data out there to help me gauge whether I can sell enough patterns to recoup my initial investment — let alone make a profit.
Steph Skardal and I have been talking about these topics for awhile now. We’re both numbers people; as a former scientist (me) and a current software engineer (Steph), we do our best to make decisions based on evidence, not gut feeling. In a blog post today, Steph has dug into the evidence – what sources of revenue there are in the quilting industry, how much they tend to pay out, and how you might leverage these activities to actually work towards a living wage. She’s not suggesting that everyone can or will make money in this industry, but she’s drawn together useful information for anyone considering it.
I firmly believe that no one will take creatives seriously as businesspeople until we start being more transparent. That doesn’t mean revealing proprietary information or financial information, but it does mean being honest about what it takes to run a successful business – in terms of time, money and resources. More transparency will not only educate consumers on the true value of our products and services, but also benefit any independent creators who are thinking about getting into this industry.
I can’t know for sure if I can create a sustainable business in the quilt industry. Maybe the only way I’ll find out for myself is to make the investment and hope that it pays off. Either way, I hope to share my experiences so that the next person is more informed.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. When I first released my original butterfly wings pattern a magazine offered me $250 for it after I approached them. After considering it, I went with my gut and decided to go it alone. Turns out it was the right decision. I would have missed out on significant financial gain by going with the magazine. From a business perspective I have chosen not to pursue getting my patterns printed in magazines simply because it isn’t a financially viable approach (at this stage). I see it more as a promotional opportunity, where the cost can be written off as a marketing expense. But my question is, if the large influential businesses that promote the creative industries don’t accurately value our work then how can we expect anyone else to? How can quilters snub their noses at someone who is selling twin-sized quilts for $250 to help feed their family, when that is all the magazines value them at? It’s an emotional topic that I certainly don’t have the answer to.
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I’ve been trying to think of magazine publications as a precursor to self-publishing my own patterns, but I’m not quite there yet! Unfortunately, I don’t think magazines would be sustainable businesses themselves if they had to pay the actual value of each quilt pattern. But I agree that when large influential businesses undervalue creative work (such as the recent controversy over a DMC competition that was originally going to award the winners with ‘exposure’!), it hurts the whole industry.