Before I started quilting about a year and a half ago, the only thing I knew was hearing about high quality Amish quilts sold in locations like rural Pennsylvania.
As ridiculous as that sounds, that really was my only point of reference. One night, years ago, I looked up some websites that peddled these quilts and experienced sticker shock at seeing them at $1,000+.
Now I understand…
As a novice quilter – I’ve come to understand that $1,000 is actually a *very* reasonable price considering the fact that Amish quilts are hand quilted, which is far more time consuming than machine quilting. Yet, at a day in age when one can go to a big box retailer and purchase a manufactured quilt for $50 or less – without question – there is a huge pricing gap comparing store bought vs. handmade quilts. Quilting is an industry that can be difficult to understand unless you do it. If you aren’t a quilter – I’d really like to encourage you to keep reading to learn about the business behind it. Every four years, marketing gurus with F+W Media conduct comprehensive research to learn about the spending habits of quilters. The 2014 Quilting in America survey found that there are 16 million active quilters in the country – meaning one out of every 20 Americans. Their buying power each year is $3.76 billion – with “dedicated quilters” spending over $3,200. What I found jaw-dropping was the statistic that dedicated quilters typically own $13,000 in tools and supplies, and their fabric stash is worth close to $6,000.
Seriously? $6,000 on fabric!
Eighty-seven percent of quilters owned either a tablet or an eBook reader, so they are indeed internet and social media savvy. I can personally attest to quilting being a *very* expensive hobby. You could easily spend $10,000 on a name-brand sewing machine loaded with features and deep throat space. And as referenced in my longarm quilting class experience, those machines cost upwards of $30,000. Aurifil’s large spools of thread can run $10 each. Quilt shop-quality fabric is in the $10 to $15 range per yard. (Many quilters balk at using fabric for quilts from big box fabric/craft stores) And don’t even get me started on rulers, notions, scissors, rotary cutters, cutting mats, irons, classes, patterns, etc…
The great pricing divide
One aspect of the industry that I find to be mind-boggling and inconsistent – is pricing quilts. I do not sell quilts that I make. Because I work full-time and have to carve out time for my hobby on days off, it takes me about two months to make one throw sized quilt. Plus, I enjoy other types of sewing like bag making and home décor, which cuts into time I would otherwise be quilting. So the few quilts that I am able to complete, I want to either keep them or give them to family/friends as gifts. Part of my reasoning is because, quite honestly – I would not be able to sell finished quilts for a price that is worth my time.
Through a quick browse on Etsy, you will find quilts of various sizes and skills priced anywhere from $70 to $3,750+. This huge, huge range in pricing makes it very difficult for quilters trying to sell quilts and puzzling for people interested in buying them.
I sought answers and perspective from others in the quilt world, so I reached out to several people who have a quilting and/or sewing related business. And let me tell you, the response and enthusiasm to chime in was overwhelming. Also – the scope of people interviewed for this story come from all walks of life. They are women (and a man!) of different walks of life, and most are actually younger people under age 40 spread out across the globe.
Handmade does not always equal affordable
Recently, I discovered a man from Australia who makes award-winning quilts – he goes by the moniker “Molli Sparkles.” He wrote a guest post on Sew Mama Sew that went viral in the quilting community about placing a value on quilts. Making the simplest baby quilt he possibly could – when accounting for materials, labor, and a 10 percent profit margin (after all, most companies factor in profit!) – the value equaled $225 USD. This was an extremely basic quilt with simple blocks, no design fee (he usually factors in a design fee for the concept and color selection), and faster machine binding.
Still, I have seen quite a few baby quilts listed on Etsy for far below that price – which means these sellers are likely not paying themselves much (or at all) for their time making the quilt and definitely not making a profit. Of course – for potential customers – if they see similar quilts listed for $100 or $225 – they’re going to purchase the $100 quilt. Then the seller who listed their item at $225 either makes no sale or has to lower their price to compete in the online marketplace. Then there’s the additional pressure to price match to major retailers – where you can purchase a “quilt” for $50 at the lower end to $400 at higher end designer home stores.
“Not everyone can afford handmade,” said Sparkles during a spirited Instagram exchange. “So as makers, we shouldn’t try to cater or sell to those people. The target audience should be the higher socio-economic class. If your customer shops at Walmart, they probably can’t afford the true value of handmade (said with love).”
Can price define the market?
Suzy Williams has been quilting for 14 years, and owns the handmade quilting business Suzy Quilts, in addition to working as a full-time freelance graphic designer.
“After struggling for about a year to find the balance of what people will pay and what a quilt is worth, I decided to offer two different kinds of quilts,” Williams shared. “Custom or a set pattern with limited color options. I feel like my prices are fair, and the longer I make and sell quilts, the more my audience has adjusted their price expectations.”
Williams’ baby quilt prices start out at $200 for the made-to-order designs, and $325 for custom orders. She believes there is an inaccurate price perception for quilts, because most of the textiles bought in the United States are manufactured overseas for a fraction of the cost.
“There is no way a stateside textile designer can compete with products made for pennies in China,” said Williams. “If I were to have my prices competitive with mass-produced quilts found at Pottery Barn or Target, I would need to limit my patterns to only a couple designs and then have a factory in Asia bust out thousands at a time. There’s nothing wrong with a quilt from Pottery Barn. The only thing wrong is that both of our products are called ‘quilts,’ and that causes confusion for the general population.”
On Facebook, I conducted an informal poll among friends and asked what they thought a baby quilt cost accounting for materials and labor. The responses back guessed anywhere from $35 to $350. That is a pretty massive disparity.
Interestingly, Williams doesn’t see other people undercutting their prices as affecting her business. “Obviously with those prices, they won’t turn a profit, but that’s not really my problem,” she stated. “I don’t feel threatened by those prices because, in my experience, customers see my higher prices and assume higher quality. What I have discovered is that my prices define the clients I get. If I set my prices too low, I have to work with some low quality clients.”
“I do cot quilts far cheaper than I would normally charge, because I know that they won’t sell for the true price,” said Franks.
“All my other Etsy items are made at a $20 per hour price point, but my quilts are only $10 per hour,” said Greenwald. “Non-quilters have no idea (about the cost). I often get requests, ‘Could you make me a twin size quilt?’ When I tell them what I would sell it for (about $200 with a friends’ discount) they reply ‘Thanks, I’ll think about it.’ Every. Time.”
Sam Hunter is behind the We Are $ew Worth it Movement, a movement that encourages makers to value their talent and skill – and price accordingly.
“Every time one person undersells, it creates the expectation of the buying public that a low price is the going rate,” Hunter weighed in. “We need to raise our prices to a living wage for the sake of all. We are no less skilled than plumbers and mechanics that charge $100 an hour.”
Long time quilter Rebecca Ruch personally sent me several lengthy emails to share her passion for what she sees as a pricing issue.
“One of the biggest problems I see is people selling their work for pennies,” she wrote. “By that, I mean they will sell their work for the cost of materials. Sometimes they do this just so they can afford to buy more materials. This devalues the work for everyone. If I made a baby quilt, I would likely quote a starting number around $350. Sure, the materials cost around $50, but I know that a crib quilt will take me about eight hours to make and I don’t work for minimum wage. I see quilting as a skill set that most people don’t have. No one minds when the plumber asks $80/hour or the handyman asks for $40/hour. I’m asking for the payment due a skilled worker because that is what I think I am. It is what I think many crafters are – skilled.”
Ruch doesn’t sell quilts she makes, because she makes more at her day job.
“Sometimes people think they are doing a crafter a favor by buying something. They are, if they are willing to pay a fair price. Paying someone $5 for something that costs $5 in materials isn’t helping anyone except yourself.”
Alternative quilting businesses
Instead of selling quilts, Kylie Kelsheimer of Sew Kylie, decided to open up an online fabric shop.
“I quit selling finished products just because of my lack of time to do it after my third child was born,” recalled Kelsheimer. “My drive to open a shop was started just because I’m so crazy over fabric!”
And she’s not alone. I’ve noticed small, homegrown online fabric websites and Etsy shops popping up all the time. Besides inventory and an ecommerce site, there isn’t as much overhead when compared to a brick-and-mortar storefront. I discovered Faith Love Fabric (UPDATE: Now Sew Kylie) on Instagram, and Kelsheimer would often post flash sale announcements there. That’s how I placed my first order with her – I commented with my email address and she sent me a PayPal invoice. Days later I received a nicely packaged parcel and even a personal Christmas card!
Even still, Kelsheimer says she sometimes gets requests to make a quilt for someone for free. How does she handle this?
“I only make free quilts for new babies in the family or friends’ babies,” she stated. “I also get asked how much it would cost to have a custom quilt made, and the response usually ends the conversation.”
Sara Lawson of Sew Sweetness loves making bags, clothing, and quilts. She designs bag patterns, and her first book is called Big-City Bags. Her second book, Windy City Bags, is due out this fall. She has also designed two lines of fabric for Art Gallery Fabrics. I have personally been following her blog for quite some time, and absolutely love her bag patterns and tips on the website. She is also in the large camp of quilters/sewers that does not sell finished products.
“I’m not really interested in selling sewn goods of any kind, period,” said Lawson. “They take too much time to make, and it’s a lot of pressure making something that someone has paid a lot of money for.”
Lawson told me she makes fewer than five quilts per year, and also likes to keep them for herself or gift them to family members.
“I think the general public just doesn’t realize what the cost of materials to make a quilt is, and they also have no idea how long it takes. I’m mainly a bag pattern designer, and I think that also is true for bags. I would say the cost of materials to make a bag is $50-$100 if you are using quilt shop quality fabric and quality interfacings. Purse hardware costs money too. On top of that, most detailed bags take at least six hours to make. When you add the labor to the cost of materials, I believe most people aren’t interested in paying over $100 for a bag. People think that a sewist sews to make things in order to save money (quilts, clothing, etc.). Most big box stores (Walmart, Target) sell goods that are far and away much cheaper than anything anyone could ever make. I personally make things for myself because I want my things to be unique, and also, many times, the process of sewing is even more fun than the satisfaction of the finished product.”
As far as a divide in the perceived value of quilts and the actual value, she believes it’s just a matter of lack of knowledge.
“It’s just a common thing for people not in a particular hobby, not to realize the value of that hobby,” Lawson explains. “Do I know anything about model trains? No. So I’m assuming that I don’t understand the value of certain models or understand why people enjoy or collect them. Anyone who doesn’t sew doesn’t understand the value in it either. I don’t think a non-sewist can be faulted, until they are explained to how much I spend on fabric a month.”
The Fons Dynasty
One of my first experiences with modern quilt education was somehow coming across a series of free YouTube videos called Quilty, which is a division of Fons & Porter. The beginner tutorials are easy to follow – aimed at an audience that literally knows nothing about quilting. I had no idea really, who the host was, but her name was Mary and she has this magnetic, enthusiastic energy that just draws your attention. I must have spent hours watching tips on cutting fabric, finding the grain, and learning basic quilting techniques.
Come to find out she’s the daughter of legendary quilter and educator Marianne Fons. The duo co-host the nationally-airing PBS program ‘Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting.’
Something you should know about Mary – she defies every generalization you could possibly have about a quilter. While her family name is as synonymous to quilting as the Kennedys are to politics, she holds a B.A. in Theater Arts, and didn’t begin to quilt until a few years ago when she became very ill. Mary is nowhere near a member of the AARP. She is a playwright, a poet, and keeps up the PaperGirl blog religiously – writing about anything from her hospital stay in Atlanta, rat problems in Washington, D.C., to hideously bad airplane experiences.
While in New York for two weeks last year, I randomly saw her post on Facebook about having a meet-and-greet event at The Yarn Company, which wasn’t too far from where I was staying. It was happening the next day and I knew I had to be there. Well – I went and she is one of the loveliest, most genuine people you could ever encounter. She excitedly talked about quilt history, and showed off her beautiful quilts and for me – I felt like I met a rock star.
Months later, I attended Quilting Live! in Atlanta and signed up for a Churn Dash Block class Fons was teaching. Despite being in the emergency room hours before it started (read about it here), she explained that she would rather be here with us instead of lying in bed. That’s someone who is truly passionate about that they do. Fons also told me she has never sold a quilt in her life.
“When I tell a non-quilter that I work in the quilt industry, they assume immediately that I sell quilts,” she explained. “I know this because the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, wow. Cool. How much do you sell your quilts for?’”
Quilty has two videos that are must-see on the topic of quiltonomics. The first features a guest appearance by Marianne Fons – focusing on the business of selling quilts, how most quilters don’t sell quilts, and that people who are in the quilting industry actually shift more towards teaching, writing books/patterns, or doing what they do – hosting a TV show.
What I found most interesting about this was that Marianne, who I would certainly qualify as a quilting expert, at one point says she doesn’t recommend quilters sell quilts.
This second is aptly titled “Attack of the Pre-Fab Quilts” – Fons explains the difference between handmade and manufactured quilts. She also makes a great argument on why anyone who wants a quilt would be better served by learning how to make one instead.
Targeting a niche market is key
My other first brush with learning to quilt was the blog Diary of a Quilter, run by Amy Smart. Smart is a thirty-something wife, mother, and quilter. She posted a series on her blog called ‘How to make a quilt from start to finish.’ The instructions are easy to follow, and there are accompanying photos for visual learners like myself. Smart is the author of the book Fabulously Fast Quilts, contributed to the book Scraps, Inc., and also sells patterns in her online store. Her work has also been featured in way too many publications to even name, but you get the picture… She is a highly talented professional quilter. When she first dipped her toe into the quilting industry waters, Smart did originally sell baby quilts on Etsy, and knows firsthand about the difficulty with pricing.
“After accounting for the cost of supplies, plus the lengthy time invested in making a quilt – there’s a public misunderstanding of their real value,” Smart concludes. “People are used to buying cheap goods made overseas. However, often these goods are made with lower quality materials, effort, and attention to detail – hence the lower price. Even higher end retailers like Pottery Barn sell quilts far below the cost and value that a craftsman here in America could sell it for and still make a reasonable wage/profit.”
Smart encourages sellers and buyers of handmade goods to recognize the true workmanship that comes with them. “I think most of the $100 quilts sold in stores or even on Etsy are not made from as high quality of fabrics or as elaborate in construction,” said Smart. “I think sellers need to not undermine their own value by under pricing their creations. That said, sometimes a seller has fabric they want to get rid of or they got below regular cost and can therefore produce a cheaper end product.”
She recommends that sellers in the U.S. need to decide where to value their time and resources, and realize that the general public is trained to get cheap clothes and home goods made elsewhere. But there is a market of buyers who recognize the value of well-made, intricate quilts constructed with high quality designer fabrics – although tapping into that market takes effort.
One example Smart pointed out of someone who was able to find an untapped market and cash in is Susan Petersen, a Utah woman whose baby moccasin business Freshly Picked skyrocketed to exposure after appearing on the ABC TV show ‘Shark Tank’ and accepting a deal with Daymond John, who is known for his fashion expertise.
“I’ve visited craft fairs a few years ago where Susan used to sell a variety of hand sewn items – baby bibs, bags, wallets, etc. Then she started making leather baby moccasins – a brand new niche,” Smart said. “She’s since turned that business into a larger, profitable business and hired multiple employees.”
Lawson says found her way into the sewing industry organically through her blog.
“I got into designing sewing patterns completely by accident,” she admitted. “I started my blog (Sew Sweetness) four years ago just to learn how to sew while my kids were asleep. I had fun posting my finished projects on my blog. There was no goal at the time of really doing anything with sewing besides having fun, but I found I was good at bags and good at writing patterns that people could understand, and so I kept going.”
As for Smart, she also had to figure out her own market potential over the years.
“It’s been a gradual evolution of trial and error – finding what works best for me,” Smart acknowledged. “I’ve also found that my audience niche doesn’t want to buy quilts – they want to make their own. So my business has definitely moved away from selling quilts, to selling products, patterns, and kits to help those people make their own quilts.”
New quilters wanted
Speaking of making quilts – existing quilters love to see new quilters taking up the craft and encouraging them. Most I talked to would be happier teaching a friend to make their own quilt, rather than making and selling one themselves.
Fons noted that the Quilting in America survey had mixed results on whether quilting was in a boom or bust period.
“Quilters are spending more money than ever before, but there don’t seem to be many more quilters joining the pack,” indicated Fons. “The moderns are all over the internet, but they don’t seem to be affecting the quilting ecosystem in any significant way – yet. This is due to some pretty easily discernible reasons – ie: many moderns are young moms with less disposable income than the more established – and often retired – quilters who make up the majority of the quilting consumer.”
When asked what the biggest misconception people who don’t sew or quilt have about the industry, several quilters answered: That it’s just for grannies.
“I think people are always surprised by the young, hip designers and sewists who are revitalizing and enjoying the industry,” Smart observed.
Williams and Fons also addressed the factor that fewer and fewer people are learning how to sew at a young age in the home, and that startup costs are pricey.
“It’s all about the beginner,” insisted Fons. “We simply have to help non-quilters who want to make quilts learn the craft in an approachable, 21st century way. Quilts are still relevant and people will always want to make them. The challenge is that from now on, no one is learning sewing skills at home. So when a person wants to make a quilt, they are starting at zero. If they don’t have friendly, interesting, engaging ways to learn – we’re sunk.”
“It’s very expensive to start sewing,” Williams said. “Aside from just getting a sewing machine, there are so many tools and accessories. Most of my urban peers don’t have mothers who sew, so these would have to be brand new purchases rather than enjoying the luxury of hand-me-downs. Still, I believe quilting is undergoing a huge boom. Modern quilters are continuously coming out with new patterns and fabric designs. Every year, the amount of fabric to choose from seems to double. As the world of technology keeps growing, so does the desire for handmade crafts and activities that allow people to build and create.”
Author’s note: Huge thank you to all of the quilters interviewed – your insight and words are so powerful and you truly bring this story to life! Also – I know this topic can be somewhat controversial – if you leave a comment please be civil, respectful and constructive.
FOLLOW UP: Why I Wrote Quiltonomics