Working as an Independent Quilt Entrepreneuer
Where to begin?
The quilting industry is full of independent quilt entrepreneurs. It looks pretty crowded, and everyone looks like they are working really [really, really] hard from where I'm standing. I was awarded best in show at QuiltCon this year, and within 24 hours I was approached to license the pattern for my best in show quilt (at the going rate for licensing). And after that, I was approached by a few other businesses hoping to leverage my "win". Being relatively new to quilting, I didn’t know how to respond at that time or how the system worked, and how to begin balancing business opportunities with my existing quilting motiviations.
Many conversations about business opportunities followed, including where there is earning potential, how much effort is involved, and what drives the current ecosystem. A lot of these conversations were between Caroline Hadley and myself. At some point I said, "I should put this in an organized blog post!", so here it is. :) And, while Caroline provided tons of feedback for this post, she also wanted to write separately about her own journey, available here.
No One Talks About Money And All I Have Are Questions
Is anyone making a living wage working as an independent in the quilting industry? How many years does it take to get there? There are small businesses built around the concept of helping you grow your own business - but is the reality to earn a living wage as an independent feasible or possible and when does it make sense to outsource services?
While a small portion of prolific quilt entrepreneurs with a very diverse revenue stream appear to be successful, is the reality that they worked for many years without earning much to get where they are now? Are they supporting themselves with a living wage? You can see salaries for jobs relative to location on Salary.com, but there is no Salary.com reference in the craft industry for independents. It’s difficult to translate years of effort, indirect benefits, and social media exposure to any relative pay scale.
What is the wealth distribution of the $3.7 billion dollar industry in the U.S. that and how does it look for independents? Is the wealth distribution rewarding the manufacturers or distributors? Is it in the hands of big box corporations or large distributors? Is it on the side of local quilt shops (closing quilt shops suggest that is not the case)? And after everyone gets a slice of the pie, what’s left for independents?
All that being said, I started to look into revenue streams available to an independent quilting entrepreneur, and summarized those below to be informed on my own journey.
- Pattern Sales
- Pattern Licensing
- Fabric Design
- Selling Quilts
- Product Sales
- Diversified Income
Jen of Patterns by Jen recently wrote about the economics behind her pattern design here. Her breakdown shows an estimate of around $3,500 to create a single pattern design. A couple of my sources noted that this estimate was high, but nevertheless writing a pattern can cost at least hundreds of dollars of investment.
Most pattern designers I talked to confirmed a range of 10 - 40 hours for writing the pattern like Jen, confirmed sewing the quilt could take 20 - 40 hours. That puts the total at a range of 30 - 80 hours for writing a pattern, making a quilt, but not including time and money spent on outsourcing services (e.g. photography, technical editing) and distribution (e.g. packing patterns and shipping them).
Once your pattern is published, sold as printed patterns or digitally, you can begin to make profit as the elusive “passive income” minus ongoing expenses such as marketing and fulfilling inventory.
Investment: Materials, Time (design, implementation), Technical Editing, Quilting (time or outsourced), Photography, Physical Inventory (if applicable), Software, Marketing
Pattern licensing means getting paid for the license of a pattern to a publishing entity (magazine, website, etc.). The contracts I’ve seen and discussed with sources require delivering a pattern and quilt for an amount in the range of $200 - $400, and the quilt is later returned to you. The publishing entity then releases your pattern. An exclusive license means that you can not release it yourself, but a non-exclusive license allows you to release it at a specified later date (although some non-exclusive licenses allow reprinting on their end).
In other words, you are “sponsored” to provide a completed pattern and quilt up front. In some cases, the publisher will provide editing and photography services.
Investment: Materials, Time (design, implementation), Quilting (time or outsourced), Photography (if applicable), Software, Shipping
Books are not anecdotally big income generators, and I’ve been told you will likely make no more than $5,000 writing a book (one source provided a number around $4k and more than a year of work went into it while that time could have been spent on patterns that would have profited more than $4k). In addition to loss in the form of opportunity cost, you may be expected to pay the direct out of pocket expenses to travel to Quilt Market to sell your book.
Investment: Materials, Time (design, implementation), Quilting (time or outsourced), Photography, Shipping, Software, Marketing
Sponsorships can go two ways: a company lists you as an artisan or ambassador, and you are listed on their website reaching their audience through their marketing channels, and you receive materials in exchange for providing the company with services such as blog posts, in-person events, or other projects.
And on the other side, you can share a product on your own site, reaching your audience, and in return you are paid directly, provided materials, or paid in "exposure". One source gave a payment of a range of approximately $25 - $250 for a sponsored blog post, correlating to your social media following.
In my own experience, I spend anywhere from 2 - 10 hours to write a blog post and I provide my own photography, so that could mean a very wide range of hourly pay (e.g. $2.50 / hour - $125 / hour).
Investment: Materials (partial), Time (design, implementation), Quilting (time or outsourced), Photography
Abby Glassenberg did research on this and reported it in 2014, available here. The summary of those results state that approximately 5% of the fabric sales goes to the independent designer. The resulting income from Abby’s research in 2014 fell in the range of $2 - $3k to $8k per fabric line release. And of the examples provided in that post, 3 out of 4 of the fabric manufacturers required that designers pay at least a portion of airfare and hotel accommodations to attend Quilt Market.
Carrie Bloomston just wrote an article for The Craft Industry Alliance about leaving the gig economy and taking a job as a teacher: One Artist’s Story: Why I Quit the Gig Economy and Got a Day Job. She notes that while she made "way above average" as a Windham Fabric designer, the royalties were not enough to support her family and she opted for teaching art at a private school.
Investment: Time (design, implementation), Software, Travel, Marketing
The anecdotally accepted evidence of making quilts is that you will likely not recoup value on a quilt by selling it. There are a handful of resources already out there for this:
There are also a lot of resources on how appraisal happens, but across the board, I’ve seen time to be valued at $20 - $25 per hour for work. In Sam’s post above, she points out that while a quilt might be valued at that rate of skilled work, it doesn’t mean there is demand for that quilt at that price. One source who has been in the industry for 20+ years told me, definitively, "I don’t believe there is a market for the types of quilts we make."
Investment: Materials, Time (design, implementation), Payment Fees (if applicable), Shipping (if applicable), Marketing
Teaching for local quilt shops, guilds, or at large conferences can be a good source of revenue. Teachers will provide a contract with a specified lecture or workshop rate and travel reimbursement specifics (see some example rates here, here, and here). A guild or quilt shop can make profit minus expenses (e.g. cost for renting a facility).
Finally, while teaching for large conferences may not be a great direct income generator, indirect benefits like exposure (and validation of skill-level) might lead to future bookings. The sources that I talked to said that another benefit of teaching is that they are able to sell more books or patterns at lectures or workshops.
Investment: Materials, Time (design, implementation), Travel (if not covered), Marketing
Much of this looks similar to the business model of selling printed patterns. Here, an inventor might spend significant investment developing a prototype and working with a manufacturer to develop product. An inventor may incur expenses travelling and displaying a booth at Quilt Market to get a product out to distributors, then to sell in stores or online, and finally into the hands of customers.
Investment: Materials, Time (design, implementation, managing manufacturing and distribution), Physical Inventory, Travel (if applicable), Marketing
There are a lot of big names in the quilting industry that seem to have been successful by diversifying their revenue stream, but how does that breakdown look?
One source I spoke with gave an example of her diversified income in the form of teaching/lecturing, pattern sales (distributor, catalogs, wholesale, direct to consumer via physical and digital products), book sales. She distributes and provides the services through her own infrastructure, so no one else is taking a piece of that pie.
Stephanie of Swoodson Says most recently posted about her breakdown here. She is more of a general craft blogger, not specifically in the quilting industry. The takeaways here are that she made $10,400 in 2017, 4% being pattern sales, and a large chunk being from ad and affiliate revenue. She says pattern revenue is small and that she makes quicker, easier money on free tutorials. There are more examples of how her affiliate revenue breaks down, as well as her social media numbers in the post.
Cheryl Sleboda of Muppin publishes breakdowns of the distribution of her income and expenses on her blog. See here, here, and here, and here. She notes that income breakdown changes every year, but some of the things that make up her diversified income are teaching, sales (wholesale and not), writing, kit fees, and royalties. She writes a lot about the challenges associated with working as a fiber artist as a side hustle.
Quilt Show Winnings: This isn’t listed as a revenue stream because while it is taxed as income, it’s not what I would define as a business model. Judging is very circumstantial and there is no formula on how hard work translates to monetary success. Unless you win big (and in the case of Paducah, winning big means they keep your quilt), you are operating at a loss on making a quilt with the sole purpose of showing it. Expenses include time for making, materials, time for submission, photography (time or fees), submission fees, and shipping costs.
Paid Advertising: This can have earning potential for those that advertise on their blog or social media, but it is not unique to the craft industry, and it’s not something I was able to collect much data on from my sources.
Crowdfunding: I’ve seen a couple of examples of crowdfunding in the quilting space, e.g. to pre-sell a pattern and even sponsor a long-arm purchase. This is a novel way to harness support and measure interest before further investment, but I haven’t researched it more than a few examples. Here are a few examples of crowdfunding projects:
- Our Song Your Reflection (no longer active)
- Latifah Saafir's Clammy Rule (no longer active)
- Libs Elliott' Patreon (ongoing)
- Kathleen Quilts Patreon (ongoing)
[Attempting to] Understand the Numbers
Numbers are great, but what do they mean? What is driving the ecosystem here, specifically in the modern quilting space? Here are some of my own thoughts related to the above numbers:
Is there more supply than demand of quilts, products, patterns, etc. in the quilting space?
It seems that way to me. There are so many free patterns available these days, and new ones popping up with each new fabric line release, the only thing that stands out as a compelling reason to buy is when a pattern designer has a strong brand following (several independents do have that following).
Is the oversupply a result of a low barrier of entry?
Yes. One source pointed out to me that all you need now is a word processor, and something to make simple diagrams (Google Drive offers free versions of usable tools), and you can export a pattern to PDF and be ready to sell on a platform of your choosing.
I think it is very alluring to put your name on something and sell it proudly, especially if you have the entrepreneurial spirit like me. It’s fun to be your own boss. But when it’s so easy to list product and represent your brand on social media, doesn’t the market become oversaturated with like-minded creators? A consumer can't always tell the difference in quality when purchasing from an online platform, so why wouldn't they choose the less expensive option?
And what role do software service providers have in this infrastructure?
Many software service providers offer great services in the form of selling product (e.g. Etsy, Craftsy), managing and delivering newsletters (e.g. MailChimp), and graphic design (e.g. Adobe). These services have helped bridge the gap between starting out and entrepreneurship. Are these services enablers and resulting in an overcrowded independent designer market?
I don’t look at it these paid services with such pessimism, because many of these services provide value to individuals, but if you look at it from their end, are many of those services benefiting from the long-tail of sellers or independents who are not making money?
Does social media influence the ecosystem?
The currency of social media is number of likes or followers, so trading goods or services for exposure can lead to more social media following. But social media following doesn’t necessarily convert (measuring conversion can also difficult). Exposure doesn’t directly pay income, but yet it’s used as an offering in lieu of payment.
There has been discussion about how there is an increasing churn in the market and social media feeds into that churn. Does an increase of social media make our attention span shorter and shorter, which results in companies drive to get product out faster and faster, pushing costs to whomever will absorb it (designers)?
Another example of the effect of social media was explained by one source who says that major companies rely on social media statistics for choosing independent designers to work with. The companies expect that the maker will bring their built-in-audience, and this will translate to sales for the company, but this is not always the case.
Regardless of the many ways that social media may affect independents in quilting (surely some are in positive ways), I think social media is a huge topic for further exploration.
Is this about demographics?
I think demographics influences the modern quilting space. Very generally speaking, modern quilters are makers who are more tech and social media savvy, which means that the barrier of entry for marketing and sales might be low. And their own personal circumstances might compel or enable them to hustle on the side.
On the other side, I can see how the traditional crowd might be less tech and social media savvy, and less inclined to hustle on the side because the perceived barrier of entry is higher and the motivations are not there.
Do you have to diversify your offerings to be successful?
The independents with the biggest brand recognition in the modern quilting space have diverse revenue streams. But if they aren’t making much money in each revenue stream, are they making a living wage overall? And on top of that, being diversified means that you have to wear many hats: designer, sewist, photographer, author (and editor), social media and marketing expert, customer service provider, etc. unless you are in a financial position to outsource those responsibilities.
There’s a learning curve for each of those hats, and time is invested to master each one.
Is quilting undervalued?
It depends on the audience to answer this question. Relative to fine art, quilting is valued at less strictly in terms of square inches. But to those who compare quilting to other types of crafts (ack - the "c" word!), perhaps it is comparable. The independent business models built around quilting are more like those of other crafts as opposed to business models related to fine art. This is a whole can of worms that I'm not opening here, and could be explored more.
First and foremost, my conclusion is not to stop making. I have that drive, you probably have that drive (if you’ve read this far), so let’s not forget the enjoyment we get out of making.
Second, and importantly, this isn’t for me to say how you should spend your time. Or money. I am not in a position to tell you what your answers are. The irony of writing this article is that I spent a lot of my own time writing it (not getting paid for contribution), and in addition to Caroline Hadley, a handful of independents provided feedback on their own time, which I appreciate greatly.
But, I think you should start by defining your parameters of success. Is profitability the goal? Is a living wage the goal? Is supporting your hobby the goal? How do you balance and justify time spent away from a day job or other responsibilities? Maybe the numbers above don’t matter if you aren’t trying to earn a living wage, but they do matter on a day-to-day basis when you are making decisions about how to spend your time. I don’t think there is a right answer on what your parameters of success are, and I think they will change over time. But, I think it's important to identify what those parameters of success are and measure if you are reaching those goals if you are aiming for profitability.
Next, I think you should manage your expectations. And by manage your expectations, look at the numbers above and decide if those numbers work for you, or if the numbers don’t matter. You may not make a living wage (for a long time, or ever). As one source puts it: “Can we all agree that making 10k in 2017 is not a living wage?”, when putting full-time effort in?
Note that just because the barrier of entry is low doesn’t mean there is demand. Instead of a hobby of making stuff, the hobby has become selling stuff you make. We spend our money on supporting services to help us sell our product, and those efforts take our time and money away from the actual making itself. One source gave a data point that showed she made 4x on services provided to other pattern designers relative to sales of her own patterns.
Does the existence of low quality, free or cheap patterns confirm the message to the next independent to try to “slap it on *-sy” and see what happens? Note: I am a participant of this myself. And how does participating in relationships where you are taken advantage of (either self-knowingly or via a contract that doesn’t value your time) perpetuate the cycle? I don’t know how to put numbers on this topic, but several of my sources are in agreement that the low barrier of entry is a driver of low quality.
Money doesn't matter at the end of the day (so they say). While the numbers for earnings relative to other careers look discouraging to me, several sources provided sentiment they are honored to teach others to make and work as independents in this industry. Interestingly enough, my sources who have been successful in diversifying income had other careers they left behind to pursue working in the quilt industry. There are many intangible benefits outside of money that matter much [much, much!] more. Creating something from start to finish can be therapeutic, empowering, fun, and gives you opportunities to connect with others.
What are my personal takeaways?
My parameter of success is to sustain my creativity and not to support myself with a living wage, and realize that my parameters of success may change over time (like any career goals in life). I try to be transparent in saying that I work half-time as a software engineer and support my own hobby.
I have a goal of taking on quilt projects that I enjoy, but manage stress introduced by those projects. Because my parameter of success is to sustain my creativity here, I don’t feel the pressure to take on projects that I don’t want to take on, therefore I shouldn’t introduce stress where it’s unnecessary. Or, if I'm not sure how something might work out, I say "yes" once and consider if it was a stress inducer afterwards.
One of my sources asked if my objective in writing this was to understand how things worked or change how things worked. At this point, I think I am on the side of learning and understanding. I don't know what the answers are to improve the system to benefit independents further (although some of my sources have strong opinions on this), but transparency and discussion are two things I try to practice and encourage as I go on.
Definitions & Context
Materials as used in this post include fabric, thread, batting, etc.
Living wage is impossible to define, as it’s relative to your personal circumstances such as where you live, other support you might receive, etc.
If you live alone with no dependents, you might define your living wage as cost of housing, food, car payments, utilities, insurance, etc. One source I spoke with looked up what is defined as her local living wage (a dollar amount per hour), and used that as a reference point in her comparison for pursuing quilting business opportunities.
Quilt Market is the twice yearly trade show in the quilting industry, put on by Quilts, Inc. It is not open to the general public.
Let’s say across the board that if you grow your business in one area, it has the potential to give you exposure, validate your work, and network which can lead to business in another area. I will call these indirect benefits, and many of the revenue streams below lead to indirect benefits. I don’t have a lot of hard numbers on this, and these benefits are very hard to measure.
On distribution: Several sources gave the breakdown shown below for distributed printed patterns and/or physical product (e.g. special rulers). The distributor takes a cut, the quilt shop takes a cut, and the remaining is left for you, minus expenses such as manufacturing and shipping.
4 billion dollar industry
Quilting is reportedly a 3.7 billion dollar industry in the U.S., according to the Quilting in America Survey 2017. Here is a more detailed summary of the data that came from that survey.