What are my skills and talents worth?

Why do people object to paying crafters a decent price for their products?

I had a lady request a quilt in a specific size, made with a specific theme, using a specific kind of fabric. She wanted a twin sized quilt for her son made with a locomotive theme, with a panel in the middle depicting an engine and train-themed fabric around the outside of the panel.

I warned her up front this was going to be more expensive than what she would find at major retail stores. I don’t just willy-nilly throw things together. I put a lot of thought into the fabric I purchase, making sure it’s good quality so the resulting product lasts a long time instead of falling apart if you have to wash it frequently. It took me three weeks to find the perfect fabric for the body and border of the quilt she wanted me to make. I planned the layout of the top, the color and design of the backing, how I was going to quilt it, what color the binding was going to be, and several other related technical details. All in all, before I even started sewing, I put over 60 hours into the quilt.

Once I got the top finished, I showed it to her. She really liked it and was thrilled with the design. She approved of the fabric I bought for the backing, and I told her it would probably take me another month or so to finish the quilt. At that point in time, I was able to give her a general idea of the price of the finished quilt

Now don’t get me wrong — I know not everyone can afford the kind of work I do, and I understand that. I donate things or sell them at a cheaper price to those in need because I don’t think those who make less money should have to go without nice things. I’ve been there. However, this woman and her husband had just bought a nice house in a gated community, and she paid as much for her son’s new bedroom furniture as some people pay for car. The price I quoted her was fair based on the amount of time I spent researching and finding the fabric, purchasing it, designing the quilt, laying it out and sewing it, and the anticipated time and effort I would put into finishing it.

She looked at me like I had four heads when I told her a custom-designed and custom-made quilt for her precious son was going to cost her $450. Mind you, I had already purchased all the fabric and batting, and spent the equivalent of three weeks of work just on the top. Everything I had done so far came out of my pocket. It was at this point she said, “I could go to JCPenney and get him a quilt for a quarter of that price. Why would I pay you that much money?” She and her husband earned over $150,000 a year and she was too cheap to pay me for a quality product she had asked me to make. In the end, she decided not to purchase the quilt, choosing instead to go with something cheaper.

It was at this moment I decided I would no longer do custom projects for people without:

  1. Discussing the price up front, making sure the customer understood there may be variations based on the availability of fabric, difficulty obtaining exactly what they wanted, and other potential complications; and
  2. Requiring at least a 50% deposit (or full payment ahead of time based on the product, because some things are made to fit a specific individual, so they often can’t be sold to anyone else without alterations or other adaptations).

Here’s another example: I make fabric shopping bags. They will fit on the plastic bag hooks at any major grocery store. They are double-seamed, made of canvas, denim, or upholstery fabric, and are capable of holding up to 35 pounds of groceries. The ones I use today were made seven years ago. Two of them are just now starting to show signs of wear. I had fellow shoppers and cashiers suggest I make these bags and sell them as an alternative to plastic or the cheap bags that fall apart while you’re walking across the parking lot. When I told them how much the bags would cost, they freaked out. Good quality medium- or heavy-weight fabric costs $20 a yard or more. I can get three bags out of a yard of fabric. Because I don’t just throw them together, each one takes about an hour to make. I honestly don’t think $12.50 is too much to ask for something that will last five years or longer even with regular use and washing.

I would love to make a little extra money doing what I enjoy and am skilled at, but I got really discouraged the last time I tried to do this because people suggested things, I made things, and nobody wanted to buy those things. They want high quality product for bargain basement prices, and I don’t do that kind of work. I won’t do that kind of work. I won’t sell something I wouldn’t use myself or allow a family member to use. This means I take the same care with the crafts I make for others as I do for the ones made for those I care about.

I find it infinitely frustrating that we have become a society that values the skills and talents others have developed over decades of time so very little we would rather go to a discount retailer and buy something we can throw away in six months than pay for a quality product made by someone who puts their heart into everything they do. I’m not knocking poor people. I understand their financial limitations because I lived like that for 30 years. What bugs me is when people who have the ability to choose better products refuse to do so because they think those of us who make things in our homes or workshops, putting ourselves into each item we produce, don’t deserve to be paid what we’re worth.

Yes, I could go back to work part-time, but it would be hell on my body as well as my psychological well-being. I’m not 30 years old any longer. Nursing is hard work. I wouldn’t make it in retail. I can’t deal with hateful people. I’ve been writing for 46 years but nobody will hire me to do that, either, because I don’t have a bachelor’s degree. So, what do I do? Go without things I need? Go back to nursing and further destroy what’s left of my body? How do I choose?