Reality Check…

Let me first say that I love what I am doing right now, this process of designing fabric and quilts and embroidery and everything else I am trying to do. I’m not going to say that I feel lucky, because if I were to be honest I would say if I were lucky my neuromuscular disorder would never have manifested itself and I would not have been forced to leave academia. Let’s just say that I am happy doing what I am doing, and that is no small thing. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had thus far, and I am excited by the prospect of a career here. As I started with, I love what I am doing right now.

Let me say I also feel blessed to be a part of this community, the world of fabric and stitching. This community has been incredibly open and welcoming to me; from the very beginning people have supported, advised, and befriended me. While everything is not always peaches, sunshine, and sparkles here, on average it is a wonderful place to work, spend time, and learn.

And finally, let me say that I am incredibly thankful for my incredible wife, for her support, her encouragement, patience, and understanding as I try to make all of this work. She is my first and last sounding board and critic. I hardly make a move without bouncing the various possibilities off of her. I respect her insight and opinion more than I can express.

She is also the basis of another significant reality about my practice: there is no way I could do this without her income, the insurance she provides for the family, the preschool for Bee that her income affords us. In short, without her we would be broke, which is the harsh reality of my practice right now.

A very wise friend of mine wrote recently on her blog: “Of course I don’t think ‘success’ has to be monetary, but it is caught up with it for sure.” Truer words have rarely been blogged. It may be tied up with my long, complex, and emotionally fraught medical history but the notion of security is essential to me, the notion that if something awful were to happen (as it has repeatedly) things will be okay, and having a precious wee daughter only makes that concern all the greater. There are many forms of success, and at a certain level I have had quite a few very quickly, but success doesn’t pay the preschool bill.

Please don’t mistake this as me complaining that I ought to be paid more. While I did have a bit of a shock at the beginning I know where things stand and fully understand. Hell, nobody is making a lot of money at this, the manufacturers, the shops, the reps, the mills, the designers… Nobody. As a manufacturer gets larger or a designer more popular they make more fabric, which makes more money (that’s how mass-production works), but there really isn’t a lot of money for anyone. When I actually do the math and apportion out the money I am astonished that it works at all… Seriously.

Let’s say you pay ten dollars for a yard of fabric. In general half of that goes to the shop, and it blows my mind that shops can stay afloat that way considering they have to pay for space, staff, insurance, stock, utilities, advertising, taxes, etc, etc, etc out of that. That leaves about five dollars for the manufacturer. First the manufacturer has to pay for the grey goods (the cloth the designs are printed on) and the printing itself, so a healthy chuck of that obviously goes to the mill. Then there is shipping, warehousing, getting the fabric onto bolts, and more shipping. Oh, and of course there is office space, staff, and advertising. And then there are all of the reps that that go to the shops to sell the fabric. And then there is travel to events, and travel for sales. All of that comes from the five dollars a yard the manufacturer gets from the shops. Once again I find this all astonishing.

And then we get to me, the designer. I get somewhere between 10-15 cents of that original ten dollars. In the case of Pear Tree 1,500 yards of each SKU was printed, which sounds like a whole lot of fabric (if sewn end to end it would be nearly eighteen miles long, which is really freakin’ cool). But once one does the math things begin to look a bit different. Again, I am not complaining about the arrangement, but the reality is that it is hard to see how I am indeed going to make a living out of this.

But this post isn’t really about the money. Yes, everything at some point gets tied up in money when it is what you do for a living, but this post is about wanting to talk honestly about where I am at the moment in the process. I agree entirely with Melissa when she wrote the other day, “I wish people were more open about this stuff.” At a certain level I feel like I am perpetually hiding my anxiety, at the most tweeting it out, which always feels disingenuous. I don’t know if it makes any sense to write about this, but I have always been (for good or bad) a heart on my shirtsleeve kind of guy. I’m no good at separating my personal and professional lives, and I don’t know if I want to be. I love sharing my enthusiasm, my excitement, and my joy about what I am doing; those things do so much to keep me going when my personal self is terrified. The thing is that I feel like I am leaving essential parts of the process, of myself, out of the picture, that I am somehow talking about someone else.

You see there are so many ways to talk about success. I’ve succeeded in getting my designs on fabric, but am I a successful fabric designer? I’ve succeeded in placing quilts in magazines, but am I a successful quilter? Yes, I get to spend more time with Bee than many fathers, but that time comes at a cost to the development of the business, and all of my worries about the preschool bills, the doctors’ bills, and the college fund, etc, etc, etc. Everything is indeed tied to everything else, which leads to continual doubt.

And I think that is the nature of things around here. A few (a very few) can really make a living out of this, and that seems to take time, more time, and more time. I’m not sure how much I have learned in the time I have been here in fabric land, but there is one thing I have definitely figured out: this is not a part time job. If this is what you want to do there is no doing it part time. Don’t get me wrong, most fabric designers indeed do this part time, but that is because they have another job to pay the bills, or they are crazy enough to try this on top of being a full-time stay at home parent. But if this is the career you want, you indeed need to do it full-time, regardless of the economic implications. And what that means is surviving to the place, if it ever happens, where you are indeed making a living doing this.

Again, I have no idea if I am going to make it to that point. I hope I do; I think I might. It is enormously fulfilling to see quilts, children’s dresses, dolls, etc, etc made out of my fabric; it is exceptionally satisfying to make a quilt for Bee from my fabric and see her snuggle under it happily. The thing is that I really, really want this to work out, and not just economically. Of course, if it weren’t for the economic issues it already would have worked out. Perhaps it would be more accurate if I said that I really do want to make a living doing this, no matter how unlikely that may sometimes seem.

Hopefully this all makes at least some semblance of sense, and hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off with this.

Hopefully I haven’t scared myself off…


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22 Responses to Reality Check…

  1. 1
    Amy says:

    Oh, I hope you haven’t scared yourself off! I absolutely love seeing your bright happy designs and fabrics. <3! It's quite intriguing to see little snippets of what the inside of a designer's world looks like. Thank you. 🙂

  2. 2

    As always, in love with your honesty. Thank you.

  3. 3
    Peggy says:

    I love that you explained to us what really happens. As a former Quilt Shop owner and now Quilt Pattern designer for a fabric company I understand. No one makes much money on a yard of fabric. Much of the cost is shipping. Thanks for opening up and showing the whole story to the public.

    The same is true with most businesses. When it is all broken down very little is made by an individual.

  4. 4
    Brenda says:

    Thanks Thomas! It’s nice to know all sides of an industry to better understand how it works. As a shop owner I would love to charge more per yard of fabric so we can all make a little more but as a quilter I know the pain of rising fabric costs. Even though I am not rich in money I have felt very rich in support and new friends in the modern quilting community which is something very cool and very special about our little piece of the industry.

    Also, I love your countdown to market ! See you there soon!

  5. 5
    Dana says:

    Thanks for the whole picture. I appreciate your honesty . . . And love your fabric designs.

  6. 6

    Thank you so much for your honesty and openness, Thomas! This was quite an eye-opening post.

  7. 7
    Julie says:

    It is so important to be authentic on social media.
    We have to take doubting Thomas (har har) along with all the wonderful bright/happy/creative Thomas’.
    It’s a reality check for everyone and therapeutic for you.
    Thank you for writing this.

  8. 8
    Teresa says:

    Well-said, Thomas. I think as a parent, the reality of it all can be overwhelming. As a solo parent wanting to both bring in an income to support my kids and do the creative work I love, I totally understand.

    And your breakdown of what happens to the $10-12/yd. we pay for quality cottons is perfect. It is a bit mind-boggling that it even works at all.

  9. 9
    Gail says:

    I just came across your blog today while researching fabric design. Thanks for your honesty. I’ve been poor before (homeless while pregnant plus 3 years more) and I’ve worked my way to having a place to live and have now have a small screen printing business with my husband where I do a lot of graphic design. For me, when I was most destitute, I would get jealous of people who seemed to have everything going for them, even people who just had money to take the bus instead of having to walk. Now I see that we are all in the same mess, not many are really making any kind of living wage… the only “health care” I have are credit cards. So…I feel we just have to make the choices that make us happy. It sounds like creating fabric and quilts makes you happy. Happy = Rich to me… Stay Positive! 🙂

  10. 10
    Lorraine Gray says:

    Start selling your fabric in Australia….. We are charged around $22Aus a metre. No we can’t understand why they charge this amount. Especially when $1us is equal to roughly $1aus. So seeing your break down of the cost in 1 metre of fabric was very interesting

  11. 11

    Sometimes when I read blogs that are always happiness and rainbows I secretly wonder what’s really happening behind the scenes. Your honesty is refreshing and makes you seem a lot more human.

    Hang in there, your designs are gorgeous.

  12. 12
    Dan R says:

    I’m rooting for you, Thomas!

  13. 13
    MelanieO says:

    Thanks for the honesty. I love to hear it. The sewing (and blogging) industries are filled with people who are actually staying afloat on another income – being it that of a spouse or a second full-time job. Everyone should know that.

    I’d like to add that shops only make 50% of the price of the fabric if they sell at retail price. They pay the base price for the fabric no matter what ($4.50-$5.00 per yard). There are a very few fabric lines that sell out, or even well enough (say 50% of stock) at full price. So when shops sell below suggested retail price or have sales or clearance fabric, they are making well below that 50%. It truly is a difficult industry to “get rich” in. Maybe impossible. You have to do it for the love. Is love all we need? 😉

    • 13.1
      thomas says:

      The love matters, absolutely. I am genetically configured to be unable to do a job that I don’t actually care about, but that said, doctors don’t accept love for what you do as payment… Hmmm…

      • MelanieO says:

        I know. Doing what you love for peanuts can be stressful. You can grow to not love it so much when you can’t pay the mortgage or the medicals bills. I know. I secretly (okay, not secretly anymore) get frustrated with people/websites that say you can make a living doing what you love. And if you don’t, you’re not trying hard enough or using the right techniques. I think not so many people are making a “real living”. I don’t mean to be a downer, just commiserating 😉

        • thomas says:

          It isn’t a downer; it is just reality. Reality doesn’t scare me, and I intend on making a real go of this, especially since I do indeed love what I am doing. I do just get tired of the bromides and wishful thinking. Yes, doing what one loves is a reward in its own right, but it is not one that alters reality.

  14. 14
    Maggie Magee says:

    This was such a good post, Thomas–reality check for those that cannot fathom what survival for an artist entails. Thank you for that!

  15. 15

    *Love* this post, Thomas. You’re so danged articulate about this industry, and also so compassionate about its many facets and those who work in it. As a shopowner, I have also been thinking lately about the love side of my business. You stated the financial challenges perfectly…and mine is a very small shop sans staff or sewing machine sales, so we’re a tight little boat. But, BUT, even through my early-spring nerves (tourist season starts in June), I am gratified and humbled daily to be part of creative processes happening all around me. From the college student who’s quilting fabric that she hand-dyed, to the older lady whose work is so precise as to boggle the mind; from the scrapbooking mamas to the shop-hopping husband-companions. Everyone talks, imagines, and relaxes in my shop. I gave up a deadline-driven, stress-whirling desk job for this. And as you and your commenters have stated so plainly, we are all in this beautiful world of designing and making *together*.

    Now if only I could afford to go to Market. 😉

    P.S. Your new fabrics are delectable!!

    Keep on piecing,

  16. 16
    A says:

    Can we be honest about who gets free fabric & why?

    For far too long, I thought that some people must have been really lucky finding a shop that could afford to carry a full line of this fabric & that. Then someone let it slip that they were gifted fabric…

    I love that you are not designing the same thing over & over. Yeah it works with some genres, 30’s, CW repros, but enough of a good thing is enough.

    How is your scrap vomit coming along? I sent you a lof of scraps for that project…

  17. 17
    Pétra says:

    I was one of your early followers and somehow when you switched your blog I missed it and didn’t have you in my reader!! I’m glad to be back in the loop.
    I appreciate your frankness on this subject especially as a hopeful fabric designer. I know “you can’t make a living” doing this but I feel there’s more to designing fabric then the monetary return. I’m looking forward to SS and hopefully taking your class!

  18. 18
    Jo Avery says:

    Thank you so much for your very honest post. I read backwards from your most recent one as I was interested in somebody sharing there anxieties in what is usually such an upbeat community. As someone who is in business, and constantly struggling to stay afloat, I really sympathise with your angst and also the fact you are happy to discuss the financial reality of what most people think is a ‘dream job’. I also have a husband who is constantly going through a lot of the same stuff. The fact is it just hard for any of us to ‘live’ these days if we want to do anything creative with our time. Actually even if I didn’t want to do anything creative and decide I wanted to sell my soul and go and work in some high powered business role – that isn’t going to be available as an option either! At least we have the wonderful NHS in the UK so that is a whole level of worry we don’t have. I am sure you will work it out, but I think your state of mind is necessary to producing such beautiful designs.

  19. 19
    Katherine says:

    I stumbled upon this post today and I’d just like to say, first off, THANK YOU–it is so instructive to hear about the financial nitty-gritty of being a designer, a subject that rarely gets touched on (understandably so… it’s such a deeply personal thing.) As an aspiring fabric designer myself, it’s frustrating to be faced with the double challenge of trying to succeed in the face of steep competition and unfavorable odds, all the while while knowing that even if I do “make it,” it’s unlikely I’ll ever make an actual living off of my work–even a modest one. Do you think there’s a solution? It seems like such a thriving and vibrant and wonderful industry, and yet what a shame that it can’t provide a more secure living for all the talented folks involved.

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