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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