The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilt Biz #3 - Creating Products

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Quilt Biz #3 - Creating Products

It's Sunday and time for another Quilting Business post!  So far we've gotten a good foundation of deciding whether a business is right for you, and learned a bit last week about traffic and content.

Today let's focus on products.

Products can be anything from a handmade item you create individually (quilt, tote bag, purse, pillowcase, journal cover, etc) to a product you manufacture (tools, notions, books, DVDs), to products you wholesale from other quilters then sell for retail.

Each of these areas are fairly huge topics, so this week let's focus on products you create individually.

These are items you start from scratch: cut out the fabric, sew the item, finish it with high quality workmanship, then price according to you time, material cost, and effort.

This is also the leading way many crafters try to make a living at their craft: by mastering a craft, making stuff, then selling that stuff.

Now because these posts were inspired by the Copyright Terrorism post, we're going to have to make a special note about the jerks that create copyrighted patterns indicating "for home use only" or "for personal use only."

You might have purchased a pattern for a pretty tote bag and want to make 10 bags to sell on Etsy or Ebay.  Unfortunately if the pattern maker has indicated "for home / personal use only" you shouldn't use that pattern for your bags for sale.  

Yes, this stinks, and yes, it makes me want to chuck those patterns in the trash, but rules are rules and it's best to steer clear of a fight with those copyright happy pattern makers.  This is especially important if you plan to sell your handmade products online.

Of course, this could lead us into a happy tirade about pattern makers and why they have such a problem with industrious quilters making their bags and selling them.  What exactly would they be losing from that situation?  They'd still have made the sale on the pattern, and isn't that the point!?

I digress.  Let's not even open up that can of worms today.

So you're going to need to find patterns that indicate Open Use, or more specifically Open for Commercial and Non-Commercial Use.

This would be a great idea for anyone looking to start a business with huge demand - a website dedicated to open use patterns.  Even as I type this, I'm considering making some open use bag patterns just so quilters and sewists have something to use that isn't locked down in copyrighted red tape.

So here's an idea: if you absolutely can't find an open use pattern, why not make your own? 

Creating a pattern isn't as difficult as it seems.  Start with a simple square bag, and focus on learning the construction process so you can eventually streamline it down into a useable pattern.

There will be a lot of trial and error involved here, but it's worth it because this will be YOUR pattern and no one will be able to say boo about it.

But you have to be willing to do the work and construct your pattern several times.  Not only will this make you faster, it will also alert you to any issues within the pattern itself.

Make 4 simple bags and then time yourself making the 5th to see how much time it takes in each stage of the process.  Add up your cost in materials and your time and see if you can come up with a price for your product.


Oh, that sounded so easy.  Such a simple thing - pricing your work - when in fact this is one of the hardest things you'll have to do when selling the things you've created.

How much time you spend making a product is EXTREMELY important.  Whether you spend 1 hour or 10 hours, you need to be paid for your time, your effort, your passion, your material cost, and the physical wear and tear on your body.

Do not discount this.

It is so easy to discount yourself in this equation.  I know this personally because I did it myself from 2005 to 2006 and it was the most soul destroying, terrible experience of my life. 

I worked for an online business sewing garments at home.  I thought this was the most wonderful job at the time: I get to stay home and sew, and get paid for it!

But what I didn't calculate was how stressful and time consuming this job would be.  I'd bring home on average 60 garments a week and all of those garments had to be sewn with the exact same level of care and precision and perfection as any shirt you buy in a store.

I worked harder than I ever had in my life.  I learned every trick in the book to speed up my sewing, to optimize my machine setup so I could sew with the maximum amount of speed and efficiency.  I rarely ate breakfast or lunch because my focus and attention was sharper in the morning so I could sew faster through those hours.

At the end, when I was the fastest I ever got, I could crank out a t-shirt in 45 minutes.

Guess how much I got paid?  $6.50.

In the end, I realized I was chasing an illusion more than anything else.  I was chasing the dream of sewing for a living, but in the end I had to admit that I was losing more and more of myself with every bag of clothes that left my apartment.

I remember very little of the year and a half I sewed, other than actually sewing, because I did so little other than sew, sew, sew constantly.  This is a shame because that was the first year Josh and I were married, and the only year we had before James was born.

But there is one thing I don't regret from that situation: I learned this lesson: TIME HAS VALUE.

This is more than just being paid an hourly rate.  Yes, you could set $10 per hour to your time and bill out your products this way, but isn't your time worth more?

That hour you spent quilting that journal cover could have been spent with your kid.  That weekend you made that tote bag could have been spent making a quilt for your family.

Always remember the true cost, not just in time, but also the trade off of your labor and what else you could be doing.  I'll say it again: Do not undervalue your time.

Yes, there will always be people willing to cut off their nose to spite their face.  You may feel the need to compete with such idiots by pricing your products lower.

But here's another lesson: if you've done your homework and created a business with the right foundation: loads of content, which has in turn attracted lots of people to pay attention to you, you will be able to charge a fair and just price, and still find demand for your products.

The absolute key is traffic, and that comes from content.

Without traffic, you're not going to sell anything.

No matter how many tote bags you create, no matter how fast you get stitching them, no matter how low you set the price, without traffic, no one will know you exist, therefore no one will want to buy your stuff.

So your primary focus, for at least the first several months or years you're in business, is to create the content that will drive the traffic to your business.  Without this foundation, your business won't have the legs to stand on and it may well topple right over.

It's also good to realize that those tote bags, those individually stitched products you created by hand, might not be your best products anyway.

Let's let that idea sink in for a bit.

What you create, what you stitch on by hand, isn't the best product to sell.

Look at it this way: you can spend a weekend making a tote bag, but you can sell that tote bag only 1 time to 1 person. 

That means the amount of money you can make on your time and effort is limited by the transaction itself.  Let's say the max your customer is willing to spend is $45.00.  You will make that amount of money 1 time, for 1 bag.

In order to make more money, you will need to go back into your sewing room, repeat all the steps to making that bag, spend exactly the same amount of time, and again, you will have a product you can sell only 1 time.

How in the world are you going to make a living this way?

What if you get sick and can't stitch?  What if your kids get sick and all your time is spent taking care of them?  Heck, what if you want to go on vacation and don't have time to make new products for a week or two?

As soon as you can't spend that requisite amount of time working on an individual product, your money will dry up.  Your source of revenue is entirely dependent on your ability to create those products, and this is a dangerous position to be in.

It's dangerous because the second you stop working is the second you stop making money.

You never know when a wrench will be thrown into your life, but trust me, it happens only at the worst possible times.  If you get into a position to DEPEND on that extra $300 coming in to pay your light bill, but then don't have time to make the 6 bags that make the money, how will that bill be paid?

No, this isn't a crucial issue if you only make tote bags on the side, as a hobby business, only for a bit of extra spending cash.  In this situation, you're not LIVING on the cash made from your business.  You're not depending on it quite the same way.

But even still, you need to learn how to make your time worth more.

I don't mean by charging more for your products.  Instead, rather than sell that tote bag 1 single time to 1 single customer, you need to figure out a way to make the time you spent working on it pay you for weeks, months, or even years down the road.

You need to be able to sell that single tote bag hundreds of times.

How in the world is that even possible?  It's just a single stupid tote bag!  What are you going to do - sell it then steal it back to sell it again?

No.  You're not going to sell that tote bag at all.  Ever.

And if you'd like an explanation for this cryptic sentence, make sure to check in next week for Quilt Biz #4!

Here's the complete list of all 10 Quilting Business Posts:

Until next time, let's shut up and go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. Oh, such good advice! I have had my own business. The first several years I rented a storefront in town. I posted my hours: Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings. I did bridal gowns/formal wear; both alterations and from pictures/patterns. I discovered that my hours didn't fit with my clients--they work during the day!(Duh!) And, many lived out of town and were only available Sat. afternoons and Sundays!!! Moved my shop to my home. Added special liability ins. to my home owners' policy and scheduled fittings with more flexibility....a very good thing! However, now I worked out of my home which changed how I was perceived!!! No "overhead" and not a REAL business! A mental hassle that I decided was not worth it and I closed. Alterations are quite lucrative (read: I made $$$$) so I still do those today. Minnesota requires that I charge tax on alterations (a service), not on a complete garment!!! Anyhow, I miss it but am loving my quilting time a lot!! (Am now retired from a pharmacy career that came after the shop experience!). Thanks for doing this series. This info does NOT get discussed enough!!! Hugs, Doreen

  2. Leah

    I so admire your business sense, and the way you show that you learnt this from experience. So much more effective than boring old business lectures at college.

    You are amazingly focused both in this mentoring program and in your FMQ project. You are a professional in all senses. And still so young!

  3. In the UK at least, a pattern is just that. A pattern. If you decide to make a gazillion bags and sell them there is nothing anyone can do about it. You have been sold a pattern and no one, including the designer of that pattern, can stop you from making and selling items made from that pattern.

    If you try to sell a copy of the pattern, yes, you'll be in trouble.

  4. Good stuff!
    I started out making and selling quilts at a craft boutique. It was great for learning how to perfect my quilting but I really didn't make any money doing it.

    The only real money to be made was from clients who would pay for a customized design. That was more exciting but it limited my creativity because I made the quilts my clients wanted, not the quilts I wanted to make.

    But, it had a happy ending. I started purchasing my fabrics and supplies wholesale which eventually led to my current business - selling fabric online. I realized it's more profitable selling fabric rather than selling finished quilts! A good lesson to learn, though.

  5. I'm finding these postings really interesting. I'm not looking at starting a business but you never know what's around the corner. If you'd asked me 12 months ago I would have said I wouldn't have a blog either! Really interesting to read and learn from someone else's experience, thanks so much Leah!

  6. I can't wait for next weeks! :)

  7. I can't wait to read your next post!

  8. Good advice. I experienced the same problem with the "for personal use only" when I started out making quilted items. So I created my own patterns. I allow anyone who has purchased my pattern to make up to 10 items per year from that pattern.

  9. Hi Leah,
    I happen to have legal experience in intellectual property law and can tell you that it is possible to buy a copyrighted design and sell items made using it. There are two ways to do this: one is to clear permissions with the copyright holder (some will do it for free. They just want to be asked, and it is not as difficult as it seems to do this), and the other is to tweak the design just enough with your own creative change such that it is deemed diffetent enough from the original to not violate the copyright.

  10. Sounds so simple and easy the way you talk about it, but the reality of selling a pattern or made items is not that easy. I've been trying off and on to sell (bags, patterns, small quilts, etc.)for over 40 years and you spend more time and money than you will ever get back. I have tried several crafts shows, Etsy, my blog, quilt shops, and while I have sold a little here and there, I would starve to death if I had to depend on selling for a living. I created a pattern to sell too (my one and only pattern). I am very good about writing clear instructions and have been a pattern tester for a friend of mine too. I think I made enough money in selling those patterns to break even or made a tiny profit. I've tried selling things for a fair price and selling at cheap garage sale giveaway prices and people don't want to buy. If I had a regular space at like a farmer's market and was truly dedicated in being there all the time, I might begin to attract a following. But that takes a lot of time and money to pay for a space every weekend. It's essentially like owning a store and having to be there to sell. I love to create and I'll be the first to admit I am not a good sales person. I can't talk up my items like a car sales person does and try to talk someone into buying something from me. Most people who go to craft shows go to get ideas so they can make it themselves. Even though you might be selling a pattern or a book, they don't want to buy it either. They can go online and find free tutorials or borrow free books from the library or their quilt guild library. This has been my experience over the past 40 years. I would be a rich woman today if I got a dollar for every compliment I have received about the things I make. But that's pretty much all I have ever received is compliments and not sales. So I figured I would share what I make with the world on my blog. You can look for free, and leave a comment if you want to. Since I know I cannot make a living doing what I love, I can still share what I love to do with others and inspire them. It's like everything else in life I think that some people are able to make a name for themselves and make a living at what they do because of being in the right place at the right time. It's not always a matter of working hard or not, it's a lot of luck, and it's not what you know but who you know that can make your business grow. Anyone can write and try to sell a pattern. But my experience with purchasing most patterns that aren't brand name patterns like Simplicity or McCalls, etc. is that so many are poorly written. I do no want to spend money on a poorly written pattern. Plus to sell a lot of your patterns, you really need a rep if you want to sell them in shops across the country. I only have one pattern to sell and not a whole line of patterns, so a rep doesn't want to bother with you. Plus how do you get someone to represent you anyhow? I sent a photo of my pattern to several well-known quilt catalog companies too and nothing. No response, no sale, no word at all from them. Creating a pattern is a lot of work and there's no guarantee you can sell enough to pay for your time. It's not like you can sit back and wait for the sales to happen either. You have to work at selling all the time and that takes time and time is money and so on. I see 1,000's of blogs out there and most of them have online stores or Etsy shops and I'm sure that very few sell much at all, let alone make a living at it. While I think it's wonderful if you can make a living doing what you love to do, for every one who makes money, I think thousands or tens of thousands aren't making a living. Just my thoughts on this topic, sorry if this is so long.


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