The Free Motion Quilting Project: Quilt Biz #1 - Getting Started

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Quilt Biz #1 - Getting Started

It's time to start cracking!  We're going to start having a post every Sunday about business and/or the general theme of making money with a craft.

This information could easily apply beyond quilting to sewing, knitting, crochet, woodworking, smithing, needlepoint, weaving, dyeing, spinning, etc, etc, etc. 

Really this could even apply to businesses outside of the craft field, but I'd rather not write about widgets or doodads, which is what usually happens in books trying to apply to any and all business types.  I'm going to specifically focus on the aspects of running a quilting business, unless I have a better example to illustrate with another craft.

To say it straight: I'm passionate about business.

I'm as excited and energetic about business as I am about quilting.  Maybe even more so because I've been wanting to write about this for so long and all the information has been bottling up to the point that I feel like I'm going to EXPLODE!  I'm just so excited to be sharing this with you!

So I figure the best place to start is at the beginning.  And where does any business begin?

As a dream.

It's a dream you can't help but follow, a hope you can't help but believe in and bring to life, a wish you can't help but keep wishing for.

I DREAMED of being able to make a living with a craft, ANY craft, from about the age of 12.  It just seemed like the perfect job!  Instead of having to drive to a job and work every day, I could be home and make cool things instead.

I wanted this life, and really this lifestyle, for years before I was able to make it happen, and I jumped many important hurdles along the way before even this blog and my online quilt shop came into existence. 

Today I want to share a lot of those starting points with you, along with many personal experiences I witnesses growing up with my dad, a blacksmith and wood worker, and my grandfather, a woodturner.

I think the first, and most important, step to starting a business is to ask yourself if you really, REALLY want a business.

This is an important question and one you shouldn't feel any pressure to answer one way or the other.  It's best if you can answer with a clear "yes" or "No" because "maybe" implies that you're probably not in this 100%.

Keep one important thing in mind: If you want to have a hobby, don't let anyone tell you you must turn it into a business.

Many people will push you to turn your hobby into a business and unfortunately many of these people are family members.  They see you spending money on a big sewing machine, or lots of fabric and tools and all they see is dollar signs, not the joy and benefit you're getting from pursuing your passion.

They might also see the beautiful pieces you're creating: bowls, jewelry, quilts, paintings, sweaters, socks, booties, shawls, or dyed yarn and think it's so beautiful, it's bound to sell well.

But just because you make something beautiful, just because you spend money and have a big stash of supplies, just because you're enjoying a hobby that COULD be a business, none of these things require you to start a business.

If someone ever says that to you, tell them to take a hike, and defend your right to pursue your hobby in peace.

Here's a story that illustrates what happens when you don't defend your right to your hobby:

My dad liked to carve wood.  He made many beautiful pieces, but never really wanted to turn it into a business.  But then he decided to make some small wood carving tools, and in order to do that, he had to learn blacksmithing.

All the people around him at the time: my mom, his dad, her dad, all of them encouraged Dad to turn blacksmithing into a business.  He did this for years: taking commissioned blacksmithing jobs on top of his regular jobs, knocking together everything from fences to door latches.  He believed what everyone said: you can't have a hobby. Everything you do must make money.

But these days Dad has sold off almost all of his tools and blacksmithing equipment and when I ask him if he'll get back into it after he moves and settles down again, he sounds cautious of making plans.  He's told me repeatedly that if he does get into it again, he's just going to make those small carving tools he always wanted.  Small items, small projects, and just for himself as a hobby.

It is okay to have a hobby.  It is okay to spend money and time on your hobby and never make a dime with it.

The health benefits of a hobby are enormous alone.  If anyone ever nags you about the money or time you spend, simply reply that having a hobby is good for your health and that is all you need from it.

I'm giving you permission and saying this so many times because I've seen what it can do to a person to be forced into a business they didn't want.  Burnout isn't pretty and it's definitely not something I'd wish on anyone.

So that's the first step: determine if you REALLY want a business or not.

Once you make this critical decision, this next question should be fairly easy to answer:

How much money would you like to make every month?

This question is simple, but it's always nice to put it into context with your real life.  So rather than say "I'd like to make $200" instead say "I'd like to make $200 to pay bills."

This way you know both how much you'd like to earn, AND what you'd like to do with this money.

It could be as simple as "I'd like to make $500 per month to pay for fabric and quilting supplies." because often we like to put money we make back into our craft, or at least break even so what you're putting in, you're also getting out.

Now you might find when you try to answer this question a bit of resistance in your brain.  We all experience fear occasionally and this emotion seems particularly sensitive to issues of starting a business and making money.

It's perfectly normal to feel slightly terrified if you truthfully answer "I'd like to make $3000 a month to pay all my household expenses." because this might seem like a giant impossible number.

The trick is not to spend too much time focusing on how much you want to make, but on HOW you want to make money.

It might not be initially apparent, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to make money in any particular field.

The quilting industry is the one I'm most familiar with so here's a short list of ways you can run your business:

- Open a physical quilt shop
- Travel and vend at various quilt fairs and shows.
- Travel and teach lectures and workshops.
- Open an online quilt shop.
- Design for fabric, stencils, longarm designs, etc
- Fulfill necessary services such as binding, basting, and alternations

And within these ways of running your business, there are hundreds of different things you can actually sell!

You can sell services: that's when a customer pays you to fulfill a service for them such as quilting.  You can also sell completed products such as quilts, table runners, baby blankets, purses, book covers, that you sew or have manufactured yourself.

But that's only the tip of the ice berg!  You can also sell physical items such as tools and supplies created by other quilters.  We have a vast supply of wonderful tools and templates that you can wholesale from distributors, then sell for retail.

You can also design and create your own rulers and tools as well as books and DVDs.

Alternatively, you don't have to sell physical products and services at all.  You could easily sell digital patterns, books, and downloadable videos.  In the world of the internet, there's many more ways to make money without having tons of space or money to get started.

So when you think of running a business, what initially comes to mind?

Do you want to make the items you sell?

Do you even want to sell physical items?

And HOW do you wish to sell them?

This is a very important question because many ways of making money in a crafting industry includes traveling.  You will definitely need to travel if you wish to teach and lecture on your craft.

You will also need to travel a lot if you plan to follow a craft show / quilt show circuit and vend at shows either locally in your state or throughout the US.

Take a minute to decide if that's what you really want to do.  Do you want to be away from home every weekend?  Do you want to spend 2 to 3 days a week driving or flying to your destination? 

Do you want to spend every hour of show "on" and interacting with customers?  In a vending situation, sometimes you'll really need to put the "sale" act on, and that leads to another question: How good are you at talking with potential customers?

I'm making a big point about this because I never asked myself these questions in the beginning.  I was just so overjoyed that anyone wanted me to teach or lecture, I said "yes!" to everything and anything that came my way.

It was only after a few long trips that I began to see the effect travel could have on my quilting, my family, this blog, and myself.  I began to get very tired and feel frustrated by the amount of work always waiting for me at home.  This blog began to suffer every time I left on a trip because I just couldn't balance the two.

Finally Josh looked at me one day and said "You know you don't have to travel like this if you don't want to."

And I sat for a minute in shock!  Really?  I don't have to do this?  I don't have to say "yes!" to everything that comes my way?  Is that allowed?

This might come off as sarcastic, but I was definitely serious.  I couldn't really fathom saying "no" to these offers because I so desperately wanted to teach and share about quilting.

Finally Josh explained that that's exactly what I was doing by blogging - teaching and sharing every day.  By traveling away from home, yes, I was reaching quilters on a local level, but nowhere near as many people as I could reach by staying at home and just focusing on this blog project.

So that's the last lesson of the day: you have to decide what you want, and what you don't want, and how to say "no" to the things you don't want to do.

It might sound easy, but it's not!  It takes practice saying "no" especially when you're not used to saying it.  It's definitely hard to disappoint other people, particularly people willing to pay you money.

But it's absolutely 100% necessary to remain true to what you want to do.

This is a vast industry, and if you're not careful it can chew you up and spit you out.  If you don't stand firm on how you run your business, you can quickly find yourself not living the life you want to live.

Because it's not an exaggeration to say that your business will be your life.  It will determine what time you wake up in the morning, what you do, where you go, who you talk to, and who you see.

Unlike a job, you won't work your business from 9 am until 5 pm and stop working the minute you walk out the door.  I rarely stop thinking about my business, and throughout the day I make notes on designs, teaching ideas, patterns, and things to change on various sites. 

This gets back to the start of this article: do you really want to own a business?

Do you really want to spend most of your time thinking about your business, or do you just want to quilt?

Because it's important to realize that starting a quilting business will, paradoxically, limit the amount of time you have to actually quilt and enjoy this craft. 

Many hours will have to be spent doing other things like ordering products, creating products, designing your website, traveling, or talking with customers.

It may even get to the point that you don't have time to make all the quilts you want to make.

This is the honest, unvarnished truth about business and what it can do to your hobby.  I set myself the goal of making 12 goddess quilts this year, and currently have 1 finished and 1 pieced and it's April.  I have to face the fact that even 4 months into the year, I'm already very behind!

I'm also behind on creating quilts for James and a king sized quilt for my bed.  These family quilts get pushed back because they just don't seem important in comparison to quilts needed for the business.

But they are important so I'm going to try over the next few months to work on these quilts and integrate them into this project so they benefit both this blog and my family.  I'm willing to change the design and fabric slightly in order for the quilts to work for both areas.

It's a constant balancing act, and sometimes it works out, and sometimes I feel like I have a house of unfinished projects that are all about to squash me!

Please understand the realistic side of this business.  Right now you may not be thinking this is for you at all.  You may even be turned off by this whole article talking about money and quilting.

But also understand that your feelings may change as you develop as a quilter.  I'm writing these post to share my experience, no matter where you're at with your business or quilting.

So to recap: first know if you really want a business.  If you're really ready to do the work that's required, and potentially lose your ability to make the quilts you want to make all the time.

Next, ask yourself realistically how much money you want to make.  Don't spend too much time obsessing about this as it can trigger a lot of fear which can lock you in place.

Instead spend more time thinking about HOW you'd like to make money, how you'd like your life to work and bend around your business.  Do you want to travel, or stay home?

These are all important questions to consider, and it definitely helps to keep a journal of ideas and progress.  Have fun thinking and planning this week and next week we'll learn a bit more about starting a quilting business on a tight budget.

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

Now let's go quilt!

Leah Day


  1. I would say that's pretty straight forward, honest and true advice. Good article. I find that people don't realize what goes into creating an item, running a business is the same way. There are many behind the scene things that occur. I look forward to next Sunday's article. Happy Easter!

  2. Great post! Looking forward to more!

  3. Thanks for this post Leah. As a nurse who works 40+ hours a week. I have often dreamed of turning my hobby into a business. I can't wait to hear next weeks post on this topic. You are a wealth of information and your willingness to share your knowledge is wonderful. Thank You!

  4. Thank you for starting with it's Ok to have a hobby. As much as I love my quilting, I know the damage starting and running a business can do to some people.

    Sharing your knowledge and perspective will undoubtedly help a lot of people with their businesses, and it may also save a few from overwhelming challenges.

  5. Preach it Sista!!! Just had to say that! For many years, I,too, ran my own business (sewing bridal/formal wear and competition horsemanship clothing). I had my shop in town, in a rented space until I stopped and thought: why am I spending so much time going beyond the stated hours and still not satisfying the client's needs. I moved to my home for that last few years and it worked so well! However, DH mentioned that, perhaps, I should start thinking about what I would draw for S.S. when the time came (the reality was '0'!). States are not always 'friendly' to home businesses. Back to school I went and worked in a totally different profession AND loved it. To all things there is a "season". Now retired, I sew/quilt daily. Many have said that I should go into business and sell my creations.....I am not 'there' anymore! Gifts and just sharing are my goals....and I love it! Thanks for your insights....they are completely TRUE!!! (From one who has been there!) Hugs, Doreen

  6. Leah ~ You have so much wisdom and so young :) and look forward to reading more from you. I must say I have two Favorite lines in this article, the first, "having a hobby is good for your health and that is all you need from it" followed up by "learning to say NO". I have endured a lifetime of people questioning the time element (not so much the money) I put into this 'hobby' when they can think of how it could be spent elsewhere in service to others,and these folks are not even my own family... Sometimes we just need to "hear" we have 'permission'. Looking forward to Wednesday, Thursday and now Sundays with Leah!
    ps... hope taking your lines out of context was not plagiarism~ HAHAHA
    Godspeed and Happy Easter

  7. I have been wondering about this exact thing lately, since I was laid off from my day job and have been wanting to change my life by getting a low-key part time job and balancing it with a small-scale business based somehow on my work, so your article is uncannily timely!

  8. This is timely for me and I REALLY appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts and experiences.

    I will be retiring in June after 33 years of teaching forestry. I want to earn some income - enough to pay for my quilting addiction- but not have to work to the point of not being able to do my own thing. I think if I could average 8 to 10 hours per week and earn the equivalent of 15+ bucks per hour teaching local classes, making commissioned quilts and selling small projects, I would think that a good balance. Thinking about the business would not be a problem. Gotta think about something! Thoughts?

  9. Great post Leah. Having grown up in a buisness household, I know much work it takes to stay successfully in buisness, and the reason I am still quilting as a hobby!

  10. Thank you, Leah. I look forward to reading your future posts!

  11. This was a great article. I made the decision that I wanted a business some time ago and am working on striking a balance between business and creating fibre art. I have asked myself some of these questions but some are new to me and very pertinent. Thank you. Looking forward to your next article.

  12. That's exactly what I have been looking for - honest, practical advice. Can't wait for next week, thanks so much, Leah!!!!

  13. I do this work, and try to live with this ... You're right, you must know where you are, where you go, plan how to do it, and DO IT...

  14. thanks for this post. Always trying to balance the dream of doing what you truly enjoy to earn money versus risk of taking it to a business level.Good to learn from others who have been there.

  15. Great article, Leah. I'm looking forward to your next post on this subject. I started my quilt business after "life" got in the way, unemployment, divorce, and cancer - a triple whammy - and I've never been more content, but I'm sure it's not for everyone. Have a super day!

  16. Very timely post, as I've been thinking about these exact issues a great deal. Looking forward to reading more!

  17. Wow, a lot to consider. Of curse I would like to make extra money to offset the cost of quilting, but I already work a full time job. I really just want to quilt what I want to quilt. There is a lady at work that wants me to make a quilt for her couch and loveseat, as a quilt cover. Her sister-in-law was supposed to, but she is so busy making quilts for other things, that it got put on the back burner, so she asked me. She wants cutouts for the arms, and she already has the fabric. I really have no interest in doing this. How do you tell someone no, when they are asking for a favor that they will pay you for. I wouldn't even know how to charge for a service like this. I hope she doesn't ask me again. I am not ready to take the fun out of quilting. :) but I am anxious to read your blog on this subject in case there is something that might just work for me ;)

  18. I've been getting the pressure from my husband and friends to make money with my hobby. For me, right now, I don't want to. It would take the pleasure out of it for me right now and that's not why I do it. Maybe someday, but not right now.

    Still, I appreciate all your advice.

  19. I've been self-employed for over 40 years.. I was a dressmaker and tailor (UUGGGHH, never again) and a kitemaker (lots of the customers got old and died) and now I'm a quilter, teacher, pattern-maker, writer, and make websites.. And I still make kites..

    I used to get lots of "I've made 3 nice things and now I want to run a business" emails, and I offered always the same advice - find a New Hobby first, because the business will not be a hobby; if it is, it's not a business..

    I don't know about the US, but here in the UK anyone can start a business without anything more difficult than promising to fill in a tax return at the end of the year.

    I carry all of these costs, think about them before you start.
    Premises (I have 1000 sq ft and I use this for teaching). You need totally separate space dedicated to your business if you are not to drown in stuff. Electricity, heating, maintenance, cleaning, toilet rolls, tea and coffee, furniture. Stuff gets broken (I spent over 300 GB pounds on new mats)
    Insurance. I carry 5 million GB pounds worth of public and product liability insurance, and this is a minimum. It's surprisingly cheap.

    Vehicle(s) need to be reliable, or rented, or have a back-up.

    Travel.. I charge mileage when I'm out teaching, but all the other miles I drive, I have to cover
    Supplies (not the same as stock, but thread is not cheap)
    Office supplies
    Computer, printer, website, domain name, email
    Tables, shelves, cloths, display stands, baskets, boxes for carrying stock; if you do stands
    Commission charges if you consign work (may be as high as 60%) (and allow 10 to 30 percent for damage)

    Oh, and fabrics to make stuff, and batting, and patterns (don't forget to make your own) and so on and so on..

    And think in terms of at least an hour of admin and paperwork for every two hours making. If you get to the stage where the two take the same amount of time, you need to rethink.

    I have given up doing stalls/stands because I have a bad back.. I wish I had done it sooner

    On the other hand, my business is What I Am as much as What I Do, and I wouldn't do it any other way.

    My hobbies are reading and stroking the cat, and sleeping..

  20. Thanks Leah - you have already helped me improve my business by inspiring me to get back to machine quilting which is the most fun thing ever!

    I've been making money from quilting in one way or another for about 15 years now - ever since I started quilting.

    First I made custom quilts but didn't like that because I didn't want to make what other people wanted - I wanted to make what I wanted. Then I machine quilted for others and allover stippled the heck out of quilts for a few years and that got boring.

    Then I taught quilting classes which I absolutely love. What's more fun than earning money for something I'd gladly do for free?? (But then all of a sudden I had 3 kids and no time to teach anymore!)

    For the last 5 years, my hubby and I have been running an online quilt shop full time. It's been the most rewarding thing so far but the most demanding and all encompassing.

    My real quilting dreams though are to quilt for competition, teach nationally, and publish patterns and books. So I just eat it up when I see someone like you being so successful and loving it. It's very inspiring, especially with your sharing and encouraging attitude.

    It's taken me years to figure out the direction I want to go in but I love the journey!!

  21. This article made my eyes leak. I wish it would have been available in 1984, LOL. Was raising 2 kids, spinning & weaving as a hobby, to production weaving, then later inventing, sewing and marketing a horse product. The pressure from myself and family to turn loved hobbies into businesses didn't help them succeed. Only now with children grown and being retired from public employment am I beginning to enjoy my old hobbies (including quilting) again. If I produce a surplus of 'thingies' that I don't give away or use I would like to sell them to make more room to make more stuff. I wouldn't want to go where I went before with my interests unless I felt really good about it. Thanks for the advice. It is refreshing that this sage advice is coming from someone so young. Thanks for sharing. It has helped clear the cobwebs from the rafters in this ol' gal. Best wishes to you.

  22. Thanks so much, Leah, for sharing your knowledge and talents. I, too, have been thinking about a quilting business, and all of your points are perfect. As well, I need to consider who I am physically. I cannot stand for long periods of time and have had surgeries in my hands - but my hands don't bother me at all when I'm free motion quilting!! I love this craft. I'll be thinking about your blog for a long time. I've been working as an executive assistant for 40 years, and my sewing room and paperwork are perfectly organized - I am so ready to retire and do what I love. Thanks!

  23. Cool. I love your enthusiasm. I JUST wrote a post on my blog about money, women's self worth, pricing our work...

    I'm in art - not quilting - but things have been flying so fast for me. It's been a steep learning curve, but a good one... It's all about doing what makes you happy and making a living out of it.

    take care,
    Monika Kinner-Whalen


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