Monday, May 19, 2014

Thoughts on the Price of Quilts

So this is one of those posts with no photos. I'm just going to toss in some random fun photos to keep it interesting, ok?
The first quilt I've tried to assign a value to. Apparently nobody thought it was worth $50 but me.

Two weeks ago I went to an art fair. Not a craft fair, but an Art Fair. All of the vendors considered themselves true artists, there were awards granted, and everything was priced as Art should be. There was also a booth of quilted Art. I walked through it, examining the quilts as a quilter does, and started fuming. All of the quilts were variations on sixteen patches. All were stippled using metallic thread and bobbin work. All had machine stitched bindings. I would have taken photos, but it would have also been rude. So just imagine with me. The price tags on these ranged from about $200 for a very small wallhanging (maybe 2' x 3') to over $1,000 for a large wallhanging, maybe 5' x 8' or 9'. So I examined these quilts and got more and more angry. Yes, they were nice quilts. Yes, they were artistic. Yes, the sixteen patches were sewn with nice straight lines. But the machine binding stitches had failed to fully catch the binding in some spots and the artist hadn't gone back to fix it. It was sloppy. It bothered me.

This quilt is considered Art. I wonder if the fact that it's mounted on canvas adds to its art credibility.

But here is what really bothered me. Why are these relatively standard wallhangings able to be priced so high just because they are Art? Why are my quilts, or anyone else's quilts, not worthy of that same standard? What elevates a quilt from being a cheap craft item to being a work of Art? And why am I getting mad at this lady? She's just trying to make a living from her quilts, which certainly have their own artistic merits, as any quilt does.

I LOVE this quilt by Judy Mathieson. But because it has a traditional quilting motif, I suspect collectors would not consider it Art. It's not abstract enough! I wonder if it cannot be considered Art if it is made  from a pattern.

I'm not the only one who's been thinking about these questions. If you are not familiar with the "We are $ew Worth It" campaign, it addresses these issues from the perspective of us "craft" quilters. Sam Hunter argues that we as quilted consistently undervalue our work. She makes a great point. I keep flirting with the idea of listing some of my quilts on Etsy, but it's really hard when so many quilts are available on Etsy for so cheap. I need to at least price my quilts to break even on the cost of supplies (is that so much to ask?) but I swear some of these people are making their quilts from free fabric samples or something because I don't know how they can sell them for so low otherwise! Okay, side rant: I follow a lot of quilt bloggers, some of whom sell their quilts on Etsy. And some of the very same bloggers who cheered Sam's posts (and Molli's subsequent example of true quilt pricing) are THE SAME PEOPLE who are posting quilts for less than $100 online. I don't want to specifically call out people, but a rising tide floats all ships, or however that goes. We ALL have to raise our prices to impact the craft quilt market. And don't act like you support this campaign if you don't actually support it.

Here is Nina's amazing quilt, which challenges the concept of Art and what a quilt should be worth. Visit her website for more closeups of the amazing quilting!

Another perspective comes from Nina Paley, who is apparently a woman of endless talents. If you haven't seen her film Sita Sings the Blues, I highly recommend it. It retells the Ramayana, an Indian epic, from the perspective of the generally passive heroine, Sita. And it's awesome and free online through a creative commons license. So it turns out Nina is also a quilter. She created a quilt designed to look like a $10,000 bill, and has a fantastic post about quilts and art. Her words are so good, I'm just going to quote her:

"High-end art is a form of currency for elites. Art museums and critics encourage us peasants to believe the value in these “priceless art treasures” is based on utility (i.e., the more they cost, the more “genius” they contain). But the value of high end art is due to collectors attaching their surplus capital to it. A million-dollar painting has all the utility of a million-dollar bill. Its value is created not by the artist, but by the collector. When a reputable collector puts a million dollars into a painting, another collector may buy it for more than a million dollars. The art market forms its own economy, with its own financial industry."


"Ironically...quilts are among among the most under-valued art forms. They also require more skill and time than almost any other art-making technique I’ve tried. [emphasis added] The selling price of quilts seldom covers the costs of materials; quilters often prefer to give their quilts away. An “expensive” quilt usually costs more than the value of materials, but less than minimum wage for labor. I recently met a master quilter whose beautiful wall quilt, which took months of expert work and won many awards, was professionally appraised at $3,500. This is considered very high; had it not been widely displayed and won many awards, it would be “worth” far less."


"Is it because quilts have so much utility (“use-value”) that they can’t get traction as high art? Is it because quilting is historically “women’s work”? Is it because quilting is often kitschy, popular in the middle-class Midwest that many aspiring art-worlders move to New York to get away from? Is quilting too white? (The now-famous Gee’s Bend quilters would be an exception to prove this rule.) Is it because many quilters are insane about copyright, going out of their way to restrict knowledge of their work?"

Right? RIGHT? You tell it, Nina. She hits the nail on the head, but I think her blog doesn't have as broad a following in the quilt world because she does so many other arts as well.  Otherwise we would all be talking about her $10,000 quilt! Guys, go follow Nina's blog! She speaks exactly what is in my mind. Why are quilts not art? Why are some quilts considered art and others aren't?

Okay, I could go on about this forever, but what do you think? Do you sell your quilts? Have you ever thought about pricing them? Have you seen expensive quilts? Cheap quilts? "Art" quilts?


  1. You bring up some good things to think about. One reason I haven't tried to sell my stuff before is because I feel I would have to set the price so low I would actually end up losing money. I prefer to give my things away, because people I am giving them to really appreciate the work that went into it. It's tough to compete pricewise with handmade goods since people are used to getting "store bought" items for so much cheaper!

    1. I think a lot of quilters agree with you, and I'm leaning heavily towards that category. However, I can't figure out how to give quilts away in the best way. I want to make quilts that I want to make, not specifically tailored to certain people like I would for a gift. I also don't want to give someone a quilt they won't completely love and appreciate. I kind of want to post quilts on facebook and say "who wants it?" and give it to whomever really does like it and would use it. But then of course what to do if I get multiple responses, or if people I'm not that good friends with, I haven't figured out the gift giving part yet either!