What People Are Saying About Penny

"I like to think of you as a high priced call girl that the unwashed masses can't afford--like Woody Allen's Whore of Mensa. It's not your fault that people offer $10 blowjobs on the street corner. It's not an insult if somebody doesn't buy your art." -Alexandra J Walters

"Once Penny was making her own silk thread, and a midget appeared. Before he could open his ugly mouth, without looking up, she exclaimed, 'Rumpelstiltskin. Now get the fuck out of here.' Fairytale Over."- Beth Featherstone

"Penny can push a needle through a telephone pole without a thimble." -Shane Blaufuss

"When a man asked Penny, 'What’s the meaning of life?' She looked at him for exactly 3 minutes, completely still, until he cried. That man’s name was Steve Jobs."- Beth Featherstone

"A demon from the pits of bitch cunt." -W.C. Hurst

"pulitzer for you too." -John Lurie

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pricing Vs. Practicality

I've taken most of my items out of my Etsy shop. Why? Well, most of the work I get now a days is commission work, and the people that custom order from me know how much things cost. The hilarious thing about it, is that what I charge for custom work is significantly more expensive. Why? Because the people who custom order from me understand labor, and they're all artists.

What am I on about?

It seems to me that more and more I've become aware of a disconnect between pricing and practicality. For example, people would balk at the cost of my hand embroidered pillows that I had in my shop. $100.00. The hundred dollar pillows in question take anywhere from thirty to fifty hours to make. Do the math on the hourly wage. That's not including materials. It's not pretty. Which is why they are no longer in my shop.
But, if I had done those pieces as stand alones framed in their hoops, $100.00 would be reasonable even ridiculously inexpensive. I can (and have) sold woodblock prints of the same designs for several hundred dollars.

Why? People say, Hey! I'm not paying a hundred bucks on a pillow. Something I'll use every day. However, these same people will pay six hundred dollars on shoes they wear three times a year, or fourteen hundred on a painting that hangs in their hallway.

Why are we willing to pay obscene amounts of money on art, but the second the art becomes useable, it's somehow devalued?

I've seen this play out over my entire adult career. My first job ever was as a custom bookbinder. Everything was done by hand. Later I worked under a woman who was trained in Library of Congress archival standards of bookbinding. I learned how to make rabbit hide glue, use ox gall, scything knives. I could name types of paper by touch alone. And then people would come in and want to order a custom scrap book, or a photo album, or a guest book but become indignant that the piece would cost more than a hundred dollars.

A few weeks ago, I received an email on Etsy. It read something like this. "I love your embroideries and I wanted to see if you would make an embroidered panel quilt, queen size. I'd be willing to go up to $130.00"

I get it, I really do. I shop at Target, and I understand that very few people have ever made anything by hand, or know people that do. They can hardly be blamed for their ignorance. But guess what? That quilt your Granny made you? She did it because she loves you. And I bet she wouldn't dream of selling one for no hundred sad dollars. And I'm not your grandma.

I also understand that I have a luddite way of doing things. I use hand cards, not mills. I use a drop spindle, not a wheel, and I use needles, not a Viking Emerald. That that takes a tremendous amount of time. But no less time than oils and underpainting.

So I want to hear from you. Knitters, I know that sweater took like, 1000 yards of yarn and your hands ached when you were finished. Potters? Come on. You built that Raku kiln in your back yard and kept a steady eye on it the whole time. Hand quilters? You guys are saints. I want to know what your experience is with buyers and pricing. Is this disconnect something you've noticed too?


  1. Right on. My gripe is with people that see me knitting a pair of socks and say " why bother with knitting them when you can buy them at Walmart"? Or why spin your own yarn when you can buy factory spun? GRRRRR! It's sad that society doesn't appreciate the handmade crafts.

  2. Amen, sister! I'm none of those things you listed, but I am an applied artist. I'm a decorative painter and no that doesn't mean sponge painting and no you can not learn to do what I do at a Home Depot workshop or by watching HGTV. In fact, those venues set you up for failure because they don't tell you what you need to know, often don't know the terminology themselves and almost always use inferior or just plain wrong materials and tools.

    Here's the thing; just because someone does this as a business doesn't mean they are good at it. It also doesn't mean they're working legally and in Oregon that means having a contractors license (which requires insurance and bond) and adds to overhead. There are 2 big things tied to those 2 things making it frustrating for the rest of us. One is that because there is some much bad or pedestrian work out there (in home shows, Pearl District boutiques, etc.) that the public often doesn't know what is good work. The second is that so many in the field aren't relying on it to pay the bills, because they have a partner with a good income and/or another job themselves) so they price low, bringing everyone down with them.

  3. Like a dummy, I accidentally erased this comment from Michelle-
    Michelle has left a new comment on your post "Pricing Vs. Practicality":

    This is the exact reason I started selling my knitting patterns instead of finished objects. At least with fellow knitters you have a hope that they'll understand the value of work. Even so selling patterns isn't perfect because that work is devalued.

    I cheered when I read "That quilt your Granny made you? She did it because she loves you. And I bet she wouldn't dream of selling one for no hundred sad dollars." LOVE.

  4. Phyllis-
    Grrrr is right! Also, I've noticed that people don't even know what hand made looks like anymore! Socks are a great example. "Why is the heel like that? Why does the toe have all that stitching?" They just don't know that ALL socks used to look like that. It's almost like the difference between making stock from bones vs. cracking open a can of Swansons.

    Tara- Grrrr again! It's so unfortunate that Guilds don't have the weight they once had. At least then you were guaranteed a certain level of mastery and a bottom line price that everyone agreed on. You are in the lamentable position of dealing with people who watch just enough Home Design Network to mistakenly think they have the goods.

    And Michelle, I'm sorry I erased your comment! It was an accident! Knitting totally sucks because at some point you realize if you're going to price the sweater what it's worth (believe me, I've been there) you run into the problem of it becoming extremely expensive. And because our last name isn't Dior or Folleys, we don't have the machines and sweatshop labor to bring the price down.

    I've often lamented the loss of traditional guilds. Not the kind that you join to hang out with like minded members, but the old school ones that demanded a certain level of talent and constant culling. The best of the best. Until we have that again, I worry that it's going to stay really difficult to demand what our pieces are worth. The buying public obviously needs (and deserves) some kind of litmus test for mastery. BRING BACK THE GUILDS!

  5. Absolutely! There are even people out there who devalue 'handcrafted' items, as if they are inferior to machine made. They'd rather spend excessive amounts of money on machine produced, production line items with some big name on them, than on a one of a kind, artisan produced piece. What's up with that?
    BRING BACK THE GUILDS! Yes! Please & thank you! No, we don't have guilds today. What we call guilds are loosely knit communities of crafters. It's not even close to the same thing. Thanks for this post & sorry for my rant, but yes, I agree!

  6. i love making but i hate hate hate pricing - i'm so proud when i sell something i've made and try to be strong and charge for my time my overheads etc but i'm so guilty myself of thinking "how much?" i tend to give my work as gifts because as you said i did it for love and i only give to those i know will appreciate it and realize how much time and effort and sometimes blood sweat and tears has gone into it.

  7. This is something I think about ALL THE TIME and have a really hard time coming to any kind of rational decision about. I agree that many artists undervalue their work, and many buyers don't realize what actually goes into handcrafted items. At the same time I want people like my friends to be able to afford my work, but that's usually not possible given my chosen modes of production. I constantly find myself struggling to justify what I do, mostly to myself, and find a balance in terms of pricing and feeling ok about what I'm making and how I'm trying to sell it. I usually end up just not selling it, either because 1) people think I charge too much or 2) I opt not to sell it because I can't reconcile all of this in good consciousness.

    I am fortunate in that I enjoy my job as a conservator enough and make enough money at it that I don't have to survive as a working artist, but the tradeoff there is less time. I just don't know!

  8. I'm so glad to see so many responses to this post!
    samsstuff, x vInTaGe VioLeT x, and Nicole-
    I've found that people are less bitchy about the prices if I add how many hours it takes to the basic info about the piece. That way when they see 60 hours=600 dollars (which is still next to nothing in terms of wages), the money makes more sense to them. As far as friends go, I do usually do some sort of sliding scale friend discount, but those pieces tend to not be as detailed or labor intensive as the other ones. I'm seriously thinking about searching ebay for a time clock so I can add an image of the time sheet along with the item!

    I really think we all need to just man up and demand what our skill is worth. Is your time worth 8, 10, or 15 an hour? Charge that! But I think a good rule of thumb is to always offer lower priced, simpler pieces too so there's something for everyone.

    People just don't understand what we do and the time we spend. Let's teach them!

  9. Penny - I hear you and can empathize. I think you made a good move getting away from Etsy. The problem, as outlined by several other posters is that people don't know what goes into a piece anymore. It's frustrating, but they can hardly be punished for being ignorant. It's consumer conditioning that's made them that way. Not to say it's not insulting, it is. We just have to think about the best way to educate them and bring them into the fold.

    I find "work in progress" posts on blogs to be extremely helpful in that respect. Often times, people will be very excited about a piece before it's even completed and offer to buy it for a reasonable sum because they've seen the process and know what has gone in to making the item.

    What are some other ways we can do it?

  10. Paul-
    I think I really wrote this as a companion to your piece on "Soul Motivation"!

    You're right, work in progress pieces are a great idea. People need to see what the process is to understand the value of it. I think that also adding how many hours it took to complete along with price and dimensions is pretty powerful. People can't help but break that down into an hourly wage.

    I also believe that people with blogs that have a strong readership almost have a responsibility to the community to showcase artists and products that they believe in. I know I'm much more likely to buy from an artist that's been reviewed on a blog I read. It's almost like a guarantee of quality.

    Other than starting our own "Rogue Guilds", I'm at a loss on how to bring back journeymen papers! (Man, I want to start a Rogue Guild so bad.)

  11. I love the Rogue Guild idea. www.therogueguild.com is available. I hear your future calling. Let me know how I can help!

  12. Rogue guilds... It sounds really good in my head. I guess what we could do Is put together a jury panel and have people summit work and buyer references to us, and then give it a seal of approval. And then by being a member of Rouge guilds, you have to agree to sell your work at a fair hourly wage, and maybe resubmit every year or so to keep your membership active. Maybe take a local class too or participate in a show or something. This deserves further thoughts. What about you? Any ideas?

  13. Yaaarrrrghh...so true. Just got an "offer" today to do a photo-realistic full color portrait of someone's grandfather and she was like "I can do $100 or a bit more". All I can think is how my training, expertise, time, materials, etc, are worth WAY more than that. I know I'm unemployed right now, but that doesn't mean I'm going to work very hard for a pittance. Quality comes with a price. If you want something done, and done well, with integrity, it's going to cost.
    ALSO: I love the idea of guilds. Seems to me today that a lot of guilds are little more than glorified crafting clubs ala quilter's circles. I think that this is fine, it helps motivate other members into doing their work, etc, but I think there is a seriously lack of power behind them. We need a hand-crafter's union, one that not only adheres to high standards of craftsmanship and artistry, but one that proactively educates the public about why hand-crafted is better, why it's worth what it is, and why it should be supported. Otherwise this hand-crafted movement won't last and those involved in it will continue to feel undersold.