Saturday, April 8, 2017

Labour Intensive

Why do I weave, anyway?

Such a hard question to answer.  All I know is that it called to me, over and over again, until I could no longer ignore the siren call of the yarns, the equipment.

Frankly I could have made a whole lot more money in a more 'traditional' job, one where I got up every day, showed up at work, did what needed doing, collected my paycheque, made pension contributions, had paid holiday time where I actually had a holiday instead of a working 'holiday'.

But that type of job was...stifling.

When I sat down at a floor loom for the first time, it was as though a heavenly choir sang "You're home, You're home!"  It felt butt perched on the bench, feet on treadles, shuttle in hand.

Has it been easy being a hand weaver in the 20th and 21st centuries?  Nope.  Jobs that are labour intensive, especially those done by women (and it so pains me to type that), are generally not much valued.  It has been a constant struggle to justify my prices.  The question most often asked at a craft fair is - you guessed it - 'how long did it take to make X'.  

Thing is, economies of scale mean that I don't sit down and make one of anything from start to finish; rather I work in groups.  So a warp of place mats (shown above) is 10.5 meters long.  From that warp I get one table runner and 12 place mats.  It takes me, say, an hour (probably less, but let's go with that for simplicity sake) to wind the warp.  It takes about 5-10 minutes to rough sley, 10 minutes or so to beam.  Threading might take 30-35 minutes, sleying another 5 minutes, about a minute and a half to tie on and throw the first six picks to spread the warp.

Generally when I'm weaving I do about 30-45 minutes at a time and can weave about 1/4 of the warp in that time (it's fast - there's a reason for that - two in fact).  

If pushed, I could weave off the entire warp in one day.  Since turning 65, plus surgery, I don't usually push that hard much anymore.

So let's say - oh, two days to make a dozen mats and a table runner.  I could crunch the numbers down further to get a more accurate minutes/mat but let's just say two studio days.

The mats sell for (2017 price) $13 each.  The table runner is $26.  That's $182 for two days work.  But wait!  Out of that $182 I have to pay for the materials, the electricity for the studio, the rent for Puff, (the industrial press), and all the other expenses of running a business.  

Even at $91 gross a day, that's pretty low wages, and more realistically, it is much, much less than that.  And of course, there is still the finishing to do...

So...why do I do it?

I do it because I am self-employed.  I get to choose whether or not I work that day (you can tell that I choose to work most days!  I explained to a 19 year old on Thursday that when you are self-employed every day is a potential work day.  Because if you don't work, you don't get anything done, and you don't have any income.)

I wanted something where I got to choose what I did.  To walk to the beat of my own drum.  I wanted a roof over my head and food on the table, but I didn't desire diamonds or gold plated toilets.  I wanted a life that fulfilled me creatively.  I wasn't looking for public acclaim.  The only 'recognition' I wanted was the buying public to pay me the price I asked for the textiles I made.

I am now in the last 'half' of my 6th decade.  I have lived a life that was part hard physical labour, part mental exploration, then follow up in reality to see if I'd got it right.  I have taught and learned from many.  I have - even if I say it myself - left a bit of myself behind in my writings, here and elsewhere.

While I still have things on my bucket list I really want to accomplish, I look back on the last 40+ years with a certain satisfaction.  And, while there are things I would change, I would not change the decision I made lo, these many years ago, to become a weaver.


Judy said...

What an inspiring and well said post!

Brenda said...

Well said.

I love the "How long did it take you?" questions, and try to avoid or duck them because those who ask generally won't believe the answer. Those who know don't ask in the first place!

Peg Cherre said...

Yeah, the only question I like less in my booth is, "Will you take less?" It makes me cringe every time, and the things I want to say (such as, "What do you do for a living? Oh, you're an attorney? Will you give me a deep discount for your services?") are inappropriate if I want to sell to the public directly.

As to the 'how long did it take' question, I usually choose to launch into a long answer beginning with the planning, then measuring each thread to be the same length, then threading....and on and on. It gives people the idea that it's not at all quick. I also like to give them this statistic...for one of my average scarves I have to open a shed, throw the shuttle, beat, and change sheds at least 1,300 times. That tends to shake them up, too.

Stephanie S said...

Your apt and thoughtful post made me realize that yes, 15 years ago I was much faster. I'm 65 also and have health issues. But lately I have been thinking about ways I can raise my prices by creating work that is perceived to have more value. Easier said than done. I had some good results last summer selling ponchos. There is a new-to-me style of yarn I just finished weaving scarves & cowls with and other colors waiting in boxes. I have started making garments again, but simple styles with, I hope, more punch. Last year I started making table runners and had some mild success with them.
So far I am pricing things based on the time it used to take - 15 years ago. But I hope with the new products I can price things reflecting more design time and more costly materials.
I am trying to appeal to a younger customer. It is as usual a work in progress.

BarbieCat said...

Your post reminds me of what a garment making instructor once told our college class when discussing pricing. She pointed out that women in particular tend to undervalue their own work when figuring out how much to charge. She gave us illustrations, much like the factors you mention, such as accounting for electrical use, tools and equipment, roof over workroom, materials and the time and effort of actually making. She suggested that we give ourselves at least a modest but living wage when we figured out how much to charge for services or products. Obviously, many expenses can be pro-rated over time, such as our looms, shuttles, etc. We don't buy new ones for every project. But she did urge us to figure in replacement or up-grade cost.

Applying this philosophy to pricing table linens, as one example, means not selling handwoven runners for $25, or napkins for $10 as I saw at a recent upscale craft show. Yes, the weaver was selling, but at what had to be a loss! If items are sold as loss leaders, as I believe this weaver was doing, that just devalues the other hand wovens being offered in the eyes of buyers. Realistically, buyers are reluctant to spend more than they percieve is fair market value. If you sell below your actual cost, you drive down prices and income.

I also believe the weaver, sewer and fiber artist can add value to their products in order to make them especially appealing and not easily replicable. This means being aware of trends, popular colors, customer demographics, pricing, fashion and originality. We must use quality materials and market this appropriately. If we don't do this, it may not be possible to support ourselves with our "making" and we'll have to be satisfied with the personal satisfactions of weaving and crafting.