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When Handmade is a Really Bad Idea


A few days ago I finished a project for my mom, a set of 40 handmade name tags for the group of high school friends she has a yearly luncheon with. I guess the ladies don’t all remember each other and thus, the need for the name tags.

She asked me over the summer to make something individual and special for the tags, but had no other creative direction to offer. I asked if she had a budget and she said no.

After mulling over a few options, I came up with the idea of wrapping board with fabric in her traditional school color (a robin’s egg blue), printing each name on ivory paper, then applying a strip of lace with gold ribbon woven through (gold is also one of the school colors). Then I’d apply a pin back, and cover the back in felt to seal in all the loose edges and call it a day.

And that’s pretty much what I did, 40 times over. Plus many, many trips to the store for more lace, more ribbon, more industrial tape, etc.

(Of course I never ran out of more than one thing at once, and I couldn’t project that I’d need more of something else, thus the many many trips. Poor planning on my part, yes.)

The cost of all the supplies was $80.  Now I did have some tape left over, and some fabric left over, but I used up everything else I bought. So if we subtract my leftover supplies, maybe the cost was closer to $70 (but that doesn’t factor in the cost of the gas for all those shopping trips around town, so maybe $80 is accurate after all).

And let’s not forget that doesn’t count the cost of any of my time.  I probably spent a full 12 hours on the project between the planning and the shopping and the making. Minimum wage here is $7.25 so that’s $87 for labor.

Then again, do I deserve more than minimum wage? Umm, I’d like to think so.

My mom didn’t pay me for my time (and nor did I expect her to) but if we look at the true (though undervalued) cost of those name tags, it comes to $167 for 40 of them.  Per unit, they come to $4.17 which is a steal, I think, for something custom and made by hand with quality materials. But as a whole, $167 for name tags?  That sounds pretty high to me.

As much as I’m a fan of handmade, I’m thinking something simply printed on a nice floral paper and stuck in a badge holder might not be such a bad idea???

(Look at me, arguing against making something, this is pretty weird. But when you lay out the facts, so is paying $167+ for name tags…)

On the flip side of the coin is a quilt I came across this morning in the Garnet Hill catalog. They have beautiful things for sale. Pricey beautiful things, but some things are reasonable if you can find them on sale (I’ve purchased a few items from them, all on clearance).

They have this very pretty quilt on page 109 of their current catalog:


Garnet Hill quilt


The item description says it’s handcrafted (which could mean anything really) but the “Behind the Design” feature says that the piece is hand quilted. Given that this catalog sells mid-to-high-end home goods, how much would you expect this king size hand stitched quilt to cost?

$500?  $1,000?  $1,500?  $2,000?

Frankly all of those prices are too low for that kind of quilt.

Look at the quilting detail (I know it’s hard to see so you’ll have to trust me, I scrutinized it on their website while really zooming in):


Garnet Hill Sham


Each circle has been hand sewn to the black background, all around the edge of the colored fabric. Then it’s been hand quilted along the inner edge of the fabric circle, and a plus sign has been quilted in the middle of the circle (to hold the center of the fabric dot down). Finally, there’s a ring of hand quilting that goes around each dot, on the black background fabric.

So for each of the dots, that’s three full circles plus a stitched cross in the middle.

How long do you think all this stitching would take?

Now I’m not a very fast hand stitcher, and I know some people are. So let’s go with an average of 15 minutes to finish the quilting that goes with one fabric dot (though if I did it, it would be at least 30 minutes, if not more).

So looking at the pillow sham, it has 20 circles on it. At 15 minutes per circle, that would take about 5 hours to quilt.

I’m not sure how many of those colored circles are on a king size quilt, but my best guess is 200, based on 20 circles being on the sham.

So if the sham took 5 hours to quilt, the king size bed cover took at least 50 hours (or 50 person-hours) to quilt. I say at least because the bigger a piece is, the harder it is to move, position, and manipulate a needle through. But for argument’s sake, let’s say it really took 50 hours to hand quilt.

When considering the price, we also have to factor in the time to assemble the quilt prior to quilting, as well as the cost of fabric. And of course there’s Garnet Hill’s mark-up, which is probably equal to the wholesale price (so they sell it for twice as much as they pay for it).

Any idea what Garnet Hill is selling this beautiful king size quilt for?

Any idea? Any????

It sells for $298 (and that’s full-price, before you use the 20% off discount code they offer).

So let’s look at those numbers again.

Garnet Hill probably paid the quilt manufacturer about $150 for the quilt.

I’d be hard-pressed to believe that they could get the fabric for $50 (here in the US that amount of fabric would  be at least $150 itself by very conservative estimates for cheap, low-quality goods , not even the good stuff, but let’s say they have a rock-bottom priced supplier).

That leaves $100 for the production of the quilt. And you know it doesn’t all go to the sewists because some of it had to go to shipping and facilities and electricity and import fees and management. So now maybe there’s $75 left for the people who sewed this quilt.

The people who sewed this quilt. The people who put more than 50 hours of labor into it, sewing by hand, and earning about $1.50 per hour. Maybe. If they’re lucky. It’s probably less. Much less.

So that beautiful quilt, the one in the Garnet Hill catalog on page 109, the one that looks like a great deal because it’s king size and hand quilted and visually stunning?

Maybe it’s not such a great deal for the people who made it.

And maybe we shouldn’t choose handmade if it exploits the makers.

Looks like handmade isn’t really the best choice all the time after all.

When You Stink at Drawing and Design

Silent Sunday