Monday, March 19, 2007

Selling ourselves short

Knitting has often provided extra income to families with few other choices, we all know the stories of children having to knit a certain number of rows before dinner, of knitters walking to market and knitting stockings on the way, of shepherds knitting while watching their sheep.
Knitting provided an income to genteel Victorian women who had fallen upon hard times, and in pioneer New Zealand sometimes the women provided the only income, when the weather was bad and the crops failed. Woollen clothes were necessary in the damp, cold climate and a good knitter could earn enough to keep her family.
In the 60's and 70's when cheap clothes started flooding our markets, and knitting was no longer a vital part of the household economy, it passed from necessity to pastime, and the value diminished.Grandma knitted for babies and children because she had the time, over time became a caricature.
Now, the world is so fast, we are all always busy, but yearning for a simpler life, a connection with others, with the land, with the past. We try to lessen our impact on the planet, recycle, try to grow something - even if it just herbs on the kitchen window sill, or a hydroponic lettuce in a jar of water, if we can afford it we buy organic food, hybrid cars and environmentally sound homes. When we craft, it is for pleasure, to relax, to connect and socialise, we use the best quality materials available to us - to make the experience as rich as possible, we know that buying a Kim Hargreaves kit will cost us more than a ready made cardi from the High street, but by buying the kit we get the pleasure of making and then wearing a well designed garment, and maybe even adjusting it slightly to our own bodies. We expect to pay a decent price for Rowan, Artyarns, Colinette because we know that they are well made yarns which will pay a good dividend in return for the time we invest.
People sometimes ask my why I charge so much for my knits, and the answer is simple - because that's what they are worth. I use the best quality yarn I can find, sometimes I pay wholesale, sometimes the seller doesn't need to wholesale as their product is in high demand, so I pay full price, I also pay in NZ dollars which are worth about 70c US, so I have to use more of them. I use only the best quality notions, trims and fastenings that I can find, in order to ensure that the garment lasts to be passed down through numerous babies. My designs are original, I have to work out the patterns and scale them, I use time consuming detailing to try to differentiate my garments from mass-produced products. I work out the cost of production, and then add my time, but not my time as I used to charge for it when I was employed, but basically a third of that, I pay myself less than I would be willing to pay an employee, despite what that employee thought their time was worth. Enough people are willing to pay this price for the garments, I know they are not for everyone, and I am not complaining at all, I am enjoying my work immensely, and feel privileged.
The crux of this post lies here: yesterday Flash and I visited a favourite local cafe which has a couple of seperate little shops attached to it (the items I saw were not in the Packing shed itself) one of which sold rock art at highish prices ($125 for a smaller item)we went inside, and found a number of handknitted baby items - bonnets, lacy matinee jackets, all reasonably well made, and wrapped in clear plastic. What blew me away was the pricing, $8.00 for a lace bonnet and $17.00 for a matinee jacket. I swiftly calculated...even if the yarn was absolute bargain basement acrylic it would have cost at least $2.00, it looked like wool, so let's say $5.00, it was fine - 3 ply, so would have taken even the fastest knitter at least a full day to knit and sew up, even if we give this superhuman the benefit of the doubt and say they made it in 6 hours - that is still an hourly rate of $2.00 max an hour - assuming the shop doesn't take a cut - yeah...right. Does this person expect to make a living from her knitting - um no, I am going along with the stereotype here...but if someone asked me I would say - Nana, retired, enjoys knitting for pleasure, process knitter, sells them because she makes them instead of "makes to sell" probably uses stash yarn, so feels she has no production costs.
The only problem I have is that she has undervalued herself, and thereby adds to the continuing undervaluing of all of us who "make" for a living, her garments could have been doubled in price and still be reasonable, a mass-produced acrylic cardi from China often costs more than $17.00. I try to make it clear that the only sweatshop labourer in my business is me! I am not interested in outsourcing to China or India, despite the many emails I receive from manufacturers suggesting that I go that way. I am interested in a self-sustaining, people friendly, honest business, where everyone along the chain is valued.
My customers value my products enough to buy them, some even sending me photos of their beloved babies and Grand babies wearing their Just Jussi knits. I know it sounds "new-agey" but in this post-industrial society people crave the solid and the real, and we have to be prepared to not only pay for it - but to charge for it.
To push the point a little further - my friend built her own house, we all helped with concrete laying, or drywalling, painting - whatever we could do, but she worked her guts out, learnt how to build from scratch. The house cost her around $16 thousand dollars to build, and she lived in a housetruck for over a year, until her wee cottage was finished, she had paid $40 thousand for the land, and was desperate not to have a mortgage.If she wanted to sell that property today, should she ask less than someone who had paid someone else to build the house? is the house worth less because she built it in her "spare" time? No - the house is worth what the market says the house is worth, and worth more to the market because of the beautiful finishing touches, the stained glass windows, the hand carved fretwork, the mosaics and garden.
The other outcome that I have noticed from this tendency to undervalue our work is that others in the same business as me, pay knitters to handknit for them, the knitters once again receiveing far less than the minimum wage. I do not understand how a business owner can convince the bank to lend them money based on such a flawed model, it may be ok in the beginning to have your Great Uncle Bert, or Aunty Mary knitting for you, but eventually you are going to need more knitters, and you are going to have to pay them properly. If would be laughed at if I suggested to my GP that he should charge me less because he works out of his home office 1 day a week, or that my accountant should reduce his fees because he is over 65 and drawing supperannuation, everyone deserves to be paid what they are worth when they engage in the money economy.
So what do you think? If you make softies, handpaint yarn, embroider ipod cosies and sell them - do you ask what they are worth, or do you think they are somehow "lesser" for being handmade? Do you respect the workmanship in the crafts you see in shops or do you just say "oh I could do that!" Would you happily hand over $200 for a drawing, but baulk at $50.00 for handknitted socks? I am not writing this so much for me - I have found a little niche, I will keep working happily, but I feel it is so important, particularly for Mothers, who tend to undervalue themselves anyway- to realise that what you do is worth valuing.