I spent the past weekend at the Sew Pro Convention, in Chicago. This was the first iteration of what will hopefully be an annual, or at least semi-annual event, organized largely by Brenda Ratliff of Pink Castle Fabrics and Sara Lawson of Sew Sweetness. Like anything that’s being tried for the first time, there were things that worked – and things that didn’t. Speakers who were lightning in a bottle – and speakers who needed more time in the bottle. It was a valuable experience, and I’ll review the whole thing in greater depth a little later.
Today, I’m going to address a question that came up with multiple attendees and instructors – each of whom had a different answer. We’ll sort out the two major schools of thought, and hopefully, help you figure out what’s best for you.
The question that arose, repeatedly and in a couple of variations was: Should you work for a company or another business for no recompense or solely for the “free fabric” offered? Usually, this involves creating a product for them to feature in some way or another. There are quite a few aspects of the quilt business that operate on this model.
School of Thought #1: Exposure is good!
This camp is of the opinion that creating an original design, leading a blog hop, or otherwise assisting in the marketing of a fabric line or other product helps you cross-promote. The company gets your work, yes. But, in return you get exposure for you work, links back to your website, and potentially an increase in your social media reach. It can help introduce people to your design work who might otherwise not see it, if you’re creating a pattern or tutorial. In some cases, people who use your pattern will decide that they like your design aesthetic and you means of communicating instructions effectively, and will turn into customers.
Likewise, leading a blog hop or a sew-along that promotes something that isn’t of your own making and getting paid only in good will and traffic. It’s a good way to increase your reach, and maybe build relationships with fellow bloggers.
School of Thought #2: You’re Worth It!
The opposing view is that quilt design, social media marketing, and blogging are skills. Those skills are worth something. And compensation should be offered, commensurate with the value of those skills. In this view, “exposure” is just another word for volunteering. And all that “volunteering” by well-meaning folks who think it’s a great deal to design a new pattern for free fabric correspondingly lower the pay scale for everybody else. This side of the argument tends to believe that it’s never (or almost never) OK to create something for nothing more than the materials (or part of them – batting and thread is often not included in that “free fabric” offer). It allows everybody to undervalue the skills of quilters and makers of all kinds.
So Who’s Right?
I’m not trying to be especially ingenuous when I say, “both. Or rather, the answer to the question of whether or not you should do something solely for “exposure” or a little bit of “free” fabrics is, “sometimes.”
When you’re just starting to build a web presence, that design that hits the blog of a major fabric company is a major traffic generator. Will all of the people who follow that link stay? No. But it is a good way to start building your audience. An audience that may later help sway a company into giving you a distribution contract. Or a fabric design contract. Or publish your book. Or otherwise advance your career. A social media platform is massively important because any of these things is a risk. The company that’s going to produce and sell what you create would like to know that you have a built-in audience already. This lessens their risk. So, if this is your intent – go for it. Just be sure that the details of your arrangement are such that easy to find links to your blog or other social media are going to be on the design when it goes public. If not – it’s all in vain.
It can also be a great way to introduce your design skills to the wider world. If you’ve got a few designs for sale, providing one on a larger platform for free (and being given the fabric to make it is sort of a bonus) so that people can see what your pattern-writing style is like can be a boon. Personally, I very seldom purchase a quilt pattern unless I’ve had a chance to check their style, first. A free tutorial on their website or a class at a local shop will often fit the bill.
On the other hand, if you’ve already got a couple thousand blog subscribers and a few thousand more Instagram followers, plus a list of design credits to your name, it may NOT be such a good idea. Why give away, for a few paltry yards of dry goods, what you could easily generate income with? In fact, even if you’re in between these two extremes, you probably have better options. Try for a magazine publication. Offer to create a design using a new fabric line for both the materials AND A FEE. If you have skillz – you can make this work.
You may also need to ponder things carefully if you’re beginning to get all kinds of these sorts of offers (and you might!). There aren’t enough hours in the day to say “yes” to everything. So examine the offer carefully. Ask yourself some questions:
- How much time am I going to have to devote to this to get it done by the deadline?
- What other projects will I have to put off, in order to finish this one?
- Do those other projects have a potential income stream attached to them?
- What, in the long term, is this new project going to gain me?
- Do I truly enjoy what I’m being asked to do, or is it far enough outside my wheelhouse to feel like drudgery?
I’m sure there are more things to ponder, but those are the top things to think about. While cross-promotion is valuable, putting off your own paying gig to make somebody else’s sales go up is probably not a wise decision.
Of course, all of this above assumes that you harbor ambitions of turning your quilting into a business. And that isn’t true for everybody. The “don’t work for free” camp needs to recognize that there is a segment of the design population that does it for the pure joy of it, with no real interest in putting in the effort that building a business requires. They’re happy and content with “Free fabric!!” And they’ll always be there. So, the drive to stamp out all “freebie”-based interactions between quilters and quilt companies is, quite simply, doomed to failure. In fact, one of the reasons that makers and designers sometimes feel that it’s difficult to earn an appropriate wage is that there are always cottage crafters who are going to undersell themselves. When you’re working in a field whose skill set can easily be self-taught, that will always be true.
Take home message: Whenever you find yourself being offered freebies in exchange for your talents, you can take a few minutes to be flattered. Then evaluate the cost to benefit ratio. Don’t be afraid to say “no”, if there isn’t enough there to be worth the effort required. Don’t be afraid to say “yes,” if there is!