“Why are these hats so expensive?!”
With the holiday craft show season underway, I am compelled to finish and publish this draft post that has been percolating for a while. I know most of you who will read it are probably on the same page as me and not the ones asking the question above. One of the joys of my work is having conversations with interested, appreciative folks at shows and explaining how I make these hats (and now headbands and scarves!). Often the people who really look closely and delve deep into the best questions and thoughts are either artists themselves, or a kindred spirit in farming, foraging, gardening or nature study. It is so wonderful to connect. Three or four of these mutually adoring conversations over the course of a weekend sustain my soul. And when they lead to a sale, the support is material as well. The gaps in between such bliss are usually peppered with people walking past my booth, picking up the price tag on the hat closest to the aisle and reacting in shock and horror to what they see. Sometimes the tag is dropped as if it has administered an actual electric shock; sometimes it is carefully tucked back into the hat while the shopper relays in a stage whisper to her companion, “can you believe these hats are $265!?” Often people come into the booth saying how cute the hats are, try on several, then notice the price tag and quickly apologize and leave. My work is priced in the low end of the range of what’s available at fine craft shows. Yet, the top question I get asked is some variation on “Why are these hats so expensive?!” I am lucky when I actually get the question, because it is an opportunity to engage and explain, not just be the trigger of someone’s offense or embarrassment.
In my creative work and life I fiercely model a set of values that are not typically rewarded economically: namely the sustainability of land, life and spirit. The existence I nurture on my small homestead and surrounding forested hills vibrates with a wealth of nature, community and breathing space where creative ideas can take shape. I am absolutely privileged and grateful that I can even consider this lifestyle. The land, values and creative tendencies are where I was raised and they are my home. I know these values are shared in most human hearts, even if lives don’t look like the one I am crafting. Usually one of the wonderful show conversations begins when my hats seem to sing to someone meandering down the aisle, and they pause a minute to let an impulse turn into a phrase like “these just popped out of the earth!” Or a sparkly person walks into my booth and lays their hands on a hat for a while and shares the best eye contact. One of my deepest wishes is to create work that speaks to more people and reminds folks from all walks of life that we share a warm connection with the earth. I would like that even a glimmer of shared values be the thing that opens others’ minds to consider supporting my endeavors.
We know by now that, usually, what makes something cheap is also what makes it soulless and toxic. Here, there are no polluting chemicals, poor working conditions, mistreated animals, depleted crop land, stripped forests, marketing bullshit or any other dynamic of exploitation to infuse trauma into my work. The only materials that are not carefully sourced from my local environment are about a half pound of alum each year that I use as a mordant, a pint of petroleum-based knitting oil, a small quantity of imported wild silk to blend with alpaca for scarves, and the tiny embroidered labels that I hand sew onto the finished pieces. I support skilled local farmers and a fiber mill, all of whom ask and receive fair livable wages. I am deeply committed to practicing ethical foraging and regenerative land use. The patterns I dye and knit are expressions of landscapes, not without pain, but teeming with life and light.
The question for consumers is always What kind of world do you want to support?
The pricing games
With an intention to be completely transparent, I want to share some numbers, along with a few possible ways of pricing an artifact that simultaneously exists in the multiple realms of commodity and art. Pricing is difficult for me, because I’m the first to admit that I have a strong aversion to money, the capitalist way, and the motive of reducing everything in the world to quantity, transaction and profit. But living in this world of show fees, mortgages and insurance, etc.. can’t be escaped. Rest assured, dear buyer, that I am not trying to support a lavish lifestyle by selling $265 hats! Even in a life lived very simply, I have not found a way to escape bills altogether.
I have come at the pricing problem from several angles, to make sure I am fully understanding it. Top down, bottom up, and market based. No matter the method, I have yet to find any wiggle room for wholesale pricing, where 50% goes to the retailer. The standard pricing methodology of figuring out the cost of materials, labor and overhead, and then doubling that for a retail price, rarely works with “slow” work.
The numbers, bottom up
The hat as the sum of its parts.
Cost of yarn: $20
(Includes raw fiber and processing for 2oz of yarn)
Cost of dyes : $0
(As gifts from nature, I gift them to you at no cost)
(To offset annual business expenses of ~$8,000 which include studio utilities, fees to show promoters, photography and printing, web services, travel, etc.)
Labor 6-7 hours @$25/hr: $165
(This includes time spent gathering and growing dyes, extracting, prepping the yarn, dyeing, washing, knitting and finishing)
As all small business owners know, there are so many other activities I do that I don’t get paid for: driving to farms to source my fiber, meeting with my miller, design and prototyping, time spent traveling and representing myself at shows, etc. So even with setting an hourly rate of $25, what I really make is more like $10. I don’t take vacations, but in the summer, I do have the flexibility to spend a whole day in the woods when they are calling to me.
The numbers, top down
Reverse engineering to support my basic financial needs.
My annual household expenses are around $18,000, including my mortgage, homeowners insurance, firewood, tax on my .81 acre property and 900 sq. ft. house, whatever food I don’t grow in my garden, gas and vehicle maintenance, dog food and care, electricity and other simple necessities. For my county in Vermont, a “livable” annual salary for a single person is considered to be $24,450.
Working at a pace that sustains my creative metabolism (ie, keeps the ideas flowing without throwing me into stress induced dis-ease, or creative block) I can make around 120 hats a year, 100 of which I might be lucky enough to sell (by no means a guarantee, but I got close to it in 2018). I augment my income from hats with teaching some workshops and working about 3 hours a week as assistant treasurer for my town @$11.25/hr.
So if I rely on hats for most of my needs, I need to be able to make at least $16,000 a year from them. Divide $16,000 by 100 and you get $160/per hat I need to profit, just to survive. And you see that comes out pretty close to what the $25/hr “wage” gives me in the bottom-up calculations.
Lastly, I look at the market and what people’s tolerance for price is. How does $250 compare to other hats? How does it compare to other fiber art? To accessories? And, to art?
Clearly, if you just need a knit hat and do not care what it looks like, how it was made, or what the human and environmental costs of making it were, you can find one at Walmart for $5. You can also get a basic looking Bogner ski hat (still mass-produced) for $220 or a simple black cashmere beanie for $390. And you can find a handknit textured cashmere hat on Etsy for $675. (If you love cashmere, it’s worthwhile learning about the current global demand’s impact on the often-exploited shepherds, goats, and the degradation of arid, high elevation environments where the bulk of it is produced.) So there ARE hats available in the price range. But, I get it that $265 sounds like a lot if you are used to the basic mass-produced beanie being in the $30-$50 range. And, despite the similarity in form, I’ll suggest that is also not the best comparison to make.
Just to wrap up the fashion comparisons, other accessories that commonly exist in the $250 range include sunglasses, millinery hats, handbags and jewelry.
I often share a gallery space with two friends of mine who are fine artists. Ailyn Hoey’s landscapes are exquisitely drawn worlds which have always been an inspiration to me. We talk about pricing often and compare our processes and calculations. Her smallest size landscapes, 5” x 5”, in a frame, cost around $250. That cost comparison is the one that makes the most sense to me. Fine art carries more cachet than functional art/craft and purchasing (of non-famous works) is compelled by love more than practicality.
So by all angles explored, the price of $265 seems to make sense for an artful, ethical, eminently wearable hat.
Mutuality and accessibility
I am so deeply grateful to everyone who has picked out a hat they love and supported my creative endeavors and finances. When I am able, I also buy or trade for handmade items, born of the same values, that will grace my world. I am empathetic to those who share values and appreciate, but simply can’t afford, my work. In that spirit, I continue to explore ways to make the hats accessible to more people of lesser financial means. I hope to implement an off-season, tiered pricing system, where you can decide how much to pay for my time and expertise, perhaps mirroring what you yourself make per hour. This idea is based on gift economy models outlined in Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economics. I’m also working on a list of things I’ll barter for. In the meantime please don’t hesitate to suggest a trade or other creative payment schemes.
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