Why is handmade so expensive?

This is always the big question. I mean, why are handmade quilts or sweaters or whatever more expensive when handmade as opposed to available at the mall? This needs to be examined from two different angles: the price, and the expectation.

First let’s look at the expectation. People wishing to buy something have certain expectations of that item. They are thinking of quality, uniqueness (or not), materials, appearance, tactile qualities, and of course, price. We all have a general idea of “what a dollar will buy” when it comes to most consumer goods. This is how we recognize what we feel is “a good buy” or “not worth that price.”

Where do these expectations come from? They come from experience, largely. If you’ve been buying something over several years you have seen a general range of prices and quality. You learn what to expect. You know you can get a T-shirt from Walmart for $6.00 and from a designer boutique for $40.00. But here’s where we find the problem: almost all of that experience is formed by exposure to mass-produced goods. We’ve been conditioned to undervalue things.

Because most of the general public isn’t exposed to the intimate processes of making things, whether individually by hand or by mass production, that part of the equation is a blank. They’re looking at the finished product and comparing only what they can see superficially, and the price tag. Is it any wonder that handmade goods come with sticker-shock?

Now let’s look at the price. Regardless of the genre, there are some general principles that factor into the pricing. All of these take time and money. And time is money.

  1. Planning and design. Everything starts with an idea and is developed into a formal design. This happens once for each one-of-a-kind handmade quilt. However, this happens once for each run of 45,000 quilts from a home store. This goes for clothing, jewelry, furniture, art… By the way, we’re talking hours and hours here, because this can include research and making a prototype.
  2. Materials. Obviously the cheaper the materials the cheaper the price can be. This is why those flip-flops from the dollar store fall apart in mid-June. In general items made one-by-one are of high quality materials. For one reason, no artist wants to be handling and putting hours of work into shoddy materials. For another, each item he or she makes is inextricably associated with him or herself. There’s a reputation to uphold! A faceless brand is just putting massive quantities of cookie-cutter items out there for pennies, knowing that when they fall apart (they will) people will just buy more. We have a disposable culture.
  3. Manufacture. Everyone has seen video clips of assembly lines. Robots feature prominently, and in other countries (most clothing in the US is made overseas) workers are working for literal pennies. The goal is to make as many items possible in the shortest time, while upholding some minimal standard of quality. In addition, the machinery they’re using is industrial strength and highly specialized, something a huge corporation can afford in start-up costs. Handmade things are literally made by hand. Sure, some equipment such as sewing machines, drill presses, soldering irons, etc., are used, but not on the same scale. (And the maker is purchasing these things on their own.) Many quilts are hand, not machine quilted. Knits are made by hand, not machine. Completed wooden products are sanded by hand. All of this takes time, skill, and a broad range of experience, but primarily time. Consider how long it takes a worker in a sweatshop to feed a quilt sandwich into a computerized machine that will quilt it in 5 minutes, vs. how long it takes to hand-quilt one: 30-60+ hours. And that’s not even taking into account the number of hours it takes to cut and piece the top.
  4. Photographing. Yes, this is part of it too. Large companies hire advertising and styling teams to photograph their products. And this task is assisted heavily by computers. This is why you can click multiple times to see the shirt on the model turn blue, pink, yellow, white… while the model is frozen in place. Every handmade item is photographed individually, and the photos edited, usually by the same person who made the item. Handmakers wear many hats! [I made my own lightbox to photograph miniatures.]
  5. Advertising and overhead. I don’t care if you sell 12 diaper covers a year out of your Etsy shop or have a Fortune 500 company making a million cars, you have to pay for advertising and overhead. That includes advertising and website fees, printing business cards, running electrical equipment, etc.
  6. Profit. Yes, purveyors of crocheted crib blankets are as entitled to make a profit as a line supervisor at Ford. Some handmakers are purely hobbyists, and some are paying the bills with the income, but it doesn’t make a difference. It’s the same work.
  • Most handmakers don’t have a good idea of how to price their work. There is a huge range of prices because there is a huge number of variables. A simple 12-square crib quilt, tied, not quilted, is not comparable to a full-size, hand-quilted and pieced quilt, (some of the fabric having been hand-printed by the maker) intricately hand-quilted. With most things bring one-of-a-kind, it can be difficult to find comparable items to assist you in pricing something. Another factor of the price range is the hobbyist vs. professional. Some people are happy to simply recoup the price of materials and completely discount the number of hours work, while others are charging a fair price for their labor. Naturally this makes things difficult for the people charging a fair price. Most people undercharge for their work because their time and skills are not valued by the general public. They price things for what people expect to spend and this creates a vicious cycle. I’m guilty of this myself. I routinely charge less than half of the true value of an item, because I think no one will buy it otherwise.
  • There exist several formulas to assist handmakers in pricing their work. Here is one (seen in several places):
  • [(time x $per hour) + 2(cost of materials)] x 1.1 = wholesale price

    wholesale price x 2 = retail price

    I have sold hand-knitted miniatures for $20 that should have been priced at $60+. It’s reality, but it kills me.

    I hope this helps a bit with understanding the pricing of handmade goods. As to why you would want handmade goods over mass-produced goods, that’s a topic for another time. If you’re impatient, you can read more about that here, here, or here. I’ll just leave you with one thought about that: If you deplore the disposable culture we now live in, the best way to change that in your own home is to save up to buy quality items designed and made to last. Your daughter doesn’t need a 30-piece wardrobe of cheap polyester clothes for her plastic doll (retail: 39.95)…every Christmas. She deserves a handmade doll of natural materials (retail: $120) dressed in a hand-sewn cotton dress and hand-knit wool sweater, once, with additional clothing made or purchased on subsequent special occasions. This is something to cherish and pass down to the next generation, not to flood thrift stores and landfills.

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