It’s been a weird month in the fabric industry. For a variety of reasons, there’s been a lot of turnover in quilt shops, both brick-and-mortar and online. New shops are constantly popping up, particularly on sites like Etsy, while some of the cornerstones in the world of indie fabric are closing their doors. As will come as a surprise to no one, we have some opinions about this.
The fate of fabric shops is an issue that hits close to home. Rhonda opened Tabby Fabric & Studio as a brick-and-mortar quilt shop in Beaufort, South Carolina in early 2011. There was much early resistance to a “modern” fabric shop in the town, but Tabby eventually gained a devoted following of local modern quilters and became the “home base” for the Beaufort Modern Quilt Guild. But Rhonda continually felt that a lot of the younger quilters in town were forgoing her shop in favor of online retailers, and a quick visit to Etsy and big-box fabric stores who shall not be named here confirmed why: designer fabrics that she sells at the MSRP were being sold elsewhere for several dollars less per yard. This has become even more of a pain in the badonkadonk for Rhonda since Tabby has transitioned to selling fabric online.
What’s the Problem?
As anyone who runs an independent fabric store will tell you, it is not easy work. Managing inventory, cutting and ringing up fabric, coordinating and sometimes teaching classes, assembling kits, and managing finances results in long hours, little family time, and a lot of stress. The $11 retail price per yard for quilt cottons (the industry standard) results in far less revenue after deducting the wholesale price of the fabric. From this far-less amount, all other expenses incurred in operating a small business (rent, bills, wages, etc.) must be paid. This applies to both brick-and-mortar and online shops; while online stores don’t necessarily have the costs of retail space, they have other expenses such as e-commerce costs and website maintenance fees. Either way it’s not cheap, and it’s increasingly rare for these small businesses to turn a profit, let alone pay their owners any sort of living wage.
THEN, on top of that, enter the competition. Contrary to popular wisdom, local quilt shops don’t primarily compete against each other. They’re local, meaning more or less isolated to a certain market, and each shop has its own niche. The main rivals for a local quilt shop are the huge corporate online retailers and the hobbyist fabric sellers who undercut MSRPs online. These folks contribute to bad stuff in several ways: they force other legitimate sellers online and on Etsy to lower their prices in order to compete; they violate fabric manufacturer policies, thereby punishing shops that don’t; they present a direct threat to local fabric shops; and they help contribute to a culture of devaluation in the craft industry.
But What About the Free Market?
“But Lauren and Rhonda,” you say, “what about free market capitalism? Don’t people selling on Etsy have the right to sell their fabric at whatever cost they want?” Yes and no. Many fabric manufacturers (though not all) insist on no more than 10% deviation from their MSRP to provide a level playing field for all of their retailers. It’s a good policy, as this whole kerfluffle shows. The problem? It’s not enforced. We know a lot of folks in the industry, and have not yet found a single example of people losing their accounts with manufacturers because of lowballing prices. This ends up punishing people who are trying to make a living wage by doing the right thing. So boo.
But even if there aren’t policies in place for a specific manufacturer, and even if the seller has the right to name her own prices, it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. A lot of the online sellers who undercut MSRP are not operating a small business with the intent to support themselves and their families. It’s impossible; their prices are so close to wholesale that any profit margin is completely incompatible with running a serious business. Instead, it’s a hobby. Buy fabric at wholesale, sell it at a slightly higher price to watch the Paypal balance grow a bit. And that would be fine, if that were all it was. But actions have consequences, and I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that our hobbies generally shouldn’t hurt other people. As a lot of independent fabric shops can tell you, that’s what this practice is doing.
But I Like Cheap Fabric! Why Should I Care?
In its purest form, Etsy is a good thing. So is the quilt community. We’re a friendly bunch, and we like to support makers and doers (hence the raison d’etre for RST). But the same processes that have helped to grow quilting into an industry have hurt the industry itself. There is a troubling strain running through Etsy and elsewhere where handmade work is selling for far, far less than its actual value. The culture of Etsy promotes this; it’s not uncommon to see a meticulously pieced baby quilt run for $75 or so, which is barely the cost of materials. How can I, selling a paper-pieced lap quilt that I easily spent 40 hours making and value at a conservative $600, compete with that? (Answer: it’s been a while since I’ve updated my Etsy site.)
A lot of quilters have embraced Sam Hunter’s We Are $ew Worth It campaign, which beautifully articulates the idea that those who make things should be paid what they’re worth. She is right on. A quilt takes hours and hours to make, and the cost of fabric and batting and thread and sewing machine maintenance isn’t cheap (see Mollie Sparkles’ No Value Does Not Equal Free post). How can we, as quilters, claim in good conscience to support the notion that makers should be paid what they’re worth but not support the small businesses that supply them? How can we complain that our work is being devalued when we devalue our own materials and the work of others to sell them to us? If we want to encourage a fair value for quilts as product, we need to get behind every step of the process. We need to support the industry that makes makers possible.
There’s so much emphasis these days on shopping local, which is a wise choice economically and environmentally. It’s hard to “shop local” when fabric is concerned, because if your LQS doesn’t have what you need, they just don’t. You’ll probably have to order online. But to piggyback on this movement, we are taking a stand and encouraging buyers and sellers to shop ethically. If you are a shop owner, don’t devalue your hard work and your product; stick to the industry accepted range of MSRP. If you are a buyer, accept the price of designer fabric and shop from retailers who set fair prices. If you are a manufacturer, hold your retailers accountable.
We’re taking Sam’s “$ew Worth It” pledge — for supplies and for the products made from them. We will also stop promoting any websites on our deals posts that consistently sell fabric for lots less than MSRP (excluding sales).* Shop owners work hard (and we know it); let’s give these folks some love. Fabric is fun, but only if it’s fair.
Bitches & Stitches forever,
Lauren and Rhonda
*Do you have (or know of) a fabric shop that’s doing it right? Let us promote it on our weekly deals posts! Contact us for more info.