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If I Sell My Crafts, Am I Selling My Soul?

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I’m flattered when friends say I should sell my hand-knitted baby hats and sweaters. It’s the highest compliment I can receive. But selling something I’ve spent hours making—out of sticks and string—is a loaded proposition that puts my inner artist at odds with my practical, bill-paying self.

How much should I charge? A baby sweater takes more than twelve hours to make. If I charge fifty dollars, I’m paying myself an hourly rate about equal to what I made at my first job scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, more than twenty years ago.

And consider: if I knit something as a gift, the recipient will love it just because I made it. But if I sell something I make, I worry that the buyer will inspect my creation for flaws, and find plenty. My hang-ups run even deeper than that. Knitting is my passion, and becoming a knitter-for-hire feels as if I’m corrupting an otherwise untarnished endeavor.

I’ve also had experiences selling my handiwork that didn’t work out so well.

Knitting is my first love, but I’m bi-craftual. I’m also a calligrapher, a practitioner of an ancient craft clinging to the edge of extinction, and curiously refusing to surrender. I studied calligraphy with a teacher whose love of exquisitely drawn letters made me view the alphabet as art. When I look at calligraphy, I don’t just see letters. I also see the spaces between them, and the elegance of language made visible on paper.

At one point in my life, I made the decision to sell my services as a calligrapher. Sure, my skills were shaky, but I thought my italic letters were good enough for an untrained eye.

For professional calligraphers, wedding invitations are THE primary source of income, supplemented with occasional baby announcements, proclamations, and restaurant menus. I designed business cards for myself, calling my micro-enterprise, “Classic Calligraphy.” I wrote up bids for weddings, low-balling my prices to make sure I got jobs.

My friend Kathleen called. She was pregnant and wanted me to create a calligraphic rendition of philosopher Khalil Gibran’s famous work beginning, “Your children are not your children…” The passage was to be a Christmas present for Kathleen’s husband. “Sure,” I said, “No problem!”

Anxiety about how much I should charge welled up in me, but I pushed it back down, reminding myself that this was business.

Like any professional, I procrastinated until the project deadline was upon me. I set aside one evening to knock it out. Problem was, I had never tackled such a long passage. I couldn’t get the centering correct. Flustered, I started making careless mistakes, including misspelling Gibran’s name. I had to start over. When I stepped back to look at the piece, I gasped. My letters were not elegant. Everything was crammed together. I started to panic.

Then my pen started leaking. Black ink dripped onto my pajamas, bled into my fingernails, and ran down my hand. By the time my husband Jason found me sobbing, I had ink smeared on my cheeks.

Ever practical (and manly), he asked me what I needed to get the project done. I shouted a bunch of expletives at him, closing with “…PEN THAT DOESN’T LEAK!”

“Hold on,” he said.

From somewhere, he retrieved some bags—my Christmas presents. He had bought me a set of calligraphy pens.Then he typed the passage on his computer and, after fiddling with the point size and font, printed out a facsimile. He told me to put the printed version under my paper and use it as a guide to get the spacing right.

It worked! It was cheating—sort of—but I didn’t care.

I brought the passage to Kathleen the next day with an invoice for forty dollars, a sum I’d chosen at random. She smiled and wrote me a check. I couldn’t get a read on whether she liked what I had done. It didn’t matter.

A few weeks later, the mother of a bride-to-be e-mailed, looking for a calligrapher. I told her I was retired and suggested she contact my teacher—Carol Gray.

Carol is an example of someone who has turned a craft—I hate the word “hobby”—into a working business. She is a goddess of wedding invitations; she also tackles more ambitious, gallery-quality projects. She is a teacher and a student, traveling to other states to study under master calligraphers. “When I sit down to letter envelopes, I go into the zone,” she says. But the work never gets monotonous. A recent bride wanted purple ink on yellow paper. A Quaker couple periodically hires Carol to create framed keepsakes of their wedding vows, which they display in their home.

No one gets rich from calligraphy. Carol has considered becoming a dog walker during times when her workflow started drying up. But it has never stopped completely. Although some brides today use computers for their invitations, in the South, enough traditionalists remain to keep Carol’s business going.

Most importantly, Carol never gets so caught up in addressing envelopes that she doesn’t have time to indulge her creative spirit. She recently learned a style of lettering so obscure no client would ever request it. “This is just for me,” she said.

If I were ever to reattempt using my passions in service of my pocketbook, Carol would be my mentor. But for now I just want to work on mastery. I have so much to learn about knitting and calligraphy. I don’t want to take anyone’s money until I reach a level of artistry where I don’t feel I have to low-ball my prices to sell my creations.

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