Thursday, November 1, 2012

costing our knits

So, this happens a lot: someone sees you knitting and pays what she thinks is the ultimate compliment:You could SELL those!”

I've had this happen more times than I can mention. And what fun it is to not leave it at that, to find out what they're really saying / thinking / asking . . . .

With further conversation over the, let's say, socks, I'll ask "How nice! And what do you think I could sell them for?"

Rarely is the answer more than $10!!! So then I launch upon my public education campaign, in which I tell them a] the cost of the yarn (usually $20 or more) and b] the hours a pair of socks takes (no fewer than 16). They blanche . . . and of course wonder why anyone would knit socks when she could just go buy a pair!!!???

So what's the fair market price for something hand knit?

Here's the first way to figure this:
  • materials + labour (at $10/hr) = XX dollars.

But how many hours does it take to make something? We may not know, so we could cost our knits the way the market does:
  • cost of materials X 7 = XX dollars.

That’s right! In the commercial world, no more than 1/7 of the final price can be paid out in materials.

So what does that make our hand-knit sweaters worth? And is it any wonder the sweaters we find in stores—no matter how wonderful they look—are inferior products. The knitting is sloppy, the tails aren't well secured, the seams are not well-done, and the yarns feel really yucky (tired cottons, wool with some harsh coating on it,  some multi-fibre material with an all-round coarseness to which we would never give consideration in a yarn shop).

But if these equations don't work for you, here’s some advice—given by Larry Smith, one of Canada's top economists and a lovely man who has great fondness for knitting and knitters.

  • Never sell yourself too cheaply.

Sometimes we offer to do so because we feel honoured by the request. But I have learned that before we set that first price, we should ask ourselves “How am I going to feel getting paid only this amount when I make the third, fourth, seventeenth one?”

Larry also said it would be better to give something away to a charity fundraiser than to sell it too cheaply. This is a way to honour our craft, and do something wonderful for our community, without setting a price.

My favourite story is from my hero--Kathryn Alexander. Kathryn used to sell pairs of entrelac socks for $200. People would frame them. She then thought “If they’re going to frame them, I should charge more.” The price went up to $300. But then she thought “If they’re going to frame them, they don’t need two.” So she made only one, and charged $400!

Figuring cost + labour, or using the market’s standard, or taking Larry's advice, or thinking like Kathryn all make sense to me as a way to override the terrible assumptions out there:
  • that knitting is cheaper than buying,
  • that money is the only currency,
  • that we should be honoured when someone offers to buy something at some ridiculous price,
  • that if we're knitting we clearly have nothing more worthy to do with our time.

You may never offer to sell your work, but you could have this conversation the next time someone pays you that ultimate compliment! 


  1. In general, I only knit for friends and family. But once, I was asked by a friend of a friend to knit gloves for her young daughter, whose hands would not fit into regular gloves. After some thought, I asked the mom to pay for yarn and for customization of a pattern (the designer of some gloves I'd made in the past was willing to help for the cost of buying a pattern), and gave my knitting as a gift. I encouraged the mother to learn to knit the gloves herself for next time.

    I couldn't imagine charging what the gloves were REALLY worth. So I didn't charge. I think your rule of not knitting the first pair for a price you wouldn't knit the 17th for is a good idea.

  2. Great story. Reminds me of the parable "teach a man to fish . . . "

  3. On the rare occasion when I've agreed to knit something 'commissioned' I've asked the recipient to (a) pay for the yarn, and (b) to make a donation to MSF or another charity in an amount they feel is suitable. I let them know roughly how many hours of work I put into a project, and explain the difficulty of pricing handknit work, then tell them that I don't want to know how much they donate -- I just want them to take the skill and labour into account when they decide how much to donate. That way, the recipient gets the knitted item they want, I get at least my material costs covered, and my work generates some money for charity -- plus the recipient gains some awareness of the value of this kind of skilled handiwork.

  4. That's fabulous--kind of the best of two systems! Good on you! I think I'll adopt that one!

  5. Very interesting post. Last week I was in hospital for a small op on my mouth. As I was being wheeled through the hospital corridors to the theatre the nurse asked me what I would be doing if I was home. I said knitting and went on to say I was a knitting designer. She then mentioned a local clothing company who does amazing knitwear in gorgeous yarns (not handknit) at quite expensive prices (but totally worth it considering the quality of their clothes). She implied that it must be cheaper to be able to knit my own. I quickly put her right and told her the local clothing company's clothes were cheap compared to knitting them yourself. I think she was quite surprised.

  6. Interesting that that happened so recently. But the reality for knitters seems to be that if our knitting is visible, this conversation happens--in some form or another--pretty much every time. How wonderful that you were able to educate her!

  7. Customers ask me many times if I would sell them "this pair of felted slippers, you can make another pair?" I start with the following statement. Let's see now, the yarn + pattern = $28.00 plus @$10.00 per hr X 15 hours it takes to knit them, plus the 2 times around in the hot water wash = more than you wish to spend... after they pick their jaw up from the floor - I say, for less than $50 I can teach you to knit and with your new life time skill, you can make as many as you want... I am nice when I make my reply. BUT first you have to get their attention and only then do they get it... maybe - hopefully - I love knitting - I love teaching others - I don't sell myself short

  8. Good on you--for not selling yourself short AND for enlightening them AND for teaching them to knit.

    Some days it feels like we fight the good fight one person at a time. . . .