Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Building Value in American Handmade Fine Craft

I wrote this article for ArtsyShark, a wonderful resource that inspires artists to build better businesses. I encourage you to visit ArtsyShark and see if any of their resources will be of service to you.

The concept of fine craft, as well as fine art, I think we can all agree, include words like excellence, standards, and quality. When I hear of a master-crafted item, I think about something out of the ordinary or beyond the usual.  I think of an object that inspires awe.

My background in American-made craft began in the mid-1970s when I was part of the team that published Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine in Colorado. Much of my workday saw me helping people focus their love of sewing and playing with color into either a serious hobby or a legitimate profession in the quilting arts. The flourishing quilt industry of the 70’s was yet another cycle of the growing love affair Americans have had with handmade soft goods for the home that, if not master-crafted, were at least laboriously made with great love and attention to detail.

My mom, Bonnie Leman, who was the founding editor of Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine, helped her readers improve their quilt making skills, and encouraged them to seek out that awe-inspiring result. She also invested heavily in helping them believe in the value of their handmade fiber arts. This resurgence of improving excellence across an ever-growing body of quilt makers in America was in full swing when big-box stores like Sears began importing bed quilts from China. I observed that anyone who had ever attempted to create a quilt knew that these quilts were not inspiring, they were heartbreaking. In a commercially-driven attempt to profit on the growing demand for quilts in American homes, the value proposition of these objects as an art form was trashed, at least temporarily.

It was interesting for me to observe at this time that the women within this industry, who had spent the past 10-15 years helping one another grow in their expertise as fiber artists, be put in the position to belittle the quilt-making efforts of other women in China. 

My own value system was challenged by this “us vs. them” mentality. I also observed that the glut of these cheaply made quilts made an economic impact on professional American fiber artists, as well as specialty fabrics stores and entrepreneurs across the United States. In fact, I suggest that the fiber arts in America as a broad class of industry are still recovering.

Now that the Internet has so drastically changed the way that people shop, imports into our neighboring stores is only one part of the supply chain. Professional fiber artists in every country have had to learn how to promote the value of what they make to the entire world.

So what can artists and craftspeople do today to both build value and express the value of what they love to make? 
  • Concentrate on the absolute value of your creation. For professional fiber artists, that includes quality materials, expert finishing techniques, and professional-quality photos. We sell not only an object, but we sell how that object makes our customers feel.

  • Recognize both your expertise and your vulnerabilities. Speak to yourself in terms of valuing your artistic life. Treat yourself with respect at all times. Additionally, reach out to others. We can be the support other artists need on any given day. This can take the form of emotional support, being a collector of their work, and as a supporter of the arts.

  • Balance competitive energies with consensus-building. When I market my fiber folk art, I have to both remember and forget that I do not compete with the soft goods sold at Target. I am aware that my customers have a wide variety of choices, so they will likely know about the $9 pillows at Target, but my ideal customer is not interested in filling her home with cheap imports. Instead of thinking about competing on price, I build consensus and community as part of my marketing efforts. I proudly express the quality of what I make and I seek to have that message resonate with my “just-right” audience.

  •  Use the power of the Internet to express the benefits of supporting wholesome, handmade fine craft, in America and beyond! This effort helps the individual artist as well as it helps the entire arts community. We can work together to create awe-inspiring results, and this adds to the healthy future of our beloved creativity!

I would love to hear what your experiences are of buying or making craft and how you see the value of handmade items in your part of the world!

Thanks for stopping by,


Kim said...

Wonderful article - and I received my tote! Thank you so much - it was so much fun to get something nice in the mail!!! Thank you!!! (I blogged about it today too.)

Georgianne Holland said...

Thank you Kim! I have never met you, and yet, I am getting to know you. I notice you out and about on the web and read your great blog. We have become supporters of one another on various venues, and that, my friend, is exactly what fiber arts (and the arts in general) need to thrive! Elevation of the playing field...

Best wishes,