2019 has been an interesting year and we are only in June! A few unexpected / unplanned opportunities presented themselves with surprising results (good and bad), so as Surrey Artists’ Open Studios draws to a close this seems like a good time to chat about the pros and cons of trying to make a living from handmade textiles and to reflect on what went well and not so well.
As some of you may know, I gave up the day job 18 months ago to focus on felt-making full time. I knew the first few years would be financially hard so I saved diligently before taking that leap into the unknown. I am really glad I did, it is really tough trying to earn a living from textile art.
Contemporary Textiles Fair
The major benefit of no longer working for an employer is that I can be very flexible and consider opportunities that previously would have required me to sacrifice some of my annual leave allowance. One such opportunity was the Contemporary Textiles Fair in Teddington. This is a well known (in the UK at least), annual event, that generally gets good write ups, this combined with a business mentor encouraging me to take my one-of-a-kind products and bespoke commissions to “high end” fairs meant I was less anxious than perhaps I should have been about covering the £220 stand fee.
While I enjoyed the show, it was incredibly well organised and I met lots of really lovely textile enthusiasts, I didn’t sell enough work to cover the stand fee, and when you factor in the 3 days I spent at the show and the fuel travelling back and forth each day I made quite a substantial loss. Sadly, most of the other artists sharing my aisle reported the same. That said, I know some artists have been attending this event for years and are happy with their sales but I do worry that CTF will not continue for much longer if so few of the exhibitors are making a profit. Perhaps I should adopt the view of the stall-holder opposite my stand, she felt the stand fee was a reasonable price for the exposure / marketing opportunity. Personally I think a magazine advert would be better use of my time and money, what do you think?
The 3x Rule
Personally I use the 3x rule to decide if a show is worth doing again, if my total sales are at least 3x the value of the table / stall fee + travel and accommodation costs (if applicable), I will look to repeat the same event. Those sales should include commissions from people who saw your work but contacted you after the event too.
If my takings are less than 2x the table fee, I have effectively given up all the time I spent making what I sold and the cost of the materials, not to mention the hours spent setting up and manning the event to the organisers for free. That may be acceptable if you are just selling as a hobby but if it is your main source of income, it is utterly unsustainable.
How do you decide if you will repeat a fair or event again? Have you taken part in a show where you had poor sales but still returned the following year? Did you fair any better?
How do you decide which fairs and events to take part in?
In April I entered a piece into a local exhibition, up until now I have always shied away from exhibitions and galleries that charge a significant commission. In part because I worry that if I increase my prices to cover the commission no-one will part with that much money but also because if it doesn’t sell during the exhibition I feel obliged to keep it on sale at the inflated price. Galleries understandably don’t like it if you have similar (or the same piece) for sale in your own shop for half the price that they are charging. This means I will only consider entering pieces into exhibitions that are truly one-of–a-kind. AppART was a good choice for me, the exhibition site is less than 10 miles away and the commission fees were 35% plus a £10 hanging fee.
I entered my Tropical Reef hanging that some of you might recognise from earlier posts, and it sold! 🙂 What’s more, the lady who bought it found me in the Open Studios brochure and paid me a visit, how lovely is that! 🙂
This is one event I will definitely apply to again next year, I am already percolating ideas for felt sculptures to submit.
Working Outside the Box
Sometimes opportunities present themselves where the WIIFM* isn’t immediately obvious or you do something for fun or charity not expecting any reward.
A good example of this is a local art group (Pirbright Art Club) I joined a few months ago, I enjoy painting and drawing and while I don’t think I am good enough to make a living from it (60% of what I paint goes in the recycling or is cut up to make greetings cards) it has become my hobby now my other hobby (felt-making) has become my day job 🙂
When I joined I thought I might make a few friends and pick up some painting tips but was asked if my felt dragons, could be included in a dragon-themed exhibition, I had no idea when I made them that this event was on the cards. How is that for serendipity in action?!
No sales came from this exhibition but I did gain some more exposure, it was free to enter and Bunsen and Petunia had a fun day out together 🙂
Open Studio Events
I wrote a post on hosting an open studio event last year, I will not repeat the tips from that post but you can read it here if you are interested. This year I tried some new approaches, in particular, studio trails.
This is where a group of artists who live geographically close to each other (the closer the better, walking distance is ideal but not always possible) get together to create a trail map. They then encourage their visitors to visit the other studios on the map, including yours, a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” sort of arrangement.
While the trail worked to some extent, I had about a dozen visitors who said they were following the trail, I think the biggest benefit is from networking with other local artists rather than an increase in visitor numbers. This is already starting to present teaching and exhibition opportunities that I would not have been aware of without my new network of fellow artists.
I offered a few teaching sessions during the days when my studio space was closed to the public, strangely everyone wanted to make a nuno-felted scarf on the same day, I could have filled this class several times over but only had space for 2 students. Sarah and Pene were the quickest to book their spots and both did remarkably well with what is quite an advanced technique, Sarah had never made felt before!
Of course Bunsen and Petunia stole the show, although only one gentleman was brave enough to try Bunsen on while Petunia kept a watchful eye on her friend from the windowsill….
This was only my second year of taking part in Open Studios and it was even more successful this year; this event is definitely going in the diary for next summer!
What is your experience of selling face to face? Do you have any tips to share? How do you choose which fairs and events to take part in?
It’s only 6 months to Christmas…… 😉
*WIIFM – What’s in it for me?