Can you make a living in the fiber arts?

By Amelia © May 4, 2013

I've recently returned from pinch-hitting for another teacher at John C. Campbell Folk School. It was a terrific week; using the course description, I put together a romp through yarn design, moving from singles to ply constructs to art yarns as the week progressed. I learned a lot about how much information workshop participants can absorb, and on just how much work I can do in a week. We all had a great time; the fiber was enjoyed, the company was great, and the meals were wonderful.

Our group became close-knit despite arriving from all over America, from Alaska to New Jersey and several points in between. We've exchanged emails, and one topic that came up was, 'can you make a living in the fiber arts?'

The math is simple: how much money do you need to live on -- make an accurate budget; determine how much income can you make from what you want to do. If you can make enough to live on, then you're golden.

The ladies know that making enough income is a tough thing. They knew I was in a idle period, no workshops for a month, when I got the call asking if I was available to fill in. What was I living on, then? Savings. I have to deal with living on variable income, which means even when the money seems to be rolling in, you have to set some aside for a dry spell.

The hardest part can be evaluating the income opportunity. In fiber arts, we have many choices: sell supplies, sell altered supplies (dyed, spun, kitted up), sell finished pieces, develop patterns, write, teach, process fiber, spin for others, knit for others, raise fiber animals, make fiber tools, organize events ... And likely more. Business plans can be useful in organizing your thoughts and determining cash flow potential. I did business plans before I started The Bellwether as a retail business, before I began my fiber mill, and even when I decided to shift my focus to teaching and writing.

Each business choice has expenses (materials, tools, storage/work space, website, bookkeeping, advertising, and more). Generally your income comes from the time you put in: you have to market your wares to get customers; you need to hone your skills to grow your business; you must create products or track inventory to have goods to sell, and so on. It also comes from making good choices, examining what produces income and what does not. The income has to cover the business expenses and your household budget.

Pricing is a big issue for fiber arts. The market sets some prices: you can cruise handspun on Etsy, looking at yardage, weight, and fiber to get a feel for handspun pricing; wholesale suppliers often set retail prices on their goods; and boutiques in your area may carry other fiber artists' products already to give you and idea on pricing handwoven goods or hand dyed yarns. Those are good to take into consideration given your cost of materials, tool and location costs, and the time it takes you to make the items you sell or run the business you want to create.

Especially with service or finished items, it is important to consider that time. If it takes 5 hours to weave, finish, and package a scarf, $30 in materials, and say $5 in overhead costs (tools and location, fees, etc.) and you can sell it for $60 retail then you get $25 for your 5 hours of time. That may seem great if you have a day job, but $5 an hour is a pretty low wage to live on. Consider what you can do: get more efficient at weaving, change the weave structure, yarn, or item to something that adds more value without slowing you down or costing more to produce.

Now, truth be told, I often just wing it and hope to get something to cover the next bill. But the further honest truth is that I adore what I do. Every day is like a vacation for me. I don't tire of it. Today was a perfect day: I fixed a skirt hem, threaded a bit more of my twill warp on my floor loom, swapped looms with a lovely lady who not only wanted my AVL Workshop Dobby Loom but had the Louet Magic Dobby loom I really wanted, researched for some fall classes, worked on a workshop proposal for an upcoming show, and now I'm writing this. Better than a day on any beach on the planet.

And that is where the magic is...loving what you do. It makes you willing to find new ways to approach it. I've done retail, wholesale, services, e-books, workshops, online workshops, worked for others in the fiber arts, and will keep trying new things and fitting them into "Ask The Bellwether" as needed to keep it a success. I've researched suppliers, publishers, on line marketplaces, and wool shows, and will continue to find new sources for materials and venues for what I do. I know I love learning, and I have been amazed at how much I enjoy teaching. My deepest love is writing, though my skills are home grown rather than college-honed. My spindles, wheels, looms, and tools call to me and I adore passing along their lessons to others in the spoken and written word.

There are many inspiring blogs out there to help motivate you to follow your dreams. I enjoy Wakeup Cloud, in part because Henri is himself discovering his own passion in what he does, and applying it directly in his blog. His enthusiasm is infectious!

And, as my partner Chris says, some people make the music and some people listen to it. He is a professional listener ... always in the audience, never in the band. Someone has to be! So if fiber arts are your hobby, I thank you for that. Without folks looking to simply enjoy the fiber arts, those of us who pursue it as a lifestyle would not have an audience. Thank you for listening to my music :-) it brings me great joy to make it, in all its woolly goodness!


This article © 2013 Amelia Garripoli, Ask The Bellwether, posted at


The pictures are from the workshop: supplies, my necklace of textured yarns, and the circle of wheels in our classroom.


Laura Fry said...

I tell people that you can make an ' uncomfortable ' living or a comfortable second income...people lo forget to add a retail markup to cover the expense of marketing their products. It is feast or famine income so your advice to save one when you have it is sound....

Anita said...

These are wise words and I so love taking ANYTHING you teach. Thanks

Alpaca Granny said...

My son told me, "Mom, you are so lucky to have a hobby that makes you money.".....and that pretty much sums up my life. My "hobby" pays for all my 4 legged expenses with a little left over for myself.
Thank you for a great article.