The Overhead of Machine Quilting

While I was Googling around yesterday, I came across a new-to-me blog post that caught my eye. There’s been plenty of posts written about the real cost of quilts, the real cost of quilting, why quilters charge what they do, etc. The one I just read was written by Andi Rudebusch, and it’s really good. You can check it out here. In her post, she says:

And when you are self-employed, there are overhead expenses. While most longarm quilters work from their homes (eliminating the cost of rent) we do have other expenses such as advertising, insurance, computers, internet, websites, utilities, etc. Oh – did we mention self-employment taxes? And those people making minimum wage at WalMart get benefits – health insurance, paid vacations, sick leave, etc. As a business owner, if I don’t work a day, I don’t get paid for that day. I have to pay 15% for self employment taxes, I don’t have any money going into retirement accounts (unless *I* put some there). And after 8 hours on my feet driving around my longarm, I may need a massage or chiropractor appointment to keep my body in good shape. Guess who pays for that? Me!

I wanted to talk about this aspect specifically- the overhead of machine quilting. It’s a lot of numbers and I know people don’t want to get too in depth with numbers, but it’s worth discussing. If you’re curious about why longarm services cost what they do, I hope this will help. If you’re someone considering starting a longarm business, or someone who has just started out, you’re who I have in mind when I write this.

First, of course, is your machine. Machines have been a hot topic around here lately! I just bought an Innova 22″ with Lightning Stitch. If you Google around you will see that to buy a new one, you’ll pay $16K. It’s not a secret. That is a HUGE amount of money to drop on a machine, and it’s not even close to the most expensive one you can get. If you get a machine with a computerized system, you could pay double that. Either you pay in cash and need to make that money back to cross over into the black, or you have monthly payments to make.

There’s other quilting accoutrement to buy as well. You’ll need needles, thread- a LOT of thread in different colors and types, pins, something to hold your pins, oil, scissors, extra bobbins, a bobbin winder, rulers, templates, marking tools, adequate lighting, rolls of batting to offer your clients…. do you offer binding services? Then you’ll need a regular sewing machine, rotary cutter, rulers, and mat. And remember- many of these things are not one time purchases. I use a new needle on each client quilt, so I’m going through a lot of needles. I have to re-order thread all the time. Batting too. Pins tend to get lost. Rotary blades and scissors get dull. You never have enough bobbins. You get the idea. Maybe you already owned a lot of this stuff because you were a hobbyist before you became a business, but don’t forget: if something happens to it, you have to replace it. You’re not a hobbyist anymore.

Then there’s shipping supplies, if you have long-distance clientele. Boxes, labels, packing tape, plastic bags to protect quilts during shipping. All of this has to be re-purchased, too. If you meet up with local clients to return quilts, don’t forget your gas and mileage.

There’s all kinds of business-related miscellany, like business cards and signage, business license fees, invoicing software costs, website costs, printer, printer ink, paper, internet connection, computer, insurance, etc. Do you have an accountant to do your taxes? If so, that’s an expense. If you do them yourself, then that’s your time.

You should think of your time as overhead. Your time is valuable. Whether you’re a wife and mom of littles, a dad, a single guy, a grandparent, an alien undercover for your home planet… we all have other things we could be doing. People we love who we could be spending time with. There’s the time you spend actually doing your work, of course. There’s the time you’ve already spent practicing and improving your skills, the time you had to spend to learn the computer system you have and become proficient, the time you spend maintaining your machine (because if you don’t have a nearby dealer, you’re going to be your own mechanic, so add “tools” to the accoutrement you’ll need to buy), etc.

But what about all the time you spend working on your business outside of your studio? Updating social media, updating your website, designing newsletters, emailing back and forth with clients and colleagues, planning out marketing campaigns, staying up to date on happenings and trends in the industry, bookkeeping, inventory…. time and money you spend to attend classes and trade shows… It may feel like you’re doing some of this stuff in your free time, but it isn’t “free” time. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of expenses, but it’s a pretty decent overview, I’d say.

So what does all of this mean for you, the new quilter starting off on your longarm business journey, and what should you do about it? Well…

I think it’s worth mentioning here that there are factors outside of your control that affect the market you will find yourself in. The industry has changed, and it’s going to keep changing. There are a LOT more people with longarm machines now, so you have more competition in the sense that clients have more options to choose from. Social media has opened up the quilting world so that geography isn’t as big of a factor for people when choosing their quilter- sending quilts across the country is normal to do. There’s plenty of folks who buy a longarm machine just to quilt for themselves. More and more people are choosing to quilt their own quilts on their domestics now, too. Many quilt shops offer rental time on their longarms for people to finish their own quilts that way.

I think people staring out have this intrinsic fear of not being able to make it, which is a totally understandable fear when you’re starting a business. So, they don’t charge enough, hoping that their prices won’t scare paying customers away. Or maybe you do charge enough in theory, but you give away upgrades on quilting jobs so that people get custom jobs at E2E rates, because it’s your name on this work, and your portfolio… and you want to make every job you get count. Maybe you give away quilting jobs sometimes, hoping that it will pay off in word of mouth referrals or publicity. You do it with a “client base building” mentality. And believe me, I so get that. You start out just wanting so badly to be paid, man… isn’t some money better than none? I mean, until there’s money coming in, aren’t investments just losses?

I don’t have all the answers. I just have my opinion, which is: it’s a slippery slope. It’s hard to stop this once you’ve started, because people get used to it. Then, if you suddenly say “Hey… I’m not making enough to cover my expenses!” and charge appropriately, this seems like a massive hike in cost to clients who have gotten used to paying you less than you should have been taking all along.

All of this is to say to you, the brave soul venturing into this: begin as you mean to go on. Strategic giveaways and promotions are well and good and a tool in your marketing arsenal, but make sure you have a clear, trackable ROI in mind. What I mean is, don’t be vague with yourself about what you hope to accomplish with your giveaways and promos. Know ahead of time what you expect so you will know how to measure a marketing campaign’s success. Your entire business model can’t be a big giveaway, or it won’t work. You’ll end up frustrated. You might end up bitter. You might end up burning out.

I’ll leave you with this: Be generous. Be big-hearted. Just don’t be taken advantage of. Value yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. If this means you lose clients, so be it. Do you want clients who don’t value you? If this means you do fewer jobs, so be it. Is it better to do 10 jobs and make $1000, or 5 jobs and make $1000?


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