ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Monday, May 2, 2011

What Price Success?

This post follows the good news about my article "A Surprise Career as a Quilt Artist". Most of the time I am very happy with my choice in careers, and most of the time I am upbeat in my posts, so I apologize that today I am not going to sound so happy. I also apologize that there are no pretty pictures to go with this post.

I have actually been feeling rather stressed the last two weeks. Why? Taxes were looming, I was busy and left them too late, and had to do the work myself. I filed my taxes this past weekend and learned that my gross income has now reached the level where I am required to register for HST (harmonized sales tax). In Ontario a gross income of $30,000 or more means you have to collect HST on all services rendered and all goods sold. It also means you can claim back all the HST you paid out on items purchased for your business.

I have always felt that we should not discuss our incomes publicly, but I think I am going to make an exception here because I think it is OK to talk about it when you have a point to make and if your income is low;-)). On the one hand, it is a wonderful thing that my business has grown to this point, and that I’ve actually managed to make my living doing what I love for the last three years. Although I am not a high earner, I feel I have been successful given that I am able to get by doing what I love. But, today I ask, what price success? My reward is that I get to do a boatload of work to track and remit HST on everything I do and sell when my NET income is far below my gross income. It seems like such a lot of work for so little.

This brings me to some things I want to say about the realities of being a quilt artist and teacher, and some of these things may actually offend some readers. I have conversations with people regularly that demonstrate to me that some do not understand that this is more than a hobby to me. This is my career. Last week I was asked by someone how my husband feels about me gallivanting around the country? My response was "I am not gallivanting, I am working". My husband is happy that I have a job. I have had people ask me why I am working so hard and when I am going to slow down and take some time off. I remind them that when I had a conventional job I got anywhere between 2 weeks and 6 weeks vacation, depending on where I worked and my years of service. I am my own boss now, and if I want to go away for a week, I can do so as long as I have no professional commitments at the time (i.e. teaching, lecturing, shows, etc). I do take a few weeks of vacation each year, even though I may still do some work during them. When you have your own business there is always something to do.

I used the word "professional" to describe myself a few sentences ago. I have never particularly liked the word because it sounds hoity. I am not using it to describe my behaviour, but rather to communicate the fact that I do what I do as a profession, making my living from being an artist, teacher and dyer. I am proud that I am able to do this, and I am willing to sacrifice some things to be able to do what I love. I don’t usually comment on other people’s career choices, but I certainly receive comments on mine. A while back I was on a teaching trip and was billetted at the home of two retired teachers. The husband of the quilter decided to tell me that he thought it must be a horrible job doing what I do, to which I replied "I love what I do". His next comment? "Well you can't possibly make much money". Well maybe not as much as a high school teacher, but I may be just as happy (OK, today I'm not).

For most people making quilts or art is a hobby. This may be why there are some who don’t understand why I work so hard and push myself so far. I do belong to a professional association, but there are a huge number of members who have become quilt artists in their retirement. They may have a pension to support them now and don’t need to push themselves the way I do. At 49, I have to be successful at what I do or I will quite simply have to go and find a regular job. Finding some success as a quilt artist can be a lonely thing. You have different interests than learning the latest technique. You might want to talk about the challenges of travelling so much, about how to price teaching, what shows to enter, etc. Where is my community to talk to? Who can I call today to talk about their experiences with HST? Is there another quilt artist and teacher in Ottawa who is charging HST?

I am not looking down on hobbyists. However, I think that because quilts and art are viewed as a hobby by many, and particularly because quilts are viewed as a woman’s thing, is what contributes to some individuals and groups not understanding why I charge the rates I do or why I charge mileage. In what other business would someone travel across the country to teach for $400 a day and in what other business would they not expect reimbursement for travel? I need a car to do my job. If I can't afford to buy another car on the day mine wears out, it will be a sign that this business is not viable. Why would I travel without reinbursement? Would you? I am also worried that the extra expense of charging HST to groups is going to make it less likely they hire me.

That, my friends, is my whine for the day. I don’t want to whine too much because I really do love my job most of the time, and everyone is going to tell me to get a real job if I don’t like things the way they are!! This too shall pass. If you have comments or opinions to share I’d love to hear them.


  1. Elaine,

    While I am one of the folks who saved during my working career so I could retire early and do what I love, I understand what you are saying. Few understand why anyone would willing take self-employment at mostly a modest wage even for those fortunate ones who can support themselves. Doing what we love, I think are the operative words. But it can be lonely, and daunting. With the internet, some of us are finding kindred souls who know the road we are on, and are further along the way. The great thing about this community we are in, is that many are willing to share.

    Are you coming to Denver for SAQA? Would love to meet you there.


  2. 1. That was so informative.
    2. I learned a ton reading it.
    3. Your points are so valid.
    4. I thought it was a fantastic post, and I am striving to be where you are now... so keep doin' what you are doing, so others can watch and learn=)))

  3. First I must say that I love your work. Thank you for adding your beauty to the world.
    I am just starting out to build a career as a professional quilt artist. I am at an age when many of my friends are already enjoying retirement. Due to many circumstances, that will not be my reality. I have no nest egg. I still work a "regular" job to pay my bills. Because I will need to generate income for as far as I can see, I need to transition into some form of work that is more than just income. I need to gain the fulfillment that was missing from most of my life. I know I am traveling on a road that leave many others without adequate financial reward. But at this point, I can't Not do this. I suspect it is the same for you. We will have doubts along the way. Heck I had doubts along the way in every job I have had. As a business owner we have to wear the hat of every position in the company. Some tasks are not very rewarding. But we have to remember that the overall result is that we get to create from our soul. So, we outsource some tasks when we can and discipline ourselves to do others.
    Since I am not yet earning any significant income from my art, it is difficult to say this with any certainty. But I believe that we have to charge a fee for our service that is fair. I have surveyed the price of quilt art from many websites and there is a wide variance. I believe that when you declare your value, those who recognize that value will step forward to meet you. Take heart. You are not alone!
    Gail from Colorado

  4. Elaine, I am with you 100% on your comments. I am a fledgling quilt artist, not yet a professional -- and at almost 59 years of age am not sure I'll 'get there' or want the pace you keep. However, I have begun -- and the costs of increasing one's invisibility, while deciding not to teach and thereby have some revenue offset, can be significant. Like Nancy, I waited till I was a widow with grown children and moved out of the city so I could afford to do what I am doing. In my first solo exhibit recently, two of the visitors commented that I had a 'nice hobby'; I'm betting they didn't say that to the young oil painter who was Feature Artist!

    I worked as a consultant in the area of personal finance for almost 20 years. No one in our firm would travel to do seminars, workshops or individual client meetings without compensation for transportation, meals, accommodation, AND the fee for the work. Neither should you.

    The job of public education continues!

    Oh -- and congratulations on earning enough for the HST. (You could move to Alberta where it's only GST. ) Maybe it's time to hire a book-keeper for a few hours a month or a quarter to take care of this, and your taxes? Just a thought. Best wishes for continued success!

  5. Hi Elaine, I certainly understand your frustration, I think many of us are in the same boat, loving what we do but wonder if all the hard work is worth it, when the compensation is pretty low.

    I am trying to get my career rolling to try and support myself since I am looking at a future without a husband to help pay the bills. Never wanted to be single at 49, my odds of ever having a partner again are slim to none looking at the statistics (and so far from my experience dating I am not feeling optimistic) so I now question whether I can even really afford to keep teaching.

  6. Hi Elaine
    All I can say is that your comments are valid but it happens in lots of positions that are not understood by the general public. I was in International Logistics Sales. Try to get that idea across. When I worked for this employer I worked all the time and spent a lot of time cleaning up other peoples mixups. When I started my own business I spent years explaining that I was an importer supplying product to the sewing and quilting market. As soon as I said sewing and quilting the response was...isn't that nice. It never occured to them that we occupied a 3000 square foot warehouse and shipped all over the USA. Like any business it took over 7 years to turn a profit and always carring a heavy financial investment but at least I made most of my own problems to clean up after.

    I guess what I am trying to say is to keep going forward and hire help when needed. We were doing our own payroll for years. Just this year I found a company who for $129 each month handled all the taxes and payroll for me. LOVE IT.

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Elaine. Many of us (myself included) have or have had these exact same thoughts.

    Educating others that this is not a hobby but a business for many of us is an uphill battle, but one that we all have to continue. There are millions of quilters out there that are hobbyists and a very small percentage of us that are striving for the next levels of this being our profession.

    Keeping pushing forward and remaining the professional you are and things will continue improving and expanding for you.

  8. Hi Elaine, thanks for sharing your story, I know how frustrating it can be to face everything that you're facing.

    I found art quilting about 5 years ago and had no intention of ever turning it into a business. And the more people I met who do have businesses related to their art, the more convince I became that I did not want to work as hard as business owners have to work.

    But that was when I had a full-time job and sometimes life just pushes you in directions where you don't want to go. I was laid off last summer and after being miserable and scared for a few months, started working on my own business.

    Now, I may be much, much, much poorer than I was when I worked full-time, I am much, much, much happier!

    It takes time to build a business and I'm not anywhere near where I want to be, but feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. And it sounds like you are too. Torpedos be damned and full speed ahead to you!

  9. Thank you for sharing. I understand all you have mentioned and sympathize and agree with your points.

    It took me seven years of very hard work to get where I was (in a different medium,) so yes, charge whatever you need in order for your business to thrive. Things, travel, etc. does cost more these days and those who want your talents and experience will pay for it. Good instructors are an asset. The time you take to share your expertise is valuable.

    Asking yourself "what price will I pay for success?" That's a tough one and only you can decide if you want to continue as a professional instructor of take another route and enjoy what you do as your outlet for creativity.

  10. Thank you all for responding. I am so new to blogger that I still don't completely know how it works. All of your messages also came to my Inbox, and I responded to them privately. However, I always feel like folks are going to think I don't read my comments if I don't respond here. I am touched by the outpouring of support I've received here and privately as a result of this email. I have an idea. Dump the hand-dye business because it is a huge amount of work and drives my gross revenue over the critical mark while not providing much profit. But I will have to do that for a few years before CRA will let me get rid of my HST number, and in the mean time folks will resent paying HST on my teaching. Sigh.

  11. Elaine is a friend whom I have had the honour of mentoring on occasion as a colleague and teacher, and I am very proud of her growth and development. Elaine's quilt designs are truly amazing, her machine quilting is perfection in every way (watch for Machine Quilting Unlimited article in July) and her innate colour and design sense, well honed and recognized by awards in shows across Canada and the US, and yes, even Japan.

    Watching from a distance and sharing in her joy as she has been accepted widely in the Art Quilt arena and as a hugely sought after Instructor is very thought provoking and yet thrilling. Three years into a business is a track record she can be very proud of and though the business side of her career is daunting, I believe that she is so important to all of the others who want and may need to walk the same path one day. Pioneer's in this world of business for Textile and Fibre Arts are a special breed and very much admired.

    I knew this day would come for Elaine. As her business developed and as her name and prowess as a businesswoman developed, there had to be the tax implications. Sad that the business side of being an artist and Instructor makes the path more difficult. Yes, there will be Guilds and Shops that say they cannot afford the fees, and yes, there will be contracts that may not get signed, but there will be many more opportunities along the way that will require exploration, doors that are just waiting to be opened. Elaine is just now enjoying the excitment of moving along the ladder to a successful and well known North American enterprise.

    Don't give up the challenge Elaine. I do hope you will re-consider the idea to give up the dyeing side of the business, perhaps considering how differently to schedule and continue to produce and market the cloth that will PAY for you to continue to make your fabric available to others. I have just finished a new piece that includes your fabrics that is very special for me. I would miss the opportunity to buy what you create. I do create complex, dyed fabrics myself, but there is something very fulfilling in creating new work knowing that you personally had a hand in the process.

    Stay focused, make decisions thoughtfully and know that those who admire and seek your expertise will be willing to pay the Lecture/Workshop fees, travel expenses and purchase the beautiful cloth you create at the price you need to make the tax man happy.

    A supportive and admiring friend, Bethany

  12. Seymone ArmstrongMay 4, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    There will always be someone that will belittle what we try to achieve in life. Times I really think that they do so because they are basically ignorant of what we do or trying to achieve but most of all I really believe that these people are jealous of our successes and really wish that they had the nerve to take the plunge. I am a great admirer of your work and I have had the wonderful opportunity to purchase and create with some of your wonderful fabric. I can can recognize your artwork and fabric from a mile off as it stands out very distinctly. Beautiful! Fibre Artists will willing pay the extra for a beautiful piece of fabric or a workshop with you. I know I will. Hopefully you will continue to produce and provide these dyed marvels and expertise. I don't know what we Fibre Artists would do without them. Nothing speaks as much as having Elaine Quehl dyed fabric included in a piece of artwork.
    Cheers and all the best.

  13. You are all so kind!!! Thanks Bethany, your post reads like the nicest reference letter ever! Bethany & Seymone, I am not making any major decisions right now ... I will wait till the snow globe settles on this tax issue!!! It has sure sucked the joy out of my life for the last week and likely will for a bit. One thing I do want to clarify is that it took 8 years to build this business and not 3. At the point where I left my job 3 years ago I had been teaching (most Saturdays and was even starting to travel to teach on my vacations) and selling hand-dyes for 5 years. It wouldn't have been possible to quit my job if I hadn't built the business for 5 years prior to that.

  14. Hi Elaine - great post! I agree with you 100%. It doesn't matter how much some one earns as compared to another. It does not make their work more or less important or valuable. Furthermore, every single instructor that I have ever known or met, no matter what the field, charges for travel, accommodation and meals on top of their class fee. Stick to your guns! You are worth it.

  15. Elaine - this is a great success story - imagine being able to say that you have made yourself into this successful artist... Truly a compliment and testament to your skills, drive and motivation to be the best EQ you can be.

    Honestly, I think part of the reason people look at quilts differently is because it is a blanket...functional artwork. At least that is my interpretation --- and something so "common" (in quotes for a reason----most quilts and quilters are very uncommon) cannot possibly be art. So I say, do what makes your heart sing... students, guilds and the like will adjust to price increases. Everything goes up, we are used to it and we will get used to it. I would have taken your class at the higher HST price- what you shared with us is priceless. Cheers and I look forward to seeing your booth on Friday!

  16. I drag myself to work everyday, 8-5, 50 weeks a year, and make very little more than what you do as a quilt artist and teacher. I have to have a "real" job for the medical benefits, and because I'm single and pay the bills alone. Your story about making so much that you were pushed into a higher tax bracket sounds very much like a success to me!

  17. Kirsten,
    thank you for your kind comments. I tried to respond to you on email but it said "No Reply Blogger".

    I did have a few conversations with Laura on email privately. I did want to clarify here that this has nothing to do with being in a higher tax bracket or the taxes I am paying on my income. It is the fact that I will have to charge taxes on everything I do for everyone else. It is going to make everything I do more expensive for folks, and it is going to be a boatload of bookeeping to track absolutely every little bit of HST. Hardly worth it for a net income that is a fraction of the gross income that led to me having to get the HST number in the first place. However, I will carry on and am starting to see the light today. Life goes on. Only thing for sure in life is death and taxes, and I'm sure glad it is only taxes!


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