Case Study: Leah Day Brings Free To The Quilting World
from the arts-&-crafts dept
Having made an award-winning feature film, the next logical step in my career would naturally be…quilting. That’s what my Muse says, anyway, and I’ve learned not to argue with Her. So, for the past 2 months, I’ve been learning how to quilt, something I’ve never done before in my life (no family members nor friends quilt) but find fascinating.
Starting from zero knowledge, the first place I sought information was the Internet. Easier said than done: quilts are poorly represented online. Art quilters are extremely cagey about their designs and techniques; online photographs of art quilts are scarce and those that do show up tend to be postage-stamp tiny.
Leah Day is a happy exception to this rule. Through her web site Day Style Designs, she offers countless Free tutorials on quilting techniques, from the most basic (how to iron and starch your fabric – something this beginner found invaluable) to the most advanced. While other quilters cling to their designs and issue threats against copying, Leah goes in the opposite direction, sharing freely, inviting copying, and requesting (rather than demanding) links back to her site.
Leah specializes in Free Motion Quilting, a kind of drawing with a sewing machine. She is best known for her 365 Free Motion Quilting Project, a personal challenge “to come up with a new free motion filler design every day for a whole year.”
A quilt is a piece of art and the free motion filler designs add an element of texture and thread to the surface of the quilt that nothing else can. A quilt is simply not a quilt without the quilting stitches. Think of the filler designs as texture created by a painter with a paintbrush. Only instead of paint, quilters are creating that texture with thread.I searched for a book to teach me creative free motion filler designs. I didn’t find one. Maybe I wasn’t searching hard enough because when the idea of this project came to me, I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Leah makes clear, short videos of creating the designs, which she posts on her blog, along with photographs of the finished designs and the message, “Feel free to use this free motion quilting design in your quilts and send in a picture to show it off!”
The quilting world is apparently rife with copyright bullying. Those sweet little old ladies (average age of ‘dedicated quilters’ is 62) issue threats against anyone who would copy ‘their’ designs, which consist entirely of un-copyrightable motifs like squares, circles and spirals. As long as neither the bullies nor the victims know much about copyright law, the quilting community maintains the fiction that ideas are property.
The free model is very, very new to quilting. Most quilt patterns are covered by copyright, so you can’t use the design for any commercial purpose. I can’t make a quilt from a pattern and sell the quilt without first contacting the original designer for permission. I can’t even show that quilt in a national show without permission. And that’s just for the quilt top design! The free motion designs can also apparently be copyrighted (which is insane). How can I copyright “Basic Spiral”? It’s a spiral design! Spirals have been around for thousands of years! Am I the first to quilt it on a quilt? Heck no! I’m just the first person to give it a name and teach you how to do it.
Leah monetizes her work primarily through her online Quilt Shop, which stocks only products she uses herself daily. Although the selection isn’t broad, it’s a great strategy. As a beginner, her recommendations guided my initial purchases; I happily spent over $250 at her shop. If I need more quilting supplies, I’ll check her shop first. I’d rather have sale profits benefit her than Amazon, and the prices are the same. That is fan behavior: I’m a fan of her videos, grateful for what she shares, and I want to support her. She makes it easy to do so, by selling supplies. It’s Connect With Fans + Reason To Buy in action.
Demand from fans also led her to publish an instructional book and DVD. Even though all the designs in it are free on her blog, fans begged for a printed book they could keep next their sewing machines. Because she’s connected to fans, she knows what they want, what will sell, and where to invest her energies.
It is unlikely the copyright maximalists of the quilting world support themselves from copyrighting, or quilting. Quilts themselves are tremendously undervalued and underpriced:
Even the purchase price at major shows (AQS Paducah is probably the biggest) is only $30,000. For the level of work and detail that go into quilts, it’s pennies per hour. This is why I don’t sell my quilts. I have sold only 2 since I started quilting and even those two limited experiences taught me that this was a good way to stay broke and live frustrated. Making what other people want, rather than what I want, is not creative, it’s slave labor.
Americans spend $3.6 billion on quilting annually (yes, you read that right), primarily for quilting supplies and equipment, followed by conferences, classes, and workshops. Most quilters are affluent and retired. Presumably they cling to copyright due to control issues, not a need to make money. In contrast, Leah Day needs to make money – she is 27 years old and supporting a young family. Is it any wonder that she has embraced Free?
The more fans Leah gets, the more sales she makes, and the higher her profile as an artist and teacher. In its first year, her online shop grossed about $140,000. Prior to the Free Motion Quilting Project, Leah was virtually unknown; she now leads a growing community of fans and customers. Says Leah, “Free is really what’s put me on the map.”