Being Creative in our Art and our Budgets: by Kate Themel

It has been named “Issue Number One” on news programs, radio spots and around the dinner table. How does financial trouble affect our ability to create fine art? And what can we do to lessen the effects?

The making of fabric art and art quilts can be expensive, compared to paper and watercolors or charcoal pencil. As artists, we often make sacrifices in other areas of our lives in order to pursue our creative goals. Sometimes this means adjusting our budget so we can buy materials. But

usually we are not willing to compromise our design by using cheap materials. I’m sure I’m not the only one who debates silently while wandering around my favorite fabric store: “Hmmm…. $9 per yard? A little pricey but I love it! And I love THIS one… and I must have THIS one… Well, I can go another year with this coat… and if I promise not to go to Dunkin Donuts on the way home….” The store owner has gotten used to the sight of me standing for long periods of time staring off into space.

Clearly, the economy has slowed down. Many people have lost their jobs and some have lost their homes. More than once, references have been made to The Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Most Americans had to cut back drastically on their expenses. In many households, buying fabric for colorful and decorative quilts might have seemed impractical. But many beautiful quilts were made during this time period and not all were made by wealthy women. How did they do it? What can we learn from that era that can be applied now?


Waste Not

Then: Feed sack and scrap quilts were popular during this time. Contrary to popular belief, scrap quilts were rarely made from “worn out” clothing. For practical purposes, it wouldn’t make sense to spend time and effort making something out of a weakened fabric. Most of the time, the scraps were leftovers from other projects using good quality fabrics (i.e. curtains, table linens, clothing). Rather than throw out the small pieces, women would save them in hopes of getting different colors or patterns from their friends’ stash. During their fabric swaps, women would often trade patterns, iron transfers and templates.

Now: Although feed and flour sacks have become a thing of the past (except in reproduction fabrics), the practice of saving and trading can be applied today, especially with our renewed focus on conservation of resources.

Dresses made from flour sacks, worn by children in a coal mine community. 1937

Dresses made from flour sacks, worn by children in a coal mine community. 1937

Share Expenses

Then: When buying fabric was too expensive for one quilter, often women would work together. One popular example was a system known as “halves”. To save time and money, 2 women would pool their fabric and agree on a pattern. One woman would piece together 2 quilts and another would quilt both of them. In the end, they would each keep one finished quilt.

Sometimes a bargain could be struck with a client who had some money but no time or no sewing skills. That person would buy enough fabric for 2 quilts. One finished quilt would go to the person who bought the fabric and the quilter would keep the second one as payment for her work.

Now: This idea works well for people who make traditional quilts, but with some ‘tweaking’, the idea could be used by fabric artists. For example, 2 artists may use similar materials such as bleach, resists, soy products etc. They could pool their money and buy products in bulk, often getting materials at a lower cost. Some fabric artists share fees so they can buy large ads in magazines and periodicals. This provides greater market exposure for everyone in the group and cuts down on each person’s financial burden.


Then: Many times, women would trade a finished quilt for food, goods or services; they might even trade animal feed for a quilt made from the feed sacks.

Now: Almost anything can be traded for your artwork, if you are able to quantify its value. Many people would love to buy art but cannot justify the cost in their minds, especially if they are worried about their job security.

“Ace McGunicle, Quilt Detective” writes about her experience in “The Case of the Battered Quilt”:

As Ace demonstrates, you don’t have to barter for fabric or art supplies. Maybe you need help moving or housecleaning and another person needs a unique and creative present to give to their mother for Christmas. We just have to think as creatively when it comes to business, as we do for our designs.

This quilt, made from sack scraps, is for sale by American Antiques,

This quilt, made from sack scraps, is for sale by American Antiques,

In many households, women organize the budget and set priorities for the family. Often we are inclined to sacrifice our own needs for those of our children or spouses. We can fall into the creative “booby trap” when we downgrade our artistic passion to a hobby or a luxury. Of course I’m not suggesting that people let their children starve so they can buy fabric. Sometimes all but the basic necessities have to be put on hold. But if we have any discretionary funds, there are ways to pursue our artistic dreams without breaking the budget.

As an artist, have you been impacted by economic events? What kinds of ideas have you heard or tried in order to save money while remaining artistically active?

Facts about Quilting during the Depression were gathered from these sources:

18 Responses to “Being Creative in our Art and our Budgets: by Kate Themel”

  1. 1 January 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm

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  3. 4 Денис November 27, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    У вас тут много чего упрощено, в отличии от реалий… 🙂

  4. 5 netseeker2 January 20, 2009 at 1:57 am

    Sorry about that… Couldn’t edit my post above. The actual link for FreeCycle is:

  5. 6 mscate January 19, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    The bulk of the crafts I make are from recycled materials, I think it adds a personal touch and uniqueness to your work that you can’t always get with easily recognisable materials. I know I have to be careful not to fall into the trap of buying materials (albeit second hand/recycled materials) at the expense of creating with what I have. I wrote a bit about it here which may interest some of you?
    (its not an ad, just a short essay I wrote).

  6. 7 netseeker2 January 19, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Those are all good ways to get material, but another good way – and believe me I know as I am just home from a trip out today which netted me a carload (and I mean literally a carload) of 100% free (except for the cost of gas to go get it) crafting materials including a HUGE bolt of fabric that weighed so much I couldn’t lift it and had to have my son lift it for me and the person who gave it to me, had to have her son put in our car. Plus a huge garbage bag full of remnants among other things. How’d I do that? Well I posted want ads on the freecycle group for my area and FreeCycle has groups world-wide, just go to and find one in your region and join it. Plus there’s also a free classified site in my region, where I also posted a want-ad in their crafts section. This is not the first time I’ve gotten a lot of material for free either – before that I got tons of embellishments, notions, yarn and crochet thread for free – literally a car trunkful. 100% of the material that was given to me is not only usable but basically beautiful, I couldn’t have found or chosen nicer stuff myself if I went out looking for it in a store. So there are ways to get some really nice materials without costing you any more than it costs in gas to go pick it up.

  7. 8 Dani in NC January 19, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Money has been tight in my household for the past several years, so in a way I feel like the rest of the country is catching up to me :-). Seriously, though, a lot of crafts like sewing and knitting that were once things that people did to provide clothing for their families have turned into expensive hobbies. I like seeing people being frugal and bring the crafts back to their roots.

  8. 9 tamdoll January 19, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I support my art supply purchases solely from the sales of anything I create… so in that respect, economic events have impacted me as a growing fear. I don’t want to spend money for fear that sales will not grow or even continue in the coming year.

    I agree with the previous replies – I have so much stuff – from that one yard of fabric at the LQS that “I just had to have” to gems I’ve picked up at yard sales or thrift shops, some have never been cut. And it’s not just the idea of thriftiness, but recycling, reusing and not leaving things for my kids to throw away. More than anything, I agree with Phyllis – working with only the things I have (ok, maybe buying a spool of thread now & again) – increases my creativity. It’s like cooking with leftovers – it makes my juices flow and it’s amazing what can be created sometimes from only a few ingredients.

  9. 10 cowgirl53 January 3, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    I’m lucky that I live in Alaska, and the recession hasn’t hit us yet, and I don’t think my reasons for cutting back on purchases qualifies as a hardship… but it has coincided nicely with the current emphasis on reuse/recycle rather than buying new. I live in a very tiny cabin (less than 400 square feet), and when I came home from a trip to Ireland in March, my first thought was “where am I going to put all this stuff??” Keep in mind that “the stuff” was only one suitcase filled with buttons, fabric, trims, books, and assorted crazy quilting supplies. I simply have no more room for more of anything, no matter how small.

    The second reason for “no more new” is sorting through my mother’s things and my thrift store finds. I’ve found so much that is old, but never opened, never cut, never used. Why didn’t it get used? My stuff is going to get used; my goal is to use every single button and every scrap of fabric I have before I die! My cool stuff is not going to the Goodwill!

    Right now almost all of my sewing things stored in my shed. It’s a pain to go look for anything. I spent a little time over my winter break from work doing some sorting and rearranging; it has been so much fun rediscovering different things I’d forgotten about!

    So between the space issue, not wanting to see my stuff go to the secondhand store, and the fun of rediscovery, I am really enjoying my self-imposed limit on new purchases. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that I can add to my own retirement (or the cabin??) instead of to the fabric stores’ bottom line.

  10. 11 Sunny January 3, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    I have always shopped for my stash at estate sales, garage sales, thrift sales and the like. As a result I have met some amazing people who have taught me lessons that will enhance my art forever. I have a small stash of valuable (to me!) vintage textiles and laces that I dole out in bits and dabs, using just enough to make a project sing. There is a special thrill of finding a jewel in a dingy thrift store or a dusty garage. More than once I’ve been told “please, take the whole box of sewing stuff ….. Grandma is gone and I really don’t want it.”

    Yes, the economy is going to hurt us all. But I will continue to shop my favorite haunts and will probably stay far away from the LQS and art supplies stores so that I’m not tempted to buy something I really don’t need and that my grandchildren will be begging someone to “take the whole box” one day 50 years from now.

  11. 12 Phyllis January 2, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I agree with Jude that some amazing things can be created from hardship. It would seem that adversity prompts a stretching of the mind. With creative work, at least for me, sometimes there is a tendency when things are too comfortable to not find other solutions to questions. Having to dig a little deeper for a treasure (idea or material) that would otherwise not be unearthed in better times is a positive way of looking at these difficult and uncertain days. There is also this feeling that one should recycle and use what one has that instills a desire to create something unique. It is somewhat of a relief to use what is on hand and know that one can work from an attitude of plenty instead of lack.

  12. 13 Margaret Almon December 24, 2008 at 9:45 am

    I make mosaics, which also is an art of scraps. I’ve been saving the offcuts, sorted by color, in little tins and making small patchwork frames. It’s satisfying to use something that at first seemed “too small” to salvage. I’ve also been using up tiles and glass that I bought, but kept moving to the bottom drawer because I kept using my favorites. I like the challenge of working with a limited palette–not that I would want that all the time, but sometimes if I have too much to choose from, I get bogged down.

  13. 14 bj parady December 18, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    There’s nothing like moving to pound into my head how much stuff I have acquired over the years. So I have made it my goal to use what I have–when I envision a new piece, I then figure out a way to use what I already have. Fortunately, that pile of stuff includes paints and dyes with which I can alter fabric. So far I have succeeded, only buying one spool of thread. Of course, it helps to not go anywhere that they sell fabric…But as a certified tree hugger, I feel better about what I’m doing from a sustainability viewpoint. Tread lightly.

  14. 15 Olga December 18, 2008 at 8:45 am

    I have a close artist/maker friend in a duodidactic relationship. We give ourselves projects as a way to help our work develop, and recently we have been swept up by the recycling zeitgeist. We are not only using existing fabrics and other materials, but we are looking back at sketchbooks, previous ideas and projects, and returning to look again at what might have been good ideas interrupted.

    I reckon that if I did not spend any money at all for the next year I would not notice the difference because I have so much work in progress, stuff in the attic, and I work so slowly!

    Like Jude, I believe that beautiful results arise from situations of restraint. There is nothing quite like an obstacle for generating a creative solution.

  15. 16 jude December 18, 2008 at 6:09 am

    to me quilting is working with scraps. i think the modern day art quilt thing is the same as any art that requires an atmosphere of disposable income to survive. i expect some amazing and beautiful results from hardship. i have always been preoccupied by the patterns and techniques produced as a result of need and function.

  16. 17 kate December 16, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Right, Clairan. Good point about cutting through the isolation. Having people around to share your interests is a great help during times of stress.
    One funny example I have of trading: I call it “The Failed Attempt Swap”
    At one time, I thought I would create scrapbooks for my kids and bought a bunch of fancy paper, do-dads and pattern scissors. Around the same time, my sister was experimenting with making her own pillows and curtains.
    Each of us realized later we were NOT cut out for the hobby we were trying. It worked out nicely because I gave her all my scrap booking materials (she loves it) and I took the fabric & interfacing she had.
    Everybody wins!

  17. 18 Clairan December 16, 2008 at 7:34 am


    I appreciate what you’re saying here, as I believe that things are going to get worse before they get better. But if we’re all in it together, moving in the same direction, they will get much better! So sharing “ingredients” is a great idea — it will also cut through some of the isolation artists sometimes feel. so find someone in your vicinity to share with. . . . I have always loved the chariness of the quilting myth. I suggest we challenge ourselves to work with our scraps and create something beautiful.

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