If you have questions about how to calculate prices for your knitting and where to find customers that will pay the right price, Monique Boonstra gives us a masterclass in how she calculates the prices for her very intricate lace knitted shawls. Spoiler; she doesn't have an hourly rate but figured out a way to get a fair price and still she gets customers that order multiple (!!) shawls from her.
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In order to make the podcast available to as many people as possible, here's the transcription, written by Alison.
“People always try to take advantage of you. And they will always want to buy cheap, but you have to stand for what you do.”
This episode is sponsored by AM Art & Stationery, the small, conscious stationery store ran by independent artist and pen paller, Alison Maglaughlin. Check out her handpainted postcards, customizable letterhead, and paper embroidered creations. She even helps people find pen pals! You can fill out a questionnaire and start living your handwritten letter fantasy at www.amstationery.com
In my podcast A Smaller Life, I talk to makers and business owners in my industry (and sometimes beyond) about making conscious choices and growing your brand by actually going smaller.
Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about pricing your knitting or knitted products. I am pleased to welcome Monique Boonstra on the podcast to continue this conversation. As a professional and extremely skilled lace knitter and designer, Monique generously shared her experience on how she gets the right price, and how she works with customers who actually will pay what her designs are worth.
Monique is full of knowledge and highly skilled. She has been asked by museums to replicate intricate lace pieces, she's an expert on Shetland lace knitting, and just a very smart and lovely human in general. She prepared a masterclass for our conscious knitting club with even more insights and provided so much value to our woollies. In our membership, the conscious knitting club, we connect to other knitters that are working on building a more conscious knitting practice, working with the idea that making informed decisions with curated information will lead to more focused and more relaxed knitting. And that results in projects with more meaning and value. You can sign up via community.ja-wol.com. See you there, and enjoy this interview with Monique!
Monique, so glad to have you. I admire you so much as a designer and a maker; the amount of knowledge and skill that you have is mind boggling to me because it’s so far out of my own knitting world. It's not something I do, still. So I'm really excited that you're here. Can you introduce yourself a little and give us an idea of who you are and what you do?
Okay, well, I'm Monique Boonstra. I live in the Netherlands, I'm 51 and a half, and I'm a Shetland lace knitter and spinner. I’m delighted to be here, Saskia. I reacted to your [Instagram] post because I wanted to make it my sort of battle to fight the stereotypes that people have about knitting, and especially wages in knitting. So I reacted to it, you invited me to explain myself a bit more, and here I am.
I've been knitting for a while, since I was perhaps eight or nine. At first it was just ridges and garter stitch and all, but as I grew up, I started to do more difficult things in lace, like making a vest of some sort, and then I didn’t knit for a while because I started sewing, making clothes and everything, and then I got kids. After that, I became a garden designer, and I did that for a while. I must say, I'm still having benefits from that because as a starter entrepreneur, I was able to utilize some Chamber of Commerce events - as a participant, not as a teacher - and learn things about being an entrepreneur. The main thing I learned was, just like Ravelry, later, to make double administration. So when the computer is down, I can still look up things. Ever since then, I always have a little book where I make notes everyday for what I do, and how I do it, and what materials I use. All the things you usually insert on your Ravelry page, I also have on paper, so I can look back; I can pick up one of my notebooks and see what I did in 2017.
One day I started to make things with knitting again. And people liked it. Te teacher of one of my sons asked me to make something for her - a cowl, because the cowl I gifted her was taken by her daughter and she wanted one for herself. So she said, “I will pay you for that.” And I thought, “Oh my god, what do I have to ask?” Usually, most people say, “Oh, just give me the price of the yarn. I'm having fun, so that's it.” And that was also the case with this, my first transaction in the knitting world.
Nonetheless I thought, “There must be a better way.” Because usually you don’t get paid for the amount of work you do, and I can never prove how many hours I've been working on it. I can suck on my thumb, put my feet up, and charg and charge and charge, without doing anything, and because the people that buy knitting usually don’t knit for themselves, they don't have no clue how much time it took to make it.
So my dear friend, Angelique, from the Wool Hemel, she asked me to knit her a shawl. And by then, the first Stitchin’ Bitchin’ in Holland had happened, it was an event. I went there and I got familiar with lace knitting, fine lace knitting, and yarns that I've never seen before, and when she asked me to knit the shawl, she paid me in wool. That was fine by me because I got something new that nobody else had yet.
A bit later, I got familiar with the Hapsalu shawls. They had a very old book, and I was searching on Ravelry and I got it. It's called Pitsilised Koekirjad, and it's got the oldest patterns, in Shetland, of Estonian knitting on paper, and I had a
field day. But what I read with Google Translate is that the Estonian knitters invented nubs, so they could use more yarn in a shawl, and then it was weighed and priced accordingly. So the more nubs the more yarn, the more you get paid.
Can you explain what a nub is?
Yes, a nub is a little bubble. It's like, a bit more stitches in one stitch. So typically, in a nub, you have nine loops. Sometimes it can be 11, or 13 loops in one stitch, and one loop can be anywhere from 1.5 centimeters all the way up to 8 centimeters, so when you have 100 knots, that's 80 centimeters, for example.
I made a shawl and it has more than 1200 nubs, so I got paid more. So I thought when I started my business in 2009, that is the way to go. I cannot prove how many hours I've worked on it, but I can prove, by putting it on a scale, how many yards or meters of yarn I've used. And when I put a price to that, perhaps someone will pay, and they did!
Anyway, so I decided that’s how I would charge, and then I had to think, “What will be the rate?” Well, I thought, “There are several techniques; I have to have several rates.”
So I have rate one: that's knit row, purl row, with lace.
Then I have rate two: which is knit row, purl row, with beads or not.
And then I have rate three: knit in pattern, return, knit in pattern, which is Shetland lace.
And recently I added a fourth rate for gossamer, which is so thin, it has to be flawless, otherwise I can't pick it back up because the yarn is so thin, or the pattern is a bit more difficult.
Are these rates for the whole shawl or how does that work, exactly?
No, it’s more by section, because it could be a mix and match. In a Hapsalu shawl with nubs, there are parts in my design that are just plain knit rows, and just lace. So there's a certain percentage of nubs and then a certain percentage
of plain knit, then I do 20-60 or 20-80 or something like that. Then, because I had that educational day with the Chamber of Commerce when I was a garden designer - I learned that administration is very important and that I had to
keep up with what I did - I started the notebook with everything I did, so I could look back and know how many days or evenings I worked on it. I decided what I had to put on the bill. I decided that when someone buys a shawl, I need to make a bill that shows what they owe and why, so there was not only a rate, but also the price for the yarn and postage to send it to me... then it was sometimes a price for a pattern, because I’d bought it on Ravelry... then there is postage to send the shawl out to the customer, and then there was the price for taxes... So just imagine that when I started, I asked about 12 cents per knitted meter. That was rate one. And then rate two was 14 cents per knitted meter. And rate three was 16 cents per knitted meter. So when a shawl has 800 meters, I do that times 12 cents. That is what I charge for my knitting instead of an hourly rate of $10. Because it might be 300 hours and it will be very expensive, and nobody will pay that.
Another thing is, when I knit the same shawl in a different yarn, the price will be different, too. So when I need a shawl in sock yarn, the price will be cheaper because sock yarn is thicker, fatter, I don't know, bulkier, and so you get length quicker. When I knit with gossamer, I can knit 20 rows, and I've only got three centimeters, but with sock yarn it's already 12 centimeters... therefore the sock yarn shawl is cheaper than the gossamer shawl.
Then one day, I was in the car with my son driving home. I was listening to BNN radio, a business radio channel in Holland, because since I was not educated as an entrepreneur or schooled in administration, I needed to learn and listen to as many people as I can to get ahead. Anyway, there was a man on there from Spyker cars and he was building cars by hand. So I thought, “I have to listen because now I am working with my hands and I need to hear what he has to say.”
Luckily, it was a very good interviewer because he asked, “On how do you decide on the price?” and the answer was, “It depends on how many cars I can make a year.” So that was my goal. How many shawls can I make in a year? And apparently it's 18. But it’s also sometimes two, because you know, life happens, but I decided that was a good guideline. The sad thing was, I didn't raise my rates every year. My rates were stable for the first five years because I didn't have many commissions. The commissions came because I was very busy with social media. That's a very important thing because I didn't have a web shop, it was only Ravelry and my blog.
Back in 2006, when I started, I did a lot of networking by visiting other people's blogs and I always, always, always, always left a comment. So I wasn't aware of it then, but people got to know me. They got to know my work, they visited my blog, and in the end, I had a whole network of people visiting me, knowing me, and linking my name to lace. People started calling me Mistress of Lace, the Queen of Lace - I never called myself that. But anyway, because of that blog, people started talking and saying, “Oh, she makes such nice things.” And people I didn't even know came to me and asked me if I could knit them a shawl. I didn't have to ask for a commission. And because I wrote about the commissions on my blog, other people thought, “Hey, I want that, too.”
And then I was invited to teach in Zwolle, and then you meet other makers and potential customers. But sadly, the thing is, when you see something that's knitted and you talk to a knitter, the first thing they think is, “Oh, I can do that myself.” That's one less customer. But the thing is, they might know someone who isn't a knitter, and they recommend you.
What I was really pleased to discover was, at my events, people knew me. I'm rarely on the internet with my face. And back then, not even with my face. But still, they knew me. They saw my work and they knew about it. Once I was standing behind two women, and they were talking, like “You have to go to the stand by Monique, she has such lovely lace.” And I thought, you should know that I’m right behind you. But that wasn’t even the only time that happened.
It's so funny also, because lace has a specific look to it, it’s delicate and feminine, and you might connect it with a certain type of person, but you also ride a motorcycle. So you're not the kind of typical person that people would connect to lace.
That’s right, I’m a girl who’s six feet tall that handles very fine needles and even finer yarn.
But going back to what I was saying, overall, the thing that I wanted to tell you is that I don't think it's wise when you start a business to let people take advantage of your enthusiasm. The fact that you like it and you want to do it is great - that should be a part of starting a business - but you have to be smart about it, too. And since I had a gardening design business before that, I was the first entrepreneur in my family. I had no help from anyone else.
“I don’t think it’s wise when you start a business to let people take advantage of your enthusiasm.”
At first, my family always promoted me anywhere. My mum always wore one of my designs or my shawls when she was out and about. And the thing is, with the Internet, it's more powerful than you think, in the way that when people ask my mother, “Where did you get that shawl?” she always said, “The internet.” She never said her daughter made it because people would then think “Oh, it’s just your daughter. Oh, yeah, right.” And when you say the internet, people get interested, so she popped out one of my cards and people would take it and yeah, that brought me a lot of work.
Family support is of course very important because sometimes you need a bit of capital to get started, like a printer or a certain program to make your knitting patterns. You need someone to resonate your ideas with, too. And that is very important, because sometimes you have a bright idea, but when somebody comes in from a different angle, you can improve your idea.
Another thing that I think is extremely important is for your products to be the highest quality. For me, I take the extra time to make sure that when I wear a white blouse, there's no red imprint of the shawl on my white blouse. That can happen. It hasn't - because I rinsed it six times, but it can happen. So I always make sure that I have very good resources, that I make contact with dyers or with the handlers to make sure that my supplies are of good quality, because my name is attached to what I sell.
Dr. Phil always says it takes a thousand “attaboys” to erase one bad comment. And my reputation is - let me be very, very honest here - very important. I want to be liked, please, but I also want to deliver good quality products, so that when you see the shawl in your closet, you want to wear it again, and again and again. And perhaps maybe come back. That's important.
You have to know who you're selling, too. From what I saw on your Instagram, there were comments from people that said, “I won't buy it,” or “I wouldn't pay that much for that stuff.” That's true. That was true, that will be true... because there will always be people that you know, are probably not able to afford such expensive work. And that's okay, you can give them a discount if you want. But there are always people willing to buy something a bit more expensive, hence a bit more exclusive, that they can show off to their friends. Or maybe its parents who want to give something to their children; their daughter who has having piano recital or needs to be on stage and wants to have something exclusive on her shoulders. So that's very important.
It's not always the people you know that will buy your stuff, it may come from outside of your world. People asked me when I was at my event, “Can I have your number for my magazine and I will call you and we talk later?” That’s how I got into Noorderland, a magazine for North Holland. And it was such a small little picture, but it got me one client, but she bought 12 shawls.
Twelve shawls?! I have to stop you there and ask: was it for a wedding? Twelve bridesmaids or something?
No, actually! She just wanted the shawls. She bought yarn herself, sent it to me, I knitted her shawl, she wears a shawl.
I love these stories. I'll shut up again. Please continue.
And then, as I told recently, I'm very camera shy. I was asked, again, not promoting myself, Andrea from fruity knitting. She asked me because she had an item on lace. And she found my name. And she asked me if I wanted to do an interview. I was scared to death, just like now, I'm out of breath. Anyway, I couldn't sleep for weeks. I was well prepared. I had all my stuff around. I was very worried and yeah, it brought me so much. It brought me again, one client and I'm at the eighth shawl now. And that's also number 100 on my commissions. I checked yesterday, and I've done 100 commissions so far. But it took me 13 years. So not to toot my own horn, but when this shawl is done, it will be 979 kilometres of yarn I worked on commission. And that's apart from all my private projects.
That's amazing. Well done.
It's amazing what a couple little needles and a bit of yarn can bring. I'm still amazed myself. I've been to Belgium, I've been to Rotterdam, I've been to Grongingen, I've been to Vandaam, I've been to North Holland. I've been everywhere. It's been so much fun. And I always have to remind myself, because I was aware of the back in 2015 that I was riding a wave. And I was on top of the wave because I spent so much time and I always explained it to people because my husband is always away from home, since he is an international truck driver, and back then he was always gone for two weeks at a time. So I might as well do something fun on the couch and get myself a nice shawl. And because I had so much time, I'm not a quick knitter, I just made a lot. And that got me on top of that wave.
And I was asked to teach and I did well apparently, because it got asked a lot. And in the best year I got more than nine workshops in one year. So that was at least once a month that I got to travel all around the world. World [laughing] well, my little world and, and tell people about lace and then Ravelry or Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, make people aware of other techniques. And yeah, since then, it has dropped. I haven't given that class in years now. And because other techniques are very interesting too, and lace is just slow. But I was assured by some people it will last longer. And I'll go with it.
Now I've got my own Facebook group. I was very, very, very surprised that no one has started it. But three years ago, I started a Fine Shetland Lace Group on Facebook, and I've got over 6000 members. For that, I thank the algorithm from Facebook, the one that says “if you like this, you might like that” and people still choose to be a member and look around and and some people are delighted they say, “I finally found someone who does what I do and knows about it” or “I want to learn” and I do need to say it's a skill you need to want to learn, because it's not easy. There are people who are dedicated knitters, I call them, because they have one project and stick to it till it's done, and there are people like me who have 14 projects on the needles who just might one get done. But that’s also because I have deadlines and by the way, in those 100 conditions, I think I missed four deadlines.
The one I'm working now on now is missing the deadline, hardcore, because of Corona and work and yeah, the lady is very, very kind. She allows me all the time I need to finish it. And in the meanwhile, I must say I also knitted a vest and a sweater in that time, but she allows that.
But that’s most of the wisdom that I have to share. What can I do? How many can I make? What will I charge? And who's going to buy it? Those are the most important points. Also, I want to give people the confidence to do it because most of the time, the one on the couch is knitting. And sometimes it's the man beside you, I don't know your personal situation, but oftentimes, there's one person sitting next to you on the couch, completely oblivious to all your creations, to all your hard work, and the cursing, and having to stay silent because you're counting, and having to wait for you to come up to bed because you have to knit one more row. All those platitudes are okay, and they're fun. And my husband knows them already. So please, you're better than you think you are, you can do it.
Almost nobody is as crazy as I am. Please remind yourself that I knit every day, every day for hours. So I always compare it to playing a piano. I see something or hear something and I can replicate it, because I know the building blocks. I know how it's built, for lace anyway.
But then would you say you have a talent? Or is what you're saying right now? Is it because you've studied it, and I understand it?
I'm both because I grew up in the 70s. And the 70s in the Netherlands was Crea Bea, it was crafting all the way, my mom and I did hardcore everything. Everything was in handwerk zonder grenzen. We did spinning, weaving, and dyeing with plants, anything. So the seed was planted early. But then you have to cultivate it, you have to grow it, and you have to practice it like you do with music. I have had music lessons, so that's why it's easy for me to compare it to that. I learned to play the piano. I see patterns. I see repeats I see. I also compared to Lego, because it's building blocks. And you're building a wall with all those blocks.
It’s also like computer language, with the zeros and ones. Like even when you look at a knitting chart, it kind of looks like binary code.
Yeah, absolutely. And the rhythm is very important because you have short repeats, sometimes five stitches, sometimes 20, sometimes 58, like in my big shawl. And once you get the hang of that, and you can read your knitting, like what you did before and the rows, then you can assume what will happen next.
When you want to start a business, you don't have to be perfect yet, but I can recommend you do. Because, like in a carpet or in a curtain, when you see a little flaw, it pops out. Because the rhythm is gone. For a friend, that might be okay. But when people pay for it, even though they don't know knitting, they can spot the flaw. So you have to try to be perfect. And that's very important.
I think that's a really interesting thing, because I've always thought... even in a kimono, and in a Persian rug, there are mistakes there on purpose, because of more spiritual reasons, because nobody is perfect. There's only one person, and it's certainly not a human.
Oh, I know.
But I see what you mean. And especially in lace, but unless you have no choice, because when you make a mistake, it travels. And it's not just one mistake, you cannot get back to your rhythm.
And a little bit curious also about those customers, those commissions because you have to find them from outside the kitting world. So the people that follow you are basically a wider group of people. I'm so curious, is there a kind of person that buys a lace shawl? Is it a certain age? Are they all brides?
It really differs. You know, the lady that bought the 12 shawls, she was a regular customer in a knitting store because she already could knit, but I was a bit quicker. And I've done complicated things. I've also done commissions that I
thought, “This is just plain rows, please.” But they wanted it. And even though I sometimes try to stop them by saying something like, “I'm not trying to be rude, but you can do it yourself.” but sometimes they just don’t want to. I think the most important thing was that I could keep my deadlines. I had one customer who was a knit designer herself, she wanted to get married and she didn't have the time to knit her shawl. I only had three weeks, which was a very tight deadline, but I did it. I can't recommend this. But in a way, it was good because it resulted in another commission to net an apron for the museum in Vriesland.
Yeah. Amazing. I think you definitely have a gift. But you're also a very hard worker. You're very Dutch in a way that you're like, that's just get to work. Look, I want to fix this I want to see how this works and--
but it's also to grow as a knitter, because you want to see if you can do it. If you're a skier or snowboarder, you want to take that hill, you want to do it, and the feeling you get from “I did it” makes the payment not important anymore. Because we get a good feeling from something, you're finished and then you get nice comments. That's another reason why social media is now very, very important. A lot of things need to be on social media for you to get personal and educate about your work. People don't know what goes into it, but because they are bored, or they want to see something unique, they go on Instagram, and they click and click, or on Pinterest and then they find you. Like Irina in America, she found me and she is my best knitter. Along with Monique, she sells yarn. And then you meet the most awesome people and they tell others. I got this customer in America that I got to knit a shawl for, June Hiatt. She's a very famous knitter and book writer,she wrote a sort of knitting Bible with all stitches she knew.
I think that amazes me most, that knitters ask you to knit. But at the same time, it shouldn't amaze me because I'm that kind of person. I'm not knitting lace.
The thing is, I did a lot of commissions for shops, because like I said, I make my deadlines. They got a new yarn, lace was hot, and they wanted me to knit something for display.
In the knitting world, we’ve seen a lot of trends over the years. I started my blog, Saskia Knits It Again, almost at the same time as yours, And we've seen in that time, like peaks of trends. First, it was a group of people knitting. And then they figured out that people in America were using circular needles. So we were all using circulars, and then we all moved our yarn to the left side. And then we got the chunky knits, and then we got the color challenge, and then we got the speckles then I mean, it's trend after trend after trend. There's always a new group of people coming in and they ride on the wave that's happening at that time. Do you feel that contemporary knitting / hobby knitters now are they open to lace knitting? Or do they see it as like an heirloom thing?
I think lace will be always there. Recently I got acquainted with Jennifer and one of her designs was knit by Andrea from the Fruity Knitting Podcast, and she now integrates lace sleeves with a Farah body. Yeah, I do think lace will always be there. It was always there. I will fight for that tooth and nail because I think it's very important and overlooked. And I have struggled with that fact. And still, I'm struggling because it's such a broad yet niche corner. The addicted to knitting group on Facebook is 70 1000. And lace knitting is 6000. So it will always be there but it's just I think the biggest hurdle is still the yarn shop. Yeah, if it's not there, they don't try it because--
I can attest to that. I hardly had any lace because people were not buying it.
I worked as a cleaning lady for 12 years, and I remember there was a skirt on the rack that hung there for months. I've seen it because I was cleaning, it hung in the window for one day - it was sold out. People driving by on their bicycles called up and said, “I saw the skirt in the window, I want it in my size. Can I pick it up later? “
I did start with a lot of lace, though. I had bunches and bunches of lace, but it took so long to sell.
Yeah and it takes up space, it takes up money. Money because you have to buy it. You have to put it in the shop before, you have to buy it and keep it in stock. And then when it's on display people like, “Oh, I didn't know it was there. Let me try it.” And they find out it takes 20 times longer to knit than a sweater. And 50 times more effort for the first 10 rows. So they think “No, not for me. I don’t want to do it.”
At the same time, you've also made a really nice picture of the niche, like this specific thing that you do. There will always be people looking for that specific thing. And in the end, the world is full of people; as long as you reach those, you’re set. And that's where the marketing comes in, and all that kind of thing. You said it yourself, when you expect the people that are in your group to be your customers, then it's going to be kind of complicated. Sometimes you cannot even think of who your customers are and where they come from.
It's like people buying art, they have to appreciate your work and I often get accused of making art. In a way it is, because it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of skill and then you have something to wear. But there are always people who will appreciate it. And I always compare it to supermarkets, some people go to Aldi and some people go to Class A supermarkets. And there are also people who are wealthy and don't care if whatever. I can never watch what someone has in their wallet, I don't know what they can afford. I'm not counting on it, they have to make the choice. I just offer an option. I have the luxury that people come to me. And sometimes I have to advertise, but in my Instagram, and on my blog, before, all I do is show you how I do it, I tell you the results. Sometimes people will wait, and then they can't keep their mind off it and then they come back.
I want to finish by asking you because you said I look at the year and how many shawls I can knit in a year and go from there... Is it possible as a knitter,to make it into a living? Can you even fit that into a year?
Oh, no.I have that administration of my books and I not only count rows, but then I count stitches. So a few years back, I counted. When my husband did all the chores and the cooking, I could knit 11,000 stitches a day. That's a lot, and I can't go any faster. So when I knit for four hours a day, five, I can knit five- to six-thousand stitches. Sometimes seven- sometimes three-
How many are in a shawl?
They're so different. Each one is so different, but the biggest has a half a million. My latest design was, I believe, 300,000.
Yeah, so it takes weeks.
And obviously you have to take care of your body as well.
Yeah, I wear gloves when I ride my bike, at work, I wear gloves in the kitchen, because otherwise my hands will snag at the yarn because it's so fine. So I have a nail file. I have a clipper. I usually keep my nails very short. And I use cream for my hands so they don't dry out. So I take really good care of my hands. Because that's my work.
Yeah. When do you wear your lace shawls?
I remember you telling me that you just you just take it and you fumble your neck and you wear it when you go on your bike as well.
Yeah [laughing] Yeah, I do.
That’s so crazy to me. Like your really fine shawls.
Yeah, because I what else must I do? It's like jeans, you wear them. And when they get broke, you say, “It has been a nice ride,” and then you make something new or you buy something new. So it's a product that needs to be used because otherwise, what's the use?
Exactly. Well, Monique, thank you so much. You've given us so much insight. Thank you.
Thank you for everyone listening and being there and keeping the technique alive because it's very important. Even though the Corona crisis wasn't very good for us, we got to crafting again, so that's okay.
That's true. Well thank you again!
I love that Monique is so passionate about getting the right price. I hope you're starting to believe in paying and asking for the right price.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic and any other ideas you might have. Please leave your messages by clicking the record button on the right to leave a voice message. Thanks for reading!
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