International Quilt Festival is the largest quilt show in the United States and one of the largest in the world. The show takes place in Houston each fall and is hosted by Quilts, Inc., the same company that organizes Quilt Market, the industry trade show. Quilt enthusiasts from all over the world travel to International Quilt Festival (IQF) to take classes with highly sought after teachers and to see award-winning quilts from the best quilt artists working today. According to Quilt’s, Inc. 65,000 people attended this year’s IQF, which took place last month.
Quilts, Inc. is a privately owned for-profit company. The quilt show portion of the event, called A World of Beauty, is run by The International Quilt Association, a membership-based non-profit, but Quilts, Inc. hosts the festival itself including the classes.
IQF is one of the most prestigious teaching venues for quilting instructors. The application process is highly competitive. And yet teacher pay rates at the show have stayed the same for at least a decade, if not longer, and are not commensurate with the industry standard.
The 130 teachers at IQF receive $15 per student for a three-hour class and $30 per student for a six-hour class. Travel expenses are not covered. Even with a full course load of six daylong classes, teachers are barely able to break even.
“Quilts, Inc. has not raised teacher payment for the 10 years I’ve been teaching there and I’ve talked to teachers who have done this even longer and they can’t remember them ever raising teacher pay,” one veteran teacher told me.
“If I add up my teaching fees and subtract my expenses, I made a grand total of $154 for teaching four three-hour classes, one lecture, one six-hour class, and two two-hour samplers,” another teacher said. “I shared a room with three other teachers, ate out only for dinner and lowered my expenses as much as I possibly could.”
A third teacher told me: “I taught six full classes with my [teaching] fees earning $4,500 while my travel, lodging, and meal costs were $4,250, resulting in a small profit of $250. I would never teach anywhere for that amount.”
I spoke with a total of 10 veteran teachers who teach all over the country. Every one of them cited the pay rate at IQF as unfairly low.
“Quilt Festival is the show that I get the most frustrated with,” one teacher said. “They’re the worst paying venue in all of teaching.”
For many, the pay rate feels exploitative. “After expenses, I make half, or less than I would at any other venue. I also work twice as hard. I go because of exposure … but that doesn’t excuse the fact that we are being taken advantage of. Our hotels and travel should be covered, as they are [at] every other venue. Can you tell that this is a thorn?” one teacher said. Another added: “I ran the numbers. If I consider teaching and lecturing fees alone, without counting kit fees, then subtract my travel, baggage, food and hotel expenses, I earned a whopping $158 for a week’s worth of work that, in any other situation, would have earned me over $3,000.”
All of the instructors I spoke to teach at guilds, conferences and quilting retreats. Many travel and teach 20 to 25 times a year. According to them, the going rate at other venues is 30 percent to 50 percent higher than what Quilts, Inc. offers, and travel expenses, including lodging, baggage and meals, are always covered.
“The reality is that Quilt Festival is the most expensive venue to teach at,” one teacher explained, citing the $220-per-night cost of the hotels near the convention center in Houston. Another teacher concurred: “You spend a ton of money, even with frequent flyer [miles] and hotel points.”
In order to make teaching at the show financially viable, the instructors I spoke to say they focus on selling merchandise to the students in their classes. Most ship boxes of kits and notions to Houston in advance and rely on the income they make from those sales to fund their trip.
“You absolutely must rely on merchandise sales to make any money in Houston because you don’t make anything otherwise,” one teacher told me. “But I make just as much in sales at any other guild — plus my fees.”
I reached out to Judy Murrah, Quilts, Inc.’s vice president of education and administration, for a comment about IQF’s teacher pay. She declined my request for comment, but said: “We greatly value our relationship and bonds with our many teachers — both those who have taught for decades, as well as our newest instructors. They provide a wonderful opportunity for festival students to learn from the best instructors in the world, all in one place. And any concerns they might have, we always address with them directly.”
Although Murrah suggests that teachers can speak with her directly about their concerns, not one of the 10 teachers I talked to felt this was actually a possibility for them.
“Unfortunately, most of us in the quilt world know that if we speak out, that those amazing and strong Texas women have the power to greatly damage our careers,” one teacher said.
The fear of retribution runs strong. None of the instructors I spoke to wished to have their name appear in this article out of fear that they would be blacklisted. I first learned about this issue from an instructor who contacted me asking if I would write about it because she felt she couldn’t.
When I asked if they’d ever approached Murrah to ask for a raise, one teacher said: “I’ve often thought of putting together a petition saying, ‘Here’s what we need,’ but I’m self-employed. I pay my taxes and health insurance and make car payments. I pay all of my bills doing this. I’m afraid of complaining because I don’t want this to disappear.”
“They know that everyone is chomping at the bit to teach there,” another teacher added.
Another teacher told me: “Unfortunately it’s simply supply and demand. There are hundreds of other teachers waiting in the wings to take our places in a heartbeat and Quilts, Inc. knows this. Oh, to be paid what we are worth!”
“They get away with stuff that no one else can because they rely on the prestige of the show,” one teacher said.
Aside from the pay, it is undeniable that there are significant, intangible benefits to teaching at the IQF. For starters, teaching at the show is a resume builder.
“People do this because of the prestige involved. When they send their brochure to guilds they can say they taught at festival,” one teacher explained.
What’s more, everyone I spoke to mentioned how much they enjoy the experience of the show.
“I find the time spent with students from around the country to be delightful, the time spent with colleagues to be educational, the quilts on display to be inspiring. I find meeting with friends, new and old, from around the world, to be invigorating and it all put together feeds my soul,” one teacher said.
Many teachers mentioned that they were able to meet guild members from other parts of the country and book further teaching jobs. Some secured jobs internationally as well.
“When you want to go to the next level you need the audience to do it,” one teacher said about why she continues to teach at IQF. “You need the world stage.”
Although these intangible benefits are undeniable, it’s important to not confuse them with actual payment.
“Yes, there are exposure opportunities in Houston that are not available anywhere else, but that is the same as asking artists to donate their work for free in exchange for exposure,” one teacher explained. “I really had to stop and think about why I am still teaching at Quilt Festival. In the exhausted, post-festival unpacking and accounting there is the little bitter pill of working for free to swallow.”
It’s time for Quilts, Inc. to revisit their pay rates for instructors. As one very seasoned instructor told me, “The vast and wide ranging types of classes together with the huge combined expertise of the teachers is a very large part of the success of the show, and is one of the major attractions for visitors. The anticipation for the class brochure and how quickly the classes fill is evidence of this. The teachers and education staff then must be acknowledged not just with sincere thanks but also monetarily for an excellent job well done.”
This may mean raising the price of classes for students — a rate that also has not changed in many years. “They should raise the cost of classes,” one teacher said. “They should double them. I have students come in from Canada and they say, ‘The classes here are so affordable!’ but what they don’t realize is that it’s because the teachers aren’t being paid what they should.”
Additionally, Quilts, Inc. should align itself with what every other venue is offering, and give teachers a travel stipend.
International Quilt Festival is arguably the most prestigious quilt show in the world. As such, the festival organizers are in a position to set the bar for fair teacher pay. As one instructor put it, “Quilts, Inc. should be a leader and example in the industry. There is absolutely no reason for them not to.”