That question is one that most fiber artists who sell their work and interact with potential customers come to dislike intensely. Is it asked as a polite way of saying 'why is this piece so $#@% expensive'? Is time spent the only way they can relate to being an artist? Are they just making conversation because they don't know how to ask about composition or technique? Or do they genuinely care about the answer?
One has to be nice to potential customers (unless they're using sticky fingers to feel the work). So I try to answer the question slowly, sounding out what answer they're really looking for.
The piece I just finished (well, finished except for hanging mechanism) shows some of my problems with a straight forward answer.
1a. Time between white silk and today? 3-4 years, can't quite remember when I dyed the fabric.
`1b. Actual working time, hands on cloth? Maybe 100 hours.
difference--lots of time spent with it on my design wall, deciding what to do next. In this case, most of the time was spent on deciding the quilting.
2. Time the idea first started itching my brain to today? Maybe up to 20 years--every November I drove almost daily across the Mississippi River from Keokuk, IA to Hamilton, IL, and admired the last traces of fall in the bottoms, reflected in the slow moving part of the river.
3. Time spent learning how to translate my vision into actual art? A lifetime.
I haven't priced this piece yet, but must do that soon as it will debut in a show in March. It will probably be near the top of my price range as it has a lot of hand work (=more time). But whatever the price, someone at some show will see it and tsk, tsk, that it is too much for just a 'wall hanging'. Whatever. Plumbers don't give away their work, neither should artists.