Commissioning Custom Work: A How-To Guide

by Terri

Since we appear to have declared September to be Artist's Rights Month, I wanted to do a example* of the commission process gone right.

Full Disclaimer. I am the one requesting the commission from the artist in question. I have been friends with Ariela as well as a handicrafter myself for long enough that I fully appreciate how much work and effort goes into custom anything. I Get It, and tailor my expectations accordingly. 

I knit a lot, and have fallen fair down the rabbit hole of interchangeable knitting needle sets.** As such, I need a case to hold all the various parts so that they don't get lost all over the house. I outgrew the binder that came with my first set*** about two years ago, though I pushed it to its absolute limit. Knowing that other people had success with worm binders, I purchased one from Bass Pro.**** Once I'd overstuffed it with my needles and cables, I realized that I didn't care for it at all. It would work as an interim piece and I would wait until some room in the budget opened up for something nicer.

I happened to come into a bit of fun money due to a survey, and decided now was the time. I approached Grace Fross, of Graces Cases on Etsy. Thankfully, this is relatively easy to do, although you are stuck in a proprietary messaging system.***** I had seen one of her products that I hoped could be adapted to better suit my needs. I also had seen something else that might have worked, and I could show her pictures of that. Both of these things will be important later.

While I opened the conversation with something relatively short, it referenced an existing product and how it might be adapted:

me: Would you be interested in making a $_STYLE style case, but with more pages?
Grace Fross: Both the Standard and deluxe cases have more pages including a page for 2 sets of tips. But if you were thinking of a different layout then we do take custom orders.

Once I knew that a custom piece was a possibility, I was able to further elaborate what I wanted:

me: I was looking for something that can store enough tips for 4+ sets of needles plus cables. I'm willing to pay custom prices. Something with as many pages as a Deluxe, but with the internal layout of the Tips Too.
Grace Fross: We do lots of custom orders in a wide variety of layouts. There are a few restrictions though because sewing machines will only go through a certain number of layers.
Custom orders have a wait list of around 10 - 12 weeks and there is a 20% surcharge. With custom you can select from fabrics I have on hand or supply your own in addition to a layout designed to fit your needles.
me: The restrictions and surcharge are reasonable and understandable. So is the waiting list.

Note the bolded text. I agreed up front to whatever Grace wanted to charge me for her work, before she even quoted me her terms. This might not always be the case for someone seeking a commission. If you don't know what the baseline price is, don't commit like I did. But I had an idea of what the general prices were based on the items in her Etsy shop, and was willing to pay up to half again as much for something that worked for me. Knowing what you can and are willing to spend is an important part of any custom commission. Also note that Grace was up front with the waiting list and pricing for custom work. I was able to make a decision about whether or not I could afford the work before anyone had expended time, effort or money. If I hadn't been willing to pay or wait, I would have responded as follows:

That would have been an appropriate way to end the process. Since both of them were fine with me, I figured that I'd be waiting a while, but I'd have exactly what I wanted. Getting exactly what you want is one of the biggest perks of commissioning custom work. I knew I was on a list, and then when my turn came up, I'd be getting a message and would then proceed with making a custom case. But first, I made sure that money would not become a problem in this process:

me: Thank you for your time. I'm sorry, but I don't think that this is going to fit within my current budget or time constraints.

It is crucial to know what your artist requires as far as upfront money is concerned. Some artists need the deposit as a cushion, others feel awkward about having your money without a product to send you. Communication is key here. 

I was willing to wait as long as Grace needed, but then a message showed up in my inbox:

me: Do you require a deposit?
Grace Fross: No deposit needed.
Grace Fross: If you haven't heard from me by the end of this week, please remind me

That delightful surprise was an important part of an artist's responsibility to communicate clearly. Without that, I would have happily waited, but with it I knew things would be speeding up a little. 

Now I will sing Ms. Fross's praises, as she truly is the Fabric Whisperer. I mentioned that I like purple, and she came up with this gorgeous batik fabric for me: 

Anyone who knows me well knows just how much I jumped up and down when I saw this.

At this point, further snippets of back and forth conversation would just devolve into jargon about what I wanted. Which, again, demonstrates communication. I was able to point Grace to another Etsy listing to demonstrate some particulars of what I wanted. Once she saw that, she was able to let me know that she would try to get it finished soon, but she did have a show that she needed to finish her inventory for. And once again, she checked in with me on the pricing, now that she was able to have precise numbers for me. 

All of these things were laid out BEFORE any work was completed. All told, only a couple of hours in back and forth time were spent (which, had I not gone with this, would have been time not recompensed). And in the end, everyone was happy. I got what I wanted, Grace Fross was paid fairly. And that's a commission gone right.





*I ramble. The post won't be short.

**This was my first set. I have since discovered another company that uses the same manufacturer (cross-compatibility FTW) and am completely powerless in the face of pretty wood.

***Alas, it no longer ships with that binder. Nor do they make that binder any longer. Hence the need for something else.

****Yes, the sort you buy for storing fishing lures. Yes, this means I'll never stop getting Bass Pro catalogs. I've somewhat resigned myself to it.

*****Ms. Fross would like you to know that customers can also approach her via her email address at the GracesCases website