In this installment in my series about turning sewing softies into a business I am going to explore the ins and outs of taking on custom work. Making a custom item means creating something one-of-a-kind especially for a particular customer according to design choices the customer makes. It might involve drafting a brand new pattern from the ground up for something you’ve never made before, or it may just mean allowing the customer to order a particular item you already make in custom colors or a custom size.
Custom work takes extra time to produce because you have to make a new item from the time the order is placed and generally custom work will be able to command a higher price because the finished piece is one-of-a-kind and is made to a customer's particular specifications. Custom work requires a greater level of communication between you and the customer than a typical sale and there is greater potential for disappointment on the customer’s end if the finished product is not exactly what they had in mind. And by taking on a custom job you are accepting someone else’s design choices and will therefore have less control over the look of the finished product.
Clearly the world of custom work is complex and there is a lot to consider before diving in. To learn more about how to successfully take on custom work I wanted to talk with makers who have a lot of experience to share. Fortunately I had great conversations with three softie makers who have built portions of their businesses on making custom softies for clients over the last many years. I also spoke with a designer who has done a significant amount of custom sewing of home décor items as part of her business. All four of these women were generous and helpful and I learned a tremendous amount about this topic from each them. I hope that by sharing their experiences here you’ll be able to evaluate if custom work might become part of your own handmade business, and if it already is, perhaps you'll identify some methods to make the process smooth, efficient, and profitable.
BE SURE THIS KIND OF CHALLENGE IS MOTIVATING TO YOU
I have taken on a number of custom jobs in over the past year (my favorite being this constipated teddy bear). After the initial excitement of the order, I know that the next feeling can be one of dread. Do I really have to make this piece in those colors? Really? But I don’t want to! I want to do it my way!
So first, before taking on any custom orders, I think you really have ask yourself if you are craving the challenge of a custom job. Is the prospect of working with a client to make something according to their specifications exciting to you?
For Alison Glass, the design challenges presented by new custom jobs fuels her creative fire. Alison’s business focused on creating custom home décor pieces for clients for the past several years. Alison made everything from upholstered chairs and ottomans to window seats cushions and throw pillows. Although she is not a softie maker, I think her experiences are still relevant for any handmade business person thinking about taking on custom work.
Sofa by Alison Glass
On the topic of motivation, Alison said,“I personally get a lot of satisfaction in coming up with new pieces. Once I've made something, I am ready to come up with something new, more than continue to repeat what I've already done. Custom work allows for this."
Sian Keegan is an artist and stuffed animal designer who became well-known for her custom plush pet portraits when they were featured in the November 2010 issue of Martha Stewart Living. My admiration for Sian’s custom dogs and cats was what inspired me to research and write this post.
Plush pet portraits by Sian Keegan
Sian loves taking on custom work. “I like the challenge of not knowing what I'm going to find in my inbox everyday! I've had a lot of interesting commissions over the years--a three-legged dog, wrinkly sharpeis, brindle coats, pups with overbites, alopecia, missing eyes, and other adorable quirks.”
Rachel Linquist creates custom portraits in the form of 18 inch cloth dolls with hand-painted faces and beautifully sewn clothes and sells them on Etsy under the business name Hen and Chick. Although she also offers other dolls and softies in her shop on Etsy, the majority of orders she receives are for the custom portrait dolls. Rachel clearly enjoys each custom job, viewing it like an assignment.
Rachel told me, “I very rarely turn down a commission, just because I love the challenge! I really enjoy making custom dolls because it’s like saying to myself, 'Okay, with these colors and shapes that someone else chose, make a character.' Every time I make a doll, whether a custom doll or one based on my own whims, I always feel a specific little character emerge as I put the little shiny sparkle in the eyes, and rosy up the cheeks; the very last steps. It’s like, 'Oh, there you are!' It takes me back to the eerie feeling you’d get as a kid of your toys being alive somehow.
And finally, I spoke with Stacey Trock, amigurumi designer extraordinaire. Stacey is a mover and shaker in the crocheted toy world with two books and a podcast plus a popular blog and online classes to boot. I asked Stacey to chime in because she mentioned in an episode of her Crochet Chat podcast (no I don’t crochet, but I am an omnivorous podcast listener!) that she had developed a pretty neat system for taking on custom work without taking on a headache. On the topic of motivation, Stacey expressed a similar sentiment to my own gut reaction to custom jobs.
Trio of owls in custom colors by Stacey Trock
“I'm not going to lie... taking custom orders can be scary. Instead of making softies that you want to make, you'll be making softies that someone else wants you to make. If not kept in check, you may end up creating items that aren't artistically fulfilling for you, and in the long-term, could dampen your passion for your craft. Not to mention the picky customers you're bound to get when you're creating the special stuffed animal for their daughter's 1st birthday. High expectations can't be avoided.” Stacey willl help to shed some light on ways to work through these potential challenges.
LISTEN AND COMMUNICATE CLEARLY FROM THE START
A clear avenue of communication with the client has to be a central part of any successful custom job. The conversation has to happen early and for some clients may be quiet involved.
Alison pointed out, “If I am at all confused about what they are wanting, I just keep asking questions until I feel I have a good understanding. People generally seem to like to discuss what they like, and it's usually a fun conversation. Also, when it gets to the point of really specific decisions, I just make sure to have approval of the choices, generally in an email or contract, so that I can refer back to it if necessary, and to remember what I've promised! It takes time to make sure everything is clear, but I think it's important to avoid issues later in the project.”
For a softie a contract may not be necessary, but having the details written out in an email with a record of what you have agreed upon is certainly a good idea.
Long-haired pet portraits by Sian Keegan
Sian brought up that this back and forth between you and the client should be added into the cost of the item. “It's important to factor in correspondence time when creating any custom works. I probably exchange about six or seven emails per portrait! Try to be as clear as possible in the very beginning about pricing, turnaround time, shipping, and what you need from your customer."
"For the pet portraits one thing I often have to ask about is the color because it's so important to get the fabric or yarn choice right. Sometimes color in jpegs isn't accurate, and color can be more subjective than you'd think. A written description of the coloring is helpful in addition to the reference photos.”
And you should probably be prepared for a variety of different sorts of customers, including those who want to be very involved in the design process.
Three custom dolls by Rachel Linquist
Rachel said, “From time to time I get a more, shall we say, 'hands-on' customer who wants to see photographs of the fabrics I have available in a particular style or color scheme (and may require a special trip to the fabric store to get just the 'right' one). I do try to be accommodating to that, even if it is a little frustrating, though I feel like those dolls end up just a little bit stiff and uninspired-looking due to me feeling limited by the customer’s extremely specific wishes, but I don’t mind too much, and the end result is still a very nice doll that I am proud to send out.”
LIMIT THE CHOICES
Part of this initial conversation should be you as the designer providing the customer with a limited set of choices. Just because work is custom doesn’t necessarily mean each order should require an entirely new design. In fact, it would be very hard to charge enough per item if you had to start from the ground up each time.
Crocheted owl by Stacey Trock
I think Stacey said it best, "I don't take custom orders for designs for entirely new animals. I've tried that in the past, and ended up spending too many hours working for too little pay. What I do is offer custom options on an existing design."
"By limiting the customer's options, you're actually helping them out! Have you ever heard of the Paradox of Choice? It's the idea that 3 choices is manageable, but 30 is overwhelming. Does the average person really want to decide how long an owl's wings are? Or whether the stomach should be an oval or circle? No. The average person isn't a toy designer. By limiting their choices, you're insuring that they'll get a product they're happy with."
Alison also offers choices.
Chairs by Alison Glass
“Some clients seem to know what they want from the start, others, not so much. Either way I listen carefully, interpret as best as I can, and present a few choices. Usually one of those choices will stand out to them, and we go from there. Often, I can predict what they will choose.”
So how can you best limit a customer’s choices? The best way is to show a variety of finished pieces and allow the customer to pick colors or fabrics that they’d like used in their custom piece.
Rachel does it this way, “I do custom dolls in several of my designs, but most orders are from my 18 inch cloth dolls with appliquéd felt hair. After several years of making variations on this simple doll design, I had quite a few different patterns for hair styles, outfit pieces, and other little variations and embellishments. This means that when I started custom dolls, I already had a lot of options for people to choose from.”
“In my listings, I post pictures of lots of examples of past dolls, so people can get a sense of my work. Then they simply select hair style, hair color, eye color, and extras like freckles or glasses. Then I encourage them to give me a general color scheme for the clothing (if they are trying to match the décor of a room, or their niece always wears a purple dress, etc), and pick one “outfit add-on” (coat or sweater or skirt or hooded cloak, etc.). People can pick more add-ons for additional cost if they want a whole wardrobe for their doll. But the base price includes one removable piece.”
"From time to time a customer will ask for a new variation that I haven’t tried before. Before I take on the job, I consider if developing that new pattern will be easy enough that I can include it in my price. Or if it’s a new variation that I think I’ll use again, I consider that, too. So if it’s kind of a lot of work, but I know it will be a great addition to my repertoire, I’ll take it on without additional charge. Or if they are a return customer, I’ll do it as a favor. From time to time if the request is a bit more work than usual, I’ll tell people it will cost a little bit extra to develop the design and create that new piece for them, and they are usually willing to pay it."
Crocheted owl by Stacey Trock
Stacey was at first hesitant to take custom orders for fear that she would have to special order materials for particular projects which would just get too expensive and too complicated to manage. Stacey give this advice for working around that issue, “Consider showing available colors. If you have a supply of fabric available (and aren't intending on special-ordering more for each order), show a color card that gives customers a selection that they can choose from. If you don't plan on making additional colors available, say so.”
“List the features that can be customized. This helps to guide the customer, and also sets the scope of the project. My best-seller is my owl. It's a design that I've already made and know that I can produce efficiently. I offer a customized owl: customers can pick the main body color, eye color and whether or not it has baby-safe eyes.”
“It may not sound like a lot of options, but it means that a woman in New York can order an owl in colors that match the theme for her best friend's baby shower... an item she can't get anywhere else. By providing a few choices, the customer ends up with a customized stuffed animal that they're totally in love with.”
Setting boundaries means that the work you are taking on is within reasonable limits, but is still considered custom. As Stacey rightly points out this can be a win-win situation. “The average customer is willing to pay more for a customized product, but since it's a design you're familiar with, it won't take much in terms of additional time to make. That means that you're earning more per hour to create customized pieces. That's great news!”
IT’S OKAY TO SAY NO
However hard it may be at times, I think it is really important as a business owner (even if you are running a micro business) to be able to say no. Turning down jobs that aren’t right for you will actually help you in the long run! You won't feel burdened making something that you don't believe in and you'll preserve your good reputation by not engaging with a client that doesn't share your vision.
I appreciate Alison’s honesty on this point.“Of course, the biggest challenge is probably clients who are hard to deal with. This is a very discouraging thing, though I would say, for me, this is not generally the case. I do feel I have gotten better, with time, at recognizing this early, and either politely not taking the job or setting the job up in a way I can deal with it.”
"I have been in situations where it is clear that the client and I are not speaking the same language, that they want something that is outside of what I generally do, for whatever reason, and those relationships, in all honesty, generally don't go far past the first meeting. This is good for both me and them. It's really for the best, and I see is as a relief, not a failure on my part."
CHARGE UPFRONT AND GIVE YOUR BEST ESTIMATE OF THE TIME FRAME
To me, if you are going to make someone a custom softie work should not begin until the customer has paid for the entire cost up front. I know that Sian and Stacey have customers purchase their Etsy listings for a custom items first before any work begins.
Custom boy dolls by Rachel Linquist
And Rachel’s shop works the same way. “I have people pay 100% up front by purchasing the listing to start the process. I tell them that their doll will ship out two weeks after I have received payment and their specifications.”
And Stacey pointed out that you should be clear up front about your time frame so that the customer knows from the get-go what to expect.“Be clear in your item description that this is a custom piece that will take time to create. Depending on the time of year, I say that a piece will take 2 weeks before it is ready to ship. Don't be afraid to charge more for a customer's priority time line. You should be compensated for express delivery charges on your end and extended work hours.”
MAKING REASONABLE EDITS WILL LEAD TO SATISFIED CUSTOMERS
One of the hardest aspects of custom design work is hearing critique and having to go back and make changes. When you have done your very best and the client is still not satisfied it can feel like a blow. I think it’s important to reign in those feelings and go back into the studio to make changes as long as the changes are within reason.
Portrait of a cat named Leo by Sian Keegan
Sian will agree to make a limited set of changes to her pet portraits, and in fact is sometimes more pleased with the finished piece after making the edits the client requested. “I'm happy to make minor changes to the finished piece after reviewing it with the customer. Small things like changing the tail position and adding additional markings or other features are easy to do. Someone recently asked me to add a line for the mouth on her stuffed dog (which I don't normally do) and it made the finished piece much cuter.”
And Alison does, too. “If there is a problem with the work, something is not working right or is not staying together properly, then I fix it, and make sure they know that I am happy to do so, that it's not a problem. I think all of these things builds a reputation within the community a person is working in, and this is how to continue towards satisfied clients. Happy, kind clients are the best references for opportunities to work with their kind friends.”
Finally, as Stacey points out, once you’ve completed a custom order for a satisfied customer, be sure to let everyone know. “Once I've completed a custom order, be sure to post photos on your social media outlets (with a link to your order page). In my experience, this often leads to the next order!” Word of mouth is a powerful thing!
I hope hearing from these four makers about the rewards and potential pitfalls of custom work has been of interest to you as you consider new directions for your own handmade business. If it has, please consider making a donation to support the series. Even a small amount is very much appreciated. Thank you.