Blog Topic: Commissions

Commissions: Nuts and Bolts

Sunday, November 18th, 2018

Barbara Burns

My first, and only commission, was a great learning experience. I had to create a contract/letter, deal with pricing, scheduling, ordering enough materials, deal with a client, design a piece with a client desires in mind and part with a piece I loved.


As I mentioned in my previous post about my commission  Pam Patrie was particularly helpful. At Pam’s suggestion, I wrote a letter/agreement instead of a formal contract, with all the information I felt appropriate. I even designed my letterhead for this. The information in the letter/agreement included price, size, time frame, and payment schedule. I wrote that I would send a woven sample for approval before beginning the weaving. I told my client I would create more than one version of the design and she would choose which she preferred.

A 50% deposit at the beginning was requested and 50% at delivery. Some people like to do three payments, 1/3 to begin, 1/3 at the halfway point and the last 1/3 at delivery. You may also want to have a separate fee for the design process. I have heard of someone who designed a tapestry only to have the client take the design to another place to weave it. You may want to have a stipulation in your contract to counter this possibility.


I established the price up front.  My client gave me her budget and I tried to work within that constraint. In the end I should have charged more than I did. I felt I couldn’t skimp and I had committed to the price, so I was good with my decision. This was my first commission. You may want to build a cushion into your pricing.

I use a square foot pricing system. The amount is based on size, sett and complexity. Some people I have spoken to believe that a commission should be a higher price point than work you do on speculation. If you decide to do this you can either add an amount on top of the price you would normally charge or add to the square foot amount.

You can read more about pricing  in the following four articles:

7 Rules For Pricing Your Artwork

Methods Of Pricing

One Perspective An Interview With Pricilla Alden

Pricing Tapestry A Survey

Sophie by Barbara Burns


 I gave myself lots of time with my commission. I knew I had some previous commitments that would keep me from weaving for periods of time and I knew I would have other work on my looms as well. You can always finish early and pleasantly surprise your client. Finish late, and you will disappoint which is not a good practice. So, build in a good cushion. You may get sick, or have some other unforeseen occurrence that keeps you from your loom.  Remember to build in time for designing, client approval, acquiring materials, weaving, finishing, mounting if appropriate, photography, shipping costs if appropriate or actual hand delivery.


The only limiting factor I had was the color of the proposed wall, which was yellow. When I saw a photo of the site I knew my decision to use bright colors was appropriate, as opposed to the clients first choice of tans and browns which I felt were inappropriate for both the subject and the wall color. When working with a specific site consider size, color, sett, scale, light and, of course, the image.


For my commission, at a sett of 8 epi, I figured on one half pound of weft per square foot. I actually weighed previous work of the same sett to come up with the weight. This assured me I would have enough yarn to complete the piece. If you are working in a finer sett you would use less, of course, and more for a courser sett.

After choosing yarn from my stash I got out my scale and was careful to order more than enough yarn. I also made sure I had enough warp of the correct size for my sett. I made a pipe loom specifically for the size of the piece I would weave, as I always do.

Dealing with the client 

I was very fortunate to have a client who came to completely trust me and my judgment. In our agreement I was to weave a sample and send it to her for approval. This would have been after she received the two design options to choose from with yarn samples. When I spoke to my client after she approved the design, she told me not to bother weaving the sample. She completely trusted me and didn’t need the weaving. This client basically gave me carte blanche. This is the exception not the rule. Be prepared to have some bumps in the road. Know when to stick to your guns and when to compromise.


My client wanted a tapestry of her granddaughter. During a long conversation I learned about her daughter’s death and some details that lead me to my concept for the tapestry. I wanted to represent five generations of women in her family. The only person you see in the tapestry is her granddaughter Sophie. The other four are represented by imagery and words. When I told my client my concept she was thrilled. I had her send me images and anything else of importance to her, to help me. Among the items I received were lots of photos, a poem and words to a song.  These came in drips and drabs as I encouraged her to send more. This gave me lots of fodder for designing. I took my time with this stage. I created several iterations of a design but nothing was clicking. As I mentioned in my article Commission: A Dream Client I decided to go to my local museum and see if I could find inspiration, which I did, but not where I expected to find it. Inspiration came from a photo in an art book.  As for the palette, my client liked the colors of a previous piece she purchased from me: tans and browns. After speaking to her and seeing all the photos she sent along with a photo of where she planned to hang the piece, that yellow wall, I knew tans and browns wouldn’t be appropriate. I went for bold color, lots of orange, pinks, blues, and golden hair.

A page from the commission process book.

Here’s what I learned from the process:

Have an open mind.  I asked for others opinions and found inspiration in an unexpected place. In the end I trusted my instincts.

Don’t rush the process. Give yourself enough time with a cushion for the unknown.

Use your client if appropriate. My client sent me lots of images that had meaning to her.

Respect your clients wishes, but know when to aim them in a different direction. I completely changed the palette and added the representative imagery.

Don’t compromise your artistic integrity. I would not have taken this commission if I didn’t like the subject matter. I’m a figurative artist, I wouldn’t do a landscape for instance.

Process Book 

Bluebird Barbara Burns 12 x 7.5 in.

I kept a record of my process from the contract to the completed work including all the iterations of the design, yarns used, images considered, used and not. I made a copy of much of this and made two identical books, one for myself, and one for my client. She was very happy to receive the process book.  I use my copy when I have a solo show. It helps people understand the process of designing. I also have daily photos of the weaving. I did not include these in the process book but I could have.

As an aside, a nice personal touch is to have notecards or postcards printed of the work to give to the client. What better advertisement than a happy client giving a card of your artwork that they love to their friends and family .

Make it go further 

In the commissioned tapestry is an image of a blue bird. I decided to weave the bird as a small tapestry I could put up for sale. It was already designed, I had the yarn, why not.


This was a wonderful experience and I feel very fortunate that it went so smoothly. I’m sure if I do another commission it won’t be the same. Commissions are a great way to stretch your skills and abilities. Just be sure you are being true to yourself and when you write a contract you give yourself enough time and pay.

Commissions: A Dream Client and an Intimate Story to Tell

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

Barbara Burns

Reprinted from Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot Magazine

In the summer of 2014, I attended Convergence, the Handweaver’s Guild of America’s bi-annual conference. Over the past 20+ years I’ve been to several of these conferences and have always come home inspired. That summer, I came home with so much more. 

I always bring my business cards and 4 x 6 postcards of my work wherever I go, including Convergence. During a series of four short classes on selling and marketing I kept a small pile of the postcards on the table in front of me for people to see and take. A conference participant from across the aisle came over and asked for one of my cards. She also asked if I do commissions. I replied: “I would consider it.” That’s code for: I’ve never done a commission before; I’m interested if I can weave something interesting and challenging.

Torso, The tapestry Shelly purchased first.


Just one day after my return home from the conference an email arrived from Shelly, the woman who asked for my card in class. She was inquiring about prices and the availability of three tapestries that she saw on my website (that was a first). I was quite surprised and very excited. Although I’ve been weaving tapestries since 2003, sales have been few and far between. I gave Shelly the information she requested and asked if she was still interested in a commission. In her response email, she chose one tapestry and sent a few “photos to consider for a possible commission.” Shelly asked that the subject for the commissioned piece be her young granddaughter, Sophie. In our correspondence Shelly gave me a modest budget, enough to do a small portrait. Then she received the tapestry she purchased from my website. In her next email, Shelly wrote that she loved the tapestry and would like me to portray Sophie in similar style and colors to the piece she had purchased, a line drawing in blacks and browns. Shelly also wrote that she likes pastel colors. 

In subsequent emails Shelley shared a bit of her life with me. I learned that her daughter, Sophie’s aunt, had died just a few months earlier after a protracted illness. Shelley was “looking for something to bring a smile.” Then, she quadrupled her budget! I was so excited! This was an incredible validation of my work. And now I had the space to be creative and the opportunity to use my art to “bring a smile” to the family. Shelly was a dream client. We spoke several times about her wishes for the tapestry but she gave me carte blanche with the design.  

When Shelley told me of her daughter’s death it immediately became obvious to me that I needed to portray generations of women in the family, including Sophie, Sophie’s aunt, Shelley and Shelly’s mother and grandmother. I decided the only literal figure would be Sophie with everyone else portrayed symbolically. Shelly liked the idea; we talked about symbols that would represent each person. Over the next few weeks, at my request, Shelly sent me many family photos and other information for me to sift through. 

Because this was my first commission I thought I needed to do some research about the process. I spoke with people I know who have done commissions. I also asked on the tapestry list. Pam Patrie was particularly helpful. We spoke on the phone and she had some great suggestions regarding contract ideas. At Pam’s suggestion, I wrote a letter/agreement with all the information I felt appropriate. It was in a letter form instead of a formal contract. My client received the letter, signed it with no questions and mailed it back quickly with a 50% deposit. 

“Sophie” detail by Barbara Burns

The design process included many hours of work and rework and getting feedback from friends and fellow weavers. I used a combination of working with images in Photoshop using filters and printing out images for cutting and pasting. Once I had my first working design I printed it in different colorways. At one point I thought I had “The Design” but something about it irked me and I just couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. I put the design aside and went to the Portland Museum of Art for inspiration. While in Portland I combed the local used book stores for art books. When I returned home I showed my husband the what I had found. While flipping through a book of paintings by Peruvian artist Fernando de Szyszlo, I had my “Aha!” moment.  I realized that it was the design’s background that was bothering me. I now knew what to do with the background! I cut out the image of Sophie and laid it on top of one of de Szyszlo’s paintings. It made the image of Sophie pop! I took a small section of the painting and reinterpreted it as I wove. 

The tapestry is 44 inches tall by 19 inches wide, set at 8 ends per inch with a seine twine warp. I used several threads of mercerized cotton floss for the image of Sophie. The rest of the tapestry is wool. The luster of the cotton is juxtaposed against the depth of the wool allowing the image of the child to stand out. I sewed the slits as I wove. 

The piece was woven on a 6-foot tall loom with legs of varying lengths. I started with long legs and, as I wove up the warp and needed to lower the fell line, the legs got progressively shorter. I also changed the height of my sitting position as I needed to rise with the weaving, going from a low stool to an old adjustable draftsman’s chair. The loom is a black pipe frame with threaded rod to tension. It’s an Archie Brennan design that can be found on his website:

I finished “Sophie” in early spring but had a solo show at The Center for Maine Craft in Gardener, Maine in April and May, 2015. I wanted the tapestry  to be part of my show. Shelly was extremely gracious and agreed to delay taking possession of the tapestry for two additional months. I was thrilled to include “Sophie” in my show. 

Finally, in May, Shelley and her husband arrived at my studio to pick up Sophie.  At that moment, I saw the first of many smiles that my tapestry, “Sophie,” would bring to Shelly’s family. 

This was a great learning experience. I had to create a contract/letter, deal with pricing, scheduling, ordering enough materials, deal with a client, design a piece with a client in mind and part with a piece I loved. I will write more about this in a later post.