Sunday, June 10, 2018

What Do I Say? How to Turn Down Commissions

A few months ago, someone I'm close to sent me a text and a photo of a quilt asking if I would make a memory quilt out of her deceased father's shirts. She and her sister had seen the photo on Instagram and thought it would make a great gift for their mother.

It's the kind of request quilters get all the time. People think we can just whip something up and it doesn't cost anything or take any time because it's our hobby and we enjoy it. But how do we respond in a way that doesn't hurt anyone's feelings and yet protects us from taking on every project someone else dreams up? 

I fell back to my standard, "Sorry, no, but I can recommend someone." Usually this line is enough. It tells the person asking that I'm not going to make a quilt for free (or cheap) without coming right out and saying it. There's a woman in our community who makes gorgeous t-shirt and memento quilts for a living. She does amazing work, and I have no qualms about referring people to her, but it's not inexpensive.

But this person pressed me and and wanted to know why. Was it because it took a certain kind of fabric? In this case I was not in the most generous mood and failed to take a few moments to think through my response. I shot off a text saying telling her the truth a little too plainly.
  • It's a huge amount of work to cut away the fabric from the collar and plackets and cuffs, and some of the fabric will have to be stabilized. 
  • It still takes some significant amount of fabric for sashing, borders, backing and binding, and there's a cost to that. There's also batting and thread and stabilizer - not to mention my time. Even if I only asked to be reimbursed for materials, most people would be shocked at how quickly it adds up.
  • I'm not that good at it. Not only will it take me a lot longer because it's unfamiliar and I don't already have the materials I need, but there's absolutely zero chance that it will be better quality or design than one by the professional. If I mess it up, there's no going back to the fabric store; Dad's favorite shirt is ruined and there's not another one.
  • I don't have the bandwidth. I barely have time to work on the projects I want to make, and I have plenty of stress in my day job. The last thing I need is the pressure of your priceless memories in my hands and a looming deadline.
I've been here before. Twice I've taken on projects like this for others, both on commission. Once I made a quilt for a woman out of her children's baby clothes. Once you cut out the seams and snaps, there's very little fabric in those tiny onesies! And since everything is stretchy, you have to stabilize the heck out of it. Nothing matches. Many of the cute motifs that trigger the memory are too close to a seam to preserve.

To add to the pressure, she wanted no extra fabric included. The backing and border had to be out of a lightweight denim maternity jumper. This severely limited the size of the quilt and made stitching it a challenge. When it was complete, I could tell by her reaction that it wasn't what she envisioned, and I felt awful. There was no going back and un-cutting up her kids' clothes. 

The second commission I ever took was to repair an antique quilt. I had even less business accepting this time. The client's mother had made the quilt, and he wanted something he could display in his office and use gently. Perhaps a lap or throw sized quilt to warm his legs while he read. The squares were beautiful embroidery that was completely worn away on some blocks. The sashing and border were rotting satin with nothing but a few threads over batting in many places.

I suggested cutting out the embroidered squares and preserving the six best ones. I put them back together with a soft, black felted cotton that felt like flannel. Quilting it took forever because I was so nervous about ruining it. The client called a few times to see how it was coming, and I felt his impatience. Eventually I did complete the work and gifted him the quilt without payment since it had taken me so long. 

I have no idea what he thought of it since I never heard from him again, but I was happy with how it turned out. What I didn't love was the anxiety I had suffered since the moment that irreplaceable quilt was in my possession!

None of this was the fault of either client. They weren't quilters, so how could they have known any of these things? In both cases, I said yes to a job I should have turned down.

In addition to creating a bad experience for myself and my client, I also denied the opportunity to a quilter who relies on this type of work for her income. I denied my client the chance to have the quilt they really wanted. That's on me.

So coming up with a gentler way to decline is important. I don't want to alienate anyone by telling the truth. I think for now I'll stick with my standard, "I can recommend someone who will do a better job." But if they insist on knowing why, I think I can simply share the link to this post. 

You should feel free to do the same.

How do you handle requests? 


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