I agreed to weave 81 square feet of tapestry. Commissions and how they work.

The question of whether I'm nuts or not might occur to many of you, but I'd appreciate it if you'd just think of me as a little bit driven. I did indeed contract to weave a very large tapestry this year. Actually, it has been in the works for almost a year now and I'm finally getting to the actual process of weaving. 

How does the commission process work?

Artists handle commissions in different ways, but this is how I've done it thus far.

Someone contacts me and wants me to weave something for them. (Yay!!! Happy Dance!! Someone loves my work!) Most of the commissions I've done have either come from students, friends of family members, or in the case of the last two large pieces, the client simply found my website through Google. They wanted a tapestry and they chose me from my online work and an interview or two. (This is a strong argument for having a robust web presence. If a potential client can't find you, you won't be getting commissions.)

In the case of the current large tapestry, I did have an in-person interview with the client at the end of which I was granted the job.


Before you even get to this stage you should have a pretty good idea what the client wants. What past work of yours do they love and why? Make sure you understand why they want a tapestry, what size they need, and where and when it will be seen. 

For the newest commission, I looked at the interests of the client and thought a lot about what they liked in my prior work. Bright colors and gradation were a favorite as well as a feeling of depth. I worked with several ideas around Hawaiian Quilts, echo quilting, and bringing the outside garden in. I did some research on quilting (a subject I knew almost nothing about) in the Avenir Museum's library and I learned quite a bit about Hawaiian history and their quilts. The design came out of those ideas.

Mock-up of the full piece at Hambidge.

I had a two-week residency at The Hambidge Center and while I was there, I did a full-scale mock-up of the tapestry. I don't have this kind of space in my studio and this was a great opportunity to see how large the forms would be, what sett I could use for the piece, and where it needed tweaking. I wrote more about that HERE. I used a digital projector to blow this design up. This piece is so large, I've used the projector several times to get the scale right. (My apologies to any tapestry weavers in the past to whom I said I didn't need this approach. I was wrong.)

Rebecca Mezoff, part of the cartoon for a large tapestry

Cartoon pieces for a large tapestry

And those among you who are most interested in this project will have noticed that after THIS blog post, there was a rather long silence. After a heart-to-heart with the client, I spent some of November redesigning the piece to its current 9 x 9 foot square size.

This is a danger in commission work. One of the reasons you need a contract is to protect yourself from having to do endless revisions. In fact, if you want commissions, I believe you need to be a good communicator. You have to be ready to state clearly where you will compromise and where you won't (and put that in the contract) and be willing to let go of the design that you love if the client doesn't accept it. That last one is the hardest. After working on a design for weeks or months, it is hard to have the client choose a direction you are not excited about. At that point you have to either be willing to stop the project and take your losses or do the work you aren't in love with. I will tell you that spending most of a year weaving something you aren't wild about is difficult. So choose carefully.

In the case of this tapestry, the client needed to decrease the size. We didn't decide to do this until I was well into preparing the materials for the tapestry. I had had months to think of the work in it's larger form and downsizing it to 9 x 9 feet was really difficult for me. But after a week or two of shelving it, a heart-to-heart with the client (who is the best client you could wish for), and some weeks back at the design table, I came up with a design I liked better than the first.

The Yarn

Once the design is finalized, I start working on specific colors. I dye all my own yarn and at this point I have an extensive collection of dye samples. I choose the colors I think are going to work the best and then I do further sampling in quart jars. Dyeing this way allows me to put multiple colors in one pot and speeds up the color selection process.

The yarn I'm using is Harrisville Design's Koehler singles. I believe the piece will weigh about 25 pounds when finished based on my past tapestries, but I'm planning on dyeing closer to 50 pounds. I hate running out of yarn. I can match colors pretty closely, but it takes time to redo it and I'd rather have a lot of extra which can be used for another piece than run out. We'll see sometime in the fall whether I guessed  the amounts correctly!

Rebecca Mezoff, sample yarn dyeing

Rebecca Mezoff, hand-dyed gradation for tapestry commission

Eventually the yarn project starts to look more orderly. Perhaps something like this. What you don't see are the piles of sample yarns under the table that were rejected. I had little trouble with the yellow to red gradation. I've done similar ones before and I knew what I wanted. But for the purple to teal which is the main color in the piece, I had some new formulas that I loved. They are more complex and they give the yarns a sense of depth that you don't get if you just use straight Sabraset Turquoise 180. But this means it took more sampling to make the colors blend into each other. I think the work was worth it, but the process probably could have been a few months shorter if I had stuck with simpler colors. 

For my own artistic development, this kind of experimentation is a growth experience. I now know how these dyes work together and in the future I can manipulate these formulas with more expediency. Still... a few extra months.

I made some yarn cards for the client and shipped them off.

They loved the colors, so I began dyeing the final amounts of yarn. That results in staggering piles of yarn.

Maybe you should swallow your coffee before you look at the photos below.

Mezoff studio, piles and piles of yarn. (Kinda fun, right?)

These are all the colors for one gradation... but only half the amount I dyed.

Here is the other half waiting for the yarn baller. Nancy can only twirl that yarn into balls so fast. (Nancy's Knit Knacks. Need I say more?)

Setting up the loom

There are all the loom details that have to be set up for a new project. The 81 square foot tapestry will be woven in three panels on my Harrisville Rug Loom. I warped it at 8 epi. I like to tie on new warps instead of putting huge lengths of warp on my divided back beam so I will wind the warp for the next two panels separately, one at a time and tie them on. The warp extender allows me to keep the tension pretty even for at least three yards which is almost as much warp as I need for this piece. After that the back beam has to turn and I'll have to hope my warping job was good!

Rebecca Mezoff, warp going on the Harrisville Rug Loom for a large commission

I also needed to get a higher reed. I attempted to use an 8-dent reed from my Macomber loom (in the photo above), but a hanging beater really needs a tall reed. I'm changing the sett on this tapestry and didn't have a deep reed at 8 epi. Fortunately Schacht Spindle Company is just down the road and the reeds they carry for their Cranbrook countermarche looms are perfect for me. Thanks Schacht!

Sample weaving

Rebecca Mezoff, commission client

As the dye samples are finished, I start doing woven samples. I'm checking for things like whether the element's colors work well together, whether the sett is correct for the shapes, and making a sample for the client to approve. For this piece, the smallest forms are little flowers. I sampled part of one to make sure that though the sett is 8 epi, they would still look nice and smooth up close. I was able to get the curves I wanted, so 8 epi was the answer. Those small forms will be at the bottom of the piece and will be right at eye level, so that part has to be right. I probably would have gone with 6 epi if those little forms weren't present, but I needed a little more smoothness to the curves, so 8 was my compromise.

For years I've been weaving at 10 epi, so the samples are also to get me back into using 8. The way you weave shifts slightly at different setts. The weight of my bundle is also heavier at this sett, so sampling is necessary just to make sure I get it right before I start the piece.

And then I wove some samples for the client to check the colors. I had previously sent dye samples but wanted to check the gradations in woven form. You get a much more accurate feel for the colors when they are woven than when they are just strands on cards.

Rebecca Mezoff, woven samples for current commission. You can see that I had two ideas for the bottom teal color--the one underneath is brighter and I rejected it for various reasons. Remember that that teal to purple gradation will be stretched to nine feet!

Weaving the piece! (Thank goodness.)

After all of that, you can start weaving the final piece. Once I get to this point I really feel like I'm home free. Of course there is still a lot of work ahead of me, but in the case of a commission, the decisions have largely been made. This is the work where I can listen to podcasts and maybe on a slow day, watch a video or two.

Mezoff studio, commission on the loom, Emergence VIII

I anticipate the weaving of this next large tapestry to take the rest of 2018 but I won't really know until I start weaving. I'll time my weaving for the first several weeks and through tracking the hours it took, be able to anticipate a completion date. You bet I'll add a few months to that for cushion before committing.

Parting with your finished work

If you're lucky, the commissioned work will be for a public space and you might see it again one day. Most of my commissions have been for private individuals, so that is not possible. I do request photos of the piece installed from the client, but get your own professional photograph done before you send it off.

Rebecca Mezoff, Emergence VIII ready for FedEx

Some commissions I've done

Okay, I'll admit that the first commissions I did were for my parents' church. You have to start somewhere and they weren't picky. They wanted pulpit hangings in the four liturgical colors. I wove two of the four: green and purple. They still use these many years later.

I did a few other commissions for friends of the family in the style I'm outlining here and then I started working on the two recent commissions.

Rebecca Mezoff, Anthem, commission for Westminster Presbyterian Church, Gallup, N.M.

Rebecca Mezoff, In Common Time, commission for Westminster Presbyterian Church, Gallup, N.M.

Rebecca Mezoff, Emergence VI installed in the client's home. More photos HERE.

Rebecca Mezoff, Emergence VIII installed in client's home. More images HERE.

Considerations for taking a commission

If you are thinking about doing commission work, I recommend a few things.

  1. Have a contract. Do NOT agree to create a specific piece of art for someone without a contract which states the terms of the agreement.
  2. Ask for some money up front. The percentage is up to you, but I ask for 30% of the final cost before I start weaving the piece. That amount is non-refundable. Some artists require the entire thing be paid for before they start work. This is not unreasonable.
  3. Remember that designing the piece can be a significant investment of time. You don't know before you start how many revisions you'll be asked to do. Either specify that in the contract with an additional price for extra revisions, or be prepared to spend a great deal of time designing. Get some sort of deposit before you start this work. It can take a long time.
  4. Have good work habits and communicate your progress to the client at regular intervals. If they are unhappy with something, you'd rather find out sooner than later!
  5. Don't agree to make something that you don't love working on. Time is precious and you only have so many pieces in you in a lifetime. Especially in the art of tapestry weaving which takes so long, agree to jobs that you will enjoy and that will further your development as an artist. Say no to the ones that don't light you up inside.
  6. Consider not committing to a completion date or giving a range of dates. With tapestry, it can take a lot longer than you think as my current project has demonstrated well.

What are your experiences with commissions? Do you have other tips or questions? Put them in the comments!