I’m struggling to finish my last custom order from my big big retail show in August.

On the surface, it wasn’t a difficult order. The customer, new to my work, fell in love with my aesthetic. She asked me to create a necklace featuring a treasured natural artifact.

We discussed colors, style and price range. I took all her contact info. I promised to have it done within a month, at the most six weeks.

It’s been a heckuva lot longer than that.

I’ve had a difficult fall–a death in the family, new injuries, not a few distractions. Enough to bump things like this custom order a little further down the priority list each week.

Fortunately, I must have sensed the potential for trouble, so I didn’t take my normal deposit for the work. At least I haven’t taken money for work I haven’t done (though I do have her precious artifact in my care.)

And fortunately, I’ve found my creative jones again. I’m slowly envisioning what this piece could look like, and I’m halfway through the design process. I’m hoping that free express shipping, and a healthy discount on the quoted price will help offset the customer’s frustration on my lateness.

But I’m struggling with the why. Why do custom orders so often throw me for a loop? Why do they seem so difficult?

I’ve written about possible pitfalls with custom orders (the Design Diva scenario, for example.)

I know the drill on how to make sure custom orders go smoothly: Decide if you’ll charge for the actual design process. Get as much input from the customer as possible (size, price, color, etc.) Get a deposit upfront (to ensure the customer is committed.) Get them to sign off on the design stages, even sending images, if possible, of the work in progress. And get everything in writing.

And I’ve enjoyed success with most of my custom orders. Customers seem to be thrilled with the finished products, and often come back for more.

But there are still sticking points. Today, in the wee hours of the morning, I woke up with a better understanding of what those are, and why I struggle with them.

When a customer falls in love with a piece I’ve already made–at a show, in my studio, in my new Etsy shop–that emotional connection is palpable. And immediate.

They see it, they react to it, they buy it–and they’re happy. Instantly.

There is that astonished moment of recognition–“This is the one!”–a moment that is the culmination of my creative process. I made something I think is beautiful, and someone else agrees. They trade their hard-earned money for my time, my energy, and my vision. The transaction is complete.

I love that moment.

With a custom order, we both get partway there. But then that final moment is postponed. It becomes nebulous.

I go back to my studio after the show. There’s usually a significant amount of downtime. I have to recuperate, physically and emotionally, from the stress of doing the show. There is inventory to be put away, booth paraphernalia to be stowed, paperwork to be completed, sales to be recorded and deposited.

The excitement of the show dissipates. The memory of the actual encounter fades. (I’m getting older, after all!)

I can’t read my own notes on the transaction, or I don’t understand what my sales assistant meant by her notes.

The desire to make that customer happy is still overwhelming. But
the energy has faded, the details have become hazy.

Doubt and second-guessing sets in.

She said blue. But which blue? Sky? Turquoise? Baby? Cobalt? Copen? Capri? (Yes, I have all of these blues in my stash.)

She said handmade ivory beads, but not too big. What does that mean??

She said she didn’t care, she trusted my judgment. But the seeds of self-doubt have been sown. I don’t trust my judgment anymore.

I’ve become paralyzed trying to anticipate the desires of a customer who’s no longer in front of me, and whose heart is not known to me. (Geez, I struggle making things for people I’ve known intimately for years….)

I’ve moved the center of my creative energy from pleasing myself, to pleasing someone else.

I care deeply about being successful, yet I begin to question every design decision.

It’s not the customer’s fault. It’s just the nature of the process, for me. I struggle with this particular dynamic.

I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but I sometimes wonder if God felt this way when he created Eve. “Hmmmm, yes, I’ll make him a companion, sort of like what I did with him but a little different. Dum de dum de dum de dum da….. Wow, that’s pretty good! Very nice. VERY nice. Wait….what if he doesn’t like brunettes????”

One thing I know for sure: I have to figure this out.

If I move into making bigger fiber wall hangings, if I hope to work with interior decorators or do commissions for public works, I’m going to have to get over this hurdle. Because these will all be “custom orders” in a sense–site-specific, made-to-order, the whole shebang. And the bigger the work, the more money involved. And, I assume, the bigger the risk of not pleasing the customer.

I realize it is this fear, this huge issue of self-doubt, that is holding me back from that next big step in my professional art career.

So how do I get past this?

It may simply be a process of learning to trust myself, completely, with full heart and steady resolve.

After, my customers did.

And maybe once again, my life situation and my art are closely intertwined. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, just as I’m realizing my next step in my martial arts practice, a log jam in my creative process is slowing breaking up.

All I ask is, I wish it would hurry up.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.


  1. I HATE custom orders and almost never agree to one. Instead, I get contact information and tell the client that I will contact her as soon as I finish a piece that I believe fits what they are wanting. It usually works for me. Every single time I have agreed to a custom order and taken detailed specifics, it has inhibited my work flow to the extent that I cannot accomplish anything else. Just the thought of custom orders makes me wish I worked a regular job for someone else and that is the last thing I want to do!


  2. I always dread custom orders when the person gives me any specifics about what they want.

    I procrastinate on starting these orders, and then it literally takes me 10x longer to finish that type of custom piece than to just create a similar piece spontaneously.

    I also waste wire and other supplies by re-doing the whole thing because I keep second-guessing how well I’ve created what the customer wants.

    While I’m working on it, I can feel how my concern over not meeting the customer’s preconceived expectations really inhibits the flow of making the piece.

    The other side of the coin is my favorite kind of custom orders – when someone says something like, “Just work your magic on this piece of turquoise – I love everything you do.”

    Those pieces are fun to make, and I think my joy in creating the piece shows through when it’s finished!

    But I don’t know the solution for the fear and self-doubt that make the “micromanaged” custom pieces so difficult and draining.

    Possibly creating sketches of the proposed piece before you actually do any work, and having the customer approve them?

    That way you’ll both be on the same page about the design and you’ll be free to do the actual work on it without the gnawing pressure of “what if they don’t like it”.

    I think my block with custom orders is a little different – what I love about making jewelry is just unleashing my creativity and letting everything flow where it will. I love being part of that process and seeing the result.

    In contrast, custom orders that require working toward fulfilling someone’s vision of the outcome remove the part I love.


  3. In my mind, custom orders are not really about art, but about service. I’m trying to serve the customer’s aesthetic. Yes, using my sway and materials, but their vision.

    when I painted portrait commissions, I was painting as a service – I felt like a plumber. Many times, the folks who commission works treat me differently than those who buy my “works of art”. Those who buy my work from a show treat me like a celebrity. Those who commissioned work often ended the relationship as soon as the work was completed.


  4. Wow! It’s great to hear I’m not alone in how I feel about custom orders…. Jeanne, Rena, thank you so much for sharing your experiences, as well as the follow-up and click-back, Rena. I’ve enjoyed your newsletter & articles for years, delighted I’ve been able to “give back”.

    Love your succinct POV, Elaine, as always.

    Lori, as usual, you’ve said in 50 words what took me a thousand–the idea of “service” over my role as “artist”. Well-said.

    Maybe the only decision that needs to be made is to have the courage to make my art as I see it, and let the customer fit it into THEIR life. And to quit trying to make everyone else happy!! :^D

    BTW, the piece did come out really well, though I’m not sure it screams “Luann Udell”. I’m having it photographed next week, will post an image then.


  5. I’m glad the piece came out! I recently was blessed with a commission from a woman who handed me her shower curtain and said “I want the mosaic in these colors in the medicine cabinet door frame, with blue predominant.” She was certain she would like whatever I created. It was definitely an act of faith for me to trust myself as much as she did. And she did love it. Conversely, I had a woman tell me at a show that I really good, so I should start doing custom orders with other people’s designs.
    I’m looking forward to seeing the photos of your piece.


  6. I have two ‘jobs’ where I do custom orders. I work in a wholesale/retail bead and jewelry store and our retail store does accept custom orders – the customer picks out the beads and I, as the designer, have to work with the customer right then and there to create a design. Talk about pressure! I usually have less than a week to create a piece, and that on top of my other duties. The store’s reputation is on the line, based on my customer service skills as well as on the design and quality of workmanship. I find it stressful to have to come up with something so quickly, but I keep this mindset of it being a challenge to my design skills to be able to design on the fly like that.

    I also have my own jewelry business and do craft shows on occasion. I do take custom orders from people who visit me at shows, and most of the time they are pretty willing to just let me do my thing. Alot less pressure! But still you have to come up with something that will please them and yes, I do stress over the designs for way too long as well.

    At the bead store, I’m forced into making a design decision quickly and sticking with it. At home, I have the leisure to procrastinate and worry. It is difficult to make yourself sit down and just do it and not worry about the customer liking it.

    I did do a design once for a customer and ended up redoing it four times until it was what she wanted. It can be very challenging to do custom orders, I can understand why so many don’t do them after dealing with that difficult woman.


  7. I ended up not having the piece photographed. I realized the focal point of the necklace was not my work. My beads were just “supporting roles in”.

    Also, I wanted to get it out to the customer ASAP!

    Update: A note back from her saying it seems okay, but she’ll have to wear it awhile to be sure….

    Ruh roh!


  8. Shari, I forgot to mention that I found your thoughts about the two custom order scenarios interesting. Doing a design on the spot is stressful because of the deadline, yet it gives you the energy to move quickly through the process. The “luxury” of more time also means more stewing and second-guessing. Thank you for sharing that!


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