Maria Rubio wasn’t sure she would graduate from Arizona State University after having a daughter when she was a sophomore.
“I was on the verge of dropping out,” she said.
But Ms. Rubio, 22, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a child, said that becoming a mother in 2020 ultimately gave her the motivation to finish college. “More than ever, I wanted to graduate and do something for myself and my daughter,” said Ms. Rubio, who lives in Phoenix.
At her graduation this month, Ms. Rubio plans to have her daughter in the audience — and on her head, in the form of a custom portrait decorating Ms. Rubio’s graduation cap. The portrait, which cost $120, features likenesses of Ms. Rubio and her daughter.
“It’s the cherry on top of my accomplishment,” Ms. Rubio said.
Decorating graduation caps has long been a tradition among graduates, many of whom do all the gluing, beading and glittering themselves or with friends. But those who would rather outsource the task can now hire a growing number of artisans to create elaborate artwork that is placed flat on top of a cap.
Kimberlee Morales, who made the portrait for Ms. Rubio’s cap, said she has received order inquiries for graduations through 2034. She started customizing caps in 2016, when she was still in college. After a few that she had made for classmates drew attention on social media, strangers began requesting their own designs, she said. When Instagram later promoted her business, Kim’s Custom Caps, it resulted in even more orders.
Ms. Morales, who works from a studio at her home in Norwalk, Calif., said she is making about 250 custom designs this year. Each one typically takes two to three hours to decorate. They start at $65, but pieces that require more detailed portraits can cost more than $100.
Ms. Morales also sells semi-custom styles (starting at $28), which can be personalized with quotes or photos, as well as premade designs (starting at $26).
Judith Deunas, 24, who is pursuing a degree online from Thomas Edison University, ordered a custom piece from Ms. Morales for her graduation this winter. Ms. Duenas, who lives in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., and works as an administrative assistant, said she and Ms. Morales spent days developing the design. It features a prosthetic leg, which Ms. Duenas has had since childhood, as well as elements that nod to her Mexican heritage.
Ms. Duenas said that when she saw the finished product, which cost $120, she “sobbed for a good 10 minutes.”
Ms. Morales said that most of her clients who request custom designs are the children of immigrants or have immigrated to the United States themselves. Many, she added, “owe their journeys to their families, and they want to honor that.”
Like Ms. Morales, Emiah Youman began customizing graduation caps when she was in college. Ms. Youman, who started selling them through her business, Custom Couture by Emiah, in 2019, now also offers premade styles (starting at $50), as well as hand-painted designs (starting at $210).
Ms. Youman, who lives in Washington, said she has received about 100 orders this year. Her custom designs can take up to three months to complete, in part because she is running her business while attending law school at Howard University. “It’s just me doing everything,” she said. But, she added, “to get videos and pictures of the families with the caps, it’s just really special.”
Marc Goldberg said he saw the potential for a cap-decorating business back in the late ’90s, when his mother couldn’t locate him among the throng of black-capped students at his college graduation. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way that you can stand out in the crowd,’” said Mr. Goldberg, who lives in Midland Park, N.J. Years later, in 2012, he started Tassel Toppers, which lets customers design mortarboards online.
Custom mortarboards from Tassel Toppers start at $25, in part because the company does not offer hand-painted styles; premade designs start at $15. Mr. Goldberg, who also owns a technology company, said this allows some orders to be shipped within 24 hours of being placed. The company, which employs five full-time assistant designers, can complete as many as 1,000 orders a day between April and June, Mr. Goldberg said.
Sarah Plazola, a part-time substitute teacher in Los Angeles who began making custom caps in 2017, said she received thousands of order inquiries in 2022. This year, Ms. Plazola said she has accepted some 260 orders for her custom designs, which start at $30. She also sells premade styles, starting at $25.
Ms. Plazola said that in the years since she started her business, Uncapped Creations, she has noticed that the field of cap decorators has become more crowded, and that more designs are starting to look alike. She once had to ask another maker to stop offering styles that borrowed too much from hers.
“I don’t mind when other makers add their own personality and creativity to it,” Ms. Plazola said. “But when it’s a complete copy, I will not stay quiet.”
Even though she has more competition, Ms. Plazola still has to turn customers down.
“There are so many graduates,” she said. “I can’t cater to all of them.”