Wear your heart on your sleeve (or neck, or finger, or ears)

I just designed another custom order, and it occurred to me that one of my favourite things about designing for a specific person is that it often allows people to physically wear their interests. The current design is music-themed (a customer after my own heart!), but I’ve recently created a few science and maths-themed pieces. These are in some ways more interesting for me because I’m an Arts girl, so it’s nothing I would ever design for myself.

The three bespoke STEM pieces I’ve made recently are:

  • A large ammonite necklace for my nature-loving grandma
  • An ammonite and amethyst lariat necklace for a Geology student’s ball
  • A set of mathematical symbol studs for a Maths student

The first piece was a commission for my grandma’s birthday. She’s a botanical artist married to a Wildlife Trust director, so she pretty much loves anything related to natural history and plant life. She also likes a statement necklace, so my grandad and I came up with this:

The smaller version of this ammonite necklace is one of the most popular in my Etsy store, so I wasn’t too surprised when I got a custom order enquiry about it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting such an interesting commission. The enquirer was a lovely Geology undergraduate called Mo who was hunting for a special piece for her graduation ball. She’d seen my ammonite necklace and was hoping for a themed necklace to go with the outfit she’d already bought.

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This was a really fun one, because I bloody love designing for specific outfits and occasions. Mo had chosen an absolute show-stopper – a dark purple, v-neck playsuit with a flowing train:

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With a dress that eye-catching, the necklace had to simultaneously match up to and not detract from the dress. An amethyst was the obvious option, and I chose a faceted stone to suggest natural minerals. Paired with the ammonite, it made an unusual, perfectly-themed choice:

The final STEM design I’ve done this season is a set of tiny, delicate, algebraic earrings and a nose stud for a Maths student. I love these, and was tempted to make some for myself, but I felt it might be a bit strange to wear symbols that have no meaning to me…

So, from my recent designing experience, it seems that students wear their interests more than graduates. I suppose this makes sense, since their whole daily lives are defined by their degree choice. ‘Theming yourself’ has another benefit though – it helps you find like-minded people. And, as a relatively-recent graduate myself, I also know how hard it is to meet adult friends once you leave university (or school, if you don’t take the uni route).

Suddenly, for the first time ever, you’re not surrounded by an immediate pool of your peers that you can fish friends out of. How are you supposed to tell if that likely-looking person in your office is actually interesting on a friend level without quizzing them like a creep? (Seriously, if anyone has the answer, let me know in the comments…)

Sometimes it’s easier to start a conversation if you already know you have an interest in common, and interest-based jewellery (or clothing, or accessories) is shorthand for similarly-inclined potential friends to read and start conversation:

Wear a quaver pendant and someone might pipe up, ‘What an unusual necklace, do you play an instrument?’

Ammonite necklace: ‘Ooh, do you like fossils?’

Mathematic symbol earrings: ‘Did you by any chance study maths?’

Boom, instant small talk and a foot in the door to talk to a potential friend (without feeling so weird). I know that probably sounds a bit forced, but there’s also possibility 2: they notice your pretty necklace, comment on how they like it, and you start a conversation about the meaning behind it and find out if you do or don’t have that topic in common. Or you’re already talking and you find something else you both like. Or you decide you hate them and can therefore avoid them. Whatever the outcome, your choice of accessory has enabled a conversation…

The best thing about Etsy is that there are so many wonderful artists you can find something to express your interests. If you can’t find exactly what you’re after, almost everyone will make a custom order if they can (as I may have mentioned before, they’re some of my own favourite design projects). This is just a tiny selection of the interest-based jewellery Etsy has to offer:

So get out there, let your stylish freak flag fly, and meet some fellow humans!

How to create gorgeous Instagram flatlays

Ah, the flatlay. If there’s a style of shot that sums up Instagram (aside from heavily posed bikini shots and too-good-to-eat plates of food), it’s the flatlay. It’s one of the most-searched hashtags on the site. Why do I want to do what everyone else is doing, I hear you cry. Well, there’s a reason flatlays are everywhere: they sum up the kind of pretty, curated, visual content people are on Instagram for in the first place. And why not?

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Source: Instagram (obviously…)

Flatlays are also an amazing tool for creative entrepreneurs. If your business is product-based and aesthetic, throwing a couple of pretty flatlays into your Insta feed is a must. They’re shorthand for your style and a great way to showcase your products.

With such beautiful examples already out there (the ones above were the first when I searched just now) it can feel a bit intimidating, but taking a good flatlay doesn’t need to be a chore. Once you get into it, it’s actually quite fun! It can take quite a bit of prep, though, so I often end up doing mine in batches to use later (Blue Peter eat your heart out).

So, here are 3 easy tips to help you take gorgeous (and efficient) flatlays:

1) Background

Broadly speaking, the plainer the better.

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Lots of people favour plain white (I use standard printer paper for this, but fabric and blank walls/floors also work well), but subtle patterns can work too. Marble or small geometric patterns with lots of space between each element are both popular. If you don’t have a stunningly white background to use, don’t worry. Wood (real or fake) is always a good bet. In fact, most of my flatlays are taken on my wooden workbench. It’s not a completely plain background, but I think it adds a bit of character. It’s also already there, which cuts down set-up time!

2) Props, props, props

As I mentioned in my previous tips post about product photography, I like to keep a stock of photo props about, and this is even more important for flatlays. You might have a new book/lipstick/camera that you want to make the focus of your shot, but the props around it are what make the photo complete. They also don’t have to be expensive. I know a lot of flatlays feature Macbooks and iPhones, but they can also feature Poundland tat if you arrange it nicely. One of my absolute favourite props, a ceramic swan planter, was £3 from Tiger:

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Props can be anything you like, but some of my go-tos are: pretty notebooks and pens; coffee cups; tools of the trade (so, for me, a lot of pliers!); fake flowers and plants (see last week’s post for why they have to be fake); jewellery-making materials. Obviously some of mine are specific to my work, but that’s why flatlays are great. You’re an artist? Throw some paintbrushes and paint tubes in there. Flower arranger? Well, duh. General human just taking pretty pictures? Whatever you damn well please. And that’s the point of all this; your flatlays reflect your personal tastes and interests. That’s why people scrolling through Insta never get bored of flatlays, because there’s so much potential for variation.

Here are some of my favourite props:

3) Arrangement/set-up

Whatever background and props you settle on, the way the items are laid out is what will make or break the picture. The short answer to how you get a great shot is really to just play around and see how things look – helpful, I know…

There are a few things you can try, though, if nothing is jumping out at you:

  • Envision how the image will look as a square (I often take a deliberately wide rectangular shot so it’s easier to crop down into a square for my feed)
  • Line items up at right angles to each other and the sides of the box
  • Put like items together (pens in one place, notebooks in a pile, etc)
  • Try ‘The Scatter’ (paperclips, earrings, glitter – if it’s small, scatter it across the space for instant effect)
  • Try putting all the items on one side/one corner of the square, leaving lots of blank space
  • Arrange items across the borders of the image, so some of them are just peeking into view (this gives the image depth)
  • Draw some pretty calligraphy onto your background (as long as it’s paper!). If you can’t do real calligraphy, fake it like I do: write the phrase in nice handwriting, then draw a second line on all of the downstrokes and fill in the space between:

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Now go forth and lay things flat! Tag your flatlays with #tidingofmagpies – I’d love to see them.

 

 

‘Changing Rooms’: Tiding of Magpies edition

I was ‘off sick’ from this blog last week, because it’s hard to be sparkling when you’re 80% snot… I’m on the mend now, but between getting well and the endless wedmin that needs doing, getting back into business has been a slow process. You know how it is; things have piled up and your desk is covered in papers and you can barely remember how to solder (or is that one just me?). I decided the best place to start was with tidying, which then morphed into workspace interior design. It turned out pretty well, I reckon:

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There have been a lot of studies on what might be the best office decor to encourage productivity (natural light and plants are popular, apparently), and I even know somebody whose office floor is carpeted in fake grass (no, she doesn’t know why either). There’s conflicting evidence on whether art on the walls makes people happy or distracted, or both, or neither, but I’m coming down hard on the side of ‘happy’, hence the new picture wall above my desk.

And, whatever office decor trends are happening this month, when it comes to the link between my workspace and my motivation, having a pretty, well-designed area to work in makes me way more likely to get shit done. The amount of time I’ve spent figuring out which pictures to frame and what kinds of trinkets to display might seem frivolous, or like time which could be better spent on Serious Business Stuff™, but this redesign of my space has made me genuinely excited to get into the office for the first time in a couple of months. I’m looking forward to using my workspace for updating my spreadsheets, for goodness’ sake!

So, this week, I thought I’d give you a tour of my office (pretty bits and not-so-pretty bits alike). The beautification of my workshop has been quite a long process (almost a year now), picking up knick-knacks and practical objects here and there, and working out how the space is best used. That last bit has been pretty essential, because it’s a relatively small space; my office is currently one corner of our spare room.

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The early days of my (unusually tidy) office

One of the big benefits of our spare room is its oodles of natural light (obviously an essential for jewellery-making), which is why my workbench is crammed into the far end of the room (past the very glamorous sofabed, filing cabinet, and general storage area).

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All the light

The tight space does make for some pretty creative storage, though, which is why I chose a vintage bureau crammed full of cubbies and shelves for my workbench:

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Then came the organisational whiteboard (you can just see the influence of my primary-school-teacher sister):

And let’s not forget my miniature storage drawers, which are absolute life-savers with so many tiny bits of metal knocking about:

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So, before today’s decoration session, this was my workspace, and it wasn’t quite working for me any more:

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The pinned-up tool rack was a bit of a stroke of genius from the early days of the desk, but over time, the rest of the space has just got more and more crowded around all of the tools. It started to feel a bit like it was all closing in on my actual workspace, and it wasn’t exactly conducive to inspired design… The question was, what to change?

In the same way that making time for important things requires finding your ‘dead time’ and using it more effectively, sorting out your space means using up dead space. So, I cleared the books off my desk and onto the windowsill, moved the boxes from the top shelf of my desk to the more hidden shelves under the desk, and got rid of all the empty butane cans (total eyesore).

In place of the piles of boxes, I put some carefully-chosen ornaments on top of the bureau. Virtually every study ever done about the effects of a workspace on productivity agrees that plants are a must-have for an effective office. Sadly, I’m a plant serial killer, so I’ve gone for some fakes (which definitely do lift my mood, so clearly there’s something in all these plant recommendations):

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Fake succulents are a must

I also added a couple of more sentimental touches, including my snowglobe collection and a light-up globe my grandma bought me years ago, all of which I picked up on a recent trip to my parents’. The Goblin (a steadfast minimalist with a particular hatred of throw pillow) was obviously delighted when he saw the boxes of trinkets I was planning to infest our flat with, but he relaxed when I promised they’d only be in my office, not in the general living spaces…

The hardest part of the redesign was the picture wall, and I’ll admit I spent several hours sorting through my postcard collection, drafting possible layouts, and actually nailing the bloody things into the wall. Once they were chosen and installed, the finishing flourish was provided by a garland of glittery butterflies (a gift from my future mother-in-law; how well she knows me!).

I’m well aware that my insistence that everything be cute before I can poooossibly get to work probably isn’t enormously normal or productive, but it works for me (pun intended). If I’m having writer’s block or the designs just aren’t coming, the amount of pretty, interesting things in my direct sightline helps to inspire. If (like now) I’m pressed for time, and the rest of life is getting in the way of my business, the desire to go and use my ‘new’ workshop is a really helpful motivator which encourages me to make time to work. And, if nothing else, this round of redesigns gave me a legit excuse to go for a stroll in Tiger (where I got all of the photo frames as well as the swan pot); that’s definitely conducive to a good mental state!

What are your workspaces like? Are you a hoarder like me or a clutter-hater like The Goblin? More importantly, is your workspace meeting those needs and tastes? If not, get cracking and make your space match and facilitate your work. Unlike a lot of the stresses and frustrations in life, your physical environment is something you can always change, even if that just means running a duster round the place and putting all your mess in a pile. And if it means sewing adorable flower hoops and sifting through postcards, so much the better!

 

 

New designs, old inspirations

Last weekend I went to Stratford-upon-Avon with one friend and one goblin (my fiancé), and it made me think about the Elizabethan obsession with pearls (of which more in a later blog post). I’ve created a new pendant inspired by the trip, and by the success of my other Tudor-inspired piece (which was actually based on a coin I got from Kentwell in Year 5). Enough brackets; I thought I’d give you all a behind-the-scenes look at the process of creating a new design from scratch.

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I didn’t actually draw up a design for this one, so the process was a little messier than usual, but here’s the rough blueprint…

Start with some D-shaped sterling silver wire (this is 4mm x 1.4mm):

Cut it to size with a hand saw:

File the ends smooth:

Bend the filed wire into a teardrop shape, continuing to file and shape the ends to get a perfectly flush fit. This will make for a much more successful solder.

Once the ends are filed and bent flush together, saw through the seam. This removes the tiny gap between the ends and allows for a tighter seam and better solder. (No pictures, because it involves both hands and a lot of swearing.)

Have a bit of a soldering mishap, blacken and warp the teardrop, and give up for the day to embroider and write a blog post. After some sewing, napping and sulking, redo the above steps…

Once soldered with a hand torch, the teardrop shape goes into the pickle pot (a slow cooker full of water mixed with a chemical compound that removes the residue from the flux used when soldering).

After that, file down any visible edges of the seam.

Draw guide spots for drill holes with a pencil, like this one I got on my Stratford trip:

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Drill through each side (I use The Goblin’s power drill with a 1cm bit):

Shape and cut a silver pin, then affix into a half-drilled pearl (half-drilled as in only one hole which reaches halfway through the pearl):

Cut some unfinished chain to the desired length (I went with a classic 18-inch):

Thread the chain and pearl through the holes drilled earlier. Later on, decide the pearl needs to hang lower and add a couple of jump rings (see later pictures)…

Solder fixings to each end of the chain:

And finally, back into the pickle pot! (Just the ends though – don’t want to have to re-polish everything.)

 

Et voilà! Tudor-inspired, minimalist pearl pendant, available now at Tiding of Magpies.

 

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Product Photography 101 (no experience needed)

Anyone who’s ever shopped online, let alone sold online, knows that having good photography can make or break a sale. You can make the most beautiful earrings imaginable, but if they’re presented in a poorly lit and uninspiring photo, they’re probably not going to get chosen out of the millions of pairs available online.

When you’re just starting out selling online, it can be difficult to know how to set up and execute good product photography, which is why I enlisted the help of my more camera-savvy friend, @imlfox, for my first round of pictures. (Her Instagram is great by the way, you should all go follow her now. I’ll wait here…)

Bella shoots with a Nikon D5000, which is excellent for making tiny adjustments, but my little Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot works great too. You don’t need fancy equipment unless you’re taking product photos every day, and chances are that at this stage you don’t have that many products to photograph! I would advise against using a phone camera, though, purely because I find the pictures don’t tend to blow up as well on different screen sizes.

So, to get to the point, I have 4 key tips for product photography: lighting, theming/composition, variety, and patience.

1) Lighting

It sounds like a no-brainer, but it makes all the difference in the world. Natural light is best, as much as you can get. I’m lucky my flat has tall windows, but I still need to shoot right next to them to get the best results.

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Exhibit A: Photoshoot on the windowsill with me on a stool to get the best light and angle. The glamour of a small business!

I’m including flash on/flash off in this category as well. If you’ve got shaky hands like me, the balance between the darkening effects of flash and the blurry-but-light results of no flash is pretty delicate. Macro mode and patience are really your only options, unfortunately. They’re worth it for images like this, though:

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2) Theming/composition

This is the fun bit. To start with, you’ll need a rough idea of the sort of aesthetic you’re going for. This will inform the sorts of props you might use and what composition might suit your pictures best. Going for a clean, modern, minimalist look? Think plain white walls, lots of greenery, and maybe a copper candle holder or two, all shot from above. Feeling a more hippy, gap-yah vibe? Break out whatever trinkets you’ve picked up on your travels, find some warm-coloured wood as a base/background, and you’re good to go.

I was going for a vintage-meets-modern sort of thing, since my pieces are generally a mix of old and new inspirations and techniques, so books, sheet music and house plants all worked for me. In fact, I may have got a bit carried away with the themed props…

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Having someone to bounce things off is also really helpful. Don’t be afraid to try things – if they look stupid, you don’t have to ever use the photos. My lovely hand model and bridesmaid, Beth, and I tried many Valentine’s-themed prosecco photos in last weekend’s session. They were all awful, but at least we got to drink the fizz afterwards…

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And this was right next to the window!

3) Variety

I don’t know about other platforms, but Etsy will let you have 5 photos of each item, so you really have to make sure you’re showing every angle/use of the product. This means taking a ton of different shots and whittling them down to the most attractive/useful ones. Of the 40-odd photos we took of Beth wearing my S-shaped hammered ring, these 5 made the cut for the following reasons:

  1. Romantic theming (Valentine’s Day approaching); fingers slightly bent
  2. Different background (tube lines echoing lines of the ring); hand flat
  3. Close up of the texture of the ring when worn
  4. Ring alone to show its shape
  5. Ring alone from a different angle

4) Patience

So, I sort of mentioned this above, but it bears repeating (a lot, like taking pictures. See what I did there?).

My mum likes to terrorise us on holiday and at home with endless snaps (she’s a scrapbooker, it’s an occupational hazard), and always assures us it’s for our own good. We’re always a bit dubious about this, but she explains it’s because the more pictures she takes, the more likely it is that there will be a few nice ones. Despite our family being composed entirely of stumpy little goblins, she does manage to get decent pictures of us all, so it seems she has a point.

It’s definitely the case with product photography, too. Even though trawling through hundreds of photos can seem like a chore, those few shots you (and your potential customers) love will be worth it. Besides, you can always sift while you’re watching TV, and I guarantee you a good proportion will be blurry instant deletions, which speeds things up…

After the 183 pictures I took last weekend (of 5 products!), I ended up with this gem. Love knot midi ring on a hand holding a flower, posed on top of the piano music for ‘Your Song’ – Valentine’s theming at its finest.

If you’ve got any particularly good product pictures you want to share, hit me up on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll retweet/regram them!