On trying new things and adjusting expectations

I’ve never been good at not being good at things as soon as I start them, so it’s no wonder it took me a year to start my Etsy shop. Business is one thing – it’s serious and nerve-racking – but when you’re this much of a perfectionist, hobbies are no different…

My mum mentioned a couple of weeks ago that she was going on a one-day embroidery workshop midway between Brum and hers, and as luck would have it I had already booked the day off work. I’ve been seriously burnt out lately between the day job, business and my health, so a day hanging out with my mum staring at threads sounded ideal. I’m not the most experienced embroiderer (satin stitch and back stitch were pretty much the only things in my embroidery arsenal before the class), but I naively thought I’d just be able to whip up a hoop full of art in 6 hours. Aww, bless past me…

So we were going to be embroidering landscapes, and the first thing to do was rub a  photo transfer onto the fabric. Cool, easy, no problem – oh wait, here comes the first failure. It took me FOREVER to get the bastard thing onto the cotton. I wanted to cry, because I’m a totally proportionate and reasonable person.

Anyway, according to Lorna (the lovely instructor), it was thicker paper than usual and not my fault. Don’t know if that’s true or if she was being nice, but I’m taking it! Eventually we ended up with this:

…which I picked because it looks like where I grew up:

So far, so difficult! I wasn’t not enjoying it, by the way, I was just frustrated with myself for not instantly being top of the class…

Luckily, the first new  stitch we learnt was split stitch, which is a bit like back stitch. Tree trunks started to appear in my bluebell wood (*cough* that’s what they said…):

We also learnt fly stitch, french knots and ‘lazy daisies’:

Despite enjoying the sewing itself, I was so much slower than everyone else in the class, and it was taking me an age to pick colours and get the hang of the new stitches. Other people were learning fancy stitches left, right and centre, and it was making me jealous. It was pretty obvious I was getting frustrated, so Lorna told me not to worry about what the others were doing, and just to keep going at my own pace. She was so nice and so not-patronising, which made a massive difference for me.

Once I had ‘permission’ to just focus on my own design, I was able to readjust my expectations and appreciate the multiple new stitches I’d learnt. I didn’t get nearly as much of the design done as I wanted to at the start of the day, but what I did do was ok:

Despite my frustration with myself, I really enjoyed the class, and it reaffirmed for me something I’ve been working on for a long time: adjusting expectations of myself. I’m not advising letting yourself off the hook and making excuses to be lazy, but sometimes being relentlessly hard on yourself is less productive than just accepting you might need to lower the bar a bit (who knew?!). It’s especially important if you’re feeling tired, ill or burnt out, because you’re probably already not at your best.

Aaaaand that’s why I’m currently not beating myself up (too much) for having melted a pendant I’d spent hours on today, and have given up my jewellery efforts for now to sit on the sofa and work on my embroidery instead…

If any of you are having trouble readjusting expectations today, this is your permission to go a bit easier on yourself. If you can’t do that, here are some pictures of my parents’ dog, Olive, in the bluebell woods at home to cheer you up:

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Stoned by Aja Raden: a review

Anyone who follows me on Instagram might have noticed me posting a few pictures of Aja Raden’s ridiculously photogenic book, Stoned, over the past month. It’s taken me a bit longer and got me a few more weird looks on the train than I expected (without the dust jacket it just looks like a book about weed), but I loved it.

First things first, I really loved the format of the book; you can’t really go wrong with chapters focused on one object/story that fits into the wider theme. I just feel like it’s such a strong way to zoom in and out on a topic.

It’s hard to pick out one of the chapters as the best, but the one on emeralds was a winning combination of medieval exploration, science  and witty anecdotes. It was also probably the most interesting for me personally in terms of new knowledgefor example, did you know that emeralds are formed by the crashing together of continental plates?!

Another thing I seriously enjoyed was the amount of fun Raden had with the footnotes (special shout out to the giggly footnote on page 36 about ballsacks). It reminded me a bit of one of my all-time faves, The Princess Bride. Stoned was also scattered with puns, which I obviously adore. The only downside to the irreverent tone was that it sometimes strayed into sounding a little forced, but the multiple times I laughed aloud more than outweighed that.

Stoned was a really interesting blend of science, geopolitics, history and art, probably because Raden has a degree in Physics and Ancient History and is a jeweller herself. Obviously I read it because it was about jewellery, but I think it’s one of those books where you can pick out your interests and follow the threads throughout. I particularly enjoyed the historical commentary and healthy dose of gender politics (although I’d argue that the description of Catherine Howard as ‘empty-headed’, ‘moronic’ and a ‘young tart’ was a bit jarring and harsh, as well as an oversimplification of the historic context in which her marriage took place).

Overall, I thought Stoned was a fab balance of detail and broad pictures, and Raden had obviously done a ton of research. Her knowledge of jewellery design also made for some really fascinating descriptions and explanations of key pieces. I’d definitely recommend it, particularly to anyone who, like me, is busy and therefore has unpredictable amounts of time to read, because it’s pretty easy to dip in and out of without losing interest or focus.

Favourite quote: Hands down the point where Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain were described as ‘putting the ick in Catholic’ with their religious intolerance, although a close second was the description of ‘the United States spreading across the North American continent like a bloodstain’ during the 19th century.

Favourite new fact:  Engagement rings for both men and women were made mandatory for Catholics by Pope Innocent III in 1215 (mostly because of all the crusade-based shagging that was occurring), so fiancé and I aren’t being the hipster arseholes we thought we were, but are in fact being medievally Catholic…huh.

Clent Hill I see you again?

Juggling work and life admin and relationships and health and everything else is always a tricky one, and recently I’ve been feeling a little burnt out. One of the best things about running a one-woman operation is the (relative) freedom to work to your own timetable, but being your own boss can make it difficult to stop working.

I love Birmingham, I love the Jewellery Quarter, and I love being 30 seconds away from gin cocktails at all times, but…I’m less fond of being near crowds and away from nature for long periods of time. I also love that we’re smack in the middle of the country so friends and family are always visiting us so we can show off the city, but The Goblin (my lovely fiancé) and I do try to have one weekend a month with no visitors. Last weekend was our March weekend to ourselves and spring has finally sprung (sort of), so how better to unwind than to get out of the city?

Despite being a massive urban sprawl, it turns out Brum is actually pretty near a fair amount of lovely countryside. Exhbit A: the Clent Hills –

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A wild goblin appears

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Yes, the bench was too tall for my tiny legs.

It was so beautiful and so quiet and so green and so full of dogs and so only-25-minutes-drive-from-the-flat. Pretty much perfect.

Our excursion was going so well that we also stopped by Hanbury Hall – you can take the heritage nerds out of the National Trust, but…*

Definitely getting some design inspiration from these wallpapers and from the formal gardens…

There was only one downside – nice as a bimble at the NT always is, we definitely underestimated how many people a smallish property could attract on a Saturday afternoon. So many children. So very loud. So incredibly high-pitched and annoying, in fact, that The Goblin (usually one of the broodiest men alive) begged me to sterilise him…and so we finished up with the gardens and came back home for some quiet snacks in front of Psych.

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And have I stayed relaxed? Well, I’m writing this at 7.15pm on a Tuesday night, so that probably answers the question…maybe I’ll have better luck next time! Any suggestions for where in the West Midlands to try next?

*We both used to work at National Trust properties in Shropshire.

#etsysmallbusiness contest and #marchmeetthemaker

So, I recently entered the Etsy Small Business Contest. (It closes 6th April 2017, so if you’re reading this before then, please pop along and vote for me if you haven’t already https://etsy.wishpond.com/small-business-contest-intl/entries/149579637)  I’m well aware that there are thousands of Etsy sellers with much larger followings than mine, and that when it comes to a public voting contest, my chances are pretty slim, but nothing ventured and all that…

Plus, writing the application gave me something else which is really helpful and often forgotten by creative entrepreneurs: it gave me the time to check in with my aims, goals and progress with the business so far. It’s something that’s always recommended in how-to books on starting a small business, but I’m not great at remembering to do it… If any readers are in the same boat and have any advice, drop me a message!

Days focusing on my business (when I’m not at my day job) tend to pass in a bit of a blur of metal shavings, Instagram and Post Office queues, and it’s sometimes hard to take time to pause and regroup. For the contest application, the character limit was 500 per section, which is a ridiculously low amount for someone as verbose as I am, so I decided to expand on my application text to properly figure out where my business came from and where it’s going. A lot of Etsy sellers on Instagram are also doing #marchmeetthemaker, where they talk about their businesses on a personal level, so this kind of fits in there.

Sound hokey? Fab, let’s go.

For the application, I had to write about how my business got started and what the prize money would mean to me. Well, this time last year, I was stuck in a horrible job in an incredibly toxic company, and my (already shaky) mental health took a major dive. I felt like I was losing myself and wasting my potential, and I felt completely trapped. I knew something needed to change but fuck me if I knew what. Anyone who knows me IRL can also probably guess that corporate recruitment was never going to be my bag long-term; I don’t like jargon, I’m incapable of looking neat and presentable for longer than about 90 minutes, and I find it difficult to care about things that bore me.

Aside from the soul-crushing bleakness of working somewhere where ‘feminist’ was an insult, one (slightly more shallow) thing that bugged me was having to dress ‘business formal’. I totally get why traditional businesses need their employees to look smart, but just ughhhhhhhh… One thing my jewellery aims to do is to give people who work somewhere with a strict dress code the ability to bring a little of their personality to work without breaking the rules. It might be a little thing, but having an unusual necklace to wear can make crawling into a suit at 6am every day slightly more enjoyable. Also, I know fashion generally can be seen as shallow and inconsequential, but the power of how you present yourself can’t really be underestimated; it’s why I always put on mascara, my watch and a bra when I’m working from home*, no matter how tempting it is to sink into a pyjama pit instead…

So, I was in a mentally-damaging job, and I’d moved all the way to Birmingham for it. Luckily The Goblin (my now-fiancé) had got a proper job too, meaning leaving my job to do something more fulfilling had actually become an option. But what? By chance, not knowing much about the different parts of Birmingham when we moved here, we ended up in the Jewellery Quarter. Being in this historic centre of jewellery creation was the inspiration for turning my hobby into a business, and continues to be a big source of motivation. I got a part-time gig somewhere much less corporate which suits me a lot better, and, more importantly, allows me to focus on my business two days a week. It’s been unbelievably therapeutic.

St Paul’s Square in the JQ

The difference between my brain now and my brain a year ago is ridiculous – in a good way. Making things has always been an escape for me, and my hope is that by being open and honest about my mental health issues on my blog and social media (this post being Exhibit A), others struggling might see that things can get better. Like, I’m not saying that everyone with PTSD should sack off their garbage jobs and hang out at home playing with metal, but things can change, whatever that positive change looks like for the individual person.

Okay, so, schmaltzy bit over: how would (very, very hypothetically) winning actually change my business?

I’m very new to running a small business – I opened my store in December 2016 – and what I most want to do is learn! I’m developing my skills all the time through practice, but there are certain techniques I can’t learn at home. Winning this contest would enable me to take advantage of the training opportunities available in the Jewellery Quarter, particularly the courses on stone-setting, the skill which would make the biggest difference to my jewellery. Because, let’s be real, stone-setting is hard. And expensive if you mess it up. And overall just daunting af. Being in the JQ is ridiculously good luck, though, because there are a ton of decent stone-setting courses basically on my doorstep. So near, yet so far…

The prize money would also allow me to really stretch myself in terms of creating new designs and really building up a range of pieces for my buyers, because one of the biggest things currently holding me back from reaching my design potential is the prohibitive cost of ‘experimenting’ with precious metals. My best designs have come from experimentation (my haematite pendant being a key example), but the amount of precious and semi-precious materials that get wasted in the process just isn’t sustainable at the size my business is now.

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Finally, I would gain something essential to develop my business: time. With this money, I could afford to devote more time to being creative in my jewellery and my online content, as well as working on my jewellery-making ability. For any creative entrepreneur, there basically aren’t enough hours in the day, but with the contest prize, I could afford to ‘pay’ myself for the time I spend on the business, which would make the world of difference.

For now, it’s back to planning, journalling, and sticking adorable motivational postcards to my business board…


 

*Obviously with other clothes as well, perverts.

The Best Jewellery from AW17 Fashion Weeks

The latest Paris Fashion Week finished last week, which means all the major fashion houses have had their say on this year’s Autumn/Winter trends. Apparently duvet dressing is still in this season (thank you, Mulberry, Preen and Margiela), although I’m going to take a hard pass on the socks-with-sandals look…

Amidst all the furore about the clothes, jewellery design can sometimes get forgotten in the main news coverage of Fashion Week, so I’ve compiled my favourite jewellery collections from London, Milan and Paris, and found a few handmade Etsy versions as well.

London, 17-21 February: Mulberry

Old meets new with crystal ear cuffs and vintage-style brooches and cameos alongside tweed, checks and embroidery. Love, love, love this aesthetic, and it’s actually achievable off the catwalk, too: grab a patterned shirt and cardie and you’re good to go. Stand-out piece: that gorgeous be-ringed hand pendant.

Milan, 22-28 February: Dolce and Gabbana

The prints are cute, the jackets are cute, but let’s be real – the reason this was the runaway runway winner of Milan Fashion Week is the abundance of crowns. Sadly this look isn’t as doable in daily life (unless you work at Disneyland or you don’t mind getting some really weird looks at the Post Office), but how good would it be if you could actually wear a crown all day, every day? If, like me, you want a crown to wear around the house, Etsy’s bursting with choice. Most of them are ‘wedding’ crowns, but they’re surprisingly affordable, so I’m tempted to just buy one for myself. Sod the wedding! A couple of my favourites:

Paris, 28 February – 8 March: Dior

There are so many things to love about Dior’s AW17 collection, not least the fact it looks like high-fashion Beauxbatons uniforms. The delicate, layered necklaces in this collection are just gorgeous and, like the Mulberry stuff, easy to incorporate into your wardrobe. When it comes to subtle necklaces to layer up, Tiding of Magpies has you covered:

This one even comes pre-layered:

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I’m working on a new line of multistrand necklaces like the one above, so check back in a couple of weeks for more…

Matronalia: Ro-mums

It’s a well-known saying that ‘all roads lead to Rome’, but it actually turned out to be true when I was researching my last Mothers’ Day post. Almost every source on the origins of Mothers’ Day mentions the Roman festival of Matronalia, so I did a bit more exploration.

Matronalia, celebrated on 1st March, was the first day in the Roman festival year. It’s thought to have originated as a celebration of the new temple dedicated to Juno Lucina (Juno the lightbringer, long-suffering wife of Jupiter and ‘mother’ of the women of Rome) on the Esquiline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, in 375BCE.

The festival, a celebration of mothers and of women in general, involved gift-giving by husbands and daughters. Gifts would often include gourmet food, jewellery and perfume. Women also gave their household slaves the day off, and often cooked them a meal, which is interesting, because it’s reminiscent of the Mothering Sunday tradition where girls in domestic service were given the day off to go and visit their mothers, as well as to eat richer food than was generally permitted during Lent.

So, what sort of jewellery might Roman mothers have received at Matronalia? If you answered ‘probably garnet’, you’re bang on. The Romans loved garnets and imported them in their thousands. The garnet was also symbolic of friendship and affection, making it a perfect gift for Matronalia.

Jewellery expressing love and affection between husbands and wives was another popular gift:

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Sardonyx earrings inscribed with ‘Te Kale’, Ancient Greek for ‘To the beautiful one’

Roman jewellers were also fond of wire-wrapping other stones, including pearls, to create some gorgeous earrings:

And if earrings weren’t a Roman woman’s thing, rings were always a popular choice. Interesting fact: the reason Roman rings are so tiny isn’t just because previous generations tended to be smaller than we are now, it’s also because Roman men and women often wore their rings above the first knuckle. Yep, the Romans were ahead of the midi ring trend by more than 2000 years.

If you’re looking for an unusual gift for your mum this Mothering Sunday, look no further than my Etsy shop, where you can find historically-inspired handmade jewellery like this ammonite pendant:

The ammonite above is reminiscent of the Roman pin on the left, but if you’re looking for something more modern or themed around different historical periods, there is a whole range of delicate silver pieces in my store:

Intimate Jewels: Surrealism, Fetish and Fairytales – thoughts on a lecture by Dr Sabina Stent at the UCB School of Jewellery

The Jewellery Quarter continues to surprise me with little treats: it turns out the School of Jewellery (University College Birmingham) is currently running a lecture series called ‘Talking Practice’ which is open to the public as well as students. Research seminars are one of the things I miss most about university, so I’ve been planning to take in a talk or two for a while now. I hadn’t got round to going to any before last week, but as soon I heard there was an upcoming talk called ‘Intimate Jewels: Surrealism, Fetish and Fairytales’, I registered on the spot. Jewellery and feminist scholarship? It’s like the event was made for me…

I scooped up a like-minded friend (obviously I’m not enough of an adult to go to something new by myself – who does that?!) and we headed over. I’d checked a dozen times that the talk actually was open to interlopers like us, but I still left feeling a tiny bit like this:

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So, Dr Sabina Stent gave us an introduction to female surrealists (who I knew precisely nothing about before the lecture, to my slight shame) and their contribution to material culture.* She highlighted the fact that with female surrealists, as in all Art History, people tend (understandably) to focus on paintings as the evidence of artistic output, and sculpture, furniture, clothing, and so on often get left by the wayside. So far, so good (I like a good painting as much as the next person but I find objects much more interesting. The Cour Marly is my favourite part of the Louvre by miles).

Another interesting point Sabina made right off the bat was that part of the reason female surrealists are underrepresented in scholarship is because they’re too often viewed as the muses of male surrealist artists rather than artists in their own rights. For example, Dora Maar was immortalised in the public mind as nothing more than Picasso’s Weeping Woman, but was actually an exceptionally talented photographer.

Two artists were discussed in particular detail: Elsa Schiaparelli (who Chanel described as ‘that artist who makes clothes’ – great bit of vintage shade there) and Méret Oppenheim. Both created a variety of objects, and both tapped into the surrealist movement’s love of using disembodied body parts as a key type of imagery. Some of the key pieces Sabina introduced to audience to included gloves, hats, accessories and tableware:

Straight away you can see the focus on disembodied limbs and externalising the internal. (I also really, really want that last brooch.)

Of all the pieces Sabina introduced, the most difficult and interesting was undoubtedly Méret Oppenheim’s Ma Gouvernante:

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There’s no other way to put it; it’s uncomfortable to look at, from the scuffed, white shoes that suggest the Madonna/whore complex to the overtones of bondage and cannibalism. When it was originally shown in 1936, a female viewer flew into a rage and smashed it, forcing Oppenheim to make a second version. The lecture emphasised the female surrealists’ practice of creating sexually-charged, whimsical and provocative art, attempting to reclaim femininity through dark humour. From that angle (and I’m assuming statistically that Oppenheim had at least tangential experience/knowledge of the sexual violence which the piece suggests), I feel that Ma Gouvernante externalises a distinctly female set of intense and difficult emotions, experiences and societal expectations.

And while we’re on the topic of expressing difficult issues, the other thing the lecture highlighted was the surrealists’ exploration of the lines between civilisation and wilderness, as epitomised by Oppenheim’s werewolf gloves:

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Subversion of fairytale tropes? Check. Weaponised femininity? Check. Suggestive of raw female power? Check.

These gloves are particularly interesting to me in the context of the surrealist movement’s attitude towards mental health issues (shocker). When I reached out to Sabina after the lecture, she made the point that the male surrealists had a tendency to romanticise the ‘mad man’ while shunning the ‘mad woman’, but that several female surrealists did use their work to express their mental health issues, notably Leonora Carrington and Dora Maar.

Sabina was kind enough to give me some recommendations for further reading (yes, yes, I know, I went to a lecture voluntarily and asked for homework – I’m the worst), so I might come back to this post with a bit more insight at some point in the future. For now, I know I’ve focused heavily on two of my specialist subjects (feminist issues and mental illness) in this post, so it’s probably going to seem a bit intense, but what else is art criticism but projecting your own meaning and experience onto the artist’s final product?!

So, let’s finish on a sparklier note. The only criticism I can make of the talk is one I level at the world on a regular basis: there could have been more jewellery. I’ve had a scout about online to satisfy my own interest, and found some gorgeous Schiaparelli and Oppenheim pieces to share with you all:

For me, these pieces demonstrate the full potential of jewellery, which, if you think about it, is essentially wearable art. They also remind me of a quote from the lecture (one of my new favourites):

‘Jewellery reigns over clothing not because it is absolutely precious but because it plays a crucial role in making clothing mean something.’

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*For anyone interested in learning more, the surrealists referenced in the talk were: Leonora Carrington, Emmy Bridgewater (a Brum-based surrealist!), Dora Maar, Elsa Schiaparelli and Méret Oppenheim.