Sunday, January 21, 2018

Good Enough to Start With - Cut and Run

I got something right on the first try, then spent a full day trying and failing to make it better - only to realize it didn't really need to be improved. But like most dead ends, I learned a lot of useful stuff along the way.

Last week I posted about a 3d printed template for cutting, slashing and modifying fabric. The design was a success, both because it was easy to customize and print new designs with only a few minutes work for each pattern, and because it actually helped making clean straight cuts in tee-shirts.

Not satisfied, I continued to think of new ways to use this approach until I reached the limits of the first design. I wanted bigger better, smaller faster, simpler yet more complex designs. Are you beginning to suspect I might have gotten carried away?

Sure, the template worked. But I noticed that any design with the slots closer than about 10mm started to create problems. Common tee-shirt fabric, being all stretchy and flimsy, was particularly problematic. It would stretch, gather and distort when the cutting slots got too close together. This really sucked because slashing old tee-shirts was the original impetus behind the entire concept.

I also noticed that very thin or slippery fabrics like sateen, or very thick fabrics like denim didn't always work very well. If I was careful, I could do both. But I had to take care to hold the template just right and position and lay out the fabric correctly.

A simple, first try success wasn't good enough. I had to make it better. I had a serious case of designer fever.

What I needed were some cleats or ridges and matching grooves to really clamp down on the cloth and hold it in place.

So I started a redesign of the entire template system. I spent half of a day thinking about it and drawing simple sketches. What if I put cleats or ridges on the surfaces, maybe add matching indentations to really clinch the cloth and keep it from moving.

I did several sketches like that. I got a feel for a way to draw the "features" easily. And then started thinking about how to automate the process so that I could type in a few numbers and the pattern would magically draw itself.

The first (successful) version simply extruded shapes up from the ground plane, the cut or joined the shapes to create two slotted plates. But this new cleated, wavy system wouldn't work like that. Now, I had to extrude on two or even three planes and somehow coordinate the origins and geometries across multiple drawing steps.

That was kind of annoying. I had to redo all my old work/ And, because I wasn't sure which, if any. of the new shapes would work, I  needed to find the simplest method of automating multiple styles of cleats and clips and waves.

I couldn't find any one style that worked for all shapes, so I wound up generating several different files with completely different automation strategies.

Getting a flat face to match with another flat face is easy. getting curved and notched faces to mate with other curved faces with varying distances between them, well that isn't nearly as easy. Especially if the surfaces curve in all directions at once.

Automating that process is even harder. Boy did I learn a lot.

Or what if I made the entire surface wavy - yeah, that would really lock them together.

I spent about a full day concepting then drawing and automating these new designs. I was getting closer, but also getting frustrated. Then I went back to look at the results from the first tests and realized something.

I didn't need to do all this.

Seriously, I'm never going to be cutting two hundred strips of cloth that are only 2mm wide. That's just ridiculous. Look at any example of slashed tee-shirt mods. They have a few (10-20) cuts and the strips are at least an inch wide, not a hundred tiny cuts.

This project was supposed to be about slapping down a template on a worn out tee and making 10 or 20 relatively straight cuts in a few seconds.

I had gotten carried away and was trying to create a process that would rival the precision of a laser cutter. Why do that?

So I stopped the design and tried to feel better about the day I had just lost to stupidity. It was probably the easiest part of the day. I did actually learn a lot, and any time you find new ways of doing things it's a win. If not today, then sometime soon.

There are parts that I can still use in this design. I can use some of the new ideas in other projects. I'm working on a metal and paper embosser where these techniques are useful. A lot of these ideas are also applicable for sliding joints for lids and cases. And this exploration helped me get a better grasp on basing multi-plane geometries off a single origin point.

So like most failures, I got a lot of useful information to use. So maybe that day wasn't a complete loss after all. Now I'm off to cut up more old shirts.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Weather Station Might Need Some Rework

I'm thinking this might be a good time to rework the interface for my DIY Bluetooth weather station. Sure, I can tell a lot about the precipitation and wind just by looking at the station, but it's not sending any useful data to the display.

It might be time to bring the weather station inside so I can manually control the physical inputs. It's too cold to be outside and it's always fun to sit in the living room madly twisting, spinning, blowing and shaking a large plastic porcupine of sensors while looking at quickly moving, squiggly lines on my phone..

Weather stations in winter can be a bit unreliable. My "rain gauge" reads zero, but I'm pretty sure there has been some precipitation recently just from looking. I might bring it inside and work on the graphic display of the Bluetooth receiver.

I'm not looking forward to coding again, at least not this project. It works now, works very well in fact. But from what I remember I wrote some good, tight code - then got excited and went on an experimental streak. So there is probably lots of orphaned threads and poorly conceived routines wrapped around the well written, well documented portion of the program.

However, after a few months of successful testing with a Bluetooth data stream, I realize that I need to use another communication protocol with a longer range (probably LORA) so I can get the weather station into an area where the wind and rain won't be affected by surrounding structures. With Bluetooth I can only get 40-50 feet away from the house. But with LORA I could easily get 250 feet. That's enough to get the sensors out into an unobstructed area.

The station and my DIY display works well enough to give me a reasonable idea of what's going on and a basic record of overnight activity. But I also want to add a few more capabilities and display features.

If I do actually work on the display I'll try to document the process this time. It's actually pretty cool and fun to play with - plus it uses some basic interface techniques I've re-used several times. The real problem with blogging about it is that there is Android code, Arduino code, interface concerns, data storage and translation and .... well you get the picture. There's a lot going on.

But maybe if I write about each part as it happens I won't get bogged down in trying to create one huge, master tutorial. At the very least, I'll post some pics of the interface.

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Slashed Tee-Shirt with a Template - First Look

Slashed tee-shirts were all the rage a few years ago, Then they fell out of favor for a while. Now, they appear to be making a comeback with much more elaborate, commercially produced forms. I made a few attempts at cool fashion tees and got frustrated because mine always looked even rougher and more home made than they were supposed to - ragged, crooked cuts with even worse weaving.
Who knew I was so bad with a pair of scissors?

But I'm willing to try again. This time I made a 3d printed cutting-template to help me cut clean, straight lines for easier weaving and crisper shapes.

The cloth fits between two slotted plates. The plates lock together and hold the cloth in place while it's cut with a craft blade. 

The template itself is a simple idea, but I'm using Fusion 360's parametric functions to make the template easily customizable.

Now, with just a few clicks I can change the size and thickness of the cutting plates,and the size and spacing of the cut lines. I can also apply any shape to the slots.

Don't know how often I will personally use it, But I know some folks who are going through their custom-tee phase that might enjoy having these.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Shadow Screen Basic How-To Tips

Dare I reveal the secret of shadow casting? People really liked the shadow casting screen I posted about last week. But it's incredibly difficult to do and requires super sophisticated yet extremely arcane knowledge of the underlying forces of the universe.

LOL, not really!!! Actually it's very simple and would make a great project for any designer wanting to experiment with basic 3d printing.

And as an added benefit, the screen not only casts very cool shadows, it also changes its appearance as you move around it. I've only scratched the surface of this technique, but I'm having a blast experimenting.

Sections of the screen darken and lighten at different times as the viewer moves around the screen. You can control when each section darkens in several ways. These include changing the size of the open slots as well as the depth of that section of the screen itself.

If you have ever twisted a venetian blind to control the amount of sunlight, then you understand all you need to know to create one these shadow screens. It's just that the scale and repetition of the elements made the project look complicated.

The same techniques also cast interesting shadows that change as the sun moves.

Basically, you create a grid of very thin walls. You control how quickly any one section darkens by varying the width of the slots and the height of the walls. There are other things you can do, but these two variables in combination give you all kinds of interesting effects, certainly enough to entertain you for a week or so and a spool of filament.

I have tried to explain the technique, but either the misleading appearance of sophisticated visual magic confuses people or I'm not very good at explaining things. So I decided to draw some diagrams to better explain it. These might help, or they might just confuse people even more.

Either way, they were a good exercise for me. I got to play with a vector illustration program again, and it forced me to think about how I was explaining the technique. I occasionally write a tutorial on the Instructables site, and I really enjoy that process and sharing with other makers. But if I don't practice writing and illustrating enough, I find that the process becomes painful instead of fun.

If I can figure out what I want to say and how to explain and illustrate it, I might even write a full tutorial on this technique.

So let me know if this blog post helps you understand how these screens are made. Am I on the right track or just confusing things even more?

I'll post a link to any tutorials I write, so stay tuned and keep making.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Teaser for 3d Printed Shadow Caster

Here's a quick preview/teaser of a project (theme") I am working on - a 3d printed shadow caster.

A little fun with sunlight and shadow patterns.

The shadow-caster throws patterns from sunlight or lightbulbs. The shapes and darkness of the shadows changes depending on where the light source is. This gives a really neat effect as the sun moves throughout the day.

And as you walk past the shade the surface of the 3d printed object changes its appearance, so the effect is constantly changing.

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Jewelry that Flickers and Flits with Pictures

Here's another way to add beautiful lighting effects to your jewelry. Tiny, inexpensive graphic screens are easy to embed in your projects. They aren't as bright and showy as LEDs like Neopixels, but they give you the ability to craft very customized light and color effects. You can animate them and even display images. And of course you can control them with an Arduino.

A really simple pattern adds a lot of visual interest to this millefiori piece. The pattern changes slowly over time to give the pendant a constantly transforming appearance. The light really helps draw the eye in dim lighting. If you don't want that, simply turn off the screen. You can create any pattern, animation or even image that you want and change them as slowy or quickly as you desire.

I'm going to use fused glass as an example again. I like to work with fused glass because it poses so many challenges and can have so many different forms. Each piece is unique and calls for a careful pairing of light.

And because fused glass is pretty all by itself, it's also challenging not to overpower the innate beauty of the material. Last week I posted about using a simple LCD light valve to add interest. That works well with semi-transparent glass.You can also use these tiny graphics screens to add patterns and lights to the same piece of glass.

However, I have struggled to find something that woks well with clear glass pieces. Nothing ever worked well in pieces that had areas of transparent glass. So I hauled out my LCD screen collection and tried some of them. I think this technique has some definite possibilities.

Both Adafruit and Sparkfun have a wide range of sizes and form factors for these types of screens. For jewelry, the "deck of cards" size is probably the biggest you would need for your largest statement pendant. I prefer the matchbook sized ones. I have played with the tiny thumbnail sized versions, but after getting diffused there isn't that much difference between them and a much cheaper LED.

Here are just a few of the screen sizes available. (That's a US quarter for scale)

There are a few things to remember when choosing a screen:

If you want to display actual images then you need to make sure the screen comes with an SD card slot so you can store the image or images.

Don't forget about the monochrome black-and-white versions if all you need is a gentle flicker. There are also versions where the entire screen can be any single color and you can draw in black.

The faster your microprocessor is the faster you can change the screen display. This might not be important to you. I can code and design animations well enough to get small chips to do what I need. But if you want to do fancy animations consider using a more powerful chip like the M0. With the Pi Zero, you could even play videos using the same screens.

You can use traditional tools like Photoshop or Illustrator to create your patterns and images. For people who don't code, this makes this technique much more accessible. You an also use code to draw over and manipulate images, so it offers the best of both worlds.

I will keep using the LEDs and NeoPixels for jewel based. big bling style projects. And the 3d printed jewelry actually needs all the brightness NeoPixels provide just to show through the plastic during daytime.

But the more I play with LCD graphic screens and glass the more possibilities I see. I've got several ideas, and the really neat thing about his technique is that you can leave the screen off to emphasize the beauty of the glass itself - or you can show any solid color, pattern, animation or image on the exact same piece.

In fact, the same piece of glass can be given a completely new "look" by changing what's on the display.

I'll post more images of my experiments soon, and I think I might need to start doing video just to better demonstrate the effects possible with this combo.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Adding Some Dark Yin Yang to my Jewelry

I'm about to put some serious yin yang into a jewelry project. For years, I've put lights into jewelry, now it's time to put some darkness into the mix. Say what... ???

Well, not darkness exactly. But I can now block light on command thanks to new "light valves" from Adafruit. These light valves are thin glass sheets that can be darkened on command with a standard Arduino... think LCD screen or welding helmet, except the whole sheet darkens.

Why would I want to darken something, especially jewelry? I've put bright colorful LEDs onto every hat, scarf, shoe and bracelet I could find to make them sparkly. Why would I suddenly want to block light? It took me a while to find a problem for this solution, but I think I've found an interesting use case. What if you are working with objects that already have a beautiful quality of light?

Adding a dark background (upper half) completely changes to look of this piece of fused glass. The glass is so beautiful on its own that it doesn't need and LEDs in it. But changing how much light gets through the glass can affect the look of the entire piece. Imagine the background fluttering or pulsing between dark and light.  

A maker-friend creates lovely fused glass jewelry. The glass does amazing, wonderful things with light. It bends it and scatters it and refracts it. I've put lights behind these pieces of glass to great effect. But some of the pieces, especially the clear or nearly transparent pieces didn't work as well as I had hoped.

Translucent or heavily tinted glass diffuses the LEDs and creates a wonderful glow. But the nearly transparent glass always looked like I had just stuck some LEDs behind it, there was no magic or artistry. They looked cheap and tacky, a sad disservice to the beautiful glass work.

And the transparent glass really changes depending on the light that hits it, Some pieces look dark and nearly opaque in dim light, then turn crystalline and bright in sunlight. On a light background they look one way, on a dark background they look completely different.

What if I cold control the background, change it from dark to light, flicker it, fade it and pulse it? Well now I have a way to do that thanks to these new "light valves" from Adafruit. It's not as dramatic as an LED, but that subtlety is precisely the point. I've been developing ways to tone down LEDs for a long time, trying to make something a little less Vegas and more LBD evening gown-ish. Maybe the solution is to control the lighting effects from the opposite end of the scale instead. 

I just started this experiment, but I like some of the effects I'm getting so I'll post some of my successes and failures as I go akong (plus more about the light valves).

Stay tuned for updates.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

A Few Lines about Linemen for Christmas

Twas the morning of Christmas, snuggled deep in my warm westernized house, the fans and the heaters drowning out any mouse. Four o'clock in the morning, the hour barely wee, when I woke up early and not even to pee. Something was wrong, but I didn't know what. My nose was cold and my feet they weren't hot. I fell out of bed, being careful not to slip, to the nearest wall I did stumble, to the switch I always flip.

What to my wondering eye did appear, nothing, nothing at all light was emitted, the darkness did not flatten, the room stayed too silent and my mood it did sadden, Now I knew for sure there was something the matter, but no worries, for from far down the road there arose a real clatter. With big bright lights and many a beep beep beep, three trucks came a calling. When I looked out the window the snow it was falling. Outside at night, in coats that should've been thicker, several brave souls were already raising a tall steel cherry picker.

Santa's sleigh doesn't always look like we think it should. I got a humbling reminder of how much I have to be thankful for early this Christmas morning

Each morning caffeine I go seeking, so five minutes in and I was already freaking. While I a soft maker was missing his Peets, hardy folks outside worked their way down a cold winter street. Fifteen minutes later my mind was adrift, worrying about my day's plans, not the poor humans high up in their lift.

I couldn't PM and I couldn't send greetings, and if this went on I might not be eating. I stepped outside the better to see, not so much to help, but more like a big silent plea. With temps less than twenty and gusts up to fiddy, I watched as they tested each transformer in a safe slow motion jiffy. Each time I went outside I stayed a few seconds, and quickly got so cold I began to consider them legends.

As the hours stretched from two into three, the power came back on and the spoiled man inside was once again free. I went back indoors as they drove out of sight, knowing full well that I can code up a storm but I can't bring the light. As I gave out this year's precious handcrafted gifts, made with a big AC Dremel and my hands all a tremble, I remembered that all my nifty skills could fit in a thimble. When I hit a tough problem I too often sigh, while those folks on the line fix real problems so that people don't die

I think my whole block, but especially me, hope all in bright yellow got to spend time with their loving families. I'm about out of time and I'm losing the rhyme, but if you see such a group cold later today, wearing really thick mittens with their cheeks all frost bitten, please oh please just remember to say... THANK YOU !!!.

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

New Side Light NeoPixels make Complex Effects Easier

Adafruit just released a new "Side Light" style of NeoPixels with the LEDs perpendicular to the ribbon instead of parallel. This might seem like a simple thing to some folks. But for anyone who has tried to illuminate a circular or tubular object with a wash or raking style of light, this is amazing stuff.

Oh so simple, but so very helpful. Adafruit now has a 90 degree side light version of their Neopixels.

Until now, the LED strips always projected light away from the curved surface. The light went toward the viewer, not along the surface of the curve. So for the most part, we were limited to having bright strips of light shining at the viewer but not on the object. Now, it's going to be so much simpler to gently illuminate the surface of an object without blinding the viewer or requiring additional, often complicated reflectors to disperse the light.

We can finally throw a wash along a curved surface (LEDs at bottom) instead of projecting all the light out into space (top). 

In fact, these new strips negate years of my work (slight exaggeration) where I created reflectors and deflectors to control the light and bend it to go opposite the curve of the LED ribbon. And I'm not the only one, lots of makers have come up with their own solutions. After all, that's what makers do - we create solutions and have a lot of fun doing it. But I think we all knew there was a better way, we just never got around to creating it.

With cosplay and illuminated, glowing fashion becoming trendy and popular it was only a matter of time before someone came out with a manufactured solution. Adafruit popularized the addressable LED and made it simple enough to use that regular people could create with it. They named it NeoPixel and the world was never the same

Luckily for us, Adafruit is now working closely with Erin St Blaine, a professional costumer and performer. According to Lady Ada, the new Side Light style was initiated by St Blaine. While we amateurs tinkered and fussed to overcome the limitations of the basic NeoPixels, St Blaine spoke up for us and let the company know that she and other pros needed a simpler pre-made solution. And Adafruit responded. We amateurs also reap the benefits, yay us.

Right now, there are only a few configurations available in the side lit style, but if there is a good response I'm guessing Adafruit will expand the line. So come on folks, grab yourself a few of these strips and make something cool so we all get more options to choose from.

My project list for these new lights include:
  • Hat with the with a side-lit crown taper
  • Hat with a down light brim
  • Bracelet that throws patterned light on the arm
  • Skirt with a true down light
  • Cropped sweater with a real down light
Did you notice that all of these projects involve the human body as the subject of illumination? Well that's because the human body is basically a series of vertical tubes, Until now. we could wrap lights around the body so that the illumination projected AWAY from the surface of the body - basically creating a brightly outlined stick figure. But it was very difficult to illuminate the surfaces of the body without a lot of tricky workarounds. The always lights pointed away simply because that's how they were made.

I tried to work with illuminated clothes a few times with very limited and mixed success. After a lot of work and tears and carefully sewing in reflectors, the clothes still looked like they belonged on a Vegas stage. I had grand visions of creating decorative reflectors that looked like attractive and intentional embellishments, but only succeeded in making awkward boxes that looked like they were tacked on to hide the LEDs.

I love creating diffusers and reflectors for NeoPixels. ten hours of measuring, designing, printing and installing later and you've got yourself a nice project. But hey, now you can do a lot of the same thing just by using the appropriate strip of NeoPixels.

I, like so many others, defaulted back to EL-wire for light-up fashion. It's a lot less complicated, but much more limited than LEDs.

That's why I decided to stick to jewelry where it was easier to hide reflectors and such.  So I'm excited to re-try some of these failed fashion projects.

Other people seem really excited about making light-up signs and displays. It will certainly make that easier too. I'm also eager to try out mixing the two configurations to create a wall wash of one color with a center strip of another color.

This is a face-palm simple upgrade that just required a large enough community plus a dedicated creator to speak-up to a responsive company. Now we all have a fantastic new set of lighting tools to use. I can't wait to see what everyone comes up with,

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Monday, December 11, 2017

New Line of Steampunk Jewelry and Accessories

I am trying to create a new feel for my line of Steampunk jewelry and accessories. Commercial Fashion has finally caught up with me and I need to up my game to come up with a new aesthetic - something that really catches the eye and stands out from the crowd - but doesn't frighten the average customer.

Anyone that has been involved with Steampunk for a while probably knows my pain. We scavenged parts and cleaned gears and old lace, then combined them into odd collections that were too new for anyone but the hard-core geeks to be seen wearing. We created an aesthetic and a standardized compositional vocabulary, then watched as it slowly caught on to the point that normal people would wear them.

Yes, there are plenty of pre-made craft store items in these pieces. But they also use old PCBs, computer memory as well as real gears and hardware from old machines. I didn't copy anyone or steal a design to meet market expectations. But a few still sold so I'm doubly happy to be experimenting again and still have people like them enough to wear them. It's a good start.

Eventually, you could find clean, pre-made gears and bits from a regular crafts store. And it was awesome, so much easier just to assemble without needing power tools and a soldering gun to take apart old machines. And the sales soared - suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Steampunk in their jewelry boxes.

Fast forward a few more years and you can now buy pre-assembled clusters of steamy goodness for cheaper than you can buy the individual parts. Now, we take apart these massive collections to re-assemble them into something unique enough that it can't be found on the Tim Hotz aisle of the craft store.

But somehow, that doesn't feel right to me. I'm buying a fake Chinese gear meant to evoke an antique European history for American mall shoppers who have never read Steampunk and know nothing of its history or the socio-political underpinnings of the genre. It's just something else to consume.

I'm not saying I will never use Vintaj or Holtz items again (they are just way too convenient) but I do want to start using something a little more authentic, something that was actually used for another purpose before being turned into jewelry.

This is a sample of what I came up with. It's representative of the items I slammed together at the last minute before a recent craft show. I just couldn't create anything that distinguished itself from any other vendor. All my stuff looked like everybody else's stuff and I was getting frustrated. So I forced the issue and made these, um, things - let's call them accessories.

They are different and I was happy about them being different. But I was also afraid, because I remember the early days and waiting for another experimental soul to wander by the booth and choose to be adventurous with their hard earned cash. new is good, really new is bad - at least for sales.

I did sell a few pieces, more than I expected to be honest. Others didn't sell and, at the moment, I've decided to push them even further into the unknown (think working electronic displays). I'll post more about the pieces that sold and how they were created. And I will also post any successes as I continue working on the unsold items.

And you know what, it felt pretty good to once again be selling something experimental and somewhat challenging. Meeting the market demand for an acceptable product certainly has its place (the wallet) but if I'm going to call myself a creator then I need to keep pushing the boundaries a little or risk withering away into the chasm of simple retail.  Of course a couple of sales makes it easier to think that way too.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Fancy Filigree Rings a Definite NoGo

Made these delicate filigree finger rings thinking they would sell quickly. Customers always ask for rings, and with Game of Thrones and Steampunk being all the rage they should be very popular right? Wrong!!! Not a single one sold, and they barely got a look.

I like these rings, though. They are both subtle and expressive and they could work with a lot of different looks. They range from "finger-length" to a tiny single gear - something for every need. I wasn't totally sure if there was a local market for this style so I only made a few. I didn't expect to sell them all at one show, but I was a little shocked that not a single one sold... crickets

The rings ranged in size from a full finger=length to a tiny one with a single gear.

There are a lot of customers who want a simple, inexpensive gift that isn't a cliché trinket. I wanted to offer something inexpensive, and these rings are simple to make, so I could offer them at a very low price. They were (I thought) perfect for "small gift for a friend" add-ons, bundles and kids who have a limited budget. Just a little something to complete a package or the equivalent of an impulse buy. Apparently, I completely misjudged the market, but I'll give it another try or two before I abandon them. I might even add items to the line.

Before the show, people told me they liked the rings. But they were seeing them in isolation with nothing else competing for attention. The only ring I sold was a huge ring the size of a mini-donut, one I really expected to have a limited audience.

And every other sale was also huge and unusual - all my personal work. And I sold nothing that I made specifically to sell to the anticipated audience (commercial). Either I totally misjudged the audience for this show, or my personal work is beginning to find a market. Whichever it was, it got me to thinking...

There are several other possible reasons the small rings didn't sell. They could have been in the wrong place on the table. Maybe people didn't realize they were a third of the price of the other pieces. The rings might have been too delicate and small to compete visually with the other jewelry, all of which are bold and big and bright. It would be easy for people to overlook a few small items scattered amongst a huge wall of bold statement pieces

So I'm thinking I need to make enough of these small items to create an entire section for them. Maybe a separate case so that the entire collection is big enough to grab peoples attention and get them to shift the "scale" of their thinking.

I don't have any more shows scheduled until Spring, but the theme for the next show is Fantasy and Fairies,,, so these delicate rings, being fit for a princess, might be popular at that show. Fingers crossed and I'll keep you updated.

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