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Meet Steampunk Garage’s Jenifer Lauren Martinez, Whose Work Inspires Crafters Across The World
A longtime contributor to the chainmaille community, Jenifer is best known as the face of Steampunk Garage. She has a rigorous show schedule, vending at dozens of events each year, while also maintaining robust jewelry and supplies sales online. Over the past year, she joined forces with another mailler to coordinate assembly of world-wide effort to build a massive chainmaille quilt.
Enjoy getting to know Jenifer in this edition of Blue Buddha’s Meet the Artist series:
You’ve been doing this a long time! How did you get started making maille, and how did it turn into a business?
My sister came home from college with a chainmaille bra. I was in high school so it was literally the coolest thing I had ever seen. She learned how to do it by attending a few meetings of the SCA at the MIT campus. I wore it a bunch of times and it left grey all over my skin (obviously bright aluminum) and I didn’t care because it was THE COOLEST THING EVER! My dad took me to Home Depot, we bought galvanized fencing wire, and he showed me how to use the lathe in the garage. I spent ages out there winding coils on some old knitting needles I found in the house. Then the hours of pinch cutting by hand, and weaving during Chemistry class with whatever old nasty rusted Craftsman pliers my dad had in the garage. Made myself a tank top (which was way painfully heavy to wear and eventually rusted to death) and half a skirt before I lost interest in maille.
I picked it back up after college when I took a stick-fighting class. The instructor was trying to get us to buy arm guards, and I was like “Hey… I can make my OWN arm guards.” So I sat around after class weaving myself some chainmaille bracers. One of the instructors saw me, and asked if I could make him a wallet chain. I only knew how to make Euro 4-in-1 and 6-in-1, so I refused. But I loaned him some supplies and told him he could do it if he figured out how. He learned to make Byzantine, decided it was “too girly” for a guy’s wallet chain, and learned “inverted round.” He continued to learn weaves and in turn, taught them to me. I sold t-shirts at festivals at the time and eventually gave him 2 feet of space to sell chainmaille if he would work the t-shirt booth for free. He agreed. When Game of Thrones Season 3 came out, the steampunk/chainmaille jewelry started outselling the t-shirts. So it expanded to 4 feet at the booth. Then 6. Then when I got pregnant I stopped making t-shirts (too many solvents involved). Chainmaille just… took over. It was a very organic transition.
How has your business evolved over the years?
It really was totally recycled hardware and jewelry at first. The chainmaille mixing started when we got juried into a show and they were like “Oh… you can’t just hang keys on chains. You have to add some of your own modifications to it, or you can’t sell them.” So we started adding chainmaille baubles to every key.
Where *do* you find such all those awesome keys, gears, etc to incorporate into your chainmaille?
Honestly? I love the flea markets. The dirtier the better. And I have a couple friends in Germany who scavenge old keys for me, so I’m never short on those. But I literally bought a “box of broken jewelry” on eBay like 10 years ago and still haven’t reached the bottom. There is so much good stuff in there! I can’t believe the things people throw away. They just need the right person to give them a new life.
What’s it like maintaining such an intense show schedule?
You have to plan really far ahead. Not just for the shows to get the early bird rates, but also for your supplies. What am I going to run out of, how long does it take to ship, add on a day to clean or sort those things… when does the yearly “titanium scale drought” at TRL start? Did I remember to stock up before then? It’s hard juggling these things and then making my weekly schedule insanely strict. I only have 4-5 days until the next show. Do I unload my van? That’s 20 minutes to unload and 30 minutes to reload it later in the week. Will that be wasted time? Can I just work around my tent all week? Do I need to take the baby seat out? How many post office runs will I be able to do? Stuff like that. I almost always spend my physical time AT events working on online orders when I’m not helping customers. And I spend the 7am-9am hours (before the kids wake up) making booth inventory.
How did you get into selling supplies as well as finished jewelry?
We studied other chainmaillers. EVERYONE wanted to know how to make a Stan Star 6. So we saw another high-demand design get released, got chummy with the designer, and tracked their sales of it via Etsy:
How many kit sales did they get in the first 3 months?
How many finished items of that design would they need to sell to match that income?
Is it easy to replicate en-masse?
Will the market be flooded with this design now?
How many other people were posting the finished design on Etsy in the following months?
Were those people getting sales?
Were they undercutting the original designer?
The numbers made the decision for us. We decided to release the design, and have basically stacked on other items to keep that store full. The nice thing about supplies, is every time you release a new item, people buy a few of the old ones too. So the sales are cumulative in the long run.
As a side note: The turnover rate for people who make maille is insane. I personally believe that the way maille is commonly taught wrecks people’s joints within the first 5 years and that’s why 90% of them quit. I know my future is full of messed up joints, so I needed to set up a lateral business. The supplies fits nicely into that model.
Readers, I recommend checking out the video How Jen Weaves Maille to see her grip technique.
A few years ago, you moved from California to Florida. Was it worth it, both for family and business?
We’ve had a very rocky start here. The first year… well let’s just be glad it’s gone. And having my partner, Stan, quit unexpectedly in 2018 was a huge blow to the business. A few months after he left, I heard “Stronger on Your Own” by Disturbed. It turned me back into my super-emo-high-school-self. I basically sing it at the top of my lungs in the car whenever I start to get upset about it.
There was a time where we considered moving back to stay with family while we recovered from financial hardship. But the comic con scene in Florida turned out to be COMPLETELY different from the California scene. People here are not afraid to get their geek on! And Steampunk Garage found a home on the festival circuit floating between art shows, biker shows, comic book shows, and tattoo shows.
Do you feel steam punk is turning a corner, heading for a new look? If not, why?
I have always put my own spin on the steampunk genre. I’ve always had a more heavy industrial look and not so flowery and Victorian. Yet, the medieval “look” is often considered ornate and flowery. Sometimes people call my jewelry “diesel punk” because of the use of hardware. Eh. I make what feels pretty. Everyone really liked this Steampunk Raincloud I recently posted. And it sold in less than a day, so that’s success to me!
How do you spend your time in the business? You know, like those internet memes like, “What my family thinks I do” “what my customers do” “What I actually do” …. what would be in that last square??
I’m sort of addicted to business. I think about chainmaille almost constantly. You could call it a passion, but it’s really more of an obsession. I find it deeply and endlessly fascinating. I check the Facebook groups constantly. Before I check my email or text messages even.
What is your favorite part about what you do??
That moment when you get a ring in a tight spot and close it. I always make a victorious grunt and clench my fists. IN CELEBRATION. So damn satisfying. Then I have to show it to anyone close to me. Because SOMEONE HAS TO SEE IT.
Sometimes I tell people that I’m like one of those accountants who find numbers really interesting but if they talk about their job your eyes will glaze over.
It never gets boring!
Goddammit but I hate making byzantine.
Janelle makes all the byzantine.
I don’t even want to think about how many miles of friggin’ byzantine I’ve made over the years.
It bores me to DEATH.
What is your current goal?
Expanding my titanium offerings. Especially the supplies. I really think there’s a lack of high-quality unique titanium jewelry out there.
Are you going to do any more YouTube videos like the ones you did years ago? Those were humorous and full of good advice.
As much as I’d like to, they are a HUGE time suck. Took me like 4 full days to make one 3-4 minute video. So while I still have tons of advice I could fill them with, having two toddlers makes that pretty much impossible.
If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before starting your business, what would it be?
Your product doesn’t sell itself. Your display sells your product. And YOU are part of the display.
What are your favorite piece (or pieces) of chainmaille that you’ve created?
I’m so proud of my Scalemail Turbines. I know you see them everywhere, but they’re hypnotic and eye-catching, and if you do them right they’re REALLY hard to put together. So every time I finish one, I’m like “Oh yeahhhhh.” I love how you can take the scummiest scales (see: the blotchy scales in the middle one) and if you use them right, you can make a stunning turbine out of them. And I LOVE how weightless the titanium ones are. People always look shocked when they pick them up. I really wish I could get tiny scales in titanium.
The “D20 Cage Medallion” is also something I’m particularly proud of. I have always hated the little chainmaille ring configuration people use to carry a D20 around. It doesn’t make the dice look cool and it doesn’t make the maille look cool. It’s strictly functional. So I messed with ring sizes and weaves until I got a nice round flexible cage that would firmly hold a D20 and also “pop” it out when you needed it. AND still wear it like a static pendant without the die shifting around! Once I settled on a design, I made like two dozen before I got it to work consistently. And another dozen after that before I could adequately explain how I made it to another person. I still find it challenging to put together and extremely satisfying when completed
What is one tool that you cannot live without?
My Xuron 90-degree pliers. Best things that ever happened to chainmaille. I wish the handles were like 2 inches longer tho….
I’ve heard that you don’t have any feeling in your left thumb. Is this true? How..?
We used to get milk delivered to the house in glass bottles. It was my job (as a first grader with chores) to bring the empties back out to the milk box. One night I was walking backwards yelling back at the house, and I tripped off the deck, and landed on the bottles I was carrying. I got a big chunk of glass lodged in my left wrist. It severed the nerve to my thumb and nicked part of the nerve to the index finger. Never healed properly. So my left thumb and the side of my index finger are numb. People are always “testing” me to see if it’s true. So there’s weird trivia about it like: If you poke at it, I know you’re doing it because I can feel the skin at the base of my thumb shifting around. Fun, right?
Wow, now I’m even more impressed that you have a career working with your hands!
You’re one of the main folks spearheading the massive Chainmaille Quilt project. Could you tell us a little about that?
The idea of a Chainmaille Quilt has been around for ages. When most people hear the word “chainmaille” they think 1) Knights in armor! or 2) Dude, don’t send me chain letters. Let’s be real: Hollywood pretty much only show 5 kinds of chainmaille: Euro 4-in-1 (or 6-in-1), Full Persian, Japanese 4-in-1, Half Persian 4-in-1, and Box and Byzantine.
The driving force behind the quilt is to show how diverse our medium has actually become. The idea is that maillers all over the world would each donate a square of different maille that would be stitched together into a big ol’ tapestry that showed how varied chainmaille actually is. Lis Guy from Linton Creations brought up the idea again in early 2018 and I thought “Dude. Someone should really do that. Dude. Why don’t WE do that?” So I contacted Lis to find out if she was serious about getting the project going, and found she was ready and willing to commit wholeheartedly to it. I have a small cult following and when Lis and I announced our intention to give the idea a real go, we got an overwhelming number of signups. Over 100 people that first month!
Imagine my surprise when the first patch was on my doorstep in less than 2 weeks. Not only was it the first, but Tony Moeller’s photorealistic portrait of Tesla MADE IN CHAINMAILLE was a HUGE hit. He really set the tone for the whole project. The fires of inspiration were lit, and people ran with it. We wanted to have our first showing of The Quilt at the CHAIN Link-Up (a chainmaille gathering in Tennessee in March of 2019) because that would give people a year to make and send something in. We estimated getting about 40 patches when that first soft deadline hit. As of today, Feb 1st, 2019, I have over 80. And they’re still coming. Even if they won’t all be added in time for the Linkup, we will keep adding patches to this “living project” until it finds a permanent home. Right now we are in talks with a few places around Orlando (since it’s a heavy tourist hotspot) to try and get it on display. But we have to finish the seams first! If anyone still wants to sign up, you can go to the Facebook page and add your info to the pinned thread.
OK, Onto the quick questions that I ask all participating artists:
Do you listen to music/podcasts/tv/etc while mailling? If so, what are your favorites?
I like books on tape. My favorite narrators are Luke Daniels (Off to Be the Wizard and the Iron Druid Chronicles), Ray Porter (The Ex-Heroes Series and The Bobiverse), and Wil Wheaton (Ready Player One, and most of John Scalzi’s books like Fuzzy Nation) are my current favorites. Plus basically anything by Orson Scott Card.
What are your favorite artists (chainmaille or otherwise)?
Good gravy. I’m a bit of a “collector” of handmade art that I love. Ummm.. I love the art of Joe Havasy (all over my house), R.S. Connett (I actually have TWO originals of his), Dogzilla Lives (she needs more christmas ornaments!), Spiderbite Boutique (everyone should have a Nightmare Snatcher), Damsel in This Dress (my wedding dress), Samiah (best coats EVER), Kirk Nelson is a design GENIUS for chainmaille pendants, Casey Harroun is completely gifted at chainmaille animals, meeting Heinrich’s Sauron is a life goal, and can I just give a quick shoutout to Jason Ronquillo? That dude is seriously underrated. He makes some really fascinating and spatially challenging chainmaille patterns. Have you even HEARD of Triffids? The weave is sic.
Grocery shop. Shower. Sleep. Play with the kids. Everything else is related or done at the same time as something maille-related.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Why would you spend so much time and energy hating someone you don’t even like?” – The Dad.
What would your superpower be and why?
I’m vain. Can I be wolverine so I can stay young and full of energy without having to diet or exercise? That would be great. Also: not having to sleep ever again would be great superpower. Is winning the Powerball a superpower?
What’s one thing Blue Buddha readers might be surprised to know about you?
I’m pretty conservative. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, never even tried any drugs. NONE. The tattoo on my face makes me seem like a party animal, but I’m all work and no play. I do have a weakness for milkshakes though. Oh, and the Damascus scales TRL carries were my design. They bought it off me after I placed a custom order. So that’s sort of a cool feather in my cap. 😊
Anything else you want to add?
I have a partner, Janelle, who is pretty awesome. She’s more of a “back of the house” partner since she can’t come work at the booth, but she definitely pulls her weight in keeping the display stocked. I’m also an official Nailmaille distributor. I love to mix the Nailmaille Unbreakable Hearts with chainmaille and steampunk elements. I feel like it goes perfectly with my heavy-duty “hardware” aesthetic.
Before we let you go, please tell us where we can find your work!
Facebook: Steampunkgarage (this is where my show schedule lives and what I update the most)
Instagram – @steampunkgarage
Etsy: www.steampunkgarage.etsy.com and www.spgsupplies.etsy.com
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Jenifer! After so many years of “seeing” you online, it’s truly been a pleasure.