Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Women's History of Polymer Clay: How Women Developed, Marketed, and Expanded the Possibilities of an Art Form

Sophie "Fifi" Rehbinder-Kruse, developer of polymer clay
One of the coolest things about working in a field like jewelry making-- in particular polymer clay jewelry making-- is that there is such a long and interesting history of women working in the craft.

Women's work in the arts has often been focused on making handcrafts, and often in creating artisan goods that will be used and enjoyed in everyday life. The creation of jewelry and pottery and clothing have been fields where women have long shown incredible artistic strength. Historically, these artisan goods have not been prized as "art,"  but rather dismissed as "mere" craft.The amazing talents that women have displayed in both traditional and new handcrafts has not been fully recognized.

Thankfully in modern times this distinction between fine art and "mere craft" is being challenged. The incredible talents of people--often women-- working in craft is being recognized as truly masterful work.

For polymer clay artists, there is an additional connection to women's history through the medium itself. Prior to the 1930s, there was no clay that worked as well as polymer clay does today for the home or professional modeller. Bakelite was often used for modelling, but it turned out to be flammable (yikes!) and was discontinued.

Traditional doll painting by hand. (source)
A better kind of modeling clay was sorely needed. In place of Bakelite came a variety of polymer blends-- of varying quality. German dollmaker Kaethe Kruse came across one of these polymer clay formulations, which she hoped to develop for use in her factory. However, it didn't work.

Kaethe passed it on to her daughter, Sophie Rehbinder-Kruse, better known as Fifi. Fifi was also a dollmaker. Shortages in Germany were very common at that time (It was the 1930's, remember) and Fifi had been struggling to find a material for modelling her doll's heads.

Fifi tweaked the formulation of the new polyclay until she found the perfect blend. This new clay could be used to model almost anything, and could be baked in a regular oven. It was the ideal compound for making virtually any kind of small object in a home workshop. She dubbed her blend "FIMOIK"  or "Fifi Mosaic" and sold it under this name in Europe. She even introduced a polymer clay modeling kit onto the market.

So successful was she, that in 1964, German office and art supply company Eberhard Faber (which later become Staedtler, and today is known as PaperMate) acquired the rights from Fifi for her polymer clay. After tweaking the recipe, the new product was introduced on a mass scale, marketed as a modelling compound for children's art projects. It was named FIMO, short for Fifi Mosaic. The name, of course, is the one known to polymer clay artists worldwide today.

Pier Voulkos, pioneering polymer
clay jewelry artist
Though FIMO was marketed mostly to children and home hobbyists, it didn't take long for artists to catch on to the potential of the medium. Soon, artists and craftspeople in the US and Europe began to explore the "new clay."

Probably the first artist to make beads and jewelry from polymer clay was Pier Voulkos, who began creating beads in 1978. According to Ornament magazine, Voulkos "explored many of the qualities polymer would build its reputation on—vibrant and whimsical use of color, both in patternmaking and joining multiple shades, sculptural and handformed techniques, the repetition of geometric designs, exploration of traditional and nontraditional bead shapes." Voulkos sold polymer clay jewelry work in several galleries at a time when FIMO was still being sold mostly in children's stores as a toy. Her talent woke other artists up to the possibilities of polymer clay.

The first major book covering
polymer clay in a comprehensive
way, highlighting the growing
interest in the medium

Over the years, various artists have expanded the sense of what is possible with polymer clay. Kathleen Dustin began to explore techniques beginning in the 70s, borrowing millefiore caning from glasswork and neriage from thrown pottery.

Toward the end of the 80s, Tory Hughes
took  polymer clay a step further with conceptual pieces that evoked an inner narrative. Hughes commented on polymer clay's versatility, saying, "“I’m really interested by the fact that my jewelry has had the acceptance it has in the fine craft world, because Fimo can be such a mundane medium … It intrigues me that I have somehow managed to transcend it by the things that I do and the philosophical approach I bring to my work.”

The growing interest in polymer clay was reflected in the introduction of the first comprehensive book on the subject, The New Clay: Techniques and Approaches to Jewelry Making. The book, penned by Nan Roche, covered the history of the clay as well as modern techniques. The clay that had started out as a good material for making doll heads in a scarce wartime economy had become a fascinating and exciting medium for art.

The history of women and craft has always been about ingenuity and resourcefulness. Turning whatever is available into a beautiful, useful item-- whether it's scraps of old clothing into a quilt or a kid's modelling compound into jewelry that can be shown in fine New York galleries-- women have always been on the cutting edge of fine craft. That sense of possibility-- looking at a "mundane medium" and seeing possibilities of color, form, and function arise in the mind-- is what has always driven the development of polymer clay, and the women who have advanced it throughout history.


  1. I have just discovered your blog Suzanne and am enjoying reading the posts. I could really relate to your phrase about living on the Yikes Precipice. Loved it. I work with women overseas and I think one of the most magical things we have experienced together is that sense of possibility that polymer has. Thanks for your writing, creating and GORGEOUS COLOURS!

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