Friday, 30 March 2012

Elephant No. 180: Polymer Clay Button

When I was out for lunch today with my best friend, she suggested that I try making polymer clay buttons for today's elephant. We've often admired distinctive polymer clay buttons on high-end knitwear at craft fairs, so it seemed like an excellent idea.

Polymer clay is a sculpture material with a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) base. It generally contains no mineral clay, and is only called "clay" because it has a similar texture and plasticity to earth-based clays. Occasionally, small amounts of kaolin or white china clay are added to make the material more opaque, and mica is sometimes added to clays with a pearlescent or metallic look.

Polymer clay is closely related to Bakelite, an early hard plastic. The first polymer clays were actually uncured Bakelite, and kits containing the material were available to designers. Unfortunately, the phenol base in uncured Bakelite was highly flammable, and the kits were discontinued.

Modern polymer clays are based on a plastic modelling material that came to the attention of a German dollmaker named Kaethe Kruse in 1939. Plastics for such frivolous purposes as dollmaking had become hard to get during the early days of the Second World War, and polymer clay was touted as a possible replacement. The material wasn't suitable for use in the doll factory, so Kruse gave it to her daughter Sophie, whose nickname was Fifi. The formula was later sold to the company Eberhard Faber—a manufacturer of art and drawing supplies—which marketed it under the name FIMO for "FIfi's MOdelling Compound"). Today, one of the world's most popular brands of polymer clay is still sold under that name.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in the United States, the Zenith Products Company of Illinois was making coatings for the fastener industry, including waxes, varnishes and hot-melt glues. Their brand of polymer clay, called "Sculpey" started out life as a thermal transfer material, designed to draw heat away from electrical transformers. Although it proved ineffective for this purpose, a visitor to the factory in the mid-1960s happened upon the material and made a small figure. The figure was baked in a lab testing oven, and Sculpey was born. Sculpey is also still sold today under the same name.

Polymer clay jewellery by Chris Kapono/Mandarin Moon.

Today, polymer clay is a highly popular artistic medium, used to make jewellery, figures, vessels and more. Polymer clay art jewellery can also be found in the permanent collections of numerous museums of design and fine arts. 

I've used polymer clay before, although it's been awhile. I like its mouldability very much, but I'm not always keen on the fact that it's essentially a plastic. In the past, I've made small figures, but I'd never tried a button.

For today's elephant, I pulled out a small container of polymer clay that I've had for about a decade. Some of it is still in its package, as you can see. I also have bits of various other colours that I've blended—because one of the very nice things about polymer clay is that you can generally resuscitate it, no matter how old it is. The older and harder it is, the longer you'll have to knead it, but it's possible.

I happened to have a piece of grey in my box of tricks that I think I actually blended from black and white at one point. Since it was somewhat hard, it took an inordinate amount of time to knead to a workable consistency. The heat of your hands and the action of smushing it around are what help it to soften.

Once it was soft enough to use, I flattened it between a folded-over piece of waxed paper with a marble rolling pin. You don't need a marble rolling pin or waxed paper, but I didn't want it to stick to the rolling pin, and I wanted the heaviness of this particular rolling pin. When I was finished, it was about 0.3 cm (1/8 inch) thick, which seemed about right for the kind of button I had in mind.

I lightly scribed a design with a bamboo skewer.

When that looked okay to me, I cut it out with a pair of sharp, thin-bladed embroidery scissors. You can use a knife for this, but a knife will tend to do one of two things: drag the edge and create little tears, or compress the edge in a way that may not be aesthetically pleasing to you. It wasn't aesthetically pleasing to me, anyway.

Once it was cut out, I smoothed the edges with the tip of the bamboo skewer. To emphasize the interior lines, I gently drew the point of the skewer along the lines at a 45˚ angle. The angle helps keep the line smooth because it doesn't drag through the material as much as a 90˚ angle might. As you can see in the photographs, I wasn't completely successful in avoiding fine cracks, but they don't show except in the cruel light of extreme closeup. If the clay had been a bit fresher, this probably wouldn't have happened. You can also see a few fingerprints in the larger areas, but these will usually disappear when the piece is baked.
To finish, I poked two holes with a small finishing nail, and made a small channel between them to hold the thread when I sew this onto something. One helpful tip: choose a spot for the threading holes that's already more or less a part of the general design of your button. In mine, for example, I put one of the holes in an area I had already delineated for the line between head and ear.

The final step involves baking this in a regular oven at 135˚C (275˚F) for about 12 minutes for this particular thickness. When it's baked, it feels a bit like ceramic, and is fairly rigid.

When I was making this, I tried to think of whether or not the shape would fit through any kind of normal buttonhole. At first I wasn't sure it would—at least, I wasn't sure it would fit through some kind of buttonhole slit and still keep something fastened—but it actually works. And even if it didn't, it could at least be stitched to something as a decoration of some sort.

The hardest part of this activity was kneading the elderly clay I chose to use, but I really like the way it turned out. If I'd had more time today, I might have been inclined to add some colour; but for now, I'm pretty happy with this. In fact, now that I know I can make decorative buttons, I may be making a few more. Just not today.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants have often been used in publicity stunts, but rarely in their own cause. That changed in 2009, following the birth of a baby panda at the Chiang Mai Zoo in Bangkok, Thailand.

Although the elephant is Thailand's national symbol, following the birth of the baby panda, the entire country went panda-crazy, and the elephants were ignored. Sick of all the fuss over a single panda cub, the keepers of the Ayutthya Elephant Kraal painted their five elephants as pandas and paraded them before large numbers of schoolchildren and their families.

Panda-painted elephants on parade, Bangkok, Thailand, June 2009.
Photo: © Reuters

Some members of the public groused to the Bangkok Post that the elephant-keepers had gone too far. Others, however, applauded the action, suggesting that in the middle of all the, er, panda-monium, a little reminder of the country's national symbol was not such a bad idea.

Painted with white water-based paint and red writing on their sides that jokingly said "Panda" in English and Thai, the elephants marched up and down for a short time before returning to their enclosure for a bath and a snack.

Panda-painted elephants in their enclosure, Bangkok, Thailand, June 2009.
Photo: © Reuters

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