A Short History of Polymer Clay
by Trina Williams

We shop for it. We play with it. We talk to total strangers about it. We are in turns frustrated and amazed by it. We even dream about it. But where did it come from?

The Clay

In Germany, in the late 1930s, an enterprising woman named Fifi Rehbinder developed and marketed a clay product, which she called Fifi Mosaik, to use for doll heads. In 1964 she sold the formula to Eberhard Faber who developed it into the FIMO we know today.

At the same time, other manufacturers were making products similar to FIMO. Monica Resta of Italy used a form of the clay called LIMMO in Argentina in the late 1950s. It was also manufactured by a German company, but not Eberhard Faber. The manufacturer could have been Rudolf Reiser, who makes Formello and Modello, but there is no clear trail.

In those early days the clay was used for dolls, modeling and miniatures for doll houses. As it gained a wider audience, it was sold in toy stores. Pier Voulkos, for one, purchased FIMO from a toy store in Germany in 1970. Tory Hughes, who lived in Europe as a child, also discovered FIMO there and Kathleen Dustin was introduced to FIMO while she was attending college overseas.

In the early 1970s, a family by the name of Shaup, which had immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1950s, received a Christmas package from their grandmother. Inside was a package of FIMO. Mrs. Shaup, immediately fascinated by the clay, began making ornaments and figures, and soon people were asking her where she got the clay. Her husband, out of work at the time, decided to import FIMO, and in 1975, Accent Import began to import FIMO into the United States. Mr. Shaup demonstrated the uses of the clay to various retail stores, and sales began. (He even baked some in his car -- haven’t we all?)

As the popularity of the clay grew, other American companies, including Dee’s Delights in the 1970s and the American Art Clay Company (AMACO) in the 1980s, also began to import FIMO.

At the same time artists and American companies were discovering FIMO, an American company was developing its own version of the clay. A product called polyform had been developed in the 1960s for industrial purposes, but when it’s industrial use didn’t pan out, the clay was shelved. One day, a visitor to the plant played with a lump of the polyform and created a small figure. The figure was cured in a lab oven, and Sculpey/Polyform was born.

The white Polyform/Sculpey was actually sold on a small scale from 1967. By 1976, Mike Solos, the company founder, was marketing his product at craft shows and demonstrating its use to small retail shops. Colors weren't added to the clay until around 1984, and until then artists such as Sue Kelsey and her sister Cathy Johnston were coloring their clay with ground chalk and Tempera colors.

The popularity of polymer clay soon became evident, and AMACO, which manufactured natural clays for years, created their own polymer clay, Friendly Clay, in 1993, which they sold both in single color packets and pre-made canes. Accent Imports also began selling their own version of the pre-made cane: Kaleidocanes.

Another person interested in polymer clay, Marie Segal, had switched from creating objects out of bread dough to creating objects out of FIMO. Soon Segal and her husband were not only selling FIMO, but promoting it and offering excellent technical support to those who had discovered its charms.

Along the way, the Segals inadvertently became the developers and promoters of a brand new polymer clay product, Premo. In 1994, the Segals approached the Scupley/Polyform company with a question: why not have a high-quality American-made clay? Sculpey needed a little tweaking: more intense colors and a do-everything formula.

Sculpey/Polyform liked the idea, and the Segals began working on developing a better polymer clay. Polymer clay artists in the Southern California area were fortunate enough to be in on the development process, and many were given beta test products. (I still have a lump of silver clay, which I grate for inclusions.) From these tests, the lastest addition to the polymer family, Premo, was born.

The Artists

In 1972, a book on plastic for artists makes a short note about polymer clay: “This product may have some interest as mold making material.” Little could the author predict how many artists would find so many different uses for polymer clay.

Pier Voulkos, the daughter of artists, seems to have started the chain that links us all together. After bringing FIMO home from Germany, she showed her first beads in an art show in 1977 and was selling her jewelry in New York by 1984.

Kathleen Dustin had discovered FIMO when she was a student overseas -- a fellow student gave her a FIMO key fob in 1972. In 1985, Dustin was given a strand of Voulkos’ beads and, inspired by those beads, developed the polymer clay millefiore technique. Dustin was then asked, in 1987, to teach a workshop on polymer clay at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Virginia where she had a ceramics studio. It was the first polymer clay class that wasn’t geared to dolls or miniatures.

Nan Roche, who knew Kathleen Dustin, took the class. She too became very interested in the clay and in 1991 wrote The New Clay, the first American book dedicated to the understanding and use of polymer clay as an artistic medium. This book -- commonly referred to as the bible of polymer clay -- introduced thousands of people to the possibilities of polymer clay and became the touchstone around which the polymer clay community formed.

Many innovations came along in the 1990s, spurred by The New Clay and the spread of polymer clay interest. We have Judith Skinner’s blending technique. Others started adding everything from crayons to cinnamon into the clay. A rubber stamper stamped the clay. Images got transferred much like the funnies came off on my son’s Silly Putty. Lindly Huanani’s article in Bead and Button started a Mokume Gane craze. We are painting, foiling, molding and carving the clay.

It is interesting to note that Pier Voulkos and Mike Buessler both discovered the properties of metallic clay at the same time. They have taken it in slightly different directions, but they shared discoveries right from the start. So we have the mica shift and the Mike-a shift!

The National Polymer Clay Guild was organized in 1991. Throughout the 1990s, new guilds have sprung up, and retreats and workshops abound across the US. Several online groups, including Polymer Clay Central and egroup’s polymerclayinterest have brought polymer clayers from around the world closer together.

There certainly isn’t room in an article this short to name all of those who have been instrumental in bringing this material out of the craft realm and into the art realm. They are a caring, sharing group.

So what is it about this product that draws us? If we look at the definition of modeling we see that it permits addition as well as subtraction of material and lets us change our mind, reshaped the clay, and change our mind again. Children are drawn to clay because it squishes and can be pushed and pulled into ever different shapes. Polymer clay calls to our inner child.

“It’s mud but, it’s not,” says Nan Roche. In an article in the magazine American Style, she tells us that “polymer clay calls up that primeval response to mud. When you squish it, you regress to when you were five.”

Happy squishing!

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