The History of Polymer Clay
Who invented polymer clay?
One of the earliest forms of polymer clays was invented by Robert Bakelund as he searched for a synthetic form of shellac. Natural polymers include shellac, made from Laq beetles, tortoise shell, amber and celluloid and viscose rayon which are made from tree resins. Bakelund’s work resulted in the formulation of Bakelite. It was extremely popular with designers and had an early form of polymer clay commercially available in kits, but the phenol base of uncured Bakelite was flammable and these were discontinued. Today’s clays are nonflammable and certified as non-toxic art supplies. Polymer clays were first developed to address wartime shortages of materials used in doll making. FIMO polymer clay was first made popular by Maureen “Fifi” Kruse, daughter of well-known German doll designer Kathe Kruse in the early 1940s.
Kathe Kruse designed dolls and ran a very well-known manufacturing company in Germany, and was in possession of a sample of self-hardening plastic modeling material (no mixed chemical catalyst needed). The names of those who brought it to her attention have not been passed down. She did not find it suitable for her purposes, but turned it over to her daughter, whose nickname was “Fifi”.
This enterprising young woman worked with it and made miniatures and artistic items. In the 1960’s the Kruse family sold the rights to Eberhardt-Faber who marketed it as “FiMo” which stood for a shortened version of “Fifi Mosaic” or “Fifi Modelermasse” depending on whose version of the story you hear. Though the Kruse family did not invent the substance that was offered to them for use in the doll making factory, Fifi used it in making miniatures and mosaics, and it became very popular.
The compound was later sold to Eberhardt-Faber in the 1960’s and they named it after her.The polymer clays we know today are chemically different, no longer made with a phenol base, nonflammable, and are much safer for home use.
What is polymer clay?
Polymer clay is a synthetic modeling material, not earth clay. It is formulated from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), dyes or pigments and plasticizers to keep it soft until heat cured. It is an acrylic art material. There are many brands of polymer clay available in the United States. They have been individually tested and certified as non-toxic art materials. Brands vary in how hard or soft they feel at the beginning of use and the softer clays are more brittle when cured, and the firm clays are more durable after they are heat cured.
The working properties vary between brands and become a personal choice requiring experimentation. Some brands or colors within brands contain white mineral clay that makes colors opaque. Some contain mica that gives it a shimmer and shine. All polymer clays are thermal set plastics, meaning they are hardened with heat and do not become soft again after curing. Before being cured in an oven, clays are thermally reactive and become hard when cool and soft when warm.