The Agony & Ecstasy of Millefiori in Polymer Clay

Wayyyy back in 1961, Irving Stone wrote a book about Michelangelo’s struggles as an artist. I was always obsessed with art, and a voracious reader; but I didn’t read the book. My excuse? I was seven. I DID see the movie in 1965 though; and it made a big impression on me. People suffer for their art! Who knew?

I realize Michelangelo may have had it a little tougher than we do; but cane makers still feel the highs and lows of learning millefiori caning. Let’s get the agony out of the way first.

My clay is too soft.

My clay is too hard.

My colors blurred together.

My cane ends caved in during reduction.

My butterfly looks like a demented turtle.

If your clay is too soft you can leach it. Make it into a slab on your thickest setting, place printer paper on each side of the slab. Let it sit for a while with weight on it. Check it and you’ll see it is becoming firmer.

For hard clay, there are several options. Very hard clay that absolutely will not stick together is likely ruined. Somewhere along the line, it has become too hot and is partially cured. That’s a rare occurrence; but it does happen. Hard clay that can be sliced and rolled is still good clay. You can soften it in these ways: 1) Add a very thin slice of Sculpey Oven Bake Clay Softener to each slice of clay. (This product is a neutral color and comes in a 2-ounce flat bar). Run the slices thru your machine at increasingly thin settings. This method always works for me. Sculpey’s Liquid Clay Softener is also effective. Its my second choice only because I don’t like touching oily things. If you’re using the liquid softener, start with one drop on each slice, fold the slice in half, a put through machine in the same way. You can also chop your clay into little chunks, add it to a dedicated food processor and add solid or liquid clay softer a little at a time.

Colors blurred during reduction: the most common error I’ve seen (and done!) when making cane is allowing too little contrast. Always test your chosen colors like this. Make a stack of the colors, about the size of a pack of gum. Roll it into a jellyroll. Can you still see each color? Now reduce it to twice its length. All good? Reduce it again. You’ll see which colors will hold their own and which will disappear. Another reason for blurring is using pearl colors. Pearl clays have a translucent base. They look SO pretty when they’re unbaked, but they can disappear after baking. Even so, I love pearl clays; but I rarely cane with them. I use them for bases, bezels and backgrounds. The glitter clays are the same way. If you want pearls or glitters or translucents in your canes for components or neutral fill, wrap the pearl or glitter shapes in a thin sheet of white or ecru to separate them from the other colors in the cane.

Caved-in cane ends: There’s nothing as disappointing as reducing your cane, only to find it has sucked in at the ends and taken several precious inches of usable cane off both sides. There is an easy fix for this. Make or buy caps for your cane ends. Place a circle or square piece of compatible plastic (acrylics like Lucite or Plexiglas) or cut Pringles lids, sour cream or cottage cheese lids to the size of your cane ends. Make a clean cut on each end of the cane; then stick the caps on firmly. Make a waist in the middle of the cane, reduce, keeping the very ends flat against the caps like a barbell shape. The suction created by the caps created will keep your cane ends flat and will prevent them from caving in. 

Lastly, my friends, there is the issue of pictorial caning. A lotus can look like an artichoke, a bee can become a stripey blob, and faces can turn to fright masks. (Ask me how I know.) I suggest you start with forgiving canes, like flowers and geometric designs. As you gain experience and confidence, try small pictorial canes. Each attempt you make will teach you valuable lessons. And, if your butterfly looks like a demented turtle, cut it in half, stack the two pieces, force it into a triangle and make a kaleidoscope.

You might just end up with something magical.

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