Polymer clay is a sculptable material based on the polymer polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It usually contains no clay minerals, and is only called "clay" because its texture and working properties resemble those of mineral clay. It is sold in craft, hobby, and art stores, and is used by artists, hobbyists, and children.
Polymer clay is a relatively new medium for arts and crafts. Though it was first created in the late 1930s, it has been readily available for only the past thirty or forty years. Compare this to the centuries over which many mediums have been explored and you'll understand why there are still untold possibilities for polymer clay.
The history of polymer clay as an art medium is only decades long, unlike many media that have been around for centuries and have long traditions. This newness means that there is a great deal of innovation by users of polymer clay. Often, ideas are born by borrowing from the traditions of some other materials, such as metalworking (mokume-gane), ceramics, glass (millefiori, lampwork), paper, etc.
The Early History
Polymer Clay has been around, in one form or another, since the late 1930s. The idea was born in Germany, where Fifi Rehbinder, a doll maker, was having trouble finding her usual supplies, due to the political upheaval of the time. A resourceful woman, she developed a plastic clay she called "Fifi Mosaik", which she used for sculpting doll heads. It wasn't until 1964 that Rehbinder sold the formula to Eberhard Faber. The manufacturer tweaked the formula into the Fimo brand of polymer clay and sold it in toy stores in Europe, where it was viewed primarily as a toy for children or a medium for sculpting dolls and miniatures for use in doll houses.
By the 1990s, polymer clay's popularity was obvious, and other manufacturers took notice. AMACO developed Friendly Clay, departing from their existing line of natural clays. Premo clay came along in the mid-90s, when polymer clay artist Marie Segal indicated to the makers of Sculpey that there was demand for a higher-quality American-made clay. The newest variety of polymer clay, Kato Polyclay, was developed in 2001 through collaboration between artist Donna Kato and manufacturer Van Aken.
Today, there are several brands of polymer clay from which to choose, as well as specialty clays (liquid polymer clay, mica clays, glitter clays, glow-in-the-dark clays, etc.). Polymer clay continues to gain popularity, and new techniques are still emerging in this (comparatively speaking) new medium. And to think, it all started with Fifi Mosaik…