Introduction: Advanced Millefiori Techniques for Polymer Clay

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Polymer clay is really cool stuff, it's easy to work, comes in a variety of colors, and hardens at low temperatures in the oven. I occasionally try my hand at some three dimensional stuff, but I'm more partial to 2-D with a technique called millefiori. I've posted one other instructable about a basic sort of millefiori pattern, a simple six petaled flower, which got a lot of positive response.

The basic idea with millefiori is that you put an image into a tube, roll it out, and every slice is a near copy of every other one. Millefiori is Italian for "Thousand Flowers," as many of the old glass millefiori canes were made with a simple flower pattern and each tube, or "cane", would be another identical flower.

In the several years since I posted that instructable, I've had lots of requests for more about millefiori techniques. I keep intending to make a basic beginner's guide, but I keep dragging my feet about it. I finally found a way to get myself interested again. I've decided to go backwards: first you get the advanced stuff, I'll get around to a beginner's guide later!

So read on, and learn about all the really cool stuff you can do with a polymer clay cane.

Step 1: Choose a Subject and Gather Materials

I've been playing a lot of games with The Decktet lately, a kind of print-and-play alternate universe deck of playing cards. It's all provided free online, and totally worth the time to play around with. There are a mountain of games that exploit the Decktet's unique features, such as it's six suits and mixes of 0-3 suits per card.

The artwork on the cards is fantastic, and I found that several of the games call for a number of chips in each of the six suits. There are printable chip stickers available, and even some available to buy from the game's website, but I thought the brightly colored suit images, with their well delineated shading lines, would make excellent subjects for polymer clay canes.

As far as materials, you'll need polymer clay in a variety of colors--I use FIMO Soft, in the three primary and three secondary colors plus black and white, then mix my own from there to get the exact colors I want. Sculpey clay also makes a polymer clay softening oil (works fine with FIMO too), and I recommend a bottle of this. I don't like Sculpey's clay as well as FIMO for millefiori, as the canes tend to smear when you cut them, blurring the image.

If you can get your hands on one cheaply, and never ever plan on using it for food again, a good pasta roller really helps both with mixing colors and with getting uniformly thick lines and layers in your canes.

You'll also need a good x-acto knife or other hobby blade. I picked up some cheap wide ones from the dollar store for cutting the canes while they're still large, and I use the little pen-size blades for everything else.

Step 2: Knots

According to the fictional lore of the Decktet, "The suit of Knots represents craft, skill, and refinement. It is associated with worked goods, commerce, and money." I chose Knots as the first suit to work on for a simple reason: it is has two lines of symmetry that allowed me to exploit the nature of millefiori to do just 1/4 of the work.

The first step in making a complex cane like this is to mentally divide the image into its components. The image is pretty simply divided into a single 1/4 slice, so as long as I was able replicate that part of the design, I knew I'd have an easy time of this pattern. Imagine what the image would look like extruded from a play-doh fun factory--each of the tube's components is a tube itself. What I see in the image is a variety of black-yellow-black sandwiches, with some white in between for spacing.

Next comes mixing the colors. There's a darker yellow, middle, and light yellows. The best method is to start with the lightest color, and make way more of it than you think you'll need. Use a small amount of black or another dark color on some of the excess light shade to turn it into the next darkest shade, then repeat until you're done.

For the knot, build up black-yellow-black sandwiches of clay, cut them to length, and bend them into shape (see the pictures). Once the basic knot shape is made, add white to hold spacing. A final black-yellow-black sandwich goes on the outside.

Carefully stretch the cane while maintaining its triangular shape. Cut it into four lengths and put them together, trying to match up details as it comes together. Wrap the whole shebang in yellow, roll it out, and you've got a long cane of knot chips! I generally refrigerate my canes before I cut them, it cuts down on how much they squish out of round.

Step 3: Leaves

"Wood is the gift of the earth, from which things begin and in which things end. The suit of Leaves represents nature as matter. Also known as the Leaves or the Trees, the suit is associated with raw materials and food products."

The suit of Leaves is a less regular pattern than Knots, but the basic method remains the same: mentally divide the image into smaller pieces that can be tackled one at a time. This one required three shades of brown in addition to black and a whole lot of white to fill the negative space.

The basic pattern of the leaf is pretty straightforward. You can see from the pictures how I started with the darker inner shape of the leaf, layered on the lighter colors, then wrapped it all in black.

At first I wondered how I would add the black veins to the leaf, but I hit upon a good solution. With a large razor knife, I cut apart the finished basic pattern, starting at the base. I did my best to adhere to the pattern laid out by the veins, cutting everywhere they would eventually go. The fourth picture shows the leaf as it was just before I added a thin layer of black for the veins, cut apart and fully stretched out.

Finally I put the leaf back together and added white for the background and a black stem at the split on the bottom of the leaf. The whole thing was wrapped in black and then brown, rolled out and sliced. Done!

Step 4: Moons

"The suit of Moons represents wisdom. It is associated with mysteries, things hidden, and the inescapable truth that the world outstrips our knowledge."

Crafting a complex pattern such as this is trickier than Knots and Leaves, but boils down to the same thing. Mix up the colors, a variety of shades of gray. Try to mentally dissect the image, finding its root components. I went with Moons next as it's got a lot of negative space and the pattern is slightly less complex than the last three suits.

I started on the eye, as it seemed simple and fairly large, a good place to root the rest of the pattern. The eye was a simple tube of gray with a black center, about two inches long. I added black above and below, then started adding strips of gray in various shades.

A complex pattern like this is built more slowly, sometimes I would lay out long curves, other times just a single small tube to help keep the image's shape. Slowly, piece by piece, the picture comes together. When I was satisfied, I added the negative space gray, wrapped it in more gray, and rolled it out. Turned out very good when I sliced it!

Step 5: Waves

"Water is the hand of the earth, which presses on all things. The suit of Waves represents nature as an active force. It is associated with weather, natural cycles, and the passage of time."

Waves was the first on I made where I was kind of disappointed in the result. It wasn't all bad, but certainly not what I was hoping for. As you can see from the pictures, I used too much clay for the area under the crest of the wave, and not enough for the whitecap itself . . . also I didn't get good enough definition in the cresting wave.

Making this image was similar to what I did with the moon. After mixing my colors, I chose a place to start, in this case the cresting whitecap. I started by shaping my various colors into rough analogues of the shapes in the image, then working around the outside of the image. Finally, I added the white negative space, wrapped it up, and rolled it out.

Again, this wasn't quite the result I was hoping for, but it still looks pretty good!

Step 6: Suns

"The suit of Suns represents power, reaching beyond the individual and structuring the world. It is associated with decisive action and clarity of purpose."

The sun was by far the most complex image, as you can see from some of the intermediary photos. I also felt it was the one that turned out best.

Again, after mixing my colors I chose a starting point, this time the nose. As there is a lot of complex shading in this image, I built outward from there, carefully trying to keep the shapes of each color correct as well as the proper proportions.

After the face itself was built, I made the rays and their negative space and wrapped that around the outside. This ended up being harder than I thought it would be, and you can see it's less regular than I would have hoped. Still, once it was fully done and sliced, the final image was pretty good!

Step 7: Wyrms

"Unnatural and at home underground, the Wyrm brings violence and feeds on dreams. This is the most negative of the suits. Most broadly, it represents things that are innappropriate or disruptive."

The last image and the final suit, and as you can see it didn't turn out perfectly. Still clearly a wyrm, it's a smushed wyrm with some wonky teeth. There were two problems in its creation: first, I used far too much clay softener so it was hard to keep everything regular, and second, I simply made the teeth too large and the head too small.

There were more colors involved in this one, both a shading of green and shading of brown. Fortunately I had leftovers from the leaves. The first thing to do was to wrap tubes of the brown shades three quarters of the way around with black, and roll those out. These would form the scales when cut in cross section.

Next, I started to build the head, piece by piece just as I had done with other images. Here's where I made the mistake with the teeth, they are far too large for the head!

After that I started wrapping green with scales and black lines, using the original image for guidance. As I went, I wrapped it with some black on the outside and eventually faded the green to a darker green. The whole thing was wrapped up in black, then green, then sliced. Not perfect, but still a very good counter for the Decktet!

Step 8: Final Thoughts

Thanks for reading! This was definitely a fun, if time consuming, project. I hope you found my documenting the process useful for your own polymer clay creations!

Please take a moment to rate, comment, and follow me. If you should make your own creations using my tips, please post an image in the comments below, and I'll send you a digital patch and a three month pro membership!