3. Time is Ticking: Valuing an Artisan's Creative Time

In the course of conversation with my peers at the Australian Polymer Clay Guild about pricing our polymer items, it was noted that ‘most people don't understand and often don't care about the amount of time that goes into making what we make.’

It seems many in the polymer clay community have resigned themselves to never recouping their time spent making unique handmade artistic works.

What a contrast to my other discipline of law where time charging is strongly supported- in 6-minute units to be precise! All the plumbers and electricians who have ever attended to services for me charge by the hour. Even travel time for freelancers to get to and from work may be tax deductible.

The value of time seems as plastic as the clay we polymeristas love to manipulate!

When I visit the doctor, I am regularly expected to accept waiting an hour after my scheduled appointment time (for which I was expected to be punctual). More starkly, on the verge of delivering my third baby, the midwife asked me to ‘hang on for 2 minutes’ for the obstetrician to arrive. Every parent of young children knows that time stands still during 5 minutes alone with a hot coffee!

How do we polymeristas value our own work? By time? By formulas addressing material costs and market tolerance? By educating our audience about the time we spend and the value it provides?

In case someone out there IS interested in the time it takes me to make one of my items, I offer the following explanation for one of my most popular pieces- ‘Dusk Cherry Blossoms’:


Time Spent

Design/ research/ colour selection.

45 minutes

Open packages, slice and condition sheet of black, blue and silver- up to 5 minutes depending on environmental temperature.

5 minutes

Make Skinner Blend of blue and silver

2 minutes

Select template shape; cut conditioned clay sheets to shape; and overlay colours. Trim.

4 minutes

Cut flowers. Texture internal flower parts with needle. Hand roll blue centre.

10 minutes.

Cut and hand roll sakura branch parts.

5 minutes

Place formed flowers and branches on background. Remove air bubbles. Trim.

10 minutes. 


30 minutes

Cool in iced water.

5 minutes

Wet sand with 400, 600, 800, 2400 and denim.

15 minutes

Apply signature disc and finding. Allow to dry.

5 mins

Inspect. Test fine detail and attachments by rubbing with toothbrush and fingers.

3 mins


30- 60 minutes

Internet listing.

60 minutes


2 minutes


ACTUAL TIME FOR ME: around 4 hours

In April, 2011 ‘Dusk Cherry Blossoms’ is on sale for $33. This price reflects what the public expects to pay for a polymer clay item presented by a previously unknown self-made artist.

Taking into account my material costs, I am charging myself out at far less than Australian Award Wages. Aside from how you value my artisanship, you would have to agree that the economics of my time does not make sense.

Originally, I thought the price I was asking was generous and clearly designed to promote my products. Yet when I browsed one of the most popular Internet sites for handmade items- Etsy- I found polymer clay hair accessories for $2. $2- $5 was so regularly posted, my prices began to seem exorbitant and I blushed! Those economics really do not make sense to me. It was at that point I coined two new terms:

  • Promo sapien: human being specifically evolved to self-promote at the expense of their peers and the reputation of their craft.
  • Etzilla- lovely to look at on Etsy but awful to know in real life.

The international renown of artisans struggling to make a living needs no introduction. I recently encountered a poignant example in Italy in October last year.

After 7 years of Italian language training in Australia, award of art and language prizes from the Dante Alighieri Society, and personal study of art, food and culture, I finally visited Florence, Rome and Sorrento.

My travel companions were my baby daughter and my parents (I left my two other children with my supportive husband at home). For my parents, the trip also brought long-awaited fulfillment. 30 years prior, they had the opportunity to stop in Florence. However their then 3 young daughters accompanied them. Navigating the family campervan through narrow cobbled streets and securely parking the van were nightmare enough, let alone traipsing through the crowded Uffizi with toddlers! With regret, they were compelled to bypass it.

My parents finally set foot on Florentine soil on what would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday- 10.10.2010, with one of their daughters and her baby daughter… a coincidence we celebrated.

While we were in Sorrento, I met an aged shell cameo carver. He inhabited a tiny dark shop close to the sea, which was stuffed full of pink and white cameos. Every time I sighted him from our apartment balcony overhead, he was poring over antiquated leather bound books, loose-leaf papers and sepia photographs in antiquated albums. His tiny shop stayed open from 10am until midnight every day of the week.

I spent some time with this white haired artisan asking questions about his craft and studying his handcrafted wares. He showed me his aged chisels, shaped perfectly to his gnarled hands. He explained to me how the shells were chosen and cut and carved. (Anyone who is interested in learning about this can have a look at the following informative link: http://www.cascosrl.it/en.cameoproduction.htm). He complained with feeling that his art was dying and that there were only 6 authentic cameo artisans left in Sorrento. Furthermore, not even the mass producers in China and India felt it worthwhile to reproduce such detailed cameos.

I met many artisans like him in Italy- in papermaking, leather craft, mosaics, dollhouse furniture, and puppetry. They were all the last baton carriers of their craft, all highly skilled, all lonely and hungry to share the human side of their business and the tragic loss of long cherished and developed traditions.

Projecting myself into their position 50 years from now, I slowly came to a realization. A realization that has continued to emerge from my polymer clay like an exquisite treasure.

Time is a precious, finite resource. Along that finite continuum, there are moments that can intersect and resonate in eternity. The moment an artisan steps up in them self, the result endures well beyond the economics and the casual buyers and the tourists of their art. What a rich treasure for them, what a gift, what a moment for us to hunt among all the overstuffed shops and Internet sites and books and galleries testifying to an artisan’s life.

The old artisan I met in Sorrento hinted at it. He waved a dismissive hand over his entire shop. ‘I have carved these women for 30 years. They are all good and they all sell. After thirty years, they are all the same to me.’ He indicated a far inferior carving of a faun-like creature. ‘This design is my design. For me, it is much better work. It is three times the price...’