Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Make Beads with Breast Milk Tutorial

Yes, you read that right. There is a growing trend among moms to have one's breast milk preserved and set into jewelry. For many of you, dear readers, it probably sounds gross - the weird stigma around the grossness of breast milk is another topic altogether - but, to the new mom whose ability to feed her baby breast milk is very important, it can be a beautiful way to memorialize that very special time. Some artists have built their business around this. Go ahead and search; their pieces are really quite beautiful.

I had a vague desire to order a piece or two until about three weeks ago. It was the first of two work pumping sessions and I got a pathetically low amount of milk. I started to panic a little; at only seven months old, it's too soon to stop feeding Elora breast milk. I really want to make it to at least a year. I'm a "just enough" supplier as it is (this means my body produces what she drinks and not a drop more), so finding myself with less did worry me. It made me realize that this part of being a mom, the ability to provide for my baby all the nutrition she needs, was very important to me and more important than I tend to let on. That vague desire was replaced with a desperate need as I searched for something to help me cling to this very precious time.

But I have a few problems with the breast milk jewelry currently on the market. The first is that the pieces are very expensive. They are made with closely-guarded processes. Search for a tutorial on how to do it yourself and you'll only find posts like the one I'm writing now: just a mom who wanted to figure out how to do it herself with varying results. Based on all the research and trial runs that I did, I absolutely understand the cost. It's not that I don't think the money is worth it, but more that I don't really have it lying around. Another hang up for me is the wait time. I found one artist who says you'll get your pieces in six weeks, another who said three months, and there is one with a ton of complaints because it has apparently been more than a year and people still don't have their orders. The demand is high since only a few people know the secret, so of course they are busy. There is also cure time, which is often impossible to rush. One of the glazes I used takes 28 days to cure, so I understand this too. That leads me to my next point: how do you know that the piece you get is actually made with your milk? If I were doing this as a business, I'd probably want to have several orders curing at once to minimize the wait. Or maybe they work one order at a time to be sure they don't get pieces mixed up. The reality is we don't know. I also wonder what happens to the extra. My method made a ton of compound and I used a very small amount of milk. Some artists ask for only a teaspoon of milk, some ask for an ounce. You want enough to work with, of course, but then what happens to it? Along the same lines, with these closely-guarded trade secrets, we don't know if whole milk is being used or just the casein (separating the casein is one way to make a clay out of regular milk, though the casein content in breast milk is quite low so you need a lot of it. I suspect this is the method the people who want an ounce or more are using). It's more meaningful to me if the whole milk is used, and I've come across a few other moms who feel similar.

So I decided to figure this out on my own. That way I know it's my milk, I completely control the design and the colors, and I can make as many pieces as I want. For my purposes, I don't care what other ingredients are involved as long as my whole milk is one of them. This is not my trade so I have no trade secrets to protect. Hence, this post!

The first thing I did was research if it was possible to mix the milk with the resin directly. The answer is yes and no but mostly no. It's like mixing oil and water: they really don't mix. You can do a few things (add more hardener, freeze it while it cures) to force it to mix but I wasn't getting anywhere close to the same look as what the professionals make. So then I searched for a way to make clay with water as one of the ingredients, figuring I could just substitute my milk for the water. The answer is YES! you can make a hard, air-drying clay with water as one of the ingredients. This clay uses plain old white glue, water, and flour or cornstarch. It's similar to a recipe I found a few years ago that makes a kind of porcelain clay. I did a couple test batches with water first, and I tried both flour and cornstarch. I found that flour worked better so that's what I used for my milk clay compound. This is the video I referenced for my clay.


So, you need roughly equal parts clear-drying white glue and water or milk and some flour. I highly recommend trying it with water first so you get a feel for working the flour into the compound. You want enough flour so that it won't be sticky or you will end up with a flaky mess. If it's too dry, add more water/milk. If it's too wet and sticky, add more flour.

Flour in a baby food jar and plain Mod Podge

See how it sticks to my finger? Too sticky! Add more flour!
 Once you've mixed up your clay, let it rest for at least 30 minutes in an airtight bag. Once that is done, you can start forming your pieces or pressing them into molds. I used two teaspoons of milk and got a ton of clay. Mine was still a tad sticky, so I just coated my fingers in flour when I was working with it and that was plenty. Store your unused clay in an airtight bag in the fridge. It will keep for a couple weeks, then it will start to harden.

A note about color: the flour will color your clay. I used an unbleached all-purpose flour and it had a nice doughy color that I liked a lot. Cornstarch was stark white, which I didn't want at all. The batch with flour and milk came out slightly more yellow than the flour and water batch.  I did not try cornstarch and milk.  My milk tends to be tinged with yellow, blue, or green depending on the day and this was a yellowish day. If your milk has more distinct colors, I imagine it will reflect in the clay a bit. Just remember there is more flour than anything in this compound, so that will be the predominant color. You can mix in a bit of paint to color your clay from the beginning, as in the video, if you want. I wanted mine to look more milky and I think, even at mostly flour colored, I got that. I did try coloring one piece with mica powder and it didn't come out as I imagined it would.


Drying in some molds in round two!
This clay will shrink slightly as it dries so keep that in mind. I found it worked a little better when I was very precise in filling my molds, nothing oozing out of the cavities or too many lumps on the back. I set these aside to dry in the molds for at least two days. You can also bake this clay, at 200°F for 10-20 minutes, if your mold can handle the oven. The blue cameo mold above can but I'm not sure about the orange ones so I just let them air dry.


Test round pieces, all dry. You can see some unevenness and other imperfections: that's why this was the test round!
 I also formed some pieces by hand and set a glob into an open silver pendant as a background. The pendent was where I had to pay special attention to the shrinkage of the clay.

This is a great sealer, but it takes 28 days to cure fully! 
 I used this dishwasher-safe Mod Podge on some of my pieces because I wasn't going to encase them in resin. Because this clay is water-based, you want to make sure you seal it. In hindsight, I probably could have used the spray resin sealer pictured further down, but I didn't know about it at this point! The instructions say to apply 3 coats, letting it dry for at least an hour between each one, for best results.

Coated with the blue Mod Podge and left to cure.
I intend to drill holes in the heart and button on the right and just make them into charms.
The two smaller hearts and one button will be left as-is, as charms for a floating locket.
 Next step: resin! I have never worked with resin before, and always wanted to, so this was a learning process all its own. While my pieces were drying, I watched every resin jewelry tutorial I could find on You Tube. I came across some really great things to do with resin while I was at it. I'm going to be playing with this stuff for a while! I did not do a non-milk test run with the resin but you may want to if you're unsure about working with it. I almost wish I had, because I'm remaking some pieces that didn't turn out quite how I wanted.

You need a mold, a resin kit, some plastic mixing cups, and some popsicle stirrers.
Mold Release is not necessary but, from my research, I found it to be a good idea.  
Whatever brand you find, look for two part clear epoxy resin. I carefully planned out which pieces I wanted in which shapes. Follow the directions for your particular brand of resin. I removed the piece before pouring the resin into the mold and then set the piece back in the resin. For this step, which I did not photograph, I wanted the beads to show so I just used clear resin.

Beads waiting for resin. You can see the one I tried to color with mica powder! 
 I like the idea of doing a color background and mica powders are great for coloring resin. I carefully planned out which colors I wanted on which pieces and set out enough mixing cups and stirrers for each color. I then made my resin, separated it into all the cups I set out, and added color and poured one by one. There is time to work with this before your resin starts to set up, but don't dawdle if you have a lot of colors.
The white jar is a blue glow-in-the-dark that I ended up not using for this round. 
 A little goes a long way, but too little doesn't go far! In the picture below, I wanted the key in the trapezoid to be gold, but I didn't use nearly enough gold. The greenish one next to it was initially too light as well and I added more powder directly to the resin in the mold to make it darker.

Curing resin! 
 Some of the beads did not end up in the position I really wanted them in but that's okay. I've got enough clay and enough resin to do it again. That's round two drying in the orange molds above.

Now, my resin says to let it cure for 24 hours for a soft cure and 72 hours for a hard cure. I want my pieces really hard so I left them in the mold for three days. Follow the instructions on your resin for curing times.

After you pop your pieces out of the mold, you may find there are some bulges where resin ran over the edge of the mold. Cut these off with scissors. You may also find that some pieces have sharp edges, either from rising up the sides of the mold or just slightly overflowing the mold. These bits can be sanded down and I didn't get any pictures of this part. It is recommended to use wet/dry sandpaper with water to help control the dust. I didn't have that so I just used what I had. A small jeweler's file or regular nail file can also be used for some of the small edges. Keep your pieces moving and roll with curves to keep things even. I used this video to learn about sanding and finishing resin pieces.



The green heart remained tacky after all the other pieces were done; I suspect it was a result of adding the mica powder directly to the resin in the mold. I probably didn't mix it enough. Additionally, a lot of the pieces had cloudy areas over the clear resin, probably a result of the mold release spray. The sanding process also leaves scratches and rough edges. The easy fix for all of these problems is Resin Spray.

Gloss and sealer.
 Give your pieces a few quick, light sprays of this on all sides and let them dry at least an hour (it's probably wise to do one side and then the other once the first has dried) and there you have it! Clear, shiny resin pieces! Additionally, you can use a paint brush to paint on a layer of mixed liquid resin and let that cure and it will do the same thing.

Yay! 
Now, there are still some imperfections in these - bubbles I didn't get out or slightly off-center beads - but that's okay. I've learned a few more tricks since I did these that I will use on round two to, hopefully, resolve those issues. I'm also really pleased that I did these myself and those flaws are just marks of my handmadeiness!

The final step is to turn them into jewelry! There are a couple easy ways to do this. You can drill a hole and add a jump ring, you can drill a hole and add a chain, you could drill a hole straight through and use a headpin, you could glue a bail onto the back, you could glue it onto a cabochon setting, and I'm sure there are more.

A small hand press drill works great on resin.

I used a spring drill on a few of my pieces and then realized that the resin is very thick and I need larger jump rings than what I have! I think gluing a flat backed bail would probably be easiest, but I'll have to pick up some of those.

This one wasn't too thick!

Wear it with pride! 
I hope this helps many more moms commemorate this precious time in your and your baby's lives! I even made one to eventually give to my daughter (the key trapezoid that was supposed to be gold). If you make some milk clay beads using my method, I want to see! Feel free to ask me any questions and I'll try to help you through the process.

For part 2 with finishing tips and pictures, see this post!

All of the supplies that I did not already own were purchased on Amazon. If you need links or help finding supplies, let me know! Always shop Amazon Smile (not an affiliate link) and support your favorite charity! Some might be available in your local craft store, but I had bad luck finding what I wanted there. 

8 comments :

Melissa said...

Does the milk turn yellow or go moldy when using this process?

Kaede Fyrecreek said...

More than four months later, I have not noticed any further yellowing or mold on my unset pieces (I keep them in a baby food jar out of direct sunlight). The pieces that are completely encased in resin don't have exposure to air so there isn't a way for mold to grow. I can't tell if there is further discoloration (say, from UV exposure) on those so, if there is, it is nominal. They still have that already yellowish, doughy color that I like. Even on the piece I'm wearing right now I can't tell if it's any more yellowish than the day I set it in resin back in March.

Hooray for Moms said...

Hi there,
I love this great tutorial, thank you! I've been wanting to attempt to make my own and am excited to try it. I'm not sure what year you made these, but can you tell me if they have yellowed or changed color at all now? Thanks!!!

Kaede Fyrecreek said...

If you try it, let me know how it goes! I'm coming up on almost a year and I don't think they have discolored. The ones I have not encased in resin may have darkened slightly, but it's hard to tell. There are no moldy spots or weird smells, at least! I'll do a follow-up post with some new pictures soon!

Unknown said...

I honestly think this how some of the shops do it! Yours turned out great! I hope mine turn out just as nice. Thanks so much for sharing your journey and knowledge

Kaede Fyrecreek said...

I think so too! Let me know how it goes if you try it. I've worn one pendant every day since I made them. It's nice to have variety!

Crazy life living as a free spirt said...

Thank you so much for this! I can't wait to make my own.

Kaede Fyrecreek said...

Let me know how it goes if you try it!