Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Spirograph Ornament "Tutorial"

Heads up: this is a terrible tutorial. I mean, seriously. It is confusing, and I mostly don't show any of the steps. If you speak Scandinavian Language, you can go read the DIY Julekalender page, where I first saw this idea. (I was able only to puzzle over the pictures.)

Also, the gift guide is still here. (We are generating commissions on Amazon, so look for a give-away here soon!) Plus, because this is an atheist multi-faith blog, latkes are here. Even though I made them with a great and kvetching crankiness last night, and my hair still smells of French fries.

Anyways. Last year, when we were in the thick of our recurring Spirograph obsession, I wanted to document it with an ornament. And this is where I landed: a string-art Spirograph-style ornament made from clay and embroidery floss. You can use it to teach your kids the principle of the B√©zier curve—something round made from straight line segments—or you can just shut up and hang it on your tree like a normal person.

(Did I mention that Birdy’s LEGO Robotics team. the Cyborg Echidnae, is going to the state championships on Saturday? Geeks of the world unite!)

These are fiddly and require a bit of time and patience—but they’re also incredibly fun and satisfying once you get the hang of it, and they come out really cool and make great gifts. You’ll need some air-drying clay (I really like paper clay for this, because it dries with a porcelain finish) or, if you don’t have it, I imagine that oven-bakeable polymer clay (e.g. Fimo or Sculpey) would work just fine, as long as it bakes up hard. If the wreath shape is flexible after baking, you are going to want to kill somebody. Me, maybe.

Start by making a wreath-shaped paper template. I used a pair of nesting circle cookie cutters, which I then used to cut out the clay shape. But if you don’t have cookie cutters, you can later trace around your template with a knife and cut your clay that way. The main reason you’re making the template is so that you can figure out where to poke your holes. You’ll want an odd number of them, evenly spaced. I’m a real trial-and-error kind of gal: I kind of dummied them in with pencil, erasing and respacing until it looked right (I went with 13). Another option is to stick your teenager on the case. Tell them to figure it out using geometry or calculus or whatever the hell math they’re doing these days.

Once you have the holes spaced on the paper, use a hole puncher (mini if you’ve it) to cut them out.

Now roll your clay out as evenly as you can on a piece of wax paper. One quarter inch is a good thickness. Use your cookie cutters or the template and a knife to cut out a wreath shape, then lay your template over the clay wreath and use the blunt end of a skewer to poke holes where you’ve marked them. Make more wreaths, if you like. Bake or air-dry your clay according to the package directions. It will warp a little as it dries. C’est la vie.

Paint the dried ornament, if you want to. I used silver acrylic craft paint. Let the paint dry.

Now thread a needle with a long (like 2-foot) length of embroidery floss—I like the extra-shiny (I think it's called "satin floss") and/or metallic kind for this—and knot a bead through the end, to secure the floss to the ornament, since you won’t be able to make a big enough knot otherwise. Take a minute to rub the length of floss back and forth along a candle, to make it a little bit waxy and stiff. This sounds crazy, but it really helps the thread not be so slidey and annoying to work with.
An illustration of the process.
Start threading. Push the needle through the backside of the ornament and begin threading your pattern, keeping the floss as taut as you can while you go. The way to do a pattern is to count some number of holes away from your starting hole, say 4 (let’s be working clockwise) then push your needle in there, then come back up one hole to the right of where you started, and push in one hole to the left of where you pushed in last. So if you think of your first hole as #1, you’ll come out there, then go down hole #5, then out hole #2 and down hole #6. Does that make sense?

Do this until you complete the circuit, being sure to get really confused and frustrated along the way. And to run out of thread. For which there is no solution! So do start with a long piece. When you’re done, knot back through the bead, adding a dab of hot glue if it seems at all precarious.
Like so.
Then, if you like, do a different color, with a different pattern. As a general rule, you’ll probably want to start with darkest floss color and densest pattern, then move into lighter colors and more open patterns—but really, experimentation is half the fun. Unless this is not fun to begin with, and then half of 0 is 0, alas.

Now tie on a piece of thread for hanging and hang it! Huzzah! The miracle of etc.


  1. When I saw the headline of this post, I thought it said "Sonogram Ornament." And I thought, "That's the worst idea ever." And then I saw the actual ornament, which is much better than a fuzzy skeletal fetus. Much, much better.

  2. I am *not* going to make these, but I smiled all the way through the post.

  3. Allyson6:47 AM

    I made your latkes last night, along with your microwave applesauce and your roast chicken. I sense a theme here. The fact that your latke recipe doesn't involve an extremely messy wringing out of the potato liquid still rocks my world. My latke-making has been nearly kvetch-free ever since I first tried your method, which is in itself a bit of a Hanukkah miracle, so thank you for that, Catherine.
    I'm also finally making your eggnog cheesecake bars this week. I've been drooling over them ever since you first posted them years ago. I can't wait!

  4. I just had to say a hearty THANKS for turning us on to the Settlers of Catan game. We have played it for HOURS over the last week and it's the first thing the kids ask for every night after dinner. Every single book and game recommendation you've ever made has been a huge hit in our house. Happiest of holidays!

  5. Anonymous12:04 AM

    I wanted to say that I think I have singlehandedly contributed a good 23.5% at least of your Amazon commission as I now go out of my way to link through benandbirdy before buying anything, just because I like you so much and I figure you deserve it. I still haven't sent the marmalade I promised you like two years ago when the baby was *sob* actually still a baby, so I figure you can at least have the $3.25 or whatever it is you've made from my mad holiday shopping.

    I mean, I make the roast broccoli like once a week and my husband swoons each time. I made the gingerbread for a party on Sunday and nary a crumb was left. Two batches of granola and little bottles of vanilla have gone to every teacher we have, and bottles of limoncello and Greitas Pagamintas Krupnikas gleam at me each time I step into the garage. My point is: I owe you so much, between the belly and the heart and the mind, and so, thank you. Happy happy all the holidays to you and your darlings!

  6. Anonymous5:01 PM

    Sonogram Ornament. That needs to be a thing. My son's had a definitely Skelator feel to it, so maybe for Halloween...