SHRINKY DINKS: A LOVE STORY
3 October 2018
Habitually, I find myself infatuated with different do-it-yourself trends. Each day yields new opportunities for under-informed clothing alterations. During the summer before college, I deemed it absolutely necessary that I paint my clothes, which became immediately regrettable on account of my woeful (in)abilities with a brush. Just a few weeks ago, some little toy bugs I found became my muse in hot-glue gunning anything and everything to safety pins.
As of now, though, my love lies with Shrinky Dinks.
The sparkplug for my latest obsession was a pair of charmed earrings I bought for two dollars at 924 Gilman in Berkeley in early September. That night, the venue was on the emptier side; maybe twenty attendees, ranging in age from high-school to midlife, crowded around a tiny stage. Four bands performed in the time my friend and I were there, each more angry and loud than the next. 924 Gilman is a characteristically punk locale, but that night was more centered around scream-singing to slower melodies and tempos. Lights were low and the bands were only inches above and away from their audience. The pit — which can only tentatively be classified as that — was composed of very young teenagers decked out in spikes and safety pins doing little more than running into each other. To compound this excessive enthusiasm, the somewhat surprising emptiness of the room gave the whole experience a sort of out-of-body feel. I was there less to find my next favorite band, but rather to study. Gather information. Observe.
Following the first band, which was a group of four teenagers singing quirky, alternative rock, an announcement was made about the merch tables off to the side that had otherwise gone unnoticed by my investigating gaze. My materialistic tendencies gravitated me towards these tables, where I was pleasantly surprised by a spread of t-shirts and buttons. However, I was immediately entrapped by a pair of earrings. Sold by one of the band members performing that night, these earrings were simple; some dangly metal posts with green, melancholic hearts attached. They were perfectly imperfect — the hearts didn’t exactly match and on one, an eyebrow had already begun to rub off. I had to have them. And now, I love them more than all my other earrings. They have character, spunk, individuality; they have a story.
You might be wondering, as I was, of their beginnings. How were these wonderful little charms made? Was this teenaged lead singer moonlighting as a jeweler? A plastic-smith? Well, to my surprise (and slight disappointment), these possibilities were just that: possibilities. The person who ran the merch table informed me that in actuality, she had recently become a Shrinky Dink fanatic, and was utilizing the venue as a proto-gallery/shop.
That fateful night at the Gilman was all it took. The next weekend, a friend and I scoured the internet, looking for local sources to feed our new fixation. On the whole, the concept seemed obscure — we knew of Shrinky Dinks, but not where to get them, how to use them, or really anything beyond their existence. We were wide-eyed and eager, but wholly unaware of what we were stumbling into.
Betty Morris and Kate Bloomberg of Brookfield, Wisconsin can be thanked for the popularization of Shrinky Dinks. In 1973, while helping their sons with a Cub Scout project, the two women found instructions in a magazine outlining how to make charms by drawing on and then baking plastic lids. Seeing the craft for what it was— a capitalist’s dream and a potential goldmine — Morris and Bloomberg began selling “Creative Shrinky Dinks Packs” at their local mall for two dollars. Not long after, the toys were picked up by major distributors and brought to the front-lines of the American crafting industry.
Simply sheets of polystyrene plastic, Shrinky Dinks have become a sort of fad for DIY-ers everywhere. When baked, they shrink (hence, the name) to ⅓ of their original size and become nine times thicker. Whatever was drawn on them is magically retained in perfect detail and etched into the plastic. It’s akin to the Wonkavision machine in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — you’ve got something big that becomes much smaller when brought in contact with a certain device, be it Willy Wonka’s teleporting television or a regular oven. Interesting analogy, I know, but it’s not entirely incorrect.
After finally obtaining the goods, my friend and I went to work. Our first couple of creations were major busts; a little heart baked into an unbelievably miniscule version of itself and a cut-out cube’s sides curled into each other to become something vein-like and sharp. But when they were good, they were really good. A skull shrunk without flaw and became my first successful Shrinky-Dink creation. Two blue circles transformed into a wonderful pair of matching earrings. A hand, which when drawn ate up half the sheet, compressed into the ideal statement piece.
I’m aware that I speak of this product like I’ve just discovered a new planet or devised some way to get the buses in Berkeley to arrive on time. I feel as if I have, though. I’m
that excited. This oft-forgotten craft is one with some semblance of pure freedom; literally anything can be drawn on the plastic sheets, baked, and then become literally anything else. The final product could become a pair of earrings, a pin, a necklace pendant, a button; the opportunities are unlimited. Further, each creation is intrinsically attached to a memory. The earrings I’ve made are more than just accessories, they’re symbols of my discovery at the Gilman and ensuing adventures with my friend. Like the ink, they have a story etched into themselves.
On a more serious note, it’s especially important to consider the sort of space they allow to those interested in the industry. Not only does it become a way for people to create for themselves, but also to create a personal livelihood. One look at online marketplaces reveals just how prevalent they’ve become in crafting circles — a single search for “Shrinky Dinks” on Etsy yields 2,932 results. Results that include earrings, necklaces, pins, charms, keychains; quite literally, everything and anything. Shrinky Dinks may have peaked in the ‘80s, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lively culture surrounding them bubbling just under the crafting surface. For under ten dollars, I was able to make over ten pairs of earrings. With professional jewelling classes costing upwards of $300, this little arts-and-crafts project proved to be a good compromise between the allure of autonomy and its expense. Though my dangly, plastic skull earrings don’t have quite the same elegance as a strand of precious gems delicately fixed in gold, they do exude a certain anti-elitist grit that I like.
Screw the Man, right? Even when the Man is the expensive exclusivity of fine jewelry.