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How to Find Your Own Clay and Make Your First Sustainable Pottery Project

3/25/2014 10:37:00 AM

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To build with love is the way the craftsman … does just enough, not more and not less. - Harry Remde

CottageCrafted.com offers creative community handcrafts by traditional artisans supporting agrarians in a sustainable village context. These functional farmstead, quality handcrafts include woodworking, pottery, blacksmithing, textile crafts and more. We are joining MOTHER EARTH NEWS at their FAIR in Puyallup, Wash., May 31 to June 1, 2014, at booth 810. You will be able to see sustainable pottery made at our booth demo and FAIR workshop.

Why Do Pottery? 

People around the world have used sustainable pottery for thousands of years to store and serve food, hold water, boil tea, preserve documents (in the case of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls) and for many other purposes. Cups, bowls, pots, vases, plates, saucers, butter dishes, even a “pot-within-a-pot” used for refrigeration in parts of Africa, are all traditional pottery products. This wide, purposeful use of pottery supported the local agrarian community, which is what Cottage Crafted heartily encourages.

One specific use for pottery is fermentation crockery. Handmade pottery crocks are perfect for making sauerkraut or kimchi. Fermentation is not only a great way to keep your harvest, it also exponentially increases its nutritional value.

The skills learned in making pottery are invaluable, as well. Learning about the different types of clay (and which to use), using glazes, hand-building, wheel-throwing, “firing” (baking) clay … all these are rare and valuable skills.

Find Your Own Clay

Potters have been digging and processing their own clay for millennia. It has only been since the Industrial Revolution that clay started being sold by suppliers on the market. Before that time, potters situated themselves near a good source of clay and always passed the trade down from generation to generation. In many places, such as China, Korea and Great Britain, whole families of potters would build small towns near a clay source and the local economy centered on pottery making.

Clay is a smooth soft rock made up of mineral particles as fine as dust. Clay particles are all that remain of rocks such as feldspar after these have weathered and decomposed. Most clay remains at the site where it formed, making a clay deposit. In its undeveloped state, it is one of the few natural resources that has no perceptible value of its own yet can be transformed into some of the most valued works of art.

Many potters caution that it isn’t worth the time and effort to dig your own native clay, while others strongly urge those who are able to take advantage of this abundant resource to do so. Potters can gain a great deal of practical experience and broaden their knowledge by going out and digging their own clay (and feel the fulfillment of actually making a pot from the ground up).

Here at our shop many people ask if we use clay from the Brazos River, which borders our farm. We have been unable to do so because of a major lime contamination. A good part of this is due to the high limestone cliffs just above the river. Every time it rains more limestone washes down the banks, contaminating the absorbent clay. James Chappell, author of The Potter’s Complete Book of Clay and Glazes, writes, “While the presence of alkalies can be tolerated, the presence of lime cannot; when such clay is fired, lime turns into calcium oxide, which will absorb water, expand inside the pot, and cause it to crack, flake or chip.”

There are two basic types of clay: earthenware and stoneware. Earthenware can only be fired up to the temperature range between 1700 degrees and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, it is not waterproof and the finished product can chip or scratch easily. Stoneware is much less common than earthenware, yet it is highly sought after for its durability and lasting strength. This type of clay can be fired up to 2400 degrees to become vitreous (meaning “like a rock”), making it water-proof even when left unglazed (thus the name, stoneware).

Some miles from the future extension of the Ploughshare school is a large deposit of kaolin clay in Helmer, Idaho. The mineral kaolin is an extremely refractory clay with a melting point at 3200 degrees. It cannot be used alone as a clay body due to its highly nonplastic texture. Because of this it must be combined with other clays to increase its plasticity and lower its maturing temperature. However, this clay is very durable and has a low rate of shrinkage, making it one of the most sought-after ingredients for making pottery in the United States. We have yet to work with it ourselves but we are looking forward to possibly using this native clay source (with which we could supply the needs of our school and craft shop).

Now that we have the foundation of pottery (the clay), we’ll put it into use. The simplest method of making pottery is hand-building: You form the pottery entirely in your hands, instead of on the wheel.

Making a Pinch Pot

A pinch pot can be as simple as a little bowl to put knickknacks in, or it can be as elaborate as a teapot with a footed sugar and creamer set. Another great thing about pinch pots is that you don’t need any specialized equipment. You can do all of this right on your kitchen table! 

Start by making a small ball of clay. The smoother and rounder you get it to begin with, the better the finished product is going to look. Once your ball is ready, poke your thumb straight down into the middle of it, and then pinch the clay between your thumb and fingers.

Squeeze with the full length of your fingers, not just with your fingertips. Pinch and turn. Continue turning and pinching until you go all the way around. Multiple small pinches will yield better results than just a few forceful ones.

The lip of your bowl may be a little rough at this point. You can use your fingers and thumb to smooth and even it out. Now, begin to work any lumps out of walls of your bowl. Smooth them out with your thumb. It is not necessary to use any water during the making of your pot, unless the clay begins to crack. If this happens, use only a dab of water to help you smooth them out. Too much water will cause your pot to begin to dissolve and you will end up with a mess instead of a pot! just a few large, forceful ones. Keep the pot cupped in your hand as you work with it. Work your way around until the walls of your bowl are evenly thinned out. 

Once you are satisfied with how your pot looks, set it down on the table and gently tap it. Using your finger or thumb on the inside, smooth and press the base down. This will create a flat base for your pot. You can also, at this point, turn it over and smooth out any remaining cracks or crevices on the outside.

That's basically it for a pinch pot. You can start with small pinch pots and work your way up as you become more comfortable with making them. Eventually, you can make things such as tall vases, salt and pepper shakers, or sets of matching bowls or mugs.

If you don't have access to a kiln and you would like to do this at home, you can use the mud in your backyard or buy self-drying clay at a craft store and finish it out yourself at home. You wouldn't be able to use these pieces for food, but you can paint them with acrylic paints and then use them for knickknack dishes. This would be great practice, but eventually, if you’re going to get serious about pottery, you will want to invest in a small kiln.

Making a Wheel-Thrown Pot

Once you have mastered hand-building and gotten a “feel” for the clay, you can move on to wheel-throwing, or using the potter’s wheel. The basic (oversimplified) method is to “throw” (smack) the clay onto the middle of the wheel, start the wheel spinning, finish centering it with your hands, push your thumbs in the middle of the clay to make a hole, shape it into a cylinder, and keep shaping it from there into a pot, bowl, cup or plate … anything that can be made of clay. This, however, is a complicated process, so there is no substitute for learning from a teacher in order to create a quality handcraft. Jenni Fritzlan, a full-time potter who also teaches pottery year-round for the Ploughshare Institute in Texas, will give a wheel-throwing demonstration as part of an onstage presentation on the making and use of fermentation crockery at the Puyallup MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.

Come by our booth to see a live demonstration on the potter's wheel by Fritzlan. She and her team’s quality handcrafted pottery is offered online at www.CottageCrafted.com/square/pottery-shop/.

Cottage Crafted also helped supply the $7,500 Mother Earth News Homesteader Sweepstakes, featuring a Cottage Crafted Homesteader Set: a mesquite box, a gift basket set (including a bread basket, bread cloth, hardwood cutting board, wood spatula, and wood butter knife), and a video beekeeping course. Be sure to enter here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading2014.aspx.

We can also be reached through these at:

Cottage Crafted

www.CottageCrafted.com

steve@cottagecrafted.com

406-334-3045


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