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Abersoch Pottery
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Home-Dug Clay
Ash Glazes
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‘Home-Dug’ is shorthand for clay we have dug and prepared ourselves. It does not mean clay dug in our own back yard, although there is a seam of excellent clay within a mile or so of the Pottery.

This section will cover all the materials we gather from the land – not just clay. There is a long tradition of potters using local materials as far as possible and we like to honour this. But with the modern world being a global village, we keep an eye out for interesting materials wherever we are. Abersoch Pottery uses materials gathered from as far afield as Hawaii, and Langebaan beach in Africa.

Hell’s Mouth beach is a wonderful stretch of sand near Abersoch. The beach is backed by cliffs of clay. The farmland behind Hell’s Mouth and for many miles up and down the coast has the same clay a foot or more below the topsoil. This is glacial clay, made by glaciers in the last ice age. Glaciers make clay as they slide along, by grinding the rocks and boulders beneath them into fine particles. Glacial clay is sometimes called boulder clay. It is widely found in the UK, and often usable for potting purposes.

Hell’s Mouth clay is particularly good. We never take clay directly from the cliffs – it is obviously vital not to disturb them because of the problem of coastal erosion. The clay cliffs are prone to collapse and are dangerous. A very good source of the clay is the farmland of the Felin Uchaf Community Project, which is well away from the cliffs. The Project has two resident sculptors and regular sculpting/pottery workshops using clay dug and prepared on site. Visitors are welcome (see links). If you or your children would like to get your hands on our local clay, Felin Uchaf is the place to go.

We tend to use the term ‘Hell’s Mouth clay’ to refer to all the clay that comes this glacial seam. The clay has remarkable properties. It is exceptionally plastic. “Plastic” in a pottery context means bendy and malleable. (potters were using the term ‘plastic’ as an adjective to describe clay long before industrialists nicked the word in the fifties to name the stuff we love to hate). Because it is so plastic, Hells Mouth clay is easy to make pots with, either by hand-building, or on the potters’ wheel. Like many glacial clays it is earthenware clay, which means it cannot be fired to very high temperatures. The clay melts (collapses into a puddle) at about 1180 degrees Centigrade, so it cannot be used to make Abersoch Pottery stoneware, which is fired to 1280 or 1300. We once accidentally put a pot made from Hell’s Mouth clay into the kiln; it melted and dripped everywhere. It ruined a lot of pots, but gave rise to a couple of Happy Accidents, which inspired a line of pots we make today. (Mountain Pots, such as Pot 35 in the Main Gallery)

Hell’s Mouth clay is particularly useful to us when it is made into a liquid. The liquid clay can be painted onto the pots as decoration. Used in this way, clay is called a ‘slip.’ Hell’s Mouth clay is so sticky it will stick to a fired pot and absorb new glaze, offering an unusual opportunity for rescuing pots that have not fired well. The liquid clay can itself be used as a glaze, either on its own, or mixed with wood ash. This technique is showing some promise in glazing the Book of Kells Plates. We hope to show examples in the Gallery in due course.

While there is plenty of earthenware clay to be dug around the country, usable stoneware clay is quite hard to find. There are a few places in the Midlands and in the West Country where good stoneware clay can be dug. Much of our work is made from stoneware clay that we dig in Dorset and process at the pottery. The clay needs processing mainly to get rid of the small stones in it. Stones in clay make it difficult use, and cause pots to explode in the kiln. Partially exploded pots can have a certain charm, but by and large explosions in the kiln are undesirable and stones are best got rid of.

To get rid of stones the clay is first made into a liquid, which can be done by hand, but is made easier by a machine similar to a washing machine, called a blunger. Lumps of clay and water are put into the machine and mixed into a liquid. The liquid clay is poured through a sieve made from fly mesh. This sieves out all the bits we don’t want, like small stones and plant roots. A few small roots do get through the sieve, but we don’t worry about this – root fibres seem to improve the quality of the clay.

The sieved clay is dried in the same way the Romans used – in brick pits. It takes a while to dry which is thought to be a good thing. We’ve found it will dry a lot quicker on pallets, where the air can blow underneath it as well as over the top. Before the liquid clay is poured onto the pallet, the top of the pallet is covered with thick layers of newspaper, followed by an old (but not holy) bed sheet. Four sturdy planks of wood make a surround to contain the clay, which is poured in through a sieve as with the brick pits. In our experience, quick drying doesn’t seem to affect the throwing properties of the clay adversely.

This Dorset clay has a high iron content and fires a rich brown colour in our wood-fired kiln. The clay seems to work particularly well with ash glazes.

Not Navy rum, but fine particles that are added to clay to ‘open’ it up and generally improve its strength and other properties. The most widely used grog is clay has been fired, then ground into fine particles. We are a bit old school on this one, in that we use sand as grog. The sand has to be very fine, especially if it’s to be mixed with clay for mugs or goblets. Large particles of sand in the wall of a mug are scratchy on the lips. The finest sand we know of comes from Langebaan in South Africa. It passes through a 120’s mesh sieve leaving very little residue.

There is also very fine sand to be found in North Wales. Sand with small particles tends to be firm and compact. If you can drive a car on damp sand without leaving much imprint, it is probably small particle sand. It is illegal to take sand from the beach, but there are places where it blows from the beach onto access roads. Clearing a little sand from a road might be considered a public service, but this is obviously a matter for personal judgement. We find a small amount of grog is all that is needed – about a kilo of dry sand to a blunger load of clay. We get about 75 kilos of clay from a blunger load.

Some potters from the past preferred sand to other forms of grog. Shoji Hamada may have been one of them – if anyone has a reference for this we’d like to hear from them. The famous Winchcombe Pottery in the Cotswolds uses sand from North Wales as grog in their clay.

Ochre is iron rich clay. Haematite is harder – the mineral equivalent.

Yellow ochre is the most common form, but when subjected to great heat (calcined) it is transformed to red ochre. This commonly occurs by volcanic action. Most of the ochre in the volcanic islands of Hawaii, which I use on my pots, is red ochre

Ochre pigments are often described by their place of origin, such as Sienna and Umber. Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber are, of course, the calcined red form of these ochres.

Ochre is probably our most ancient art pigment, used by homo sapiens since his emergence in Africa some 75,000 years ago.

The oldest dated paintings in Europe are at the Chauvet cave in Ardeche, South of France. These paintings are mainly in red ochre and charcoal. The iron cannot be dated – but of course the carbon can, and the earliest paintings date from 31000 years ago. Images depicted include lionesses, rhinos, mammoth, bears, bison, hyena, panther, horse, and the eagle owl. Yellow ochre is sparse in this particular cave – only 2 small horses heads from the Palaeolithic period.

Red ochre has been used by many cultures for personal decoration, including the Celts. Irish myth refers to Fer Dearg – red men. It is still used today by Aborigines, Native American Indians, and the Himba tribe in Namibia, amongst others. Sometimes it is the exclusive province of male members of tribe. This is particularly true for the Aboriginal People, for whom Red is a sacred province for the male. It is said that death has been the penalty for women who dare to trespass into red territory. Not so for Himba people, whose womenfolk cover their whole bodies in red ochre.

Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from Africa some 40,000 years ago. Neanderthal man already there, had been for around 250,000 years. The two species engaged in a long struggle for dominance. Neanderthal man wasn’t stupid – he had a bigger brain than us. Contrary to long held theory, it has recently been discovered that his tools and weapons were at least as good as ours, exploding the myth that we triumphed because our tools were better.

So how come homo sapiens won the struggle for dominance and survival? Strangely, it seems that one of our most powerful weapons was not a better axe, but art. Or at least, the social consequences of art. The archaeological evidence shows that homo sapiens lived in larger, more cohesive groups than Neanderthal man, with a stronger culture and wider bonds. The evidence for this lies in art. Very similar works of art by homo sapiens have been discovered in widely different locations. Prominent among these is an earth mother figurine, named by us the Venus figurine, made in a range of materials including soft stone, ivory, and modelled and fired clay – the first ceramics known, some 32000 years old. It has been found in widely spread locations, and is always identical in form. Another such figurine is the Lion – Man, a half human half lion model.

No similar evidence exists for Neanderthal culture. It seems that we were better at social networking, a focus for which was probably the sharing of art. Ochre was the earliest and most widely used pigment, and must have played a primary role in artistic gatherings. Art is bonding – anyone who has attended a life drawing class will know this. Art has great social and cultural power, a fact which is easily overlooked. Such power may have been greater in a pre-multimedia era than it is today. It seems that symbolic communication has long been a force for us, enhancing a sense of shared identity, to which art was at one time central. And at this time, ochre was central to art. The pigment can be directly linked to the process of early human bonding. Stronger social bonds are now thought to be the primary reason why homo sapiens bested Neanderthal man – basically, then as now, there is strength in numbers. So it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that we owe in part our survival – our very existence – to ochres.

I certainly feel a deep and strange affinity with this material – a resonance with times past, whenever I use it. More so than with any other pigment I use. Perhaps I am tapping into the deep resource of 75000 years worth of accumulated collective unconscious.

We collect all our own wood for the ash glazes we make. The wood is burned in a log burner. Great care is taken not to introduce impurities at any stage. There is more information about this in the section on ash glazes.

Most of the wood we burn in the kiln is off-cuts of Western Red Cedar, collected from a local sawmill in exchange for pots. We also use driftwood, which burns well when dry. There is more about this in the section on wood firing.

The final things we gather for the pottery are sea shells. These are made of pure calcium carbonate – chalk. They are one of the very few materials that fly ash will not stick to. All the pots in the kiln are placed on scallop shells to stop the fly ash bonding them to their shelf during the firing. (see section on Wood – Firing).

The scallop shells are still intact at the end of the firing, but in the week following the firing they absorb moisture from the atmosphere and crumble to a fine powder. This powder is quick lime. If you wet it, then touch it, it really burns your skin. It can be mixed with sand to make lime-mortar in the time honoured way.

We like this link with past. Villages all over the UK used to have lime kilns in which to heat-treat chalk to make lime. They didn’t roast it as high as we roast our poor scallop shells, but heated the chalk just enough to make the type of lime they wanted. Pubs called the Lime Kiln are a testimony to this traditional craft. The quick-lime from our kiln is a little link with another time. It’s fun to have traditional lime to use as a by-product of our cottage industry.