There’s many a slip

Our ‘There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip’ brief requires us to produce a series of cups for a cafe of some kind. While I was away at university I suffered bouts of homesickness and especially on weekends, longed for a break from the busy city. I’d never lived in a town with more than 3,000 people before. I also drank a lot of tea while I was away, but early on found out I’d left one of my favourite cups at home. It wasn’t something I expected to miss.

There’s a distinction between a cup and a mug. While cups are usually used for drinking tea, their bigger siblings – mugs, are used for coffee and hot chocolate, although the only place I’ve drank from proper cups with saucers are cafes. It feels dainty and sophisticated to drink from a cup while a mug has a more down to earth feel. I’d call my cup from home a mug.

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My mug from home

The mug has a wider base than lip and a curvy barrel shape which keeps in the heat of the drink and prevents it from spilling as you carry it. This sense of security is further embodied in what the mug represents – the security of being with people I love and a place I feel safe. The lip is thick and smoothly rounded –  it feels almost as if you’re been given a kiss when you sip from it!  It appears to have been made from a mould based on a thrown form. The glaze is a little lumpy where the colours have overlapped and there is a small amount of pin-holing where the glaze has left tiny craters.

I began without a reference. I drew what I imagined the shape to look like and attempted to repetitively throw these forms with the aid of a pattern I had cut from the side of an old debit card. I then asked my family to take a photo of the mug and send it to me. The difference between my memory of what the mug looked like and reality startled me and this opposition is something I’d like to further explore.
If you ask me if I know what my family members look like, of course I know but could I draw them accurately? Very unlikely. What I worked from was a sort of caricature of the mug I knew, the ridge at the base and curves emphasised. This made me realise how completely unreliable my mind is. Similarly to this post my mind fills in the gaps in its knowledge with what it expects to find. How can i capture this essence of how the memory works in cup form?

If a cup had a memory it would remember all the drinks it has contained, the times it’s been knocked over and liquid spilt, maybe the chips would read as the wrinkles of old age. The life of a cup or mug in a house is entwined with the lives of those who live there.

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I’m designing my mugs for an imaginary cafe – a piece of home for me in the city, someplace I can go when I miss the countryside of North Wales. What could be more appropriate than to make the mugs from clay sourced from the area where I live? So far I have been throwing these forms in LF (low firing) white earthenware clay. My plan next is to try throwing with the clay I sourced from my local area in Snowdonia. I’m also interested in coloured slip decoration and it’s potential for illustrative qualities as my mugs would need to be colourful and cheerful to fulfil their purpose. I’m going to photograph textures and patterns from around my home for inspiration.

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Beautiful, minimal slip decoration, Craft in the Bay

 

Clay in the Dolgellau area

North West Wales is not known for it’s clay. The area is dominated by slate and igneous rock and as a result Dolgellau is a town (a very grey town) built almost exclusively of granite walls and slate roofs. I could find no evidence of potteries nearby although it has a rich history of mining and other industries. Granite from quarries on the Lleyn peninsula supplied stone to pave the streets in English cities to the east such as Manchester and Liverpool.

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Dolgellau

Dolgellau nestles inside the  Snowdonia National Park so it’s no surprise that tourism is the major industry in the area. Much of the surroundings is rural countryside and sheep farming is another important industry. Interestingly, gold was discovered here in the 1850s and as a result the area was hit by a mini gold rush. Two of the most famous gold mines are Gwynfynydd near Ganllwyd and the Clogau St David’s mine in Bontddu. Clogau was originally opened as a copper and lead mine but gold veins were soon discovered and at one point the mine employed over 500 workers and the total output from the mine so far has been recorded at 4 tonnes. All rings for the royal weddings since the Queen Mother’s marriage to King George VI have been made from Clogau gold.

Earlier, during the 18th century the area had a thriving wool trade and coarse wool from sheep in the surrounding hills was exported to New Zealand via the Mawddach Estuary. Leather tanning was another big industry in the town and the large tannery business closed as late as the 1980s.

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Superficial deposits in Dolgellau

The map above was taken from the Geology of Britain Viewer on the British Geological Survey website. The faded yellow on either side of the town, along the river Wnion indicates alluvium deposits of clay, silt and sand left by flowing floodwater in a river valley (producing fertile soil). In the bottom left peat has formed which suggests the environment nearby below the slopes of Cader Idris was dominated by swamps and bogs. The town itself sits on an alluvial fan deposit of sand and gravel (in orange) which formed up to 3 million years ago.

My first effort to find clay took me to the banks of the Mawddach Estuary, down one of the tributaries. In the riverbank here I found a small amount of greyish clay but mixed in with it was lots of sand, brown soil and vegetation. The texture was crumbly and it didn’t have much plasticity, so I decided to look elsewhere.

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Mawddach River from top of Moel Faner hill fort
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River feeding in to the Mawddach at Arthog where I found clay
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Clay with lots of vegetation

After consulting Natural Resources Wales I decided to look a little further afield. I finally came across what I’d been looking for. Just over 10 miles away from Dolgellau in the direction of Trawsfynydd just off the straight line of the Roman road, lies the village of Bronaber with it’s collection of holiday chalets. Turning right here we followed a road into the hills and drove parallel to the Afon Gain until coming to a landslide at a turn in the river. It was clear from a distance that this bank was oozing with blue-grey clay. This clay turned out to be much more plastic than what I found previously. Although it had no vegetation in it, it turned out to be full of small pebbles which I sieved out later while processing it.

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Sun setting on the Afon Gain

Clay is formed when igneous rocks (such as granite and basalt) break down over millions of years. It’s made up of three main ingredients: alumina, silica and water. 

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Clay in the bank of the Afon Gain

Around a mile away from this site at Pen y Stryd there are the remains of two Roman tile kilns which would have been in use between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Nearby is a waste heap into which the broken tiles and bricks went. It’s believed these kilns once supplied tiles to the Roman fort of Tomen y Mur above Trawsfynydd.

The cross on the map below indicates where the clay by the Afon Gain was found (grid reference: SH743321). The yellow colour running along the river indicates a superficial deposit of alluvium. Alluvium is composed of silty clay which can also contain sand, peat and gravel. Further downstream the circle indicates the site where Roman tile kilns were found. These also sit upon a deposit of clay silt, sand and gravel which is indicated by the purple colour.

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Superficial geology only

The map below shows the same area from above but with only the bedrock visible. The grey green seam that the clay site sits on is Maentwrog mudstone: sedimentary rock of sandtone and siltstone. The nearby purple seams represent Igneous rock formed in silica rich magma and the blue lines are part of the Clogau formation of mudstone and sedimentary bedrock formed on the ocean floor 502-508 million years go.

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Bedrock only
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Dot on the end of the arrow shows where I found clay on the banks of the Afon Gain
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Clay straight from the bag and ready to be processed.

I make my own clay

Welcome to the new blog! If all goes to plan this online journal will document my next three years of ceramic exploration and (hopefully) discovery as I embark on the BA Ceramics course at Cardiff Met University.  Join me as I voyage into the magical world of clay and attempt to find out more about this material which has been a source of wonder to humans since prehistoric times. The adventure begins…

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This summer I was asked to source a sample of clay from the area I live in north west Wales, break it into grape sized lumps and let it dry thoroughly. Today I learnt the next step in the process – how to refine the clay.

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I pounded down the dried clay lumps into a fine powder

I began by pounding the dry clay into a fine powder with a pestle and mortar (improvising with a rolling pin and washing up bowl – it does the job). Next I added the powder to a bowl of water and mixed thoroughly until I had a kind of sloppy mixture. It’s important to do these stages with adequate ventilation since the clay dust easily becomes airborne.

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Mixing the clay and water

The next step was to pour the mixture into a fine mesh sieve and push the clay through using a paint scraper, letting the liquid clay drop into the bowl below. On a plaster bat (n. a slab on which pottery is formed, dried or fired) I arranged four coils of pre-prepared clay into a rectangle and poured the slurry inside. The coils contain the clay while it’s in this liquid state otherwise it begins to flow off onto the floor (which we found out when some of the coils weren’t pressed down hard enough).

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Sieving the clay – all the remaining grit is visible on top

As if by magic the plaster sucked up the moisture and within minutes I could scrape it off dry. Kneading came next to get it of even consistency throughout then I was left with a plastic ball of my very own dug up clay, cleaned of all the grit and pebbles that were merged in.

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My sieved clay with a suspicious film of what looks like oil on top

I’m curious as to what gives my clay its distinctive dark green colour and what caused the film of black oil that formed on top of it in a liquid state. The next step will be to see how the clay fires at different temperatures!

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My kneaded ball of refined clay in fetching khaki green