Stylish personalised decorations, practical bespoke kitchenware and gifts with a personal touch are just a few of the possibilities arising from pottering around with the art and hobby of pottery.
Pottery, which describes objects made from wet clay that are then baked to harden it into its design, found its roots many thousands of years ago in the Far East. Dating back to around 37 000 years BC, artefacts have been discovered made from clay in the shape of animals and human figurines. In the early days, pieces were hand-built and fired in bonfires at peak temperatures of around 900 degrees Celsius. This led to the need for some kind of technology that would help improve efficiency and skill. The Chinese developed kilns in which they fired their pottery and, even today, Eastern porcelain is one of the most popular forms of pottery. The skill has been passed on, and has evolved through countless generations to the highly skilled and fashionable art form it is today, using turning wheels to form the design and kilns that fire the objects at highly accurate temperatures for the perfect finish.
There are three types of pottery, earthenware, stoneware and porcelain, each distinguished by its clay mixture and the temperature at which it is baked or fired. Earthenware is an ordinary clay mixture that is fired at low temperatures, allowing the use of colourful glazes. However, as a result of the low temperatures, the pottery cracks and chips more easily than other types. Stoneware is made with a heavy clay mixture and is fired at far higher temperatures, yielding a much stronger type of pottery. Porcelain is well known as the most fragile type of pottery. It is made from a fine, white clay called kaolin, mixed with specific amounts of feldspar and flint, and then fired at a low temperature.
Worldwide, the making of pottery incorporates two main techniques. Firstly, there is hand-built pottery, which includes using coils of clay, internal or external moulds, or slabs — for more geometric shapes. The second technique is wheel throwing, which uses the turning wheel on which the wet clay is centred and then spun to form symmetrical, circular shapes such as vases and bowls.
Traditional African potters commonly use hand-building techniques and prefer to fire their pots at lower temperatures, as this gives them two advantages that are necessary for practical, usable pots for the African market — porosity, which helps with the cooling of the contents of the pots after cooking, and the ability to withstand, without shattering, the rapid heating and cooling synonymous with cooking on an open fire.
Pottery as a hobby opens up many avenues of creativity. You can design elaborately decorated pots and bowls to brighten up your home with a personal touch, create moulded animals, birds and figurines for decoration or personalised gifts, build that perfect size cooking pot that you have been hankering after and even make your own jewellery. It is a great way to unwind after a hectic week at work, and moulding the clay can be extremely therapeutic. The sense of satisfaction when seeing your finished product on display makes for a gratifying end to a fulfilling process.
Pottery is a relaxing, fun, creative and satisfying hobby and anyone, even those who believe they lack any artistic skill whatsoever, can have a go at it. Many potters who now earn their living from the art started off as hobbyists, so, if you have the passion and the skill, who knows where a pottery hobby may lead? It is also a great team-building event. Many pottery studios offer corporate days where business people can spend the day being creative while working on their corporate development. Or you could go as a family. There are children’s pottery classes offered at a good number of studios, and it is a great way for the family to spend time together and develop a common interest.
To get involved in pottery as a hobby, look for a studio near you and ask about the classes they offer. All studios offer beginner classes and will teach the hand-building technique, the wheel-throwing technique or both. Decide which technique you think you would like and get involved. Once you have developed a bit of skill, you can set up your own workbench at home, use the oven as your kiln and turn on your creativity any time it suits you.