Instagram Q & A
After a choc-a-bloc month of production it feels like we haven’t properly engaged with real people, both in the world and online, so I invited your questions on instagram - ‘what do you want to know about our studio and work?’. These are your questions and these are our answers. I hope you enjoy reading this and find some use in our answers….
I’d love to know more about your work space, how do you organise the studio area to be more efficient?
Organising our workspace is an ongoing challenge as our business grows. Up until recently we were working out of a 300 square foot space which included wheels, two kilns and all the other things you need in the pottery studio. It was just too small and at times counterproductive… quite a lot of moving pots from place to place to make a fraction of space. And it was too hot when the kilns were on.
We have just moved our wheels into a beautiful new space here at the Yorkshire Artspace - this is going to be a room for throwing and making but will also have storage for the clay and all the packaging materials away from the kilns and out of sight. We’ve designed and ordered some bespoke ware trolleys which are being made right now (from Leeds based Motley makers) - everything will be on wheels for easy movement. I can’t wait to see the new space come together. It already feels a million times more efficient.
[photo by India Hobson]
How do you find customers, were you able to scale up…did you start small?
Our business started very small and has grown organically over the period of five years. At first, we were attending pottery classes for fun, and then, because we already had a studio space, we sourced equipment on eBay and just started making. There was no business idea, it was just a love of it. We made a lot of things that never made it, the clay was just recycled, for example. Right from the start we set up an instagram account and speedily named our endeavour ‘Pottery West’, and, because we were working quite hard every day learning our craft, we were sharing our journey and we gained an audience online. Nowadays we still actively use instagram to communicate our process and engage with customers, but we also exhibit at London Design Week each year, and we have developed relationships with some key clients which has strengthened our portfolio. Things have definitely scaled up this past year, partly because this is now both of our full time jobs and we need to make a certain amount of money to live. But we are really trying to get the right balance - we’ve surprised ourselves with how much we can make when we work flat out, but for us it’s never been about making in quantity - there’s still a real focus on small batch, quality and refined pieces.
[photo by India Hobson]
I would be interested to learn about how you balance production with research?
Good question! Both elements are integral to our practice because we need to maintain a certain level of production to make our living, but we also need to research and develop our work so that we can drive our practice forward.
Practically speaking, we work in phases. For example these past six weeks have been a very intensive making phase where it’s been all about production, leaving no spare time for research and development. We block out time to sit down together and make plans for projects and schedule in time to visit places, read books or attend courses (online and physical). Last year we received an R&D grant for a research project which was great because it meant that we could dedicate a portion of time to research without compromising on production.
What do you do with pots that aren’t successful after firing?
If they are ‘seconds’ then we will either save them for an online seconds sale, take them home to use, gift to friends and family or put on a seconds shelf in the Yorkshire Artspace, at a reduced price. If things go badly wrong, which renders them non functional, we smash them to bits! I still think that smashing pots that aren’t good enough is an important process for a ceramicist and it’s something I wish I’d done more of in the past few years!
Which brand of wheels do you guys like best?
Shimpo all the way! We did have a Brent for a short period of time but then quickly swapped it for a Shimpo. We just find them easier to work with, and so silent.
I’d like to know about the process of testing and creating such incredible glazes.
Many of the glazes we are using now are ones I started working on right at the beginning - 5 or 6 years ago, all my recipes are taken from existing recipes as a starting point and I alter them to suit my needs. I usually do this by experimenting with materials in a line blend or triaxial or quadraxial blend. Also, knowing that glazes react differently to different clays opens up a lot of possibilities, as does firing temperatures and methods.
I tend to get a bit obsessed with one material and then investigate lots of different ways of exploring its possibilities. Wood ash for example - I went through a phase of using that in everything!
Up until recently I hadn’t really understood or studied glaze chemistry, but more recently I’ve been learning about the way the glaze actually works - the chemical reactions involved. It has prompted me to investigate our current glazes in a new light, and make some changes. Like many potters I have focussed on aesthetic conditions of the glaze without paying enough attending to durability and function which has been a mistake.
How many hours would you say you are both working every week in the studio?
I (Catherine) work 28 hours a week plus usually one day on a weekend; Matt works 37.5 hours a week plus usually one day on a weekend. In reality we both do more hours than this per week, especially at the weekends when we’re in as we’re usually working to meet a deadline and they can be long days.
Keep the materials to a minimum. Learn about chemistry. Make note of everything in a book or on a spreadsheet. Pay attention to the kiln temperature and the clay body. Test your glazes out on lots of different types of forms to gain an understanding of how it can look and feel. Invest in a good mask, gloves and glasses. Use a hydrometer to determine the thickness of the glaze - that is important. (These are all notes to self also!)
Do you develop new glazes by looking for a specific colour / tone or by trying materials?
Both really, but most of the time I am just super curious about a particular materials and want to investigate its possibilities. Iron for example, is a really interesting and generous raw materials which you can use to great effect particularly in a reduction atmosphere (which we are very new to). At the moment I have been thinking more about colour as we design a new catalogue and refine our collection for the next year - I’ve been thinking more practically about colours, textures and functions of a glaze and how that might work in someone’s home and in their everyday life.
What is your favourite piece to throw?
Bowls. They’re a satisfying shape to work on and relatively quick to throw.
How did you learn about making your own glazes?
Reading books, reading online articles and trying things out. At the moment I am taking an online course by Matt Katz which is really interesting and is providing me with a chemistry informed approach to making glazes.
Tips for time management in a pottery studio? How to manage R&D along with regular studio schedules.
Time management is quite tricky because with pottery there’s only so far a plan will take you. If you’re working on production, to large orders, you need to figure out things like your drying times first - it would be no good , for example, to throw 100 mugs on a Friday when you’re not going to be in again until Monday - when they might be too dry to trim and handle. We have a general rule which is to estimate how long we estimate a task to take and then to double it. That’s usually quite accurate. I also wrote this a few months back which you might find useful…..
I would love to hear more about the quantity you produce! As a single maker it is helpful to learn more about other studio’s production capacity. Your recent post about teapots was so interesting.
In May we have made, fired and shipped 700 pieces but that’s not really very useful information! Of these pieces nearly 100 were teapots which took us about two weeks’ straight, whereas things like tea bowls are quite speedy both to throw, trim and glaze and you can fit a lot in the kiln. We spent one week packaging and organising shipping.
For the next six weeks we have a throwing (and general making list) which includes 804 pieces across our entire range. We’re a bit daunted by this! Matt is a full time maker and usually at the wheel, I am in the studio four days a week and spend at least one full day at the computer and we have a freelance studio assistant, Carla Murdoch, two days per week which has helped us a lot.
I’m learning about teapots at the moment. Can you talk about your lids and specifically fit? Do you have a locking mechanism, what type of gallery works best etc.?
We don’t have a locking mechanism for our lids and we use an open gallery with a flanged lid that sits on top and outside. We do ours in batches so all the lids and holes are the correct size (as opposed to one lid per one teapot).
What have been the most helpful resources you have found in learning pottery, how has new knowledge changed the way you work. Any examples would be fantastic.
Talking to other people is one of the best resources when learning pottery. People are a wealth of information. Inviting people into your studio or visiting theirs opens up a lot of dialogue and can inform even a subtle change in your process.
Books and videos are always helpful as starting points too but not as powerful.
A recent example is when Carla (who has been helping us on production) brought in her toolkit of Tiranti wooden tools and baby kidneys when we were assembling the teapots. We used these new tools to attach the spouts and handles and it was so much better in quality and speed than our previous method.
As a new potter I am often asked why I started or what drew me to it. Initially I thought it was a love of the object but actually I think it might have been something deeper to do with the practice and the process. What drew you to the art form? And what informs your approach?
I think for us it was a mixture of both of these things - the love of the ceramic object and the process. We had been collecting functional stoneware pottery for our home for a while and I was working in a job marketing the work of makers, including ceramicists, and we both became more and more interested in the process behind the finished piece. Matt had been working as a baker, which is a strangely similar job, and the process of making in this way definitely suits him. The repetition, control, peace - these are all lovely elements of making pots, but it’s also quite hard work and certain elements can be tedious - I just think the work is so process driven you can’t not embrace it. It’s a slower pace than many other parts of everyday life - but of course that also means that you have to find ways to work faster and more efficiently. Sometimes we wish we could work faster and make more, but actually this human element is what informs our work. It’s a philosophy which has spread to other parts of our life, from the food we eat and cook to the clothes we wear, we are quite engaged with making and buying things that have been made properly and thoughtfully.
How do you develop and apply your glazes? And have you any strategies for developing throwing skills?
I usually start from an existing glaze recipe from a book or online and then try it out and make small adjustments to suit my needs. It’s rare that I’ve started from scratch - but I do often take a recipe I like and introduce new raw materials or pare it right back. I apply glazes by dipping, most times using glaze tongs.
The difficult but true answer is that to develop throwing skills you just need to find the technique you’re most comfortable with and then throw repetitively for a long time. Practice is really the thing and it takes years - there is no magic answer and (I might be wrong) but there are no genius natural throwers who can just do it. When we first started Matt would throw for three hours after work for four days a week, and two full days at the weekend - just practicing. It’s all about commitment. Even now Matt is still seeing improvements in his work from month to month. I don’t think it ever really stops.