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CERAMICS - A POTTED HISTORY

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CERAMICS - A POTTED HISTORY

As we all rightly focus on how to reduce the amount of single-use plastics in our world, more ecologically-friendly alternatives like ceramics are getting more attention.

Here at Tumbleweed, we're as interested in ceramic arts as we are in plants.  We thought it would be fun to drill in to that interest further, so we have a short history lesson for you. Are you paying attention at the back...?

Origins

Ceramics is another English word we have the Ancient Greeks to thank for (κεραμικός). Roughly defined as man-made materials essential to our everyday lives, they include a wide range of products including bricks and glass but are most often understood to mean products made from clay that are fired at high temperatures (which we call pottery) and we've been making them since 25,000 BC according to Archeologist estimates.

This part of ceramic-making has evolved but remained a constant part of human life ever since. 

Earthenware and Terracotta

The earliest pottery made was earthenware. Earthenware (sometimes also referred to as "Terracotta" - literally meaning baked earth in Italian) is characterised by being non-vitreous, ie it absorbs a certain amount of water because the relatively lower heat at which the clay is fired does not allow it to 'fuse' into a state that is impenentrable to water. For that reason, earthenware pots are considered good for planting in because small amounts of water can pass through the pot, serving to enhance evaporation and soil drainage.

earthenware

Stoneware

Around 2000 BC, a new form of pottery - stoneware - was developed in the area that is modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, by firing a particular type of clay at higher temperatures, which resulted in a harder, more vitreous material. Stoneware was also developed in China and became widespread there from the start of the first millennium AD. It was about 1000 years later when it came to Europe and was in widespread production and use there from the 1600s.

Stoneware

Porcelain

The third main category of pottery, porcelain, was developed in China in the period 0-800 AD by firing a particular type of clay, Kaolin, at very high temperatures which results in a harder, completely impermeable white material that is easy to sculpt and paint. It therefore became the preferred type of pottery for decorative pots, vases and plates and became one of China's most important exports.

First in other parts of Asia and northern Africa and then in Europe, painted porcelain became a highly sought after product and reached its high point during the 17th and 18th centuries, when many European porcelain companies were created to import or make their own "China", the word that was generically used to describe China's impressive porcelain products.

porcelain

Pottery as a handicraft

Over time almost all of the inhabited regions of the world developed their own ceramic pottery-making traditions and styles and pottery-making became not just a means of producing everyday utility vessels but also a means of expressing creativity and an art-form.

Earthenware products, such as your standard terracotta plant pot, stoneware, like the venerated Japanese raku-ware tableware and fine porcelain products are all still made all over the world in an astonishing array of styles reflecting the environment and traditions of the people who make them and giving pleasure to people like us, who love to discover them.

Inspiring ceramicists

We hope this first endeavour into a more detailed blog piece inspires some of you who may be budding potters, ceramic collectors or plant-lovers with style to replace the plastic in your life with some pottery.  If you have comments to share, we welcome them, please drop us an email.