Do you ever think about how things are made?
There are so many things that we use every single day, we probably don’t even give them any thought, they’re just there waiting to be used, yet again. But how are they made? Where do they come from? What’s their journey from being raw material to being a staple of our everyday life?
When thinking of environmental sustainability, I think that knowing about how things are made puts things in a better perspective and allows us to realise just how much work, energy and effort there is in making something we take for granted.
I care a lot about the things I have. It’s not because I love owning them, but rather because I have gradually acquired more knowledge and insight into how things are produced, the process they go through and how it affects the environment; from the sourcing of materials to the processing stage to packaging, transportation, sale and use.
Caring for something is part of respecting all this work, I appreciate they’re there.
Just because something is imperfect, used, stained or has a fault doesn’t really matter to me, as long as something can be used or has the potential to be upcycled I feel like it’s precious in some way, it has a purpose and can be useful for someone. If not, it can be recycled or disposed of in the most eco-friendly way possible.
I don’t even like using the verb to “throw” or “chuck” as it gives me a sense of inexorable end and waste.
My friend Mimi is a ceramist and artist.
She has had exhibitions within the U.K. and internationally and after visiting studios in Copenhagen where makers offered sustainable, locally made and affordable work, she was inspired to do something similar herself.
She started learning how to work and create with clay in her late teens in Korea and then trained more in Canada.
Many people asked her to make something for them and at the end of last year she moved and set up her ceramics studio.
After being commissioned to write about British Craft for the Korea Craft and Design Foundation she was able to fund her studio equipment: a kiln, a potter’s wheel and some clay.
“I wanted to produce a small line of simple but well made hand thrown everyday porcelain objects that are available directly to public rather than using conventional retail areas (gallery, craft shops, internet) where their margin could be up to 60%.”
I went to her studio with my friend R and Mimi talked to us about the whole process of making one of her cups.
Let me take you on a cup-making journey.
After the clay is delivered to Mimi’s studio in 15-20kg bags, Mimi starts by taking the amount of clay she needs and wedging it for 20 minutes.
It’s as if she were kneading bread dough: this technique helps mixing the clay, getting rid of air bubbles and “warming up” the clay, which is made of different materials and minerals, and making it elastic and ready to be worked after being so still and stiff in bags for so long.
For big portions of clay this wedging movement needs to be repeated about 100 times, for smaller lumps about 50-60 times.
Once the clay is ready, Mimi puts it at the centre of her potter’s wheel and she throws the clay on it, making it into a workable shape.
If she has a special commission request to make various cups of the same size she weighs the clay, otherwise her experience and knowledge allow her to know how much she needs.
The potter’s wheel starts turning clockwise and Mimi shapes the clay into a beautiful cup: she makes it look delightfully effortless but this ease comes with years of experience. The whirring is like a comforting sound: something lovely is in the making.
After making the cup, she cuts it off the wheel and lets it dry for the afternoon or overnight until it is leather-hard or cheese-hard, that is until the clay is pretty hard but still scratchable and at a stage where it can be etched or stamped: it’s soft but its shape doesn’t change.
During the drying process Mimi turns the cups upside down to ensure the drying is even.
The total waiting time for the cup to dry depends on the shape, size… for a cup it’s usually a total of 8-10 hours, also depending on how hard or wet it is.
It is a delicate time, she has to be careful about the environment the cups are in, for example the heating being on alters the drying process and time.
When the cup is dry enough to make the bottom, it’s time to put it back on the potter’s wheel. Using a mother clay body to centre and balance the cups makes it easier to make or clean the bottom of the cup.
Using the potter’s wheel, this time turning anti-clockwise, it takes around 10-15 minutes to make the bottom / cup heel for each cup.
At this point Mimi makes the handle for the cup. It’s also the ideal time to stamp the cup or etch it with a needle to personalise it with an image or writing.
Mimi then puts the handle on the cup after the decoration or stamp is made and leaves the whole cup to dry 2-3 days.
After that, she fires the cup in the kiln for what is called biscuit firing because after this the cup is brittle. This takes around 8 hours at a temperature of 800°C.
She then takes it out of the kiln and prepares it for the glaze, does the glazing and cleans the bottom of the cup, puts it back into the kiln and fires it for around 8-9 hours at a temperature that reaches 1,260°C.
The temperature is so high that it takes a long time for the kiln to slowly cool down.
Mimi says the glazing is an exciting stage.
She can open the kiln once it reaches 200°C, the same as an oven when baking, but sometimes – if she’s really excited – she’ll open it at 300°C to have a peep.
In the pot you can see Mimi’s business cards, made by her using pieces of paper her friend was no longer using for an art installation. Creative upcycling at its best :)
Learning about the whole making process made me feel even more in awe of Mimi’s skills. It’s easy to appreciate something when you know how much goes into it.
In our society it appears that people’s attitude is of hyper-consumerism, the need to keep up with trends goes along with an utter nonchalance for everyday objects’ disposal: things can be replaced, they’re just things after all, right? Never mind about bashing cups around, they were free with a cheap Easter egg… :| there is so much carelessness that becomes needless waste.
Well, I invested in a cup, named after me as I fell in love with its shape! :D
It’s the most precious piece of crockery I own (and I am a sucker for crockery :O ) and will make drinking tea even more exciting!
Mimi said that if the cup gets stained with coffee or tea I can take it back to get it re-fired and blast off the stains. Where would you get this sort of care?
If we knew more about how things are made maybe we would take a little more care in looking after them and we would therefore need to replace them less often, produce less, use lower quantities of materials, less energy and pollute less.
Sometimes, resources permitting, it’s worth spending a bit more for something that is going to last longer when given the appropriate care.
Mimi’s studio is having an open day this weekend if you fancy having a look and getting yourself or someone a present… her lovely bowls and plates are available as well as her beautiful simple cups.
Mi Studio is located in Camberwell, just off Coldharbour Lane at Unit 15E, 26-34 Southwell Road, London, SE5 9PG. 11am-6pm.
Were you aware of all the steps needed to make a cup?
How much do you know about what you use on a daily basis? How does knowing about its production make you feel about it?