An Intersection of Craft Knowledge: On Textiles in Pottery

3 November 2021
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I was drying my hands in the pottery studio after throwing mugs when I realized that the towel in my hands wasn’t suited to the task I gave it. A household tea towel—normally up to the task of drying hands in a kitchen—was damp and ineffective on my clay-covered hands, which were wet and dry and wet again every time I changed tasks. This observation led me to consider other places where textiles, cloth and fibre technology are used in a potter’s practice. A potter arrives in their studio wearing “studio clothes,” typically a ratty cotton t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Both of these garments are absorbent, durable, ready for the wear and tear of hard work. Ideally, a potter would wear an apron, too. We can follow a day in the life of this apron to understand the requirements a potter has for day-to-day textile tools.
This apron needs to endure. It would not be a tiny kitchen apron, made of thin, light cotton to catch sauce splatters and hand prints of flour. It must be more than a kitchen apron or tea towel, and it must be suited to the hazards of the clay studio. A potter’s apron must stand up to water, wet hands, splatters of clay, rough table edges, abrasion, sharp objects, high heat, and more. It must be able to be washed and dried for the next day of work, ideally without the assistance of machines(1). It must be easy to don and doff, or a potter will never use it. The apron must have a shape that covers the full length of the torso, down the legs to the ankles. Unlike a kitchen apron with a single panel, a potter’s apron has two panels that have a slight overlap when standing, functioning the same as a kitchen apron, but when seated at a pottery wheel, the separate panels protect both legs from splatters of clay. The straps must not place excess weight on the neck or shoulders. Those at the hip must be long enough to easily tie around the body, and carry the weight of the lower panels. An effective potter’s apron will accomplish this and more. The fabric must be a thick, durably woven cotton, perhaps a twill, ready to absorb water and accept the wiping of clay off of hands. Cotton—the same material potters wear in their shirts and jeans—is capable of enduring tears, absorbing water from clay and wet hands, and stands up to repeated washing. When woven into a thick twill cotton creates a resilient fabric.
image description: a rough hand-drawn sketch of a potter's apron

Magan’s ideal pottery apron

During the workday, an apron assists a potter as more than a catch-all layer. Multiple pockets adorn a potter’s apron, containing many clay-covered treasures, ready to hold tools with blunt and sharp edges. The front panels serve to catch splatters and clean tools. They are also used like pot holders to protect hands from sharp edges when carrying heavy buckets, and to insulate against high temperatures when a potter eagerly removes the first pot from their kiln. Potters who work with atmospheric firings, heating their pots in wood or raku kilns, may also want a second apron made of wool. A wool apron is more fire retardant than cotton, and provides an extra layer of warmth during the long nights of a wood firing.

There are more textile items in a potter’s life than a set of clothes and apron. Aside from the expected cleaning tools, there are chamois (or shammies)—made of a fine combination of loose hairs and absorbent cloth used to clean joins on pots. An auxiliary tool, Batt Mates are an absorbent cloth placed between the batt and the throwing-wheel head. The cloth expands when moistened to prevent batts from wobbling during throwing. Kiln gloves are essentially giant oven mitts made to withstand temperatures over 538 °C (1000 °F). The most important and unacknowledged collaboration between textile and ceramic technology would be Kaowool, a fibre spun from molten kaolin clay. This thick cloth is used to line furnaces and kilns. Kaowool works with insulation brick (called softbrick or F26 firebrick) to enable potters to fire their work safely and efficiently.

image description: a rough hand-drawn sketch of a pair of kiln gloves

Kiln gloves, oversized for safety

Batt mate

Batt mates



image description: a rough hand-drawn sketch of the fabric of a shammie cloth

The structure of chamois fabric

I continue to wear my pottery apron while working in my dye kitchen, because the virtues that my pottery apron possesses are useful to me in the dye kitchen. Every industry is multi-disciplinary, relying on others to help their own technology improve. How would a different weave, material, or weight change the applications of your tools? Is what you are familiar with the best design for your purpose? Do other crafts involve tools that would improve your practice? Consider how textiles have impacted or improved your craft, your studio, and your kitchen.

Potters are notoriously messy, so an apron will swiftly become covered in clay. Clay clogs the pipes of your washing machine and is expensive to repair. Most potters soak their clay covered clothes in a bucket, using agitation to loosen the clay before washing, or simply hanging the garment to dry.

All illustrations by Magan Wilson.
Featured image by rose mantara from Pixabay.

Copyright © Magan Wilson except as indicated.

About Magan Wilson

Magan Wilson is a potter turned fibre artist with a love of plants, experimentation, cats, and the hidden beauty of the natural world. Her love of glaze chemistry and form transformed into a love of dyes, fibre, felt, and knitwear. Her work catches the wholeness of existing in the present. The wild nature of the world that flourishes on the fringes of awareness. Chasing the idea of a 'wild night' you can find her work via her alias of Oíche Rua (EE-ha RU-ah), an Irish phrase capturing the chaos and wild beauty of the night sky.

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