Working with the very fabric of the place

Documenting what is outside my workspace at Hawthbush Farm

This is yet again something I have never done before. As part of my ceramic practice I have always used calico to roll clay on and lean on. As part of my general artistic practice via studying for a diploma at West Dean College calico also gained a place for writing, sewing and working on. I have make patchwork using the English pieced-paper technique since I was little and generally am quite handy with a needle. So I knew somehow I wanted to explore sewing and fabric whilst at Hawthbush and have been using a big sheet of calico as a tablecloth which has been written on and has picked up evidence of my work as I have gone on, but I wanted to go a step further.

Embracing the foraging mentality and trying to use just what is outside my hut I collected stuff that I could use as a dye and via a number of useful Instagram and websites have picked up the rudiments of dyeing fabric. I am delighted with the results and although each have faded a lot since I dyed them simply through washing I am pretty happy that I’ve got a lovely pallet of fabric to work with. The mordants I used to ‘fix’ the colours played a big role: alum and oak galls and they have created their own family of colours which I have tried really hard to document carefully (a skill I am not great at). I am looking forward to getting stuck into some patchwork which is excellent to work on throughout the winter months.

Another firing.

We spent another few days at Hawthbush during the children’s half term break. I’ve been coming regularly since the summer but have only done one firing since it’s rather tricky doing it on your own and not exactly advisable. This time it was so very wet my beautiful pits were full up with water so I decided to use the metal bin and blimey I’m pleased we did. It was easier, more controllable and safer.

I had made a whole batch of pieces I wanted to pit fire. These were a combination of some by-mistake-mixed-up terracotta and black clay that I had worked into pinch pots. Before I do a smoke firing on the actual Hawthbush Clay I wanted to see what the smoke does to other terracotta rather than wasting my precious hand dug pieces. I also made last week some sculptural pinch pot pieces with a clay body that I had stained blue. I want to see what would happen with the smoke effect. All of these were fired once at home and then layered up with copious amounts of animal bedding material. So not sawdust exactly. The fire went off really easily and lasted a magnificent 24 hours safe and sound.

And I am delighted with the results. Much to repeat and think about

Smoke firing at the farm

I have been making lots of pinch pots out of white clay to pit fire. I haven’t done it before and so was really looking forward to seeing how it worked and combine it with a few days holiday at the hut with the children who were interested too in seeing how this process planned out. I needed an extra few pairs of hands to be honest as well! We were all absolutely delighted with the results. It was important to me to include within the firing some of the plants from the area around my hut and so I chose dock and thistles since they are so prevalent and also so beautiful and to me emblematic of my recent time here.

A time-lapse of putting together the pit firing and getting it going. At the end of the film I put on some metal lids and left it for 24 hours.

In terms of the results there were some surprises and some disappointments. I was surprised at how many of the pieces were completely black and I came to the conclusion that this was because I packed the kiln so well there wasn’t much flow of air. But really it was my first go and it’s all experimentation. I also discovered that the process was very unforgiving. You can see every blemish in the original clay pieces. And I need to burnish to create a sheen. However there were some stand out pieces with very clear evidence of print of the dried dock shown on a plate that I need to see if I can repeat.

The next day we did another firing and this time we had less sawdust and more wood shavings which despite being very worried about it ended up with more dramatic results, more sharp black and white contrasts and also evidence of the remnants of the dock seeds again. I am beginning to work out how to do this!

The clay I used was a low fire earthenware white clay which to be honest I don’t enjoy using but I wanted a very white white that would ‘take’ the smoke well and also provide a good contrast with the Hawthbush terracotta I have found. And then I am also using the rather brilliant Ashraf Hanna Raku Clay, but I didn’t work it to a smooth finish which I regret. Learning learning learning! Next step is to do it all again!

First proper firing

The Hawthbush Clay is not easy to work it has to be said. I discovered that up the road in Lower Dicker there used to be a well known pottery and there is a type of pottery called Dickerware. Who knew. But I can’t yet find out whether the clay they used was local or not. More to find out and research. Meanwhile I have been playing with what I have found so far. As a slip it looks great, one firing fantastic and then far more boring when it’s been glazed… but I hate glaze so no surprise there….all experimentation and I am enjoying the process