Huge excitement this morning as I headed off to my local post office to collect the pottery I’d decorated at the Emma Bridgewater factory in Stoke on Trent. Rewind a little and you may remember me posting that I’d spent a fantastically inspiring day at the Emma Bridgewater factory for the launch of their new Diamond Jubilee collection. The day included a factory tour, lunch with Emma and her husband Matthew, and the chance to decorate my very own piece of Staffordshire pottery. Here’s how the day began…
First up was a visit to the shop to see the new Jubilee collection displayed in all its glory. Quintessentially British, the range is joyful and celebratory, and judging by the members of the Emma Bridgewater Collectors Club who were eagerly snapping it up, it’s sure to be a best-seller this Summer.
Having seen the finished article, next it was time to see how the products are made… I’d always known that Emma Bridgewater pottery was handmade using traditional techniques, but until I visited the factory I didn’t realise just how handcrafted each piece is. From the casting to the decoration, personalisation and finishing, each piece is the work of a finely coordinated team of talented and experienced craftspeople. In fact, Emma Bridgewater is one of Stoke’s biggest employers with 100 staff producing over 25,000 pieces of pottery every week.
Our tour began in the warm moist Casting Studio where the sweet smell of wet clay filled the air. We were shown how the dark grey Cornish-mined clay is mixed with water to produce a thick ‘slip’ which is then poured into a plaster mould. After 40 minutes the mould is broken open and the distinctive shape of an Emma Bridgewater mug is tipped out, before having its edges and seams smoothed down. At this point the clay is very brittle and will break if squeezed. It is then fired in a kiln at 1,000 degrees for 16 hours which produces the white ‘biscuitware’ ready to be decorated.
Then it was into the Decorating Studio to see the pottery transformed using their signature sponging technique. I was amazed to discover that even the sponges are painstakingly cut by hand using a soldering iron to trace the pattern. Another surprise was that the all of the hand-painted personalisation is done by a team of just six people, who work hard to ensure that the distinctive style of lettering is consistent across every piece. What was also clearly apparent when chatting to the staff is how much they enjoy and take pride in their work, which was lovely to see.
The more intricate designs such as the new Jubilee range are decorated using a lithographing process, where a transfer is applied to the biscuitware on backing paper which burns away during the second firing, leaving the print behind. After decorating, the pottery is dipped into a duck egg blue glaze which turns transparent during the final firing, then the products are ready to be packed and shipped off to their many fans around the globe.
After the tour, we headed to the Pottery Studio to have a go at decorating some pottery ourselves. This is when it really hit home just how tricky it is, especially when doing lettering which requires a very steady hand and a great deal of experience. Suffice to say, I don’t think I’ll be invited to work in the personalisation team any time soon, but it was great to have a go at trying out the sponging process and to get a feel for applying the glazes to the pottery.
Time flew by and soon it was time for lunch – a delicious cottage pie and roasted vegetables served in the cheerful Kitchen Cafe, next to the polka dot Emma Bridgewater Aga. Both Emma and her husband Matthew Rice took time to come and eat with us and have a chat, which was a real treat. After lunch we had a quick peek at the design studio where all the product development is done, and the kitchen garden (complete with chicken coop), before heading to the gift shop to snap up a few souvenirs from the new Jubilee range. All in all a fantastic and truly inspiring day, topped off by the arrival of my own pottery ‘masterpieces’ now in pride of place in my kitchen…
The Emma Bridgewater Factory Tour is open to the public all year round, and I would urge anyone with an interest in craft or manufacturing to visit. With the delightful cafe, pottery studio, gift shop (and seconds shop jam-packed full of bargains!) it’s a great day out for all the family. Find out more at www.emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk.