Making Clay the Traditional Way

We barely took notice of a large coarse rubble like mound lying opposite the pottery unit until it was time to make more clay. To our surprise this heap was the raw source of clay. We were clueless about earthenware clay preparation and still do not understand certain aspects.

Early one morning, Sumalet directed us to begin hacking at the mound, gathering it onto a wheelbarrow and dumping it on a cemented stretch near the pug mill. When there was enough lying on the ground, we generously watered the clay and covered it with a large plastic sheet. This was going to sit for 24 hours before continuing its process. The following day, we were instructed to take off our slippers and stand on the clay. We then began to hack the wet clay into small pieces. Once again, the clay was watered and sealed in plastic overnight. On the third day, we began with sifting “fine” sand into the clay, which was then mixed in by another round of delicate hacking into small bits. Despite sounding easy this method of hacking the clay into smaller bits is anything but. The movements to achieve this are steady and controlled. Flinging the whole tool down won’t cut the clay into small bits. After this tedious step, the traditional method of clay preparation, stomping, began. We were happy to jump in and begin stomping around. We never did a task without a little laughter. Anil was so thrilled with our silly enthusiasm he began singing songs to accompany the stomping. With the mixing done, it was time to start up the pug mill: a dreadfully noisy beast. Anil set the rollers a certain distance apart, we delivered the clay to the machine and Sumalet cut off the pugged clay for a second round of finer blending at 0.5mm. After round two of pug mill blending the clay is ready for use. It was a great exercise: we watched and learnt (by doing) and saw something seemingly unusable transform into something workable.

We largely understand the process at hand but we are still unclear as to why sand is added to the clay and in what measure. When we asked Sumalet how much sand needed to be added she responded with, “not too much, not too little”: it’s a feeling thing for her. But mostly we are confused about the addition of sand despite being told that it provides structural support to the clay. In our own experience removing sand (and organic matter) from clay is the method of preferred preparation.

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