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Simple Methods of Making Pottery

( Originally Published 1937 )

ONE of the oldest methods of making pottery is with rolls or coils. Roll out between the palms of your hands, a ball of clay about 1/8 the diameter of the bottom of your pot. Lay it on a block of wood or a plaster bat, and gently pat it with the outside edge of the palm of your hand until it spreads into a circle just the thickness and diameter required for the base of your pot. If it grows out too wide, trim with a knife. Practice judging the size of the ball needed for a certain diameter and thickness.

Now gently lift the edges and bend them upward for about 1/2 an inch all around, as a cook might turn up the edges of a pie crust. Roll out a strip of clay about the thickness of your thumb and less than three times as long as the diameter of your pot.-This roll should be even in thickness from one end to the other. With light blows of the fingers, slightly flatten it so that it has an elliptical instead of a circular cross section.

Apply one end of this to the inside of the turned-up rim of the base (a), and with the thumb of your right hand inside, and the index and middle fingers outside, proceed to squeeze it onto the rim of the base, going all around until, returning to the beginning, you trim off the end of the roll and finish it as a complete circle. Then take another flattened roll, apply it to the inside of the previous one and repeat, joining the ends at a different point. You should form the habit of pressing down on the in-side of the pot and up on the outside, as you squeeze the rolls together. This spreads the clay from one roll onto that of the adjacent one and broadens the joint between them. You can make a decorative texture, possible to no other type of pottery, by spacing the pinches in an interesting way and not smoothing them off. But if you wish a smooth pot, blend the coils together and fill in any hollows.

When three or four coils have been added, set the pot aside until it has stiffened enough to add more coils. As you proceed you must keep in mind the shape of the finished pot and stretch the rings outward or draw them inward to follow the contour you desire. When the clay is "leather hard," i.e., fairly stiff or about as hard as a milk chocolate bar on a mild spring day, scrape it smooth and thinner. The Indian women use segments of the shells of gourds and calabashes, and pieces of bone or clam shell, ground to different curves to fit the various surfaces of the pots. They are prized greatly, being treasured from year to year. A first-rate tool for scraping the inside of pots can be made from the bowl of a spoon.

You can burnish the clay to a high polish by rubbing with a smooth stone, the back of an old spoon, a tooth-brush handle or a palette knife, especially if you first apply to it a coat of a finer slip.

There is another method in geeral use among the Indians of Mexico, for making their everyday cooking utensils, water jars, flower vases and the like. Let me first note a curious fact, that whereas among the Indians of New Mexico, the women make the pots and the men decorate them, among many tribes further south the men make the pots and the women act as their assistants, beating out the clay and also decorating.

Outside the adobe hut the ground is packed into a hard flat surface. On this the Indian woman beats out the dry clay with a wooden crusher, and here your potter has for a table, a large flat stone covered with sifted ashes. He places in the middle of it a large ball of soft clay, makes the sign of the cross and invoking the aid of the most blessed Virgin of Guadalupe, proceeds to tap it rhythmically with a flat rounded stone dipped frequently in ashes to prevent its sticking to the clay. When the clay is spread to a circular shape, about an inch thick, and fifteen inches across, he picks it up and centers it over the bottom of an inverted "biscuit" (unglazed) pot. Just before this he dashes a little water over the biscuit pot and dusts its damp surface with ashes.

Now observe closely: He pats with the stone dipped in ashes, round and round in even concentric circles, spreading the clay from the middle until it reaches down to the widest part of the pot. Next he takes a piece of clay dipped in ashes and repeats—starting in the very center and tapping in even circles around the pot until he again reaches the widest point. This rounds off the sharp edges left by the tapping of the stone. He dips his hands in water and rubs them over the clay, and finally with a smooth strip of wet linen or chamois he polishes the surface, and finishes by removing the strip from the clay with a dextrous flip, similar to the movement of a boot-black shining shoes. Leaving this to stiffen he applies himself to other tasks. Presently he returns to it, trims it neatly with a knife, and cunningly inverts it with its biscuit pattern inside it, into a shallow basin filled with wood ashes. He can now lift the pattern out of the clay and finish his pot either by drawing in the top by hand or by attaching with slip another section made in the same manner. Handles or legs are applied while the clay is still quite wet. Should you wish to attempt this method and lack a round-bottomed biscuit pot for a pattern, you may easily find such things as grapefruit, pumpkins and the like, which being covered with a stretched piece of knitted fabric (i.e., old stockings or knitted underwear) will serve the purpose. When removing one of these from your clay, first untie the fabric from it and lift the pattern from the fabric, which in turn will now easily peel out of the clay.

This method is useful to suggest to a group of pupils, asking them to find their own patterns and combine different shapes to make original designs.

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