I do know I go on about pots a lot, but I don’t know if I’ve ever told you about some of the stuff that to me, makes Bridgewater so interesting, and so special.
Let me take you through a virtual tour of the factory. I might leave bits out, so any people who are more technical than me are welcome to fill in the gaps in the comments box at the bottom.
I cannot keep my pottery eye on the ball all the time, due to wandering off into corners going: ‘Oooh! Shiny fings!’ a lot.
I’ll start (ahem, shoulders back, chest out etc) by saying that the Bridgewater factory is the only remaining working pottery factory left in Stoke on Trent. Every other pottery manufacturer that made Stoke on Trent so famous, and one of the leading ceramics manufacturers in the world, now outsources their production overseas because it is cheaper.
It is cheaper, but Bridgewater still believes in keeping British industry alive, and staying in the UK where they can. This is why every item you buy is a little more costly, because their costs are a little higher.
The current factory is situated in an old Victorian pottery factory, and apart from a few new touches, the manufacturing process is almost identical to the way it would have been done a hundred years ago.
First there is the process of slip casting.
Clay is mixed with water to create a thick liquid that can be poured. It is poured by people (as oppose to machines) into moulds to create each individual pottery piece. When the slip is dry, the slip casters take each mould and smooth off the excess slip, and take the plaster of Paris moulds away.
When Bridgewater moulds a mug they mould it with the handle in situ. This makes it stronger and less liable to come off in your hand. It also leaves two dimples inside the mug where the handle comes out from the main body of the mug. The top dimple is always filled by hand by before the item is moved on to the next part of the process. They don’t fill the bottom dimple because their hands are too big to fit inside the mug without distorting it.
Each piece is then put on racks to dry.
These pieces look quite solid, but at this stage you can pretty much squidge em up with a bit of gentle pressure.
Here is Nicki, having a small squidge of a mug.
Bridgewater produces a million individual pieces of pottery each year. I think our tour guide said this equalled 15 to 20,000 pieces a week. Sixty percent of what they sell are mugs.
They buy a shit load of clay. That is the technical term for it. A shit load.
Plates and pasta bowls get slightly different treatment. There used to be a lovely man called Bill, who is now retired, and who has been succeeded by an equally nice man whose name I didn’t catch yesterday. He takes hunks of clay and spins them flat on a giant whirly machine. He then takes them, looking a lot like pizzas, and throws them onto a mould, where he squashes them with a big plate shaped Corby Trouser Press, and voila.
So,after that, let us follow our pieces to the next part of the process.
I have no idea what a Mangle Conveyor is but it looked both dangerous and fun which meant that Nicki and I decided a picture must be taken of it, and that we quite wanted to press all the buttons just to see what might happen.
We also desperately wanted to meet Mrs. Muff.
Sadly she was off yesterday.
Where the mould has been joined, the pieces have lines on them. This does not mean that the line goes all the way through, it is a surface thing, but it does show through after firing if it is left in situ. I know this because I have a piece where you can see the line. I don’t mind, but I have some purist friends who I know wouldn’t give it house room.
This is when we move on to the fettling and dibbling people. Fettling is the art of getting the line off. Dibbling is something else to do with making it look pretty and gorgeous and ready to fire. It involves infinite patience, a bloody big washing up bowl and lots of stroking.
If you’ve read the last post, you will have seen this lady before, but I only have limited photos, so please bear with me.
The pots are then moved on huge trolleys into the kiln for the biscuit glaze, which turns them from grey to white, so the design can be added.
The next bit is my favourite.
It’s what I call the colouring in bit. There are two main ways of colouring in a piece of Bridgewater pottery. There is sponging and litho printing.
Sponging is what it says on the tin. They take pieces of sponge and cut out the designs into the surface of the sponge using a hot pen. This is, again, done by hand by a lady with a lot more nerve than me.
There are thousands of sponges.
The sponges are allocated to the decorators depending on what design they will be sponging onto the piece.
The decorators sit next to what is essentially a giant lazy Susan with a circle of the items they are decorating on it. They turn it as they decorate each piece, sponge by sponge, colour by colour until the product is finished. Some pieces are very simple, like the polka dot pieces, which are just multi coloured dots.
Some pieces are incredibly intricate and have to be built up, line by painstaking line.
They turn into things like this before going off to be glazed and fired.
The litho prints are like transfers. Again, they are applied by hand in another fiddly process which involves not bogging it up so you get wrinkles, tears and bubbles in it.
This is a new design which will be exclusive to Fortnum and Mason’s this Christmas. It is available in two colour ways and in about half a dozen pieces. This is the top of the comport. It looks odd because the transfer is backed onto a yellow film, which burns off in the kiln, so the colours are not true.
There is a third way of doing things. There are pieces like lustreware here:
and a pattern called splatter, which require different techniques, but litho and spongeware are the two mainstays of the design process.
Oh, and if you order a personalised piece, which you can, each sponged piece is then sent to someone with an even steadier hand who paints, in beautiful calligraphic writing, whatever you want on your pot.
You can see now, why they are a little more expensive than the average mug.
After this the pieces dry, and then go to be glazed.
The glaze is mixed with a blue dye which burns off in the kiln, but which allows the glaze dipping people to see immediately if there are any bits they have missed. They average 120 pieces an hour.
The pieces are then sent to the kiln. Five years ago there were two kilns. Now, I believe there are seven. They are firing twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. There are gas kilns and electricity kilns. The gas ones are mainly for the sponge ware pieces. The electricity kilns take the litho print pieces because they burn off the transfer backing more cleanly.
They are huge things, about the size of a large articulated lorry. They burn through bills of £380,000 per annum in gas and electric charges.
The process of firing is fraught with difficulty, and each kiln has to be tended like a fractious baby. Along the length of one kiln the temperature difference can be as much as 100 degrees, and it is vital to get everything dead right.
To ensure they know how hot the individual kilns are running they put small ceramic rings into the kiln all the way along its length. These are identical when they go in, and then they measure them in this sophisticated device when they come out.
The rate of shrinkage shows the temperature of the kiln at each place the ring has been put in.
If the kiln is opened too early or too quickly or too late, everything is ruined and it all starts again.
All the clay is recycled so there is no clay wastage, but all the other costs are phenomenal.
The factory is full of people working all the time because of the lack of automation. I have been on numerous occasions and no matter how busy they are, the people working there are friendly and informative, always happy to talk to you about what they’re doing, or let you take their picture, or point you to something lovely you might not have seen.
It is always a pleasure to go, and I always leave feeling that when I buy a piece of Bridgewater it has been money well spent.