Creating pottery out of clay is one of the oldest crafts in human history. In fact, researchers have found that ancient pottery could date back to 18,300 BC!
Pottery continues to thrive today, with skilled ceramicists from around the world continuing to fire natural clay from the earth to create striking art and durable vessels for storage, dining, and drinking.
There’s a lot to learn about ceramics. In this guide, we break down the basics for those just entering the expansive world of pottery.
We interviewed Katie Mudd, the expert ceramicist behind Katie Mudd Ceramics, to discuss the differences between stoneware, porcelain, and earthenware, as well as how we can ensure a piece of pottery is high-quality — and why that matters. Plus, in this guide, we’ll introduce you to a few small-batch ceramicists who are still honoring age-old craftsmanship and producing made-to-order (or slowly made) pottery, designed to last a lifetime.
(For more on ceramic techniques and glazes, read Part II in our Beginner’s Guide to Ceramics series.)
Stoneware vs. Porcelain vs. Earthenware
Ceramics can fall into one of three categories: stoneware, porcelain, or earthenware. Here’s what to know about each type of clay:
What Is Stoneware?
Stoneware is an extremely durable, dense clay body that has a rock-like — or stone-like — texture when fired. Portland, Oregon ceramist Katie Mudd explained that, because stoneware is less porous than earthenware, stoneware makes for an ideal material to create tableware and other vessels for eating and drinking.
The gray-colored clay that stoneware is made from is typically fired in a kiln between 2,000 and 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Once fired, stoneware is waterproof and does not need to be glazed in order to be waterproofed. Most stoneware is both microwave– and dishwasher-safe.
Small-Batch Brands Using Stoneware:
Designer and ceramicist Katie Mudd thoughtfully handcrafts all of her exceptional dining ware and planters in her Portland, Oregon studio from materials sourced from the Pacific Northwest. Katie Mudd uses durable stoneware for most of her work and occasionally creates porcelain pieces as well. Microwave and dishwasher safe.
Values: POC-Owned, Sustainable, Made in USA, Vegan, Woman-Owned
Another Portland-based ceramics brand, In Practice, produces their unique hand-thrown tumblers, bowls, and pots responsibly and with locally sourced materials. In Practice’s makers slowly craft each stoneware piece mindfully in the brand’s Portland studio, and all of In Practice’s employees earn living wages. Microwave and dishwasher safe.
Values: Sustainable, Made in USA, Vegan
Victoria Buchler Ceramics’ stoneware planters are made ethically, by hand by makers earning fair, living wages in Portland, Oregon. The brand’s one-of-a-kind modern planters are wheel-thrown in small batches from materials sourced in the USA.
Values: Sustainable, Made in USA, Vegan, Woman-Owned
What Is Porcelain?
Like stoneware, porcelain has a durable and dense clay body, but it is a more refined clay. Because porcelain is less porous, it doesn’t absorb as much water. Katie Mudd informs us that this is important for ceramic pieces that we eat off of or drink from, because we don’t want bacteria to get trapped or for our ceramics to start smelling!
Porcelain can be fired at extremely high temperatures (around 2,200 to 2,640 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1,200 to 1,450 degrees Celcius).
Once it has been fired, porcelain has a smooth, hard texture and shiny appearance.
A Small-Batch Brand Using Porcelain:
Middle Kingdom’s imperial-quality porcelain pieces are made with unbeatable craftsmanship by master artisans. In fact, every artisan that the brand works with first begins as an apprentice to ensure that all of Middle Kingdom’s Chinese porcelain bowls, vases, plates, cups, and carafes are made with the highest quality possible. Dishwasher safe.
Values: Fair Trade, Heritage, POC-Owned, Sustainable, Vegan, Woman-Owned
What Is Earthenware?
Earthenware is more porous than stoneware or porcelain, which is why it’s so great for plants! This category of ceramics consists of warm, rich, earthy clay bodies, like terra-cotta.
Earthenware is fired in a kiln at temperatures below what stoneware and porcelain are fired at — typically between 1,830 and 2,190 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 to 1,200 degrees Celsius). Because of its porous nature, earthenware must be glazed in order to be waterproof.
Which Clay Is the Most Durable?
Stoneware and porcelain are the most durable types of clay for vessels that you’re using every day, Katie Mudd advises. Typically, you’ll find these materials used for functional products because there is no concern about the food and safety component with these denser, less porous types of clay.
As we mentioned earlier, porcelain can be fired up to the highest temperature that you can take clay, stoneware can be fired nearly as high, and earthenware is typically fired at lower temperatures than porcelain and stoneware.
In terms of insulation, Katie Mudd ensures that any material can be a good insulator — a ceramic piece’s insulation capabilities mostly depend on the thickness of the product. Really thick pieces will insulate the best, but, of course, will be much heavier. It’s important to find a balance in using the right amount of clay, so a product — like a mug — will be thick enough as an insulator and light enough to carry around easily! This is one area where the craftsmanship and technique of ceramics come into play.
How Do You Know If a Ceramic Piece Is High Quality?
Katie Mudd has a clever trick for quickly determining if a ceramic piece you’re shopping for — or already have in your home — is high quality. To check if the product has been fired to its fullest temperature, flick your fingers on the exterior. If there’s a nice, high “ringing” sound, that means it’s been fired fully. If you hear a duller “thunk” noise, that is a sign it has not been fired fully.
The primary reasons for testing a piece to see if it has been fired fully and made well are food safety and longevity. If a ceramic piece is of poor quality, and that piece is stored in a cabinet wet, it will start to build up bacteria.
So, it is essential to invest in ceramic pieces that are made well — especially pieces that you are using to drink or eat from — not only for durability, but for safety.
As Katie Mudd emphasized, it’s important for ceramicists to choose their clay body wisely and ensure it has been fired to the appropriate temperature. The clay has to be fired hot enough to ensure that all the pores are sealed up and no bacteria can get in!
How Does Clay Durability Impact a Product’s Sustainability?
Buying fewer, better things that will last the test of time is always the more eco-conscious choice, but this is especially true for ceramics.
Pottery takes an extremely long time to break down and biodegrade (That’s why we see remnants of pottery from thousands of years ago on display in museums!) and many recycling facilities do not accept ceramics. So it’s particularly important to buy high-quality ceramics made by potters who have an understanding of their materials, working with and firing their clay appropriately.
Another reason to prioritize durability, as Katie Mudd points out, is the challenge of reusability in ceramics. While still wet, clay can be repurposed, but once it has been fired, it is almost impossible.
The long-lasting nature of pottery is also a motivation for potters to be mindful of what they make and how much they produce.
Here at Made Trade, we’re proud to source all of our ceramics from small businesses with small-batch and/or made-to-order models! Check out our full ceramics collection.