What is ‘vegan’ pottery?

(A guest post by Katherine Tomlinson of Oxford Clay Handmade Ceramics. Oxford Clay’s ceramics are fired using 100% renewable energy and glazed using recycled wood ash. Visit the website for more information and to shop.)

When I first started practicing pottery I didn’t know anything about the materials I was using. Slowly, I realised that many of the ingredients and tools I routinely used caused harm to animals, people and the environment. So I made the decision to exclude these from my pottery practice and started Oxford Clay, a vegan ceramics company. But what actually is ‘vegan’ pottery? 

Essentially, vegan pottery is that which is made without animal-based ingredients or tools. In pottery, there are several ways in which animal ingredients are used:

Animal bone ash 

Most people think “but isn’t clay just dug out of the ground – surely that’s vegan”? In fact, the ‘clay’ used by potters is a mixture of different ingredients; ball clays, crushed rocks, sands and sometimes bone ash. The bone ash sold by pottery materials suppliers is made by heating animal bones (usually bovine) in a kiln and then crushing them into a fine white powder. Bone ash is added to clay to improve it’s translucency and strength. Bone china, for example, is made from a combination of china clay, crushed rock, and 50% animal bone ash. Bone ash is also routinely added to pottery glazes to reduce defects like crazing. 

Shellac 

Shellac is another animal-based ingredient used in pottery. Some potters create a decorative effect using shellac as a form of ‘resist’. The shellac is painted on, left to dry, and then the surrounding clay is sponged away leaving an intricate raised pattern. The shellac then burns off in the kiln when the pot is fired. Shellac is a resin excreted by lac beetles, which are often killed during harvesting. 

Many potters also use animal-based pottery tools to craft their work: 

Leather

Chamois leather is often used for smoothing the rims of pots thrown on the wheel. The bases of pots can also be made flat by twisting them on a piece of damp leather stretched across a board. 

Animal hair paintbrushes 

Many non-synthetic paintbrushes are made using animal hairs from animals killed in the fur industry. The animal rights organisation PETA reports that animals are also killed in the wild for their fur, to make paintbrushes. A particular type of brush specifically used in pottery for glazing called a ‘hake’ brush is made from goat hairs. 

Marine sponge 

Potters use marine sponge as a tool in their work because it is so soft and doesn’t misshape their work. However, marine sponges are classified as animals, they eat and reproduce in the same way as animals and move around in larval stage.  What we use as a sponge is the skeleton of the dead sponge after harvesting. Marine sponges take many years to reach maturity and form an essential part of the marine ecosystem.

It is perfectly possible and practical to make ceramics without using any of these animal-based tools or ingredients. 

Katherine Tomlinson

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