365 Objects Of Design

A visit to the made.com ceramic factory in Portugal

10th July 2018

A couple of weeks ago, for my final trip to Cities Beginning With L That I Have Never Visited Before – the first two being LA and Leeds – I flew to Lisbon with made.com to visit two of their ceramic factories. One of the sites we would visit, they promised, would be the place that their Noah plates are made. And since I own those very plates  – bottom left in the picture – I was immediately interested to learn how they are made.

noah plates from made.com by KWS

noah plates from made.com image by Kate Watson-Smyth

It’s also true that in these days of online shopping and mass manufacture we can become very disconnected from the process of how our possessions are made. We assume, at least I do, that our homewares are all made in large faceless factories, mostly by machine, with no-one really caring about the end result.

stacks of unfired ceramics drying at the factory in Alcobaça, Portugal

stacks of unfired ceramics drying at the factory in Alcobaça, Portugal

The truth, when it comes to these plates and the vases pictured, is very different. They are made in two small, family-run businesses where most of the staff have worked for years and much of the work is done by hand. The vases are practically artisanal.

The owner and current manager of the first factory wanted to be a computer engineer and left home to study but when he returned one holiday he realised his heart just wasn’t in it.

a factory worker makes the mother mould from which everything comes

“I decided I would work with my father in the factory until I had earned enough money to go travelling and that would be it,” he said. “And I never left. If you work in ceramics it’s because you have a passion for it. It’s hot, and it’s dusty and it’s heavy, but I feel excited every time I see something come out of the kiln.

“We have 57 people working here and many of them have been here for nearly 40 years – when the company was founded. We don’t have a big rotation of staff but we have just had eight retire so we need to find some new people now.”

rows of moulds being filled at the Alcobaça ceramic factory in Portugal

It all starts with the mother mould (and don’t you just love that it’s the mother, not the master or the father?) which is made from the intial client sketch with an extra 5.5 per cent added to the size because it will shrink. The mother mould is made in plaster and is the start of every vase made in this factory. The man making these is pictured above – he has worked in the factory for 39 years.

image by Lara Jacinto

the finished vases are taken from the mould image by Lara Jacinto

The moulds are then filled with clay. The longer you leave the clay in the plaster the thicker it becomes. After a few hours the excess is removed and the mould is broken open to reveal the vase inside.

Once out of the mould, they are rubbed to remove markings from the mould and any excess bits of clay that have stuck to the edges. This, the owner, was keen to stress, is done with ordinary household tools – a paring knife and a scourer in most cases.

image by Lara Jacinto

each piece is removed from its mould by hand image by Lara Jacinto

Then the pieces are left to dry again. You cannot fire them when they are wet and you cannot remove the water artificially if you want the final piece to be white. They must be allowed to air dry naturally. During the summer months this takes one or two days. In winter, the trays are wheeled closer to the kilns where they sit near the residual heat and dry.

image by Lara Jacinto

they are then smoothed and checked image by Lara Jacinto

When they have been fired and dried again, the decorating can start. Depending on the final product this can be by painting, or dipping in a bucket of glaze, or using a spray gun.

A few years ago, the fashion was all for hand-painted flowers, but times, and tastes, have changed and many of those traditional pots are now made for the tourists, or the older generation. These days customers, such as made – and by extension us – want plain colours but interesting shapes.

image by Lara Jacinto

image by Lara Jacinto

Made visits the factory two or three times a year to look a new ideas for designs and discuss colours that can be exclusive to them. This part of Portugal is famous for its ceramic factories (and custard tarts) and so clients need to work out what they can have in which colour as another company might want the same shape but be told they must have it in a different colour or size.

Once the pieces are ready, each one is checked invididually by hand to make sure it is perfect. This woman has been here for 28 years and oversees nearly every single thing that leaves the factory. Here she is casting an eye over the tall cactus vase that you can now order for £49.

image by Lara Jacinto

each vase is checked by hand and eye before leaving the factory image by Lara Jacinto

But knowing the story behind that vase makes it worth so much more don’t you think?

waiting the fill the moulds with glaze to make the noah mugs

The next day we went to the Noah factory. This was on a much bigger scale. Here, instead of everything being made in moulds, many of the plates are pressed by machine. This factory makes 200,000 pieces a month as opposed to the 40,000 made by the first.

the noah mugs as they come out of their moulds

We were told that in the north of Portugal, factories were keen to use machines for production. In the south there is a cluster of factories in this area, many of whom still do much of the work by hand. There used to be 600. Now there are just 22. Many of them have joined together so they can be more productive and fulfill larger client orders.

I had a go at dipping a noah mug – harder than it looks

We watched the clay being pressed into the machines and the plates emerging from the press. We saw the moulds being filled for the Noah mugs and them being checked and cleaned afterwards.

image by Lara Jacinto

dipped by a professional image by Lara Jacinto

We were allowed to have a go a dipping a mug into a bucket of glaze. And believe me, doing that without getting drips down the side or leaving a dirty great thumbprint where you were holding it is much harder than it looks.

the noah plates are pressed by machine which is quicker

In these two pictures you can see the slab of clay which is sliced up and pressed into a plate. Below is one of the workers holding a plate before it is fired.

the finished plates are stacked on shelves to dry

Once formed, they must go through the same process of drying and firing and checking for mistakes before being stamped with the made logo and packed into boxes ready to be sent to the UK and end up, perhaps, on your shelves.

once glazed and stamped they can be sent to the UK for us to order

This was the first time I have visited a ceramics factory and I found it fascinating. I hope you found it interesting to read a little more about the stories behind our everyday products.

 

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9 Comments

  • Reply JC 10th July 2018 at 12:46 pm

    Brilliant and fascinating post Kate. What a treat to get an insider’s view of the ceramic factory. There is something really beautiful in knowing that something you own has been through that care and process.

  • Reply Ellen 10th July 2018 at 12:44 pm

    Beautiful!

  • Reply Steph 10th July 2018 at 11:11 am

    Always a good story, Kate! If you ever get back to the US and wish to visit a fun place, I recommend the Kohler Plumbing manufacturing facility in Kohler, Wisconsin. Pottery, cast iron and faucets. Fascinating. And beautiful! Thanks again!

  • Reply Robin 10th July 2018 at 11:05 am

    I have just finished a 12-week ceramics/pottery course and it has given me a very good grounding in dipping, slips, glazing, throwing, hand-building etc. As ever, a course such as that is just an introduction, but it will certainly make me appreciate the pots that I buy in a different way. I hope you cleaned the bottom of your cup before letting it be fired! That’s the number one thing that I learned about glazes: make sure you don’t get your piece stuck to the kiln shelf.

    Fascinating post – thank you for sharing it.

  • Reply Anna 10th July 2018 at 10:55 am

    Loved your white trouser fly buttons Kate! The crockery is no doubt desirable but reading the article I couldn’t help thinking why MADE had not chosen Stoke on Trent to make their pots. If Emma Bridgewater can do it surely so can they ?

  • Reply Annette Marie Townsend 10th July 2018 at 9:52 am

    What a treat for you to visit the factory and have a go at applying the glaze! I love hearing the stories behind the products, thank you Kate!

  • Reply Emily Mathieson 10th July 2018 at 8:53 am

    I really enjoyed reading this. So nice to see how the products are made, and the real people behind them.

  • Reply Jean Rowland 10th July 2018 at 8:09 am

    Such an interesting post, thank you

  • Reply Tina Bricknell 10th July 2018 at 7:11 am

    I have two sets of Noah crockery. so good to know how the pieces are made. I love the muted colours and the slightly irregular shape. A beautiful set to show off your food. Very interesting Kate thank you!

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