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