Posted in Miscellaneous, Non-fiction

The White Road

This is China Clay, pictured in a display at Plymouth Museum. The chunk on the left shows the clay in its natural state (it’s basically granite that rots down, and some crystals from the rock are still there. The piece on the right is what it looks like when its been cleaned and purified.

“Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”

Here is a piece about The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, by Edmund de Waal, which was panned by most professional reviewers, and I can’t understand why, because I absolutely loved it. I heard it first when Radio 4 abridged it for a Book of the Week (I am, as you may have noticed, a huge fan of BBC Radio 4). It took me a long time to acquire the book, even longer to get round to reading it, and longer still to write about it – but here, finally, are my thoughts (after a second reading).

De Waal, an acclaimed ceramicist, intended to spend a year tracing the history of porcelain, and visiting the three ‘white hills’ which became central to porcelain manufacture in China, Germany and England. His quest took him longer and further (in distance and time) than ever he dreamed and is unquestionably a pilgrimage, for not only does he seek the ‘sacred’ places of the porcelain industry, but he also searches for enlightenment. As he travels he reflects on his own life and work, and his journey becomes a kind of meditation, a paean to porcelain, clay and life itself. It’s a lovely meandering sort of book that wanders from topic to topic and place to place, embracing history, science, politics, art, culture, kings, paupers and alchemists. Especially alchemists.

Cermacist Edmund de Waal. (Pic from his website)

I had no idea that porcelain is not the same as other china, or that making it is a kind of alchemy, where one type of material is mixed with another and they are magically transformed into something completely different. Porcelain, it transpires, is not just white clay. It’s a special sort of white clay (kaolin), mixed with a special sort of stone (petunse), in exactly the right proportions, and fired at exactly the right temperature (an incredible 1,300 degrees Celsius), so it fuses together to become beautifully transparent and luminous, like a kind of glass.

China clay can be moulded, painted, decorated and glazed. These pieces, on display at Plymouth museum, are from the Plymouth Porcelain Factory – the first place in England to make ‘hard paste’ porcelain.

Nor did I know that Europeans spent much of the 17th and 18th centuries obsessively seeking a formula so they too could make this mysterious china, which was imported – at great expense – from the East, and was available only to the fabulously wealthy. The process of making it (like the production of paper, gunpowder and silk), was invented by the Chinese, who kept their manufacturing method a closely guarded secret. And from the earliest days the history of porcelain, the most delicate and beautiful of china, has been marked by the blood, sweat, tears – and even deaths – of the men who laboured to make it.

The tales of those men, and of those who collected porcelain, are gripping, and de Waal’s journey is fascinating. His search for the origins of his craft took him all over the world, to palaces and prisons, cities and slums, museums and mines. He admits he is obsessive, but his love of porcelain, and the raw materials needed to create it, are infectious, and his accounts of the process of making, and his own responses, are intriguing. And he has the ability to clothe the bare bones of history, bringing the past to life in a way that makes you feel yes, this is the way it must have been.

He has amassed a staggering amount of information – in places it is so dense I felt a little judicious pruning might have helped. And despite his efforts to organise his data and thoughts into themed sections he’s a bit of a butterfly, darting here, there and everywhere, flitting from one thing to another, but I don’t mind that, and I adore his taste for the quirky and offbeat. He writes beautiful, lyrical prose, and his book is a very personal response to a very individual quest.

His account of visiting China and the Kao-ling mountain, in Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi Province, is spellbinding. This the place where it all began 1,000 years ago. Here, by an accident of nature, kaolin clay and petunse are found more or less side by side, and the ground is littered with discards from the past – centuries-old broken shards and misshapen pots.

“… on and up is a hillside of shards, a tumbling landscape of brokenness, a landscape of all the ways that pots van go wrong. It is not a spoil heap, careless but discrete. It is a whole landscape of porcelain.”

It all seems very exotic, like something from a fairy tale, and I find myself wondering who first combined kaolin and petunse, and why they wanted to… what led them to try that particular technique? Did people realise just how important it was? De Waal sees how these two different materials are extracted, cleaned and refined, and I’m surprised at how dirty and noisy the processes are.

I’m also surprised that Mao Tse Tung was presented with an Imperial Tea Set made in Jingdezhen. The finest, purest clay was transformed into teacups, saucers, teapots, coffeepots, sugar bowls, wine ewers, wine cups, cake plates and cake stands, all in white, painted with candy pink sprays of peach blossom. It sounds an unlikely gift for the Communist revolutionary who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Even more astonishingly, the clay seam was sealed, just as it had been for the generations of emperors who preceded him, to prevent common people using any leftovers!

In France de Waal considers a porcelain pavilion constructed by Louis XIV so he and  Madam de Montespan could enjoy intimate trysts. This apparently, was not created from Chinese style hard porcelain, but from ‘soft paste’, which makes me think of cake icing and modelling dough, and somehow sounds most unsafe.

And in Germany I get lost. All the people, places and science made my head spin – there was just too much information. To cut a long story short, there’s mathematician Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who uses light, mirrors and lens to boil water, set fire to wood, and melt stone and metal, leading to an interest in porcelain. And there’s Johann Friedrich Bottger, an apothecary’s apprentice, who claims he can create gold from lead (this is 1701, and we are on the cusp between old and new, alchemy and science, superstition and knowledge). The duo end up working together and Bottger eventually produces porcelain.

William Cookworthy, possibly painted in 1780, the year he died, by John Opie.

Back in England there’s a tribute to William Cookworthy, who produced the country’s first ‘hard paste’ porcelain, similar to that made by the Chinese. Suddenly I know where we are: Plymouth, where my Elder Daughter lives. And I realise I have encountered Cookworthy and his work in the city’s museum, without registering the significance, so I squeeze in a return visit, just a couple of days before the museum is shut for a massive makeover.


I love Cookworthy. He’s one of those wonderful 18th century Englishmen who were filled with curiosity about the world around them, and were knowledgeable enough to keep detailed records of their findings, and he deserves to be much better known. A Quaker chemist, he lived and worked in Notte Street (where the Arribas Mexican restaurant stands – I cross the road there when I go to the Hoe or the Barbican). In the mid-1750s he discovered china clay and china stone (the English versions of kaolin and petunse) at Tregonning Hill, in Cornwall. Apparently, after speaking to bellfounders he noticed that the heat from their furnace fused some of the stones lining the mould, so he gathered specimens and spent years experimenting.

Early pieces produced at the Plymouth Porcelain Factory are on show in the city’s main museum. But it’s hard to get a good photo, because there’s a lot of reflection from the glass. They were painted with English cobalt, which is darker than than the Chinese variety.

He was granted a patent and established The Plymouth Porcelain Factory at Coxside, bySutton Pool (the harbour). The first piece to come out of the kiln looks like a mug, but is actually a cider tankard. It was March 14, 1768 – the date is stamped on the bottom, along with the letters ‘CF’, for Cookworthy Fecit (Cooksworthy made me).

Towards the end of the book de Waal returns to Germany, to track down the haunting tale of the Allach factory where, during ww2, prisoners from Dachau were ordered to make high quality porcelain for the Nazis. Pieces made there include a Bambi, ‘liquid-eyed, spindly legs, head tilted’. Like de Waal, I am shocked that such beautiful porcelain, a symbol of innocence, should have been made in such harsh conditions, for those who upheld such a brutal, killing regime.

At the very end, trying to explain himself and answer the questions people ask, he says:

“I answer that white is a way of starting again. It is not about good taste, that making white pots was never about good taste, that making porcelain is a way of starting again, finding your way, a route and a detour to yourself. That I don’t get bored. That I make them myself.

And that no, I’m not writing. I have written. And I am making again.”

I have a Kindle, so I downloaded this from Amazon, because I always feel a book should have a cover.

Posted in Non-fiction, Sewing

Buttons and Threads

Button Box

So there I was, enjoying a nice, slow, leisurely re-read of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and pondering all things Tudor, when I took a break to visit other blogs, and discovered Lynne at Dove Grey Reader was reading The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives by Lynn Knight.  She wrote a lovely post about it here, focusing  very much on her own memories, and mentioning all sorts of sewing-related things, including embroidered tray cloths, Cash’s name tapes, haberdashery and, obviously, buttons (what else would you expect in a piece about a book called The Button Box?).

It conjured up so many memories of my own childhood, and sounded so wonderful I just HAD to have it. And, since instant gratification was the order of the day,  I downloaded it on to the Kindle, which turned out to be a Very Good Thing, because this was a couple of months ago, just before I dashed off to Mum when she was ill. Now Wolf Hall is brilliant, but it’s a bit too much of a chunkster to be a good travelling companion, whereas the Kindle, being small and slim, is ideal for journeys. So I left Master Cromwell chatting to Jane Seymour while he awaits my return, and I headed for The Button Box, which was every bit as good as I had hoped.

Buttons from my button tin.

Lest you should think a book about buttons sounds boring, let me assure you it is not – and it’s not just about buttons. Lynn (the writer) selects buttons from her collection to reveal stories about her family’s past, but she also uses them to channel a wealth of information about social history, with the emphasis on women’s clothing and the way it reflects the changing roles of women in society, from Victorian times through to the present day.

Alongside tales of her grandmother Annie (a skilled amateur dressmaker), great-aunt Eva (a smart dresser if ever there was), and her mother in her fashionable cocktail dresses, are accounts of Victorian mourning rituals, adopted babies (or foundlings, as they were once known), Suffragettes and their fight for the vote, working women on limited budgets, middle class women with their clothing allowances, and the vital tasks undertaken by women during two world wars. Knight also explores the lives of the women who made clothes – the dressmakers who stitched their days away, often for very little money, so other women could live out their dreams. And, of course, she describes her buttons, and explores the button making industry, which became established in the UK in the middle of the 19th century and was, for many years, based in Birmingham.

I loved this book and ended up following much the same route as Lynne (the blogger), because as I dipped in and out of the pages I kept stopping to rootle around in Mum’s sewing box (above), and chat to her about the various clothes and household items she stitched over the years, and the things I sewed and embroidered (and still do). When I was a child I loved playing with the sewing box, and it’s still a treasure trove of goodies – even more so now, perhaps, because of the memories it holds. For a start, there’s this:

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Mum’s wooden darning mushroom and the thread she used to mend holes in Dad’s socks.

It’s the wooden darning mushroom Mum used to darn Dad’s socks (he always put his big toes through the ends). The socks were slipped over the mushroom, to hold them firmly in shape while stitching. Does anyone still use them I wonder? Are they even manufactured any longer? And can you still get cards wound around with wool to match the colours of socks?  And what about the fine, flesh-coloured filaments of nylon which Mum once used to mend holes and runs in stockings? It seems so pointless now, when cheap tights are readily available but, as Mum says, stockings were virtually unobtainable during the war, and were still in short supply afterwards, so women did their best to make them last a little bit longer. The habit of looking after things, and keeping scraps and oddments in case they came in useful, became second nature, she explains. It was all part of that of the ‘make do and mend’ culture generated by the war. When I think about it I’m surprised at how the needlework equipment reflects personal and general history. Knight is spot on with her approach because these things, unused by Mum for a number of years, could be considered worthless, yet they reveal layer upon layer of history.

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Nylon ladder mendings…. For mending ladders in nylon stockings.

There are reels of thread, some of them old wooden spools – my father used an empty reel to make me a knitting dolly, with four nails banged around the central hole, and I produced yards and yards of tubular French knitting from oddments of wool. Mum’s also squirreled away hooks and eyes, press studs and zips, many of them carefully removed from old clothes. There’s dress maker’s chalk, thimbles, scissors, and all sorts of needles. We’re both fascinated by the curved monsters in the photo below. One of them appears to be listed as a sailmaker’s needle, and Mum certainly never made any sails! Her memory is not what it was, but thinks these may have been some kind of upholstery. Whatever their use, they were considered to be essential items in the workbox.

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These are the hugest needles I’ve ever seen.

I also open up her sewing machine. It’s an electric Singer, a shiny black cast iron beauty, with golden decorations, housed in a solid wood table, with a covering top that swings open to form a work surface. She and Dad bought it 1953, when they went shopping for a kitchen cabinet! It says much for my father’s good nature that they returned home with a magnificent top-of-the-range sewing machine, priced at £60 11s 6d (old money – this was well before decimalisation). They bought it on hire purchase, and the interest pushed the total cost up to £69 4s 6d (Mum still has all the original paperwork for the machine, including the HP agreement).

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I learned to sew on this machine, and it’s the best ever. It stitches its way through any fabric, without having to keep altering the  tension or changing needles, and it it has a lovely even stitch, and is absolutely ace at hems. But the rubber wiring is beginning to perish, so I guess the electrics need looking at.

Tracking down the equivalent value today proved tricky: one site I looked at suggested £1,347, while another came up with £1,791.80. So to try and put things in perspective I read an old Guardian article, and discovered the average weekly take-home pay in 1953 was £9 5s, so the sewing machine was unbelievably expensive, and Mum was the envy of all her friends – a real trendsetter! It was, she says, money well spent. She made all sorts of clothes on it, for herself, and for my brother and I – everything from thick woollen coats to the flimsy net tutus I wore for ballet, as well as curtains, cushions, bed covers and dolls’ clothes. One year for Christmas she made me a doll’s cradle out of a wooden fruit or vegetable box. She padded it with an old blanket, then covered it inside and out with remnants of embroidered white silks and satins left over from a wedding dress made by the dressmaker who lived in the flat above my uncle…. There was a matching pillow and eiderdown (who remembers eiderdowns?) and everything was trimmed with gathered lace edgings (also donated by the dressmaker). It was stitched in secret, after I’d gone to bed, and must have taken her weeks and weeks, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Sadly, there is no photograph of it, but it lives on in my memory, a testament not just to Mum’s skill as a seamstress, but to her love for me.

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It folds away like this, and the worktop bit flaps back over to turn it into a table…
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… Like this. The foot control should be stowed away inside, but I put it here just for the photo, to show how it compares to modern ones. And if you look closely you can see that the wiring looks a bit dodgy.

Oh dear, I seem to have digressed, and this post is getting longer and longer, and I haven’t even mentioned my own button tin, but The Button Box is that kind of book. It invites memories and meanderings, and you could take any chapter and write reams about it. but I really must wind things up.

So here goes. It’s all too easy to dismiss sewing and women’s fashion as frivolous and unimportant, but Knight made me realise how much fashion reflects social customs and women’s position in society. Her book is very readable, and well well researched (she acknowledges her sources in an extensive bibliography, which is nice to see),  and she shows the importance of innovations like home sewing machines, off-the-peg clothing, lightweight easy-to-wash materials, electric steam irons, and modern fastenings. They seem so simple yet, according to Knight, not only did they give ordinary women the chance to be well-dressed, but they freed women from time consuming tasks like washing and hand-stitching, changing lives and opening up new opportunities outside the home.