Extract: By My Hands by Florian Gadsby

In this first chapter from his new book, By My Hands, the North London ceramicist discusses the complicated beauty of working with clay – and learning to embrace imperfection.

Image: Victoria Ford / Penguin

One of the joys, and downsides perhaps, of learning how to make pottery is that there’s no single way to do things. Every potter throwing on the wheel follows a rough set of steps in order to end up with a pot, but the positions of one’s hands, the tools used, and even the order in which the steps are performed will change drastically from maker to maker. It can seem as if another potter is doing something entirely different from what you’ve been taught, but mostly it isn’t so. It can be infuriating when you’re beginning as you’ll watch countless films of people seemingly doing different things but ending up with more or less the same thrown pot. This means that at the start you’re absorbing a vast array of techniques, if you’re anything like me anyway. I was receiving tuition from my teacher at school before scurrying home and watching as many videos as I could. Eventually, though, something clicks and suddenly parts of the process make sense. Then you’ll link these successes together until you can throw a well-made vessel.

One of the most pivotal ‘click’ moments that occurred for me was when I saw someone brace their left elbow into their torso, with their forearm and palm outstretched onto the clay, in order to centre it. Instead of using all the strength in your hands and biceps to squeeze the stoneware into the middle of the wheel, you simply lean your upper body weight onto your arm, which forces your arm and your hand to press firmly against the rotating lump. Clay is a soft, squidgy material after all and if what’s pushing into that is mostly the hard bones in your forearm and hand, which are kept steady, then the lump of clay has to conform to it. Once that’s figured out you can practically centre the clay in mere seconds and thereafter you can combine that motion with a process called ‘coning’.

When the clay is spinning neatly in the middle of the wheel it can sometimes feel like there’s something not quite right. The mass’s weight might be distributed unevenly, or there could be a few little lumps or bubbles somewhere inside. To remedy this, I push the mass of clay into itself from either side, starting at the bottom and directing it upward into a cone that tapers to a narrow point at the top. Once it’s spinning up high the clay is carefully compressed back down onto itself until it resembles the puck shape I want.

Coning also affects the clay on a microscopic level, as it causes the particles it’s made up from – platelets – to align. Think of clay’s structure like a bag of rice, where all the grains point in different directions from one another. The process of coning gradually causes all of these grains of rice, these platelets, to align in the same direction. Suddenly, after two or three cones up and down, the clay begins to feel as if it runs perfectly beneath your hands, without even the tiniest wobble, and it even does what you ask of it more attentively, like a well-trained dog.

'One of the joys, and downsides perhaps, of learning how to make pottery is that there’s no single way to do things'

With all that said, it’s a process that took me months to get comfortable with and even then, only to a relatively basic level. I remember feeling infuriated when my hands wouldn’t do what I was telling them, but eventually it did click for good, thanks to the patient tuition of Caroline.

There are a few things, though, you should know if you want to make your life easier when centring. These are techniques I’ve been taught or have learnt myself over the past decade. The first I’m only putting here for sentimental reasons as it might sound a bit wishy-washy, but it does hold true. One of my future pottery tutors would tell me, ‘In order to centre the clay, you must first centre yourself.’

I’m mostly not one for anything metaphysical, but if you look beyond that this essentially just means that if your mind isn’t in the game at that moment, take a break and try again later. There have been times when I’m attempting to throw a specific shape and I just can’t get it, even years into my practice. I’ll ruin a dozen pots attempting it and I’ll beat myself up over it, when in fact I should just stop, wait, and try again. There have been other particularly tricky forms I’ve had to learn to make, such as one very curvaceous and altered jug, that once thrown is pinched either side of the spout and hoisted backwards. This gave it an almost comical lean and made it appear very figurative. They were hell to throw and there were days when after five unsuccessful attempts I’d just stop, admit defeat, and continue throwing something that I was more familiar with. Then a few hours later, or even the following day, I’d try again. This is what I took from that quote, not sitting and chanting mantras to myself.

Gadsby: 'One of my first thrown vessels and my hands, photographed for the school’s prospectus. I can still remember the feel of this smooth stoneware clay body.'

Another topic that comes up a lot is strength. People watch potters throw and often say, ‘You must be so strong to do that!’, and while this may be true when centring gigantic lumps of clay, it’s all technique when it comes to small and medium amounts. Learning to use your upper body as an anchor is essential. I’ve seen beginners puff their cheeks out, red in the face, as they squeeze all the muscles in their arms and tense their hands and fingers in order to force the clay to comply. While this might work, you’ll end up being exhausted after only a few attempts, compared to simply letting your body bear the brunt of the work by anchoring yourself in a certain way and gently directing the clay into position.

Eventually you’ll get to a point where it doesn’t matter if the clay is slightly off-centre, as you’ll still be able to control its wobbling as you throw. A bubble might cause a minuscule undulation to form in the walls, but you can pop the bubble, compress the rim and move on. Any distortion in the form is exaggerated by the fact that the pot is spinning in place, rotating on a central axis. Once it is off the wheel, trimmed and fired in a kiln, you’ll probably never see it again if it’s only subtle. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to reach a level where you can centre perfectly, but once you have there comes a certain point when you’re good enough to control the clay and make pots even with some irregularities. To quote the ever- enlightened Geoffrey, a future teacher of mine, when questioned by pesky students about why the rim of his pot was wobbling slightly: ‘I just don’t give a shit any more.’

There can be beauty in imperfection.

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