Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Digging and refining clay expensive but rewarding

Dad used to say with disgust, "I can’t get that blasted clay off my boots!" He also referred to some small part of his dairy farm as worthless, saying, "That clay spot won’t even grow weeds!" In later years I learned that "hard-pan," a layer of clay-like soil, is actually a help to farmers. It is under fertile soil and helps hold moisture and fertilizer within the reach of roots. That makes better lawns, flower beds, gardens and fields. Loam or sandy soil would likely dry out fast, and our food supply would be seriously reduced if it were not for that hard-pan. Clay is important, too, when we dig lakes and ponds for fishing, boating, swimming and irrigation.

When I first watched people making pottery on a whirling wheel, I wished to get my hands in that stuff. Finally, after retiring, I dug some clay from the roadside just east of Columbia but didn’t know what to do with it to make it really usable.

That was 27 years ago, when there were few books on pottery making. I finally found one that had instructions for cleaning and using clay right from the earth. All I needed to know was on a half-page in a book at the Missouri Store. Cheapskate that I am, I memorized the directions and went away thinking, "Dig it, dry it, dissolve it, strain out roots and other extraneous material. Then add lots of water and strain it through increasingly finer mesh sieves ‘as fine as a lady’s nylon stocking.’ " The rest was simple. The clay would settle to the bottom of the buckets, and I’d use a four-foot length of plastic tubing to make a siphon for removing the clear water on the top. I was ready to begin.

I dug less than a gallon of clay and dried it thoroughly in the sun on trays one warm day and then crushed the remaining lumps in my hands. After sprinkling it into about three gallons of water and letting it "slake" overnight, I stirred it, added more water and poured it through a scrap of window screen wire to remove bits of leaves and roots. As I used finer mesh sieves, I had to add lots more water and, of course, use more buckets. I was glad to have started with less than a gallon of clay!

After using the very fine, 125-mesh sieve, I stirred the clay vigorously and let it settle overnight before siphoning the water off. Surprise! There wasn’t much clay in all that water! I poured the clay out onto trays, left them in the sun and mixed it up with a pancake turner occasionally to keep the edges from drying too fast. When it was firm enough to hold without getting my hands sticky, I marveled at how wonderfully smooth and white "my very own" clay could be. I made a few little pigs and chickens, just to try it out. Then I mashed them into the batch and put it all away in an airtight container to age.

Aging, sometimes called ripening, makes the clay more plastic and easy to sculpt. My first fired object was an American Indian with a drawn weapon. Everybody laughed at this feeble effort that was not supposed to be funny at all. He went to the attic for my lifetime!

I’m careful to save every scrap and crumb of this local clay because it’s more "expensive" than porcelain, and no clay I can buy will do what this off-white stoneware from Columbia’s roadside will do.

Dad sometimes thought "clay" was a dirty word, but I have great respect for this material that is found throughout Central Missouri, and I am willing to help others learn. My phone number is 442-2809.

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