The desire for handmade tableware hasn't been this hot since the 70's. And to me, it's not that surprising. A cup of coffee in a handmade mug or a family meal served on custom made dinnerware is a real treat. Those special pieces inject soul into the experience. And with just a little care, they can last a lifetime.
But not all ceramics are suitable for everyday tableware. So before you invest in a beautiful bespoke dinner set, there are some things to consider beyond the aesthetics...
Firstly, what's it made of?
You're probably thinking... duh, it's clay. Of course you're right... but it's only part of the answer.
There are sooooo many different clays available today, from commercially produced bodies to wild harvested clays sourced directly from an artists backyard. There are low fire, mid fire and high fire clays, porcelain, grogged, iron rich and plastic clays. There's something for everyone and they can all be amazing... but they're certainly not all suited to the manufacture of tableware.
Recently I was asked about mould growth on handmade plates. Customers from a retail store that I supply had expressed concern over buying handmade tableware as they'd experienced mould growth on plates purchased in the past.
If you've ever experienced mould growth on ceramics it's likely to have been on the unglazed section of the piece. This is the result of a non-vitreous clay body. One that remains to a degree, porous.
The piece may look ok, but when it's humid or just been washed, it holds water. This can happen when an artist doesn't fire to the correct temperature (for the clay used), or when using some mid fire clays such as earthenware that retain natural porosity, Even some stoneware clay bodies when fired to their maximum temperature remain un-vitrified.
A non-vitreous piece is not in itself an issue to use functionally (often those brightly decorated hand-painted pieces, like the majolica on terracotta the Italians love so much remain porous on the unglazed surface, but have been used for centuries to serve food). It just means those pieces need to be dried thoroughly before packing away (and should never be placed in a dishwasher, microwave or an oven at high temp). A porous clay body is also more susceptible to chips and breakage as it's not as dense as a vitrified piece.
And it's not as simple as porous vs vitrified... there are degrees. Some pieces may be highly porous at 10%+ and others minimal at less than 0.5%. It's difficult to tell from simply inspecting the piece. You really need to start a conversation with the artist about suitability for your purpose.
Obviously if you're buying a one-off piece it isn't such an issue. Buy what you love and take a little extra care. If however you're looking for a durable everyday dinner set that's dishwasher safe and can be packed away without overnight drying, then it's something to consider. One of the beautiful things about buying handmade is that you can often talk directly to the artist. So before you invest in a big purchase, I'd highly recommend doing so.
The artist should be able to provide you with an estimate of porosity and information on how to care for your ceramics. You can then determine if this works for you. And just a little side note here... I'd also recommend avoiding crazed glazes on dinnerware (the ones with fine intentional cracking all over them). These can be absolutely beautiful, but not a great idea for your dinnerware. The cracks are so fine they're tricky to keep clean and provide the perfect breeding ground for microscopic bacteria.
Now if you already have an existing mould problem with functional tableware, try washing the piece thoroughly in a vinegar and bicarbonate mix, rinse, then place in the oven at around 160 degrees celsius for 2 hours to kill the endospores. Of course this process may not suit all types of ceramic work, so please contact the artist for further advice.
Being able to talk to the maker is one of the advantages of buying handmade. Make the most of it.
PS If there are any ceramic related questions you'd like answered, let me know and I'll look at answering them in future posts.