handbuilt rhubarb forcing pot

Perhaps you’ve heard me talk of the rhubarb pot, that essential of the Victorian kitchen garden, and one of those beautiful objects that functions so simply to extend the growing season. Forcing rhubarb to reach for the light, warming and protecting it to set it growing earlier, and producing a fine, sweet, early fruit – this is the purpose of a rhubarb pot. Looking elegant in a walled garden is a fine off season occupation. When I saw the other potters handbuilding giant pots, I had to try making one myself.

patting

Enormous thing. It will shrink by almost a quarter as it dries, mind. Mine is unconventional not only in being handbuilt, where most rhubarb pots are thrown or cast, but it is also singular in using white clay, where terracotta is traditional. Still, it ought to do the job, or at least be sculptural. Let me show you something of the technique I learned.

press

The trusty press.

pressed

After wedging the clay, and adjusting the height of the press to a good thickness, say, half an inch, the clay is flattened in the press.

compressing

A rib is used to compress the clay on both sides, to smooth and strengthen it.

slip

As with any handbuilt thing, scoring and slipping connects the pieces – wide slabs that we slice and stand up and curve to meet. Any repairs later can use paper slip. Wonderful fortifying stuff, just wet clay with paper soaked til fibrous, not unlike papermaking.

applying

Just a slight overlap is connected. Scored, slipped, pressed, then worked smooth. Applying the next piece to the outside makes the thing wider; to the inside curves it in. Many of the potters built the piece half way up, then flipped the entire thing and worked on it that way – but because a rhubarb pot is entirely open at the base, and only curves in at the top somewhat, I left it.

bat

Knocking the clay into shape is one of those most gratifying tasks. It is amazing how much shaping can be done with a bit of brute strength and courage, as the clay doesn’t simply move but compresses. This bat is wrapped in twine to discourage the clay from sticking to it while it is the consistency of cool butter.

dart

I still needed to remove some clay with darts, work redolent of dressmaking. By this time I was standing on a step stool to reach into the pot, turning it on a lazy susan.

muriel

Isn’t it a wonderful process? I adore the wheel and must be torn from it. Yet somehow this technique felt more compelling than a coil pot, and the proportions are fascinating to me. Consulting with my friend and mentor, Muriel, the potter at Winter Creek. I’m so lucky to study with her. She talked me through the most wonderful bit of throwing, to make a handle for the lid.

You might like to watch a Victorian thumb-sprinkler being thrown, another fascinating bit of historical pottery.

potter’s case

There’s a wonderful pottery studio deep in the highlands, down a winding road that leads through the woods. I’ve begun throwing pots on a wheel there every week. Clustering round the wood stove, sharing cups of tea with some lovely potters, is very good too. I’ve so craved this work since I studied in England. I want it to be a permanent, regular practice. So, I pulled out my beloved old travel case, battered and stained from years of art materials at school, and fixed it up as a pottery toolbox for my devotions to clay.

potter's case

Clay tools are such appealing things, and a vintage suitcase is just the thing to organise them. There’s something about claiming a spot for tools and materials that is so affirming of any endeavour. The writing desk makes the writer, and so on. I think so. Like hanging a musical instrument on the wall, it is a declaration of commitment.

potter's case

I find that I am better at keeping a thing tidy, and using it often, if I think it is beautiful. With a bit of leftover milk paint, I stained the fabric lining from a loud red to a quiet grey. No doubt it will all be pleasingly clay-spattered soon enough. The make-up mirror puts me in mind of train journeys and face powder. Perfect for checking one’s reflection after a muddy day on the wheel.

potter's case

I’ve tucked my plaster sprigs and stamps into a pocket of the new potter’s case, and a linen apron, given to me by a lovely English potter, folds neatly on top.

potter's case

Quite important to leave space for tea, and for tins filled with snacks! Look out for images of my ceramic work soon, here, on instagram and other friendly places – I’ll be stocking my own, new studio shop.

the vintage hairdresser

Remember the good old fashioned local salon I was telling you about, complete with 1950’s Belmonts and barber’s strops? You’ve been wanting a peek at Lutine’s collection of antique hairdressing tools, I know. Here it is:

wave-clips-with-mirrors.jpg

Wave clips were pretty much how my grandmothers got their distinctive looks, that and bobby pins. I’d like to develop my skills with a bobby pin.

tongs-and-rollerss.jpg

I know the tongs look like they would scorch your hair, but they are luxury compared to the slate pencil heated on the wood stove, that Laura Ingalls Wilder curled her fringe with. Now you know what to do when the power’s out, beauty queens. Are the perforated things curlers?

comb-brush-and-mirrors.jpg

A comb, brush and mirror set just speak to another era. Sitting down, slowing down to care for one’s hair, such a gentle, intentional thing to do. I’d like to take that up. I’m not sure the last time I looked into a small looking glass, aside from a powder compact. A romantic gesture in itself.

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The straight razor, faithful companion to the strop. I’m very happy with the safer variety, my traditional razor.

curling-ironss.jpg

My flat iron isn’t so different, and sadly will break long before this one. Only I’ve missed a picture of a fascinating object, a bowl to gather the hair from your brush, and form it into shapes to pad a hairdo! It is astonishing how fashion changes. Do you use any of these? Thank you ever so much for a glimpse at the vintage hairdresser, Lutine!

Oh – I’ve been writing about writing. If you’ve been wanting to create your own site to write about what you make and do, read it at Folksy.

spice mill

As I was exploring theme and variation, the way I like to, this time on the subject of panna cotta (elderflower panna cotta, vanilla panna cotta, chocolate panna cotta…) I came across a great old kitchen tool belonging to my grandmother. Her old spice mill! A simple, practically unbreakable and good old fashioned solution to fresh spices. Many people wouldn’t accept anything less than grinding their own fresh coffee; I’m quite sure my grandmother felt the same about grinding spices.

old fashioned spice mill

The scent of cardamom that would’ve dominated this piece, through all my grandmother’s Finnish baking, is renewed by my experiment in coconut cardamom panna cotta. On an early spring cleanse, we couldn’t take any dairy, so I substituted with coconut milk. Here’s the original recipe.

grinding cardamom

This piece adjusts for a course or rough grind, like any good pepper mill worth its, well, salt. Not much to it, yet it will still be grinding long after I’m gone, no doubt. I’m inclined to purchase future spices to store whole, as they’ll keep their freshness far longer. Grinding spices is quite satisfying.

coconut cardamom panna cotta

flower press

A flower press arrived in the post, sent to us by a sweet old friend of the family. A flower press! How lovely! Such a delight, particularly as the little girls and I have been dreaming of one.

flower press © elisa rathje 2012

Simply a couple of boards with layers of cardboard and paper, sandwiched and screwed tight with wing nuts. Smart. This is a particularly cute one.

flower press © elisa rathje 2012

For our first try we plucked a few petals from the tulips we’d picked on the farm last week. May flowers from the garden are next. Thank you my friend!