Euan Craig

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One Good Turn

Euan Craig

The dawn is steel grey as I wake, the sun a pale smudge behind the clouds. Somehow the wind finds its way through every crack in this old house. I get up and light the wood stoves in the kitchen and studio. It will take a while for the house to warm up, so I let Mika and the children sleep on for a little while. Down in the studio I open the sliding door to the damp room and check the pots which I threw yesterday. Row upon row of bowls fill the shelves, the regular pattern of circle and curve, light and shadow beautiful in the diffused morning light. I touch their surface, applying gentle pressure to check how firm the clay has become overnight. Despite my efforts to seal this room from drafts in an attempt to control the drying of my work, this wind has nonetheless breached my defenses. The bowls I made yesterday morning are drying very fast. They are perfect for trimming now, the rest will be ideal by this afternoon. I cover the pots with sheets of plastic before I go to prepare breakfast.

Last night, before I went to bed, I put a pot of soup on the stove. The slow cooking as the fire burns down and the cooling till morning allows the flavour to really develop. As it warms up again I mix a batch of scones. I remember many times when I was young, when it was cold and miserable outside, bringing an armful of firewood in for the slow combustion stove in the warm, cozy kitchen. Mum saying, “Mustn’t waste a hot oven.” Standing by the window, up to her elbows in flour in the huge stoneware mixing bowl. A handful of butter, a splash of milk, I don’t think she ever measured anything. The light on her face as she turned the dough out onto a floured board, cut the scones and arranged them on the baking trays. The mountain of fresh baked scones on the kitchen table, the mouth watering fragrance that permeated the house. It took me years to get the recipe right. I put the scones in the oven.

The kids are reluctant to surrender their nice warm beds, but we eventually manage to harass them out of their pyjamas and into their clothes. I serve breakfast and we all sit down to eat. As we enjoy our meal I explain to Mika that today will be dedicated to turning the pots. If I leave them any longer they will be too hard. There is a perfect time to turn clay, just when it is dried to the hardness of firm cheese. If it is too soft it will tear, too hard and it will crumble. When the timing is right trimming is a pleasure.

Though I had planned to throw again today, it is the elements, the seasons that dictate my work schedule. Mika understands that I won’t be much use to her today. She’s seen it before, of course, it’s one of those things that we have to deal with every now and then. In the normal run of events the pots would take two or three days to reach a stage that would enable me to trim them, giving me a span of several days for finishing. In the rainy season when the humidity is at its peak it can take weeks and the pots can grow moldy before they are firm enough to trim. In winter I have to keep the stove burning overnight or the pots will freeze, turning them to sludge when they thaw. The elements have a powerful influence on my work and one must learn to work in harmony with them. Mika knows that today I’ll be chained to the wheel.

As she clears the breakfast dishes I give her a hug. She is wearing a hand knitted sweater that my mother made for me years ago and which I grew out of. It fits Mika well. The home spun wool is warm beneath my hands, her cheek smooth against mine. There is a fragrance that lingers on the wool, even after all these years, and it mingles with the scent of her hair.

The wool had come from a black sheep named Herbie, and mum had knitted the different shades of coloured wool into a pattern. The fact that the wool hadn’t gone through the dyeing process had left most of the natural lanolin oils in the wool, so moths and silverfish never touched it. Herbie had been abandoned by his mother after a difficult birth. He had been breach, and Uncle Lawrie and I had helped pull the poor little lamb out of his labouring mother. I often spent weekends and holidays out on my Uncles farm when I was a kid. During the lambing season we would take a drive in the old Ferguson tractor round the property every day to check for weak or abandoned lambs and keep an eye out for foxes. There were parts of the 200acres that a tractor couldn’t get to, so we would check these on foot. We left Herbie, wet and shivering, with his mother that morning. In the evening I walked back to check that he was suckling properly. As I approached the place we’d left them I could see no sheep anywhere, but in the grass stubble was the small dark form of Herbie, still trembling and bleating weakly. His mother had abandoned him. I picked him up, hugging him to my chest, and closed my jacket around him to keep him warm. It was dark by the time I got back to the house, and Aunty Thora prepared a bottle of artificial “beastings”, the first milk he needed to survive. We hand raised him and he became a pet.

As he grew, Herbie took on the role of Judas Sheep. When it was time for shearing or drenching, we would call Herbie. He would come, and the other sheep would follow. They’re not very bright. The shearers would come for the wool season, and I’d bail up the sheep in the holding stall, ready for the shearers to take them to the board. They’d grab each sheep under its forelegs and drag it across the board to the shears. Starting from the belly they’d clip the wool from the sheep in one great blanket and, shooting the naked beast down the ramp into the yard, they’d set off for the next. I’d rush forward as they vacate the board and bundle up the fleece. Dodging past them as they came shuffling from the holding pen, I’d go to the grading table and cast the fleece out for Uncle Lawrie to trim. He’d remove the dags, check the length and strength of the staple and grade the fleece accordingly. Once trimmed it went into the bale press, we’d crank it down and pin it, then off to gather the next fleece. There was a rhythm, from dawn till dusk. We’d break for morning lunch, for lunch, for afternoon tea and for dinner. In between hundreds of sheep would surrender their fleece. By the end of each day we were ready for bed, to sleep that dreamless sleep of the righteous. A very rare experience. Up and ready by dawn the next day. Only the coloured fleeces were set aside, as they have little commercial value. Wool buyers want white wool, easily dyed, characterless, ready to feed the clothing industry. We kept the coloured fleeces ourselves. Both Aunty Thora and Mum were spinners. They taught me how to spin. After combing or carding the wool they would sit for hours, by the fire or in front of the television, click clack, click clack, gently feeding the wool into the spindle. Spinning, plying, winding the wool into hanks. Washing it, drying it, winding it into balls. Endless hours of knitting and crocheting. “Come here and hold out your arm.” Mum would say, and obediently I would strike a scarecrow pose, with her measuring the half knitted garment across my shoulders. When it was done, she brought it to me wrapped in a sheet of paper, as if I’d not known what she’d been doing. “Happy Birthday”, she said, though my birthday was months away. I unfolded the paper and the garment within. “Well, put it on!” she said. I did, and of course it fit perfectly. Like it was made for me. It was. 

Now, twenty five years and a lifetime later, it embraces Mika, keeping her warm and safe. I give her a kiss and then go out to the studio, leaving her to get the kids off to preschool. I close the gate in the waist high trellis that separates the studio from the bedrooms behind me and change into my work shoes. The barrier keeps the kids out of the work space, as the tools and materials could be potentially dangerous in little hands. I make sure none of the materials I use are toxic, but you can never be too careful. I put together the tools I will need today and set up the turning chuck on the wheel. I sharpen my strap metal turning tool with a fine file and use the same file to redefine the profile on the end of my beading tool. Before I start work I stoke the stove once more then take the first board of bowls from the damp room, placing them on the wheel bench to my left, with a stack of clean ware boards on my right. The kids call out their farewells as they go out the door and after a few moments I hear the car pull out of the driveway.

Where they have been cut from the wheel and lifted to the board the bases of the pots are thick and rough. The first bowl is placed upside down on the chuck and set to spin slowly. I tap the bowl gently with the end of my finger until it is exactly in the centre of the wheel then give it a gentle thump in the centre of the base with the heel of my hand to stick it temporarily to the leather hard chuck. Speeding the wheel up, I use the sharp edge of the strap metal turning tool to trim the base of the pot perfectly flat. Changing to a hoop tool, a wooden handle about the length of a pencil with a hoop of flattened wire on each end, I begin to trim the external profile. I support the bowl at its centre with my left hand to prevent it from moving.

As the tools peel away the clay they leave a distinctive surface, quite different from the surface left from the throwing process. Where the thrown surface brings the finer slip particles to the surface, expressing every touch of the hand, the turned surface is cut away, sharply defined. Each step of the process has a clear character, and I strive to allow each facet to remain as fresh in each piece as I possibly can. The skill is in knowing when to stop, when to not interfere with the results of the natural process.

It is then that I apply the chattering tool. A piece of spring steel, bent in a hook shape. As the pot spins I touch the curved end of the tool against the surface. The spinning surface flicks it away, but it digs out a small wedge of clay as it jumps. Each time it jumps, it digs, each time it digs, it jumps. The hardness of the clay, the speed of the wheel, the angle of the tool, all determine the quality of the marks. A pattern forms, like the corrugations in a dirt road or the wave marks on a river bed. You cannot see the pattern as it forms. You must listen, and as the rhythm of the vibration strikes a regular beat you slowly move the tool down the profile of the pot. You listen, you feel, you move. When the wheel stops, the surface is covered with a texture, as regular and delicate as the filament on the underside of a mushroom. I run the beading tool around the border of the chattering, the groove in the brass tool leaving a raised bead which frames the chattered surface. Finally I remove the pot from the wheel and stamp it with my logo mark.

As the day rolls on I turn the pots, board after board, arranging them in regular rows, one up, one down. The feet and the rims form a pattern. Not contrived, like wall paper, but natural, like honeycomb. I stop briefly for lunch and afternoon tea. By the end of the day the shelves are full again, but with a different quality. The pots are finished in form, their feet as regular as their rims, a chattered decoration on their hips. At the point where the foot meets the body of the pot I place my stamp. It is small and unobtrusive, but it says that I made these pots. I take responsibility for them. They speak for me.

They are not finished yet, for there is waxing and glazing, stacking and firing yet to come. They are like adolescents, yet to go through the trials that will make them complete. They are beautiful in their innocence, their simplicity. I close the door to the studio, weary from the day, but satisfied. Like after a day of shearing.

I spend the evening with my family, helping Sora with her homework, reading stories for Canaan and Rohan. Mika and I share wine. We bathe the children and send them off to bed, despite minor protests. Fatigue is starting to catch up with me, so I kiss Mika and bid her goodnight.   

Nature makes patterns, there is a regularity in form in all things. It is about the matter in nature aligning itself with the forces of nature. There is a beauty intrinsic in that process, which we humans see and love. It is only when we surrender to those forces, yet guide them with our passion, that we can express to others the beauty that we have experienced in life. Each pot is different, as leaves and shells are different, but each pot adheres to the same set of rules, and becomes a set as leaves and shells do. Regardless of the differences, they share a common quality. A beauty that springs from the rhythm of nature. A regularity like the seasons and the years and the days of our lives. A pattern like the stitches in a hand made sweater.


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