How Was Delftware Made?

During the peak of its industry in the late 17th century, Delft boasted an impressive 33 potteries, emphasizing the region's rich ceramic heritage. Crafting earthenware is an intricate endeavor, demanding substantial space and taking up to two weeks to complete. This duration includes everything from clay preparation to the cooling of the final product before it’s ready for the market.

Typically, a pottery complex was expansive, featuring one or more kilns essential for firing the pots. The site would also encompass additional facilities such as drying lofts, woodsheds, warehouses, and a salesroom to support the entire production process. Often, the owners lived right on the premises, blending their personal and professional lives seamlessly within these bustling hubs of ceramic activity.

A woman working in the production area

Production of Delftware

At the pottery studio, each artisan focused on a specific specialty, taking charge of distinct stages of the production process.

The intricate process behind the creation of Delftware is vividly depicted in a late 18th-century account by Gerrit Paape, who drew from his childhood experiences in a pottery. His detailed observations are featured in his book "De plateelbakker of Delftsch aardewerkmaaker" ("The Potter or Delftware Maker," 1794), which includes various illustrations related to the craft.

Mixing the Clay

The crafting of Dutch Delftware utilized a blend of clays: local varieties, a richer clay from Germany, and dry marl sourced from either the Tournai area in Flanders or England. This specific mix was crucial for producing the notably thin and delicate earthenware pieces characteristic of Delftware. These clays underwent a thorough mixing and cleansing process at a clay washery, a separate business that provided refined clay to numerous pottery workshops. This step was vital for ensuring the quality and consistency of the final products.

A clay pit in a workshop

The pottery would store square blocks of clay in pits

In the pottery workshop, large square blocks of clay were initially stored in deep pits.

During the refining process, the washery would combine water with these blocks, mixing different types of clay together. This mixture would be transformed into a liquid state and passed through a fine copper sieve, capturing the material in trays where it would settle and harden. Once dried, the clay was cut back into square blocks and transported back to the pottery to be stored once again in the pits.

Earth treader

One essential role in the pottery was the "aardetrapper" or "earth treader." This individual’s task was to make the clay soft and malleable once more, accomplished by kneading the material with their bare feet.

Throwing and shaping

After softening, the clay was ready for shaping. This next stage involved the skilled hands of the throwers and shapers. Throwers operated the potter’s wheel, skillfully crafting dishes and other round items. Meanwhile, the shapers were responsible for creating various other forms, including vases and animal figurines, using plaster molds to achieve consistent shapes. Details such as knobs and handles were manually crafted and attached using a sticky mixture known as clay slurry.

This streamlined process from storage to shaping ensures that every piece of pottery is crafted with precision and care, ready to become a functional or decorative item.

Air-dried clay pieces

Separate components would be stuck onto the object using clay slurry

At this stage, the clay pieces were still quite wet and needed to be air-dried in a drying loft to prevent cracking during the kiln firing. Once adequately dry, the shaper could then fine-tune any final details.

Initial Firing

Before glazing, the pottery underwent an initial firing. Kiln stokers would raise the temperature between 800-1000° C, turning the clay hard and giving it a buff color. These pieces were referred to as 'ruw gebakken goed,' or 'rough fired wares,' a term that has evolved today into 'biscuit' in both Dutch and English.

Glazing Process

Next, the 'gevers,' or 'givers,' would meticulously clean the biscuit wares before immersing them in a tin glaze mixture. This concoction, a blend of lead, tin, sand, soda, and salt, was first fired in the kiln to create a glass-like surface, then pulverized in a paint mill for application.

If a simple white finish was desired, the pottery was ready for a second firing. Alternatively, designs could be added by a painter known as a 'plateelschilder.'

Decorative Painting

The 'plateelschilder' would either paint designs by hand or use a technique involving a pounce—a perforated paper template—to outline designs in charcoal dust on the pottery. This method ensured consistency in patterns across multiple pieces, setting the stage for the final artistic touches.

A glaze firing phase

The grey pigment turned bright blue in the kiln

The renowned blue pigment, cobalt oxide, is sourced from mines in Germany. Initially, when applied to ceramics, it appears as a dark grey hue. However, upon undergoing the transformative heat of the kiln, it emerges as a vibrant blue. The intensity of the blue is directly linked to the purity of the cobalt used. To enhance the sheen of the ceramics, a transparent layer of lead glaze can be applied in a technique known as kwaarten.

For the second round in the kiln 

referred to as the ‘glaze’ or ‘glost’ firing, the ceramics are carefully placed back inside. They are protected within earthenware containers called saggars to shield them from direct flame and fumes. To prevent the pieces from sticking to one another, they are spaced apart with pegs. Post this firing, the surfaces of the ceramics become notably smooth. This entire firing and cooling process spans several days. High temperatures can cause the earthenware to distort, while too rapid cooling may lead to cracking. After cooling, the ceramics are inspected and categorized based on quality—those without flaws are termed ‘schoongoed’ and the slightly imperfect ones are labeled 'entredeux' or ‘wrak’. The kiln firing can be unpredictable, evidenced by an incident where a batch of Delft blue ceramics unexpectedly turned green!

In the third firing phase 

while many colors can be applied before the second firing using the grand feu technique, hues like gold, red, and black are prone to vanishing due to the high temperatures. These colors are therefore added post the second firing. The ceramics are then subjected to a third firing at a lower temperature of 600 degrees Celsius, utilizing the petit feu technique. This stage is occasionally done by artisans at home using smaller, specialized muffle kilns.


What exactly is Delftware, and how did it get its name?

Delftware is a type of glazed earthenware that originated in the Dutch city of Delft. Named after its city of origin, this distinctive pottery is noted for its white and blue designs, which were inspired by Chinese porcelain of the 17th century.

Can you describe the initial steps involved in making Delftware?

The process begins with the preparation of the clay, which is meticulously shaped and cleaned to remove any impurities. Artisans then form the objects, often using a potter’s wheel, and allow them to air dry to a leather-hard state before proceeding with the first firing.

What techniques are used to apply the iconic blue designs on Delftware?

Once the initial firing is complete, the Delftware pieces are dipped in a white tin glaze. After drying, artists hand-paint the intricate blue patterns onto the glazed surface using a cobalt blue oxide. This method allows for the vibrant blue designs to remain intact even after the final glazing.

What happens during the firing process of Delftware?

Delftware undergoes two key firings. The first, known as the bisque firing, hardens the shaped clay. After painting, the pottery is subjected to a higher temperature glaze firing, which fuses the tin glaze and the painted designs to the pottery, ensuring durability and the signature glossy finish.

How has Delftware maintained its cultural significance over the years?

Delftware holds a special place in art and cultural history due to its unique style and the skill required to produce it. Museums around the world feature Delftware prominently, and contemporary artists continue to keep the tradition alive by incorporating modern influences while adhering to traditional techniques.