Creating Sculptures with “Clay Fabric”

How to Create Realistic Fabric-like Surfaces with Clay!

Sculptures with "Clay Fabric"

At first glance, Keith Schneider’s sculptures almost appear to be made of soft fabric. In fact, he calls the thin textured slabs he uses “clay fabric.” This is of course due to that wonderful, soft, squishable quality that is unique to clay. In today’s post, an excerpt from the October 2020 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Keith shares how he constructs his clay sculptures from wheel thrown, slab and coil parts. –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

PS. To learn how Keith builds up surface depth and color with underglazes and stains, check out the October 2020 issue of Ceramics Monthly.

For many years, I have been attracted to objects that wear their history, and have collected these things as inspiration for my ceramic pieces, and to use in my assemblages and collages. I like the quality of these things, and how time has given them a story that can be read into. In my ceramic work, inspired by things I have scavenged, I often invent my own found objects and materials. In my more recent work, I have used clay fabric to dress up my characters and clay tape and stitching to hold them together.

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Texture has been an integral part of my ceramic work for as long as I have been working with clay. The malleability and consistency of clay allows for endless options for tactile surfaces, and in my case, permits me to recreate in my pieces textures and finishes found in the real world. In this article, I share the steps taken to create my ceramic figures and the finished surfaces.

Gracie, 18 in. (46 cm) in width, ceramic, 2017.

Sophia and Charles, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, ceramic, 2019.

Building the Figure

Beginning on the wheel, I throw the parts that will be used for the bodies of the figures, as well as other objects such as wheels and hats (1). At the same time, I handbuild any other parts that might be needed. This includes, but is not limited to, coil- or slab-building less symmetrical parts such as animal legs, carts, and musical instruments.

When the thrown and handbuilt parts are leather hard, I score and slip them together to construct the figure’s general armature. Most of my figurative ceramic pieces range in size from between 10–30 inches, with the average being around 20 inches tall. Much of my inspiration comes from looking at vintage toys, dolls, and stuffed animals and the size of these objects has influenced the scale of my work. 

When the structural form is complete, I roll out thin slabs of clay (2). My slabs are generally between 1/8–1/16 inch thick and the size of the slabs vary, but they are usually no larger than 12 inches in any direction. I roll them out, using a rolling pin, onto textured fabric or textured plaster molds, and carefully attach them with slip to the armature, trying not handle them too much, so that they keep their fluidity and natural-looking folds and wrinkles (see 3). I have boxes of various textured fabric pieces that I have found over the years, and use these as inspiration for the wide variety of textures and patterns that I incorporate in my work.

1 Wheel-thrown and handbuilt leather-hard parts ready for assembly.

2 Create textured thin slabs by rolling over fabric or press molds.

3 After leather-hard parts have been assembled, add thin clay fabric-formed slabs to the piece.

4 A collection of the basic tools used for handbuilding and creating fine details.

Once the textured slabs are attached to the armature (3), I begin to add other elements that contribute to the character and personality of the piece. Adding clay buttons, stitching, and manipulated texture helps to reinforce the visual quality that I want to achieve. A small extruder as well as a tracing wheel are used (4) for stitching effects, and I have made plaster molds of various buttons that I’ve found (5). Clay buttons are used for eyes and other decorative elements on my figures. At this stage, I am often referring to photos of vintage dolls and stuffed animals to get ideas for surface quality, texture, and overall gesture and personality traits. Once satisfied that all the details needed at this building stage are in place (6–9), I dry the piece very slowly, partially covered with plastic. This stage is very important to prevent cracks from forming in the slabs. When the work is completely dry, I load it into the kiln for a cone-03 bisque firing.

5 Make press molds of buttons or various textured objects from plaster or clay that can be used later in the work.

6 Attach textured slabs to the clay armature and add holes for extruded clay stitching.

7 Use a rolling tracing tool to create simulated stitching marks.

8 Add extruded clay coils to simulate larger stitching. At this point, the building is almost complete.

the author Keith Schneider is a ceramic and mixed-media artist and a ceramics professor at Humboldt State University living in Arcata, California. To see more of his work, visit and on Instagram


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