SalaffMug 2 OL

Pattern and fabrics have been interconnected for millennia. From the materials that we cover ourselves with to those that are used in the home, fabric has been useful, even necessary, for survival. Rather than using plain cloth, however, humans have wanted to add decoration, which often takes the form of pattern.

Pattern is a way of organizing elements in a systematic and rhythmic way that is visually pleasing. If, as author and lecturer and Ellen Dissanayake states in her book What is Art For?, one of the underlying reasons that humans make art is to provide order and safety in the midst of an unpredictable and dangerous environment, pattern is the ultimate reassurance with its repetition and predictability. However, humans also like to surround themselves with beauty, so if one beautiful shape or line is lovely,  repeating patterns of them are even better!

Choosing Patterns and Techniques

Sometimes a pattern has a meaning, sometimes it’s merely decorative. Many of the patterns in use today are decorative adaptations of specific shapes that once had meaning to both the maker and the user. As Susan Meller and Joost Elffers write in Textile Designs: Two Hundred Years of European and American Patterns, patterns that had specific meanings at their inception later travel through various cultures and treatments. When not in use, they return to the archive, only to be reincarnated at a later time in a new place or in a new style, as she explains “…as if [Carl] Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious were made literal in this storage of shapes.”

Ceramic artists often reference historical patterns in their surface decoration, whether with straightforward appreciation or as a Postmodern pastiche of cultures and history. Patterns carry a lot of visual baggage. Using a pattern created by another culture should be done consciously and with care taken to make effective choices so it sits comfortably as part of the work. If the intention isn’t to call up a specific culture or era, it’s best to use a decorating method that changes the pattern’s appearance enough that it’s not immediately recognizable. To deliberately call up past uses of the pattern, use a technique like screen-printing or printed decals to reproduce it faithfully.

When using pattern as decoration in my work, I either choose one that’s very generic, such as repeating lines or diamonds, or use only a section of a historical pattern in a manner that focuses the attention on the brushwork technique or the color of the glaze. I’ll also choose to use a pattern with vines, flowers, or leaves for slip trailing or carving with an X-Acto knife to allow for flowing line work.

A variety of stamps and materials for embossing patterns onto clay slabs. Detail of one of Salaff’s mugs showing two patterns paired together but applied using different techniques.

Combining Line with Relief Pattern

I think about ways in which the pattern will interact with the surface. Will I apply the pattern to the surface with trailed underglaze or glaze? Will I carve it in with a knife and fill in the carved areas with glaze later? Or do I impress the pattern into the surface so that it becomes part of the form itself? I also like to have the surface decoration influence the clay. I accomplish this with a glaze that is saturated with copper and chrome that fumes and causes the clay around it to blush. This associates the surface and the decoration together more closely.

Embossed patterns are more closely related to the form than surface patterns. Using found objects or bisque/plaster molds to impress a pattern on the clay that you then use to create a form integrates that pattern into the form in a more intense way, akin to using a textured fabric to form a garment rather than a printed one. I like to combine this kind of texture with the surface pattern for variety.

My mugs have a wheel-thrown base, a textured slab top, and feature both trailed and embossed patterns. The two are tied together with a handle made of both textured pattern and un-textured clay.

To create the fabric-like pattern, I used a bisque stamp made from the impression of the non-slip surface of a rolling stool (see the bottom stamp in A). Because my grandmother gave this stool to me when I moved to California, and her husband had given it to her 30 years before, this stamp has a personal significance to me.

Pairing Pattern and Form

First, throw a cylinder from a ½-pound of clay, opening right down to the wheel head for a bottomless form (1). Give the form a wider top than bottom, and use a rib to round out the shape for a more volumetric piece. A teacher once told me that volumetric forms look generous, and I’ve enjoyed working with them ever since.

Next roll out a ¼-inch-thick slab. Compress both sides well with a flexible rib. Press your chosen pattern into the slab. Using a template, trace then cut out the patterned area of the top section of the mug (2). Consider the proportions of the top to the bottom for maximum visual appeal. I use a template based upon one of Sandi Pierantozzi’s CircleMatic Form Finder ( handbuilding templates: I started with her template D and then made a copy and cut it down to size to make a shorter piece that better relates to the size of the wheel-thrown bottoms I make. To make the upper portion of the cup, use one full template-cut slab and half of another. For variety flip the smaller section so that the pattern is on the inside and the outside is smooth.

After beveling the edges and slipping and scoring them well, attach these two pieces together with the larger piece on the outside, overlapping the smaller one. I use a joining slip with CMC gum added, to create a stronger bond. Apply pressure to connect the pieces securely. Use your finger to clean the edge of the connections, then the side of a wooden rib to enhance the transition line between the two pieces. Next, plump out the walls using either a soft sponge or your fingers and some water (3). Keeping your joining slip on the thick side ensures that the seams set up faster. Rotate the bat as you go rather than picking the piece up to turn it as it may be quite floppy. Be careful not to mar the texture. Set the top aside while you make the handle.

Figure 1 Figure 2Figure 3

Assembling a Rolled Slab Handle

Roll out a fresh slab that’s slightly thinner than the slabs made for the top of the cup, press a pattern stamp into the slab. Cut out the bottom section of the handle (4), curl it into a tube shape while the slab is as moist as possible, core and apply slip to both edges to be joined, then attach them together (5). Make the top part of the handle with a smooth slab curled into a tube (6). Attach the two parts together, using a wooden rib to reinforce the connecting seam, adjust the shape of the curve if needed, and put the handle aside to set up (7).

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Assembling the Cup Parts

Score and slip the inside of the cup’s top thrown part, and the outside of the slab part. Set the top into the bottom, and attach firmly. Use a pony roller to press the thrown rim into the slab section (8), and reach your finger into the cup to press the slab piece into the thrown bottom.

Use the bottom of your thrown form as a template to cut a circle shape for the base. With a rasp, angle the bottom of the thrown piece so it leans just slightly to one side (9). This balances the weight of the handle. Attach the cup to the base. Create a softer feel for the base by pressing down in three parts with your fingers (10). Roll the rest of the base on a bat so that the bottom edge curls up slightly.

Figure 8 Figure 9Figure 10

Use a pony roller on the inside of the slab rims to thin it (11). Use fingers and a sponge to make the edge thinner and smoother. Attach the handle to the side opposite the slight lean and place a thin coil over the top of the connection area as a reinforcement (12). Prop the handle with a piece of clay for support. Set aside.

Once the mug is firm but still leather hard, use a wooden rib and a sponge to reinforce the seams and clean up any marks on the surface. Sometimes when working with impressed slabs, thinner areas tend to rip; handle them carefully to avoid this as a tear or distressed area can turn into a crack later.

Figure 11 Figure 12

When the cup is bone dry, slip trail a floral pattern (to contrast with the geometric pattern of the stamped texture) onto the bottom half with underglaze. Bisque fire, then glaze the interior of the bottom section with a clear liner glaze. Brush two different glazes on the two different interior sections of the top (here I’ve used a semi-matte yellow for the larger section). Next, brush a glaze that works well with texture over the exterior. I’ve used a copper and chrome-saturated glaze over the surface texture on the exterior of the top of the cup. If you use a glaze like this, wipe away most of the glaze so that it remains only in the recessed areas. After the firing, these areas will show fumed copper and chrome blushing around the textures. Choose a compatible color for your handle and trailed surface pattern. Here, I’ve brushed a thin coat of chartreuse glaze over the textured part of the handle, and used the same glaze to fill the leaves of the pattern. Lastly, I brush a clear glaze over the slip-decorated area, and brush the yellow interior glaze onto the non-textured part of the handle to tie the interior and exterior together visually, before firing the piece to cone 5 in oxidation with a ten-minute soak at the end to smooth out the glaze surfaces.

Shana Angela Salaff is an artist and instructor living in Fort Collins, Colorado. To see more of her work, visit

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