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Tappers and dippers – real skills in the potteries give a lesson for us all

July 28, 2010

In a world today where having appears to be more important than knowing, it’s always worth taking a step back and looking at how things are made. For marketers and for sales people, ignorance of production is the first step to lower sales and company collapse – out of the detail comes forth belief.  The rewards of platitudes and lip service are few and disappointing…

Yesterday, I had reason to visit a pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the heart of the Staffordshire potteries. What an eye opener. Here, in an old 19th Century pottery built around an ancient bottle kiln, sat a small group of skilled and dedicated men and women whose love and dedication to their work brings tears to the eye.

No Wedgewood-style Indonesian-sourced pots disguised as British-made goods. No crass abuse of tradition manufactured on soulless production lines. Oh no, here in England’s potteries,  real people make real pottery in the same way they always have: with skill, dedication and belief.

Quietly and charmingly, these workers sit. They fill the moulds with ready slip, they hand attach each mug handle, fire the pots, check carefully for blemishes. Every cup, plate and mug is polished in a bizarre machine which spins each item in a bath of small soft wood blocks the size of dice.

And then each item is dipped into a vitreous bone china glaze prior to a second firing – dipped by the last skilled dipper in England. Not a blemish do we see, such is his skill. Each mug held neatly in the fluid, and removed free from the curse of fossilised paint drip…

Next? Oh, what next? Each item is tapped by a skilled woman listening for the slightest flaw. If the cup or mug rings flat, it is discarded. “Do you go to bed each night hearing a constant ringing?” I ask. “Oh no”, she smiles. “I sleep very well”.

And from tapping to the application of the litho transfers: three women sit calmly in the old-fashioned way, chatting to each other about their friends, their families, their problems, their joys. “What happens if you apply a transfer wonkily?” I ask. One of the women smiles at me. “You don’t apply them wonkily, do you?” I say. They all laugh… Elsewhere, another woman hand paints each cup handle – “Oh no”, she says, “I start shaking when people watch”.

And finally the finishing firing – to produce some of the finest bone china on earth. Hand made in England, in the best possible tradition.

A dedicated team of working men and women. Some getting to work at 5am to meet their deadlines. Each and every one of them cheerful, reliable, skilled and focused.

What is the point of this blog today? The answer lies in what lies behind. When you buy a mug, or a plate, or a cup, you probably don’t care where it’s made or how it is made. But if you knew how it was made, by whom and with what skill, you’d have a different view.

You’d respect the product. You’d respect the people. You’d happily pay a higher price for the skill which went into making it.

You’d keep people in jobs, keeping skills alive and receive in return precious items of profound lineage.

Marketers and sales people have a duty to tell the story of every product they sell. Because real stories, real passion and real belief keep factories going and burn a torch for a future built on hope.

A toast to the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent – a lesson to us all in a world of vanity and self-obsession.

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