Meet studio potter, Susan Frankel from Caractacus Pots, maker of country-style ceramics

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Meet the Maker: Caractacus Pots

Susan Frankel from Caractacus Pots is a professional musician and accidental potter. It was when she was looking for tiles for her kitchen splashback that a friend suggested she should try making her own. One hundred and forty-four ceramic tiles and a battle with the pottery wheel later, she was hooked. Fellow Folksy seller Sally Banks from Granary Glass caught up with Susan to learn more about her pottery and inspirations.

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I like my pieces to have a use as well as to look nice on the shelf.

Caractacus Pots is a lovely cheerful name for your business. How did you come up with the name?
My eldest son was mad about the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the main character is called Professor Caractacus Potts. Like a lot of kids, he chanted the name endlessly, which meant it made its way into my head. When I was asked for a business name by a local craft market, it suddenly jumped out at me. I keep nervously expecting Ian Fleming’s estate to come after me for royalties…

Many of your products solve practical problems, such as your coffee filter cones, cutlery and utensil drainer and yarn bowls. How important is it to you that your products are used and not just ornamental?
I reason that I can’t be the only person around who is not a fan of ornamental items that just sit on the shelf gathering dust (I’m not keen on dusting either), so I like my pieces to have a use as well as to look nice on the shelf. I like to think of people having them on display and then being able to get them down and use them too.

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A fellow potter correctly identified that the reason pottery is so addictive is that it’s just like gambling. Each attempt might get slightly nearer to what you want to achieve and leaves you with the feeling that with just one more try (one more roll of the dice) you might just get it perfect.

You tried many other crafts before turning your hand to pottery. What is it about working with clay that you find so addictive? 
Yes that’s true – I used to be an obsessive knitter. My cupboards are still bulging with old handknits. I was fairly free-hand, rarely using patterns, and my head was constantly full of ideas for new knits. After taking up pottery, those ideas were all pushed out by ceramic ideas and I haven’t knitted at all since. A fellow potter correctly identified that the reason pottery is so addictive is that it’s just like gambling. The results are often so unexpected (whether good or bad) and we keep striving for that elusive success. Each attempt might get slightly nearer to what you want to achieve and leaves you with the feeling that with just one more try (one more roll of the dice) you might just get it perfect.

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I couldn’t find any tiles for the splashback that I liked, and my friend suggested (“you like making things”) that I go along to her pottery classes and learn to make my own.

How did you get started in pottery? 
Back in 2004, I had built a new kitchen on to my house and converted the old, very small one, into a cloakroom. I couldn’t find any tiles for the splashback that I liked, and my friend suggested (“you like making things”) that I go along to her pottery classes and learn to make my own. I was not at all keen. I’ve really never liked getting dirty and knew that it was quite a messy hobby. Of course, I went along out of curiosity. I made the (144 ) tiles and it was a very interesting project as they were made in small batches, and each one used a new decorative technique. I had intended to stop the course once they were finished, but my teacher wouldn’t let me go until I had tried the pottery wheel. That, I really was not keen to try. I had seen that episode of the Generation Game, thank you. But I had to agree to give it a go… and was totally hopeless at it. So it became a battle of wills. I was determined not to give up on the wheel until I had a least got something that would stand up. Naturally, when I eventually did make a tiny little pot, about the size of an egg cup, I was completely hooked!

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Pottery can be very frustrating… spending several hours constructing something, seeing it through its first firing without breaking it, carefully glazing it and then finding it comes out badly from the glaze firing, which is so temperamental. Glazes that worked perfectly last week suddenly start running down all over the shelves or change colour!

Which is the most satisfying piece to make and why?
Anything that turns out the way I had hoped it would is really satisfying! Pottery can be very frustrating… spending several hours constructing something, seeing it through its first firing without breaking it, carefully glazing it, and then finding it comes out badly from the glaze firing, which is so temperamental. Glazes that worked perfectly last week suddenly start running down all over the shelves or change colour! I have sometimes put a pair of mugs in the kiln next to each other and they come out looking completely different from each other.

I always open the kiln with some trepidation. It can be like Christmas morning, with lots of beautiful presents to open, but not always. With knitting, for example, if you think something is going wrong, you can unpick it and put it right as you go along, but with pottery you only discover it’s a disaster right at the end of the process when it’s too late to change anything.

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I put off building a proper studio for a long time, worrying that then I’d feel obliged to use it and lose my love for clay.

Has moving into a proper studio (as opposed to working in a draughty car port) helped your creativity?
I don’t know about the creativity part because I always found a way to make something if I got the urge (which I usually did) even if the weather was terrible. In the hard winter, even if I used hot water for throwing, I would have to come indoors after only about six pots as my hands would be too stiff with cold to carry on. It was pretty awful out there sometimes, but I put off building a proper studio for a long time, worrying that then I’d feel obliged to use it and lose my love for clay. But two years ago I decided to go for it and it has certainly made it more comfortable to work! Now I can produce a lot more and happily pot all day – or in the evenings, if I’ve been out at work all day. I previously had to do a lot of work at the kitchen table, as I only had the wheel and kiln outside, so that would all have to be cleared away if the family needed it. It’s a luxury having a really large work bench now, so everything can be left out ready for more tweaking…

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I always open the kiln with some trepidation. It can be like Christmas morning, with lots of beautiful presents to open, but not always.

What has been the highlight of your potting career so far?
I was very chuffed when, a few years ago the Folksy office bought one of my teapots for their own use! I often wonder if they still have it. [Editor’s note: we absolutely do and still love it!]

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I was very chuffed when, a few years ago the Folksy office bought one of my teapots for their own use!

You have a wonderful variety of items for sale on Folksy. Where do you get your ideas from?
My Folksy customers will often approach me with requests, which will then sometimes evolve into regular makes. One of these was the personalised spaniel bowl. I was asked for a curved-in bowl to stop their long-eared dog drooping his ears in his water, and this soon became a popular item that I made regularly. Then people started asking for their dog’s name on the bowl too, so now I have a fairly steady stream of requests for those as well. Colleagues at my day job (I’m a musician as well as a potter) often come to me with ideas of things they’ve seen and would like too. In return, they all keep me well supplied with their old bubblewrap and cardboard boxes.

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I was determined not to give up on the pottery wheel until I had a least got something that would stand up. Naturally, when I eventually did make a tiny little pot, about the size of an egg cup, I was completely hooked!

How do you start to design your products? Do you sketch out ideas first or does it come more organically from playing around with the clay? 
My studio is full of old envelopes with little pictures drawn on them, which are the usual starting point for a new item! But it is easier just to take a lump of clay to try out even the most unfeasible shapes. Not much goes to waste. Almost every piece makes it to a finished, glazed item and, if it isn’t quite right, it will still take up residence in my own kitchen cupboards and eventually into my highly unmatched dinner service. Visitors who politely admire the wonky rejects will be urged to take them home with them.

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I love to experiment all the time, with different clay textures, altered forms and new glazes. This results in a large variety in my shop, so buyers can usually find something they will like.

Can you describe your daily working routine?
I’m always up early and, while I have my first of many cups of tea of the day, I will reply to any emails that have come in during the night. The internet shop never sleeps…

Each day is different. First I will try to get on and wrap and box up the previous day’s sales ready to be posted. If the kiln has been on, and cooled down, then unloading that will be a priority. I’m curious to see the results. Next up is usually a throwing session of about 90 minutes. There are often a few items needed to fill gaps in the shop, and possibly a couple of new ideas I want to try out. After a quick shower (I’ll be well covered in clay by now) it’s off to the Post Office and maybe a bit of shopping. When I get back, I’ll take photos of any pots that have come out of the kiln, and try to get some of them listed in the shop. By the afternoon, the pots from the morning session will be dry enough to turn and fettle, and I might glaze a few pots too while I listen to the radio. In the evening, I try to load the the kiln, if there are enough dried-out pots to fill it up, and then it will be fired overnight so that I can still use the studio during the day. I have to avoid having the kiln on while I’m in there as the fumes can be noxious and the heat a bit unbearable, especially in the summer.

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Pottery is a perfect hobby for someone like me, with a short attention span, as there is plenty of variety and always much tinkering to be done. I can flit quite legitimately from one task to another.

You have a loyal following on Folksy with over a thousand sales. What do you attribute to your success?
I do try to keep a good variety of items in my shop and to keep it well stocked, which gives browsing customers lots of choice. I love to experiment all the time, with different clay textures, altered forms and new glazes. This results in a large variety in my shop, so buyers can usually find something they will like. I do also spend a lot of time doing the necessary sharing on social networking, which makes a huge difference to views and sales.

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The thought that a complete stranger (not some unfortunate colleague who I had guilt-tripped into buying something) had trawled through about 3000 pottery items and chosen mine was so thrilling. And I still find it thrilling.

What is the best compliment you’ve received about your work?
Really just the fact that people seem to like the things I make, and come back time and time again to buy more pieces as gifts for their friends and family. When I first opened my Folksy shop back in 2009, when the site was still being beta tested, I was very sceptical about whether ceramics would sell online, and certainly didn’t expect to have much success. They are heavy to post, and one of those things that people tend to like to pick up and feel before they buy. So when I got my first sale on here, I was beside myself with excitement! The thought that a complete stranger (not some unfortunate colleague who I had guilt-tripped into buying something) had trawled through about 3000 pottery items and chosen mine was so thrilling. And I still find it thrilling.

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My Folksy customers will often approach me with requests, which will then sometimes evolve into regular makes.

What does the rest of 2017 have in store for your business?
I keep expecting that one day I will suddenly decide I’m bored with pottery, as has happened with so many other crafts before. So, hopefully, I will keep the new ideas coming and get enough successful firings to keep me motivated. Maybe 2017 will be the year I finally get round to starting up my own pottery classes here at Caractacus Pots HQ…

Shop Caractacus Pots ceramics on Folksy >

 

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Discover more handmade ceramics on Folksy > 

 


Meet the interviewer

Granary Glass, fused glass, kiln formed glass, fused glass, fused glass art, fused glass artist, Sally Banks,The maker asking the questions this week is fused glass artist Sally Banks from Granary Glass. Sally is a glass artist based in Nottinghamshire who makes fused glass hanging decorations, fused glass bowls, stained glass panels and lampshades using a mixture of mosaic, stained glass and kiln formed glass techniques.

Read our interview with Sally from Granary Glass >

 

 

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