It was last summer, in 2019 that I had a light bulb moment as I sipped tea in my garden art studio. I thought, ‘I have these pretty handmade floral prints as art, but wouldn’t they look lovely on a mug?’ It was the seed of an idea for a range of English floral mugs, but where to begin with choosing what kind of mug my designs would be printed on? I had entered a pottery maze...
There were a couple of things I was certain of. Firstly they had to be really good quality – I wanted a mug that would last and stand the test of time. Secondly I wanted the mug to be made in England; my art is made in England and inspired by an English garden, and if possible I wanted to keep things local and sustainable and make the product 100% British.
The maze of online research led me to Stoke on Trent, known as ‘The Potteries’, the centre of the British pottery industry for over 300 years. Initially phoning around and looking on the internet I realised that not all proclaimed ‘potteries’ make their own pots. Some were businesses that imported ceramics from abroad and decorated them in the UK. And amongst the others there were differing levels of quality and style.
I was drawn to one pottery in particular whose heritage goes back over 130 years to 1888. As one of the few remaining potteries in the UK to create china that is 100% British this company really stood out, and if they were good enough for Fortnum and Mason, Twinings and Whittards I knew they would make the best tea mugs for my designs. The bone china made at this pottery is the highest quality you can get with 45% bone ash added to the clay for really superior strength and durability. The pottery still uses the traditional hand skills of experienced potters to create truly exemplary products. They also had their own range of beautiful shapes and designs to choose from – I was looking for something classic and simple to offset the artwork. With clay sourced from Cornwall, manufactured in Stoke and art designed in and inspired by Kent, I felt I was all set to create the quintessentially English product I'd been looking for.
After a visit to Stoke and a thorough tour of the pottery, I was sold. To see the mugs being made, watch them being glazed, see where the handles are attached by hand to each mug, I knew that this was what I wanted for my brand. As a print-maker myself I enjoyed seeing the ‘decals’ or images being screen-printed by hand, and seeing the ladies who affixed the images onto each piece of pottery by hand with such skill. I even saw the studio where moulds were designed and created on site for each new style of chinaware.
I initially had some prototype mugs printed onto cheap stoneware mugs just to see how my designs would look on a mug. I admit, I used to really like a chunky mug but they didn't have quite the refinement I was after, so I continued to search for something a bit more upmarket and better quality. Below you can see the difference in style of the stoneware prototype mug, and the finished fine bone china mug.
There are of course a lot of different types of ceramic to suit every taste and budget, and if this term is confusing to you you’re not alone – I had to learn what types of pottery there were to choose from so I could decide what product to go for. So below is a breakdown of different types of china and some of their pros and cons.
Ceramics is an umbrella term for clay that is fired in kilns – so it covers all of the below. Generally the three main types of pottery/ceramic are earthenware, stoneware and porcelain, of which fine bone china is a type.
These tend to be larger, chunky pottery mugs. Earthenware is very porous and tends to be rough, with a chalky and grainy feel on the surface. Generally these are not glazed retaining that rough texture, although some may have ‘slip’ added to the whole surface or in a pattern, which can seal the clay. Earthenware can be very fragile and have a tendency to chip or break.
Again, mugs made of stoneware tend to be heavy and thicker in style, although often not as chunky as earthenware – think Le Creuset or Cornishware. Stoneware is a relatively cheap type of ceramic to produce and is to be found in much of our everyday, functional drinkware. Some concerns have been raised regarding the toxicity of of some of the glazes used on stoneware since some contain lead and cadmium oxide, which can leach out in small amounts.
The clay used for porcelain has very fine particles – known as kaolin, or china clay – which gives it a much smoother texture than the ceramics listed above. Porcelain gives a thin, almost translucent finish to a mug, and is much less porous than earthenware or stoneware. Heavier and more brittle than fine bone china, porcelain mugs are more prone to chipping.
Bone china, or Fine bone china
Bone china, developed in Stoke on Trent over 220 years ago, uses fine kaolin clay mixed with large quantities of bone ash – good quality fine bone porcelain should have at least 30% bone ash, and the fine bone china I use contains 45%. This gives fine bone china the greatest strength, resilience and durability of all the ceramics, combined with the fine, translucent quality of porcelain, but is lighter than it’s more dense porcelain relatives. Because the resulting product is smooth and non porous, less of the flavour and tannins leach into the mug, making the tea taste better and making the mug less prone to staining. Fine bone china may cost a little more than some stoneware, but it will generally last longer which increases its sustainability.
When looking for the ideal mug for tea, there are several things you should bear in mind. The more porous the mug the more of the initial aroma and flavour will be lost, as more tea will leach into the clay which also makes it harder to clean. The tea should cool at a steady pace, meaning that the wider and chunkier the mug, the faster it is likely to cool. A thin lip on the mug will give you the best sipping experience, allowing the drink to roll smoothly onto the tongue, and the material should be as free of toxic chemicals as possible.
And my one final recommendation for a mug – the aesthetics! Something bright and pretty that brings some style and colour to your kitchen is always a beautiful bonus.