YiXing Purple Clay Producing Process
Yixing pottery is not made on a potter's wheel or with thin coils of clay. Instead, artisans use a complex array of hand tools to shape the parts of a teapot, then put them together before firing. All the parts of a single teapot must come from the same lump of clay and must be worked at the same time - otherwise differences in the consistency of the clay or changes in air temperature or humidity of the environment where it is worked could cause cracks and breaks when the pot is fired. Each pot is made of five parts - base, lid, walls, spout, and handle. After "tenderizing" a suitable lump of clay with a heavy wooden mallet, the artisan slices it up and rolls out a thin sheet to use as a base, making it a perfect circle with a small compass. He then rolls out and pounds clay for the walls and shapes them around the base to form the curved sides of the pot. He then forms the handle and spout, attaches them, and then creates the lid, perhaps the most challenging part of the pot. The pot then dries in the air for two days before being fired in a kiln. Since the clay can crack easily, it is slowly moved deeper and deeper into the oven to prevent it from heating too fast. After being fired for 18-24 hours, depending on the clay and the item, the pot is finished and ready for some tea leaves!
The workbench of a Yixing artisan is crowded with a bewildering array of tools, whose specialized uses have evolved over the centuries. There are separate compasses for measuring lid, bases, and walls of the pots, different mallets for pots with different shapes of walls, a plethora of knives and tiny awls, and tools uses to create the countors of everything from aged wood to the wrinkly skin of a gourd. A good set of tools and a thorough familiarity with their use is perhaps the key to the teapot craftsman's art.
This seemingly simple process is actually quite demanding, especially for the simplest and least decorated pots. For while small imperfections can be hidden underneath decorations or carving, even the smallest flaws or imbalances in the shape of an undecorated pot are obvious even to an untrained eye. While round, unadorned teapots, differing in shape and curve, are a classic favorite, Yixing teapots are also decorated in all sorts of beautiful designs. At one extreme are pots shaped to look like fruits and vegetables, or pieces of wood or bamboo, with amazingly lifelike textures and artful imperfections. Others are decorated with Chinese calligraphy or poems. One of the most traditional and beautiful styles combines the simplicity of plain teapots with touches drawn from nature - such as crafting the handle to look like a plum branch, with a small spray of flowers spreading over a section of the pot.