Piecing Together the British Traditional Ceramics Landscape
The British ceramic industry has been going through a period of growth for the last 15 years.
Ceramics have been a traditional staple to the British identity for a long time, particularly in the north of England in the Yorkshire area. From Viking “settlers” through the era of Josiah Wedgwood—a ceramic manufacturer in the 1700s renowned for his skill with chemistry—to the modern-day bespoke industry, ceramics have been used both as tools and artwork throughout British society. After a decline in business since the heyday of ceramics in Britain 150 years ago, the British ceramic industry has been going through a period of growth for the last 15 years.
At its peak in the 19th century, the ceramics trade in Britain employed more than 100,000 people. In the late ’70s, this number had dropped but was still somewhere around 52,000. The decline came from the financial recession in the UK, as well as the globalization of the industry as a whole. Cheap labor costs and minimal or no health and safety legislation in the Far East meant that ceramics could be mass produced at a far cheaper cost, even when taking into account transportation costs. This meant fewer contracts and declining sales for British firms, resulting in less money for skills development and technological investment.
This circular feedback loop caused a downward trend in ceramics, with the employment numbers hitting a low of around 10,000 in 2008. Since then, however, employment has stabilized and has begun to rise as workshops and factories have started hiring again.
The industry as a whole in Stoke-on-Trent, the potteries capital of Britain, is looking much healthier than it did in the early 2000s. Ceramic production in Stoke and the Staffordshire area deal with everything from brick and roofing tile to dinner sets and vases. Most of the growth has come from tableware and giftware, where exports rose by 37% between 2009 and 2015. With a strong showing for the first six months, 2016 is looking to improve on 2015’s figures by a further 5.4%.
How has this come about? Firstly, global demand: consumers, particularly in Germany, the U.S. and Japan, have become increasingly disagreeable to buying high-end wares manufactured cheaply in Asia but sold under Western brand names. With British ceramics, particularly West of Scotland and Stoke products, still being regarded as some of the highest quality in the world, the British ceramics industry has been given a new lease on life.
Secondly, Asia has become less attractive with regard to outsourcing. Rising energy and labor costs, as well as a push for more humanitarian employment and health and safety legislation, have increased the overall cost of production. Issues such as the Apple manufacturing plant scandal have also been linked to causing negative public images for the companies involved, decreasing consumer trust in the brand—and as a consequence, spending. This, combined with the rising costs, has made manufacturers wary of pushing production to Asia.
Stoke hosts the British Ceramics Biennial festival, an eight-week exhibition and international showcase. The last festival was held September 26-November 8, 2015. Showcasing works from the likes of sculptor Bruce McLean, Nao Matsunaga, and Ian McIntyre, the festival aims to increase public participation and celebration of ceramics as a whole. A variety of exhibits and interactive installations allowed a hands-on approach to learning.
In addition, the BBC recently aired “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” a ceramics version of the “The Great British Bake Off,” filmed at Stoke’s Middleport Pottery factory. The same factory received a £9 million (approximately $11 million) makeover in 2014 as a result of Prince Charles’ Regeneration Trust. The restoration involved conserving historical buildings and collections on the site, as well as creating new visitor facilities such as a shop, café, and exhibition gallery. Middleport also built new workshop and office spaces on vacant plots on the site, saving 50 jobs and creating 30 more.
All of this is good news for the British traditional ceramics industry. With increased global spending, government and private investment in the industry, increasingly cheaper costs for technological upgrades and a resurgence in the ceramics trade as a career path, it looks like the growth of the last few years is here to stay.
For additional information, visit www.msmugs.com.