Processing The Clay

As already pointed out, obtaining and processing the best clay has always been a problem for the potters. Changes are reluctantly made.

During the early part of the twentieth century, the Indians were still beating their clay and thus removing impurities exactly as their ancestors had done for centuries. The Brown family demonstrated this method for Harrington. "When the material had been brought in, John placed some of the moist pipe clay upon a little platform of boards, and began to pound it with his pestle. . . . As the clay flattened and spread under this vigorous treatment his wife turned it back toward the center of the board, deftly picking out bits of stick and stone the while. As the pounding continued, dry pan clay and water were added until the proper proportions—about two parts of pan [pipe] clay to one of pipe [pan] clay—were reached, and the mass had attained the proper consistency" (Harrington 1908:403).

Although the Indians abandoned beating their clay shortly after Harrington's visit, many of them recall the process with nostalgia:

Back when I was little, we didn't have no cars, and I went with my grandma Sarah Jane Harris. We would get our clay on the reservation, and we took a knife and sat at the hole and picked it out and put it in a sack and carried it home. It was not sifted and mixed with pipe clay. We beat it on a board with a maul. It was rounded on the ends and a little in the middle to fit the hand. You could beat with either end. Then we put the clay in a cloth and sat in the shade and picked it. Took out all the roots, gravel, strings. I can see my grandmother where Frances [Wade] lives. It was a log house then where the frame house is. There were two big cedar trees and a big sycamore tree. We never sifted or strained at all. (Edith Brown, interview, 21 April 1977, BC)

In Doris Blue's childhood home, a similar process was followed, but the Wheelocks had a "board which was like a large tray." The clay was beaten on this tray and its sides kept the clay from spreading to the ground and picking up dirt and other impurities. The two kinds of clay were beaten together. The pipe clay was beaten and picked fresh from the clay hole while it was still elastic. The dry pan clay was slowly added to the pipe. The beating continued until the clay reached the proper consistency (Doris Blue, interview, 15 March 1977, BC).

Harrington was possibly around too early to record an innovation that would eventually do away with the time-consuming process of beating the clay, but the transition from the old method to the new began early in the twentieth century. Almost as soon as window wire became available the potters began to soak and strain clay through a wire as an alternative to beating. The Catawba are not able to point to a date for this occurrence because the actual transition from beating to straining was slow, probably due at least in part to the cost of window wire. Also, window wire does not last long once it is exposed to wet clay and hence has to be replaced frequently, adding cost to the process. It is quite conceivable that a family might use the two methods interchangeably depending on the availability of wire, at least until window wire became a universal part of the average Catawba home. Martha Jane Harris is recognized as the potter who discovered this labor-saving method (Furman Harris, interview, 19 April 1977, BC).

Originally the Indians started out with one kind of clay and used the pipe clay for pipes only and added the pan clay for big pieces. My grandmother, Martha Jane Harris, said the old method was "too shorty," and she went to combining the two right away. She mixed them. The pieces stood up better, stronger, and she passed the idea on to all the people. Then we used to beat the clay, and Epp Harris made a hickory log maul for grandmother to beat her clay and pick out the gravel and roots. Again grandmother looked for a better way to do it, so she soaked it in a tin tub, say for several days or a week, then she got a wire from a window screen, dug out a hole in the ground in the yard, lined the hole with rags and oil cloth—denim to protect the clay from getting dirt in it and poured the clay over the wire and strained it out and all the trash came out. She let it dry right there, and if a rain came she would cover it right up. She was pretty good at new things. (Furman Harris, interview, 19 April 1977, BC)

Furman Harris divides his grandmother's contributions into two distinct parts. Evidently, at the end of the nineteenth century the Catawba only added pan clay if and when they planned to construct large vessels. Otherwise, they worked exclusively with pipe clay. Martha Jane Harris saw the futility of halting the building process to mix the clay and mixed all her clay by the same formula. Then, as soon as window wire became available, this inventive potter eliminated the exhausting method of beating the clay. Once she poured her clay into her makeshift strainer, the sun and the cloth liner did the work. The water left the clay both by seeping into the ground and evaporating. Martha Jane Harris saved her energy for building pottery.

Today the straining process still follows Martha Jane Harris's method. Georgia Harris learned to strain clay from Martha Jane. She first allows the clay to dry. Then the proper proportions of the two clays are measured and submerged in a tub of water. In May 1977, Mrs. Harris strained a large batch of clay. One portion had already been processed and had dried. It was ready for use. This clay was placed in a plastic bag where it would retain its moisture and elasticity. The potter then prepared a makeshift wooden frame to both support some old sheets and provide a sort of primitive container large enough to hold the drying clay. The sheets rested on the ground so the water would leech out.

The frame consisted of pieces of firewood laid out in a rough square. It was leftover wood I had cut for a burning. Over this frame, Mrs. Harris had placed a double thickness of white sheets. The cloth was shaped into a tray-like affair and was ready to take the straining of clay. The clay was strained with a makeshift fragment of window wire which was placed over the frame and supported on one side by a board. The clay had been soaking in a large tin tub, and Mrs. Harris mixed the solution to make certain the pan and pipe clays were thoroughly mixed. She then scooped up the liquid with a tin can and poured it over the wire. The clay's impurities gathered on top of the wire. When the whole process was completed, the impurities were strained a second time to make certain no usable clay was wasted. After the second straining, the impurities were tossed aside on the grass. This process was continued until the tin tub could be lifted and its contents poured out onto the strainer. (Field Notes, 11 May 1977, BC)

The only real difference in this process as it is practiced is in the quantity of clay handled at any given time. Martin Harris mixed his clay in a 50-gallon drum (Martin Harris, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). Lula Beck had a simple approach to constructing a makeshift frame to hold the straining: "I sift my dry pan clay into my pipe clay and mix them together. I then soak the clay for from several hours to several days, and I strain it through a piece of window wire. I put the wire on top of an old automobile tire, and I have a cloth under it to catch the clay and to keep the clay from getting dirt in it. After it is strained, I roll up the cloth and keep it moist until I use the clay. If the clay will not stand up, it is not ready to work. If it is too soft, it must dry for a couple days longer" (Lula Beck, interview, 17 March 1977, BC).

Some of the potters seldom or never use pan clay since they only make small vessels for the tourist trade. These individuals, of course, know the formula for mixing the two clays (Mae Blue, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). Jennie Brindle was one such potter (Jennie Brindle, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). Although she only customarily used pipe clay, she followed the same general straining process to remove the impurities. As a result of using only pipe clay, her larger vessels often did not stand up well while drying. Collected examples of her work are very light and porous when compared to the sturdy wares made with the two clays.

The actual mixing of the clays follows a nearly fixed formula that is roughly one-third pan clay to two-third's pipe clay. The majority of potters use this recipe. Edith Brown explained her procedure as follows: "You mix so much of pipe and so much of pan clay. I mix a tub full at a time. The pipe clay is soft when I measure it, and I use a gallon of pipe to a half gallon bucket of pan clay. I wait until it is stiff before

I use it (Edith Brown, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). If the potters use more than one-third pan clay the pieces will crack. According to Evelyn George, a potter can tell "by the feel of the clay" if the mixture is not correct" (Evelyn George, interview, 25 March 1977, BC).

Once the clay is mixed and strained, it is left in the open to dry to the proper consistency. In warm weather, this process can take about a week depending on the humidity. If rain threatens, the clay must be covered to protect it, or the potters must be prepared to lengthen the drying period. From time to time, the potter must check the clay to see if it is ready to work. This is done in a fashion similar to a baker working up a batch of yeast dough. In May 1977, Georgia Harris had a large pottery order and was eager to build the needed vessels. When she checked her clay, it was too wet. Rather than wait a day or two, she took some of the clay from around the edges of the batch. This part of the mass was usable. Since the day was hot, as the potter worked, she visited the drying clay and found that more clay could be removed from around the edge of the batch. Toward the end of the day, she declared that the clay was on the verge of becoming too dry. It was then covered to slow down the process (Field Notes, 9 May 1977, BC). During the drying, the potter must watch the clay, for a batch can be rendered unusable quickly under the hot South Carolina sun. "I'll have to say one thing about my grandmother, looking back and knowing the kind of clay she used. I'll have to say she was an expert in knowing clay. She never used but the best clay. She rarely used that which was found on the reservation, because most of the clays made only small pieces and she rarely made small pieces with the exception of pipes and ones that people ordered. She always said making small pieces was like playing. She used only the best clay, and that was the Johnston pipe clay and the blue pan clay from across the river (Georgia Harris, interview, 15 April 1977, BC).

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