Nestled in the picturesque Northamptonshire countryside at Castle Ashby is Swanspool Ceramics, a relatively new studio operating a very flexible system of classes and open access
Sarah Plackett worked as a freelance translator for years, before signing up to a local authority pottery hand-building evening class in 2001. She immediately loved it, and went straight on to do a throwing course, and then bought her own wheel.
“By chance, the person I bought it from was fairly local and ran classes, so I got more wheel experience there. I had just set up a studio at home, with my own kiln and wheel, when I had to go to San Francisco for work. I wasn’t really expecting to have to go, and I wasn’t looking forward to doing no pottery, so when I got there I thought I’d take a class. I found Clay by the Bay (claybythebaysf.com), the studio that the model for mine is based on.
“You could do anything there; it was so flexible – a two-hour taster session, six-week classes, and there were memberships – there was something for everyone. Classes included open access time, where you could come in outside your class times and use the studio, and that’s where most of my wheel training came in. I was there for just over a year, and did the courses, and the membership, and watched how they ran it. I thought it would have been perfect for me when I was starting out, but there wasn’t really anything like it here.
“I was still enjoying translation work, but I was looking for something else to do, so I started focusing on my pottery, and it all just fell into place. I came back to the UK in October 2016, having already started to look at premises while still in the USA. I happened across this studio and a friend came and looked at it for me. She sent me a video and photos, and said what she thought was good and bad about it. Really, it was all cosmetic stuff, and once the floor had been replaced and the whole lot was painted, it was ready to go!”
Sarah also took the unit next door, and both studios were swiftly fitted out with wheels, kilns and all the necessary equipment. The second studio eventually proved too small, and in June this year, Sarah moved it across the courtyard, into a bigger unit with a good first-floor space as well. This third, upstairs studio is used for hand-building classes and provides a second glazing area.
Opening a studio (or three!) is a big commitment, and the only thing that Sarah knew for sure was that there’s always a waiting list for the local adult learning courses, which have no throwing content. She also knew that she wanted to run her studio on the same lines as Clay by the Bay. “When I was there, there was one wheel for 15 people. The idea of having a studio that had a wheel for everyone and there being one available any time people wanted to come in, was important to me.
“Our website didn’t really get up running until late December, so we had a quiet start on 16th January 2017, when we first opened. There was a class of two and one of three, but each session has got busier.”
At the moment, the classes are taught by Sarah and Philip, who was one of Sarah’s first students, “and we have Carol, who comes in and runs courses in between her other commitments on the local adult education course,” explained Sarah. “She was my original teacher! The course has moved from where I did it six or seven years ago, but it’s still running.
“This session (we run in six-week blocks) we’ve had four beginners’ classes, and we also run intermediate and advanced classes, where the students will move on to teapots, bottles, two-part pieces, and so on. A lot of our students stay with us, and progress from the beginner classes, on and up to advanced, and a couple of people have joined from outside, at intermediate level. This has been our busiest session so far. It’s our first September, and that seems to be the month when people start things!
“The next session in January will probably be a bit quieter, as people will maybe either take a break, or move to the membership option. Membership is either for four or six weeks, and they can come in and use the facilities. They just buy the clay they use, and we fire and provide the glazes. During open access time, (we’re closed Wednesdays and Sundays), they can come in whenever they want. It’s a good option if people can’t commit to a six-week regular slot.
“We initially struggled to get hand-building off the ground; thanks to the Throw Down, everyone wants to throw, but now our students, who have gone pretty much as far as I can teach them on the wheel, are thinking about hand-building, so, hopefully, in January Carol will be able to run a class for us.”
Corby Kilns is conveniently local and has been very supportive, says Sarah. “They’ve been really helpful, and it’s great having them so close. They recommend us to customers, which is lovely.
“We’re looking for another teacher for January; we’re at the capacity of what the two of us plus Carol can teach. At the moment, including the adult learning users who come for open access, we have just over 70 students. We have seven wheels in one studio and nine next door, and most classes are eight students. We haven’t yet had someone come in and not be able to use a wheel, and we wouldn’t want to get to that stage. Having two studios gives us the flexibility to only have one open for members if it’s quiet outside the teaching periods.”
The weekend courses have proved very popular, with the ‘wet work’ taking place on Saturdays, and the pieces dry enough to trim, turn and underglaze the following day. In the winter, the slower drying times will mean that there’ll be extra throwing on the first day, and the work will be simply glazed.
Sarah originally used Mayco glazes in her own studio, and Amaco in San Francisco, and that is what’s in the Swanspool studios now. She finds the available ranges are so good, that there’s no need to make her own – not that she’d have the time even if she did want to!
“We use earthenware clay, but it has quite a wide firing range, so we can use low stoneware glazes too. People tend to be a bit scared of dipping, and prefer to use the brush-ons, even when we show them it’s not scary! Once they try, they realise it’s fine.”
For the moment, Sarah is very happy with how things are going. With another teacher in the new year, she will be able to consolidate on the progress made over the past year, and she’s happy to keep things as they are. The studio has gone from strength to strength, following the flexible model she so admired in America. We wish her every continued success.
* All classes include open-access studio hours
Throwing taster, couple’s throwing, private groups/individuals, children’s parties, teambuilding
Four-week, six-week, quarterly or annual, for experienced potters. Enjoy the full use of the facilities, with firing and glazes included