It is cheap and abundant. Often it may be found in the earth already softened with moisture and ready to be worked. It keeps forever and improves with age. Unfired clay objects may be crumbled, mixed again with water, and made into something else. As a material it is soft, pliant, plastic, impressionable, without grain or direction. It can be modelled, pounded, flattened, rolled, pinched, coiled, pressed, thrown on the wheel, cast into moulds, scored, shredded, pierced, stamped, extruded, cut, or spun.
Small and delicate objects may be made with it, or massive architectural forms. Clay shapes may resemble the looseness of a crumpled dishrag or may have the precision of electronic machines. In colour, objects made from clay may be dazzling white, creamy, red, orange, yellow, grey, brown, black, or textured with spots, streaks, speckles, flashings, and tintings. They may be smooth and ivory-like, or rough, sandy, gritty, or harsh. Fired clay can have a translucence approaching that of glass or a density like that of the hardest stone.
All these possibilities are to be found in the craft of ceramics. Clay, formless in the earth, is laden with potential. It responds to shaping, to drying, to firing, to blending and combining, to texturing, to smoothing. A given lump of clay may become a roof tile, a brick, a votive sculpture or effigy, a water jug, a child's toy, or a venerated tea bowl or vase in a museum case admired by thousands. The knowledge of ways to make things from clay and to fire them brought about a significant advance in man's standard of living. Bricks, tiles, sanitaryware, drain and water pipes, dishes, bowls, cooking pots, and sarcophagi have helped to make life easier and more pleasant, and have lent dignity to burial.
This remarkable description of clay by the late Daniel Rhodes (1911 – 1989) is a short extract from 'Clay and Glazes for the Potter' first published 1957. ISBN 0-7136-3007-8