Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: Eyes down to mould business success in the ceramics world

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.
Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

Top of the pots Francesca produces sought-after minimalist mugs, pots, vases and crockery.

“Clay is completely addictive,” says Sheffield potter Francesca Hague, explaining the appeal of creating ceramic wares from scratch.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

“It’s so tactile and delicious. It’s the potential of it, as well – you take this little lump of dirt and make it into something permanent and functional, and it’s completely yours.”

Working under the name Grey Suit Clay, Francesca has found a popular niche selling striking, minimalist mugs, pots, vases and crockery, handmade from chunky, functional clay in her studio in the city centre.

Through an online shop, appearances at events and ‘pop up’ stalls, her pieces reliably sell out, and she is currently at work on her next sought-after batch, due this month.

“It’s taken off quicker than I expected and has been a fast learning curve,” says the 32-year-old, who has just moved to a new workshop at Sheaf Plate Works on Arundel Street, ‘significantly bigger’ than her old space at nearby Bloc Studios.

It’s so tactile and delicious - you take this little lump of dirt and make it into something permanent and functional.

Francesca was originally from a small village in North Wales – Llanfair Talhaiarn, near Snowdonia – and came here in 2002 to study Japanese at Sheffield University.

After a year, she switched to Psalter Lane Art College to learn fine art, graduating in 2006. She moved back to Wales for one year but struggled to find work, so returned to Sheffield and has stayed ever since.

“It seems to be what everyone does,” she remarks.

After concentrating on portrait painting for several years, Francesca decided she ‘needed to do something a bit more physical’, so began working with clay.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

It’s something of a family trade – her parents Julia and David were potters, making ornaments and figurines. Her older brother William works in the aerospace industry, while her younger brother Henry is a graphic designer.

“It’s one of those things you resist, because obviously your parents have done it. But I took a night course at Hillsborough College and just loved it. I loved the feel of it, and the way it worked, so I went all in – bought a wheel and a kiln – and just went for it. And I’ve never looked back since.” But Francesca didn’t set up her own company straight away. She initially juggled ceramics with running the Bessemer Gallery on Ecclesall Road.

“People were showing interest in what I was making. It took off a little bit and in the end provided me with enough work that I could take a bit of a risk and leave the gallery.”

Ceramics are an ‘intensive practice’, she says.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

“You need to dedicate a lot of time to it. I thought if it’s going to work, it will work now, and luckily it’s been OK.”

Grey Suit Clay – ‘appropriated from an old nickname’ – specialises in pieces intended to be ‘used and loved’.

After items have been moulded on the wheel and fired in the kiln to create a solid shape, Francesca dips them in a ‘reactive glaze’.

“It looks crystallised and broken up – it’s not just a flat colour. It’s more interesting with a bit more going on.

“The ‘dip range’ has progressed into a more finessed version of what it was; this really crisp, linear, shape, that I make in a range of different clays and simply dip in reactive glazes, to make hopefully a coherent but clean collection of stuff.”

She always coats and mirrors the insides with a transparent glaze, but the work is deliberately unadorned.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

Francesca Hague, of Grey Suit Clay, with piece of her clay work.

“I want it to be very accessible to people. When people own something that I make it’s fantastic, the be-all and end-all really.

“ I’m inspired by everyone – other artists, my friends.

“I go into the Peak and I’m obsessed with the lines and colours.”

Francesca, who lives in a city centre flat near the Peace Gardens with boyfriend David Glover, owner of Tesla recording studios in Heeley, believes she would ‘find it hard’ to work outside Sheffield.

“There are so many makers. It’s like a really great nest where you can build yourself. The sentiment is of support, not competition. I think it’s a great place to be and work for yourself.

“I’ve looked at other places and there’s no way I could afford a studio elsewhere.

“In London you’d pay hundreds for a little desk space.”

Recently the ceramicist teamed up with stationery-maker Youse on a desk tidy, and she is also collaborating with illustrator Tom J Newell, as well as working on cups for coffee shops and pieces for a new bar, in the hope of seeing her pieces woven into the fabric of Sheffield.

The workload is such that Francesca ‘thinks a lot’ about taking on staff. “I struggle about wanting to be completely self-sufficient. I do think at some point having an extra pair of hands would be really helpful and make the studio a bit more fun, to have some company!”

* Visit Grey Suit Clay for details.

‘No shortcuts and no way to speed it up’

Francesca Hague’s work as Grey Suit Clay is ‘super labour-intensive’, she says.

“A mug would take at least a week from start to finish, just because there’s so many stages to it and so many factors along the way. It’s not plodding, but it’s quite a slow process.

“There’s only so much I can physically make, which is a shame, because I’d love to be able to make all the time, but it’s not feasible. And I do handmake every single part of every piece. There are no shortcuts and no way to speed it up.”

And despite her expertise gained over two years in the clay business, pieces still crack and break in the kiln. “I do it every single day so I feel like I’m learning quickly, but everything cracks, runs and sticks to the shelf and you lose a lot of pieces.

“I’m building quite a collection now of slightly imperfect but completely functional pieces.”

Picking up a mug that has stuck to the kiln because the glaze has run, she adds: “It’s not really viable to sell this as a piece. I struggle to put a value on them.”

Francesca says she is considering holding an online ‘pay as you feel’ sale for charity.