Culture editor Emily Gulbis speaks with Ben Grieve, one of the owners of Crail Pottery, about how the family-run business has adapted during the pandemic and the future for this independent pottery
Located in the peaceful East Neuk of Fife, Crail Pottery is a family-run business that sells handcrafted pottery, from earthenware to terracotta plant pots. Each piece is hand-painted with decorative patterns unique to Crail Pottery, ranging from the delicate Scottish thistle to a simpler coating aptly called North Sea Blue.
The pottery was started in 1965 by Stephen and Carol Grieve, and it continues to be run by their children Sarah and Ben, and Ben’s wife Jane. Stephen and Carol chose the spot, which is right in the heart of Crail, a pretty seaside town, paying only £250 for the land, which included a few derelict buildings.
Stephen impressively taught himself the craft of pottery and how to use a kiln, while he and Carol worked on renovating the buildings as a place to sell their pottery.
Crail Pottery is now a cooperative of three businesses: the pottery formed by Stephen, the ceramics created by Sarah, and earthenware made by Ben and Jane. In addition to making the earthenware, Jane is a ceramic artist and paints all the pots. However, the family continues to share the yard and showroom to display and sell their pieces. The site has expanded over the years and now includes a new workshop that is used by most of the family, but the pottery’s original workshop remains and is still used by Stephen.
Over time, Stephen and Carol’s business has expanded, first with Ben, Jane and Sarah. Ben and Jane’s son Timothy then joined the pottery team while completing his degree. When asked what their plans were for the future of the Pottery, Ben told Redbrick that they would remain in Crail. The picturesque backstreet location near to Crail harbour easily entices visitors, although Ben did mention a hope for expanding the Pottery’s site in the future.
The pottery’s creation is a long process. First, the clay is moulded into shape, and then it is left to dry for 24 hours, after which a handle can be added. The piece is left for a week to dry, before being decorated, using ceramic paints, and then heated at 1,000 degrees in the furnace (which is the same furnace bought by Stephen back in the 60s). After this, the pottery is placed in one of the glaze buckets to give it colour, before being fired in a kiln at 1,180 degrees, until it has a smooth, glass-like surface. The piece must cool for 24 hours before it can be removed and sold. The whole process takes a couple of weeks.
The pottery is a popular destination for both locals and tourists. Ben explains how certain designs are popular among different visitors. For American tourists, decorations like the Scottish thistle and the tartan patterns are popular, but for the locals, the simpler Hebrides design is the most purchased.
The open set up of the pottery allowed visitors, pre-Covid times, to enter the workshop and chat with the Grieve family as they worked.
For many businesses manufacturing had to be put on halt during the pandemic; however, Crail Pottery was able to use lockdown as an opportunity to stockpile pieces in preparation for summer. Ben and Sarah took it in turns to use the workshop to create a reserve of products- and a good thing this was too. Ever since shops could reopen, the Pottery has been busy, selling to locals and UK visitors.
They also saw online shopping as a means to sell numerous pieces of pottery during the pandemic, receiving orders from the UK, Europe and even as far as the US. Interestingly Ben shared how mugs were their most requested item during lockdown, as the nation turned to drinking tea to pass the time. However, the process of packaging and sending products is not easy; much care is needed to avoid pots being smashed in the post. For Ben, he prefers that the Pottery focuses on shop sales, especially during the tourist season. So, for the moment, Crail Pottery has put online ordering on hold until autumn.
With the probability of restrictions continuing into autumn and winter, Crail Pottery has made contingency plans for how they will display pieces. Normally in the winter months most of the pottery is moved indoors; however, this would be difficult to manage alongside maintaining social distancing for customers. A solution the Grieves have found is to place large umbrellas in the yard to prevent rain collecting in the pottery, which could cause it to crack.
If travelling through the East Coast of Scotland in the future or searching for a holiday souvenir, I would highly recommend a visit to Crail Pottery. Each piece you will see is handmade in Crail and marked underneath with the Pottery’s stamp. What could be nicer than spending an afternoon browsing the pottery collection and chatting with the Grieve family about how these pieces are created?
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