Liz Earle in conversation with Emma Bridgewater

Emma and Liz are tucking into lunch in the café at the Emma Bridgewater Factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Complete with AGA range cooker and mismatched Emma Bridgewater mugs, it has the cosy feel of family kitchens up and down the country, albeit one with an unusually high number of polka dots. The jolly Polka Dot is the quintessential Emma Bridgewater pattern. ‘It’s incredibly popular but we have to keep it fresh,’ Emma explains. A new addition to the Polka range, the ‘Polka Polo’ mug was added earlier this year. ‘We’re trying to make it easy to do the mismatched thing,’ she says.

The beginning…

That ‘mismatched thing’ is where the Emma Bridgewater story begins. Emma wanted to buy a cup and saucer as a present for her mother, Charlotte. When she couldn’t find anything to suit – something that wouldn’t look out of place with the other mismatched crockery on Charlotte’s dresser – an idea was born.

Fast forward more than 30 years and Emma Bridgewater is one of the largest pottery manufacturers based entirely in the UK, making all of its products in the company’s factory in Stoke-on-Trent. With 300 staff based here, it is one of the biggest employers in the area.

Emma first came to Stoke-on-Trent, the famous home of British ceramics (with brands including Wedgwood, Moorcroft and Royal Doulton), in 1985, looking for a company to create her prototypes. In 1996, Emma and husband Matthew bought their huge Victorian factory building (first opened in 1883) in the certainty they’d ‘grow into it’. For an internationally renowned brand, it feels like a family firm. There are little signs of this everywhere, such as when Emma explains: ‘What happens is that you pick up a mug to talk about it and it has the dregs of someone’s tea in it!’

The factory…

Like a genteel Willy Wonka’s, there are delights behind every door, from the casting room where fresh, creamy earthenware is drying on shelf after shelf, to the airy decorating studio hung with Union Jack bunting. Visitors to the factory can see all this for themselves by taking a tour, and can try their hand at decorating a classic Emma Bridgewater shape with their own design.

Each Emma Bridgewater item passes through 30 different pairs of hands in its transformation from a lump of clay to a beautiful and useful piece of pottery. The process is skilled work, something that Emma is especially keen to share with schoolchildren, who visit on free tours. ‘Working in a factory can be about art, craft and skill,’ Emma says. ‘When the guys are casting, for example, there are so many variables – the weather, what the clay’s like that day – and they know from eye, touch and experience just what’s needed.’

Like a genteel Willy Wonka’s, there are delights behind every door, from the casting room where fresh, creamy earthenware is drying, to the airy decorating studio hung with Union Jack bunting.

The design…

Meanwhile, in the decorating studio, around 50 decorators are quietly using a combination of sponging and hand painting to bring the earthenware to life. ‘Sponge decorating is a very old technique going back to some of the first potteries,’ Emma explains. ‘The decorators make it look easy, but of course it’s not. Earthenware it really porous and absorbs paint very quickly.’

With a pattern such as Polka Dot, the decorators have a little leeway – they know the number and colour of dots they need to use, but the placement is down to them – whereas for the more intricate designs such as Wallflower their instructions are much more specific.

‘Even if you don’t know, something in you registers that each piece is by a slightly different hand and unique,’ says Emma. Items are signed by their decorators, and some collectors seek out the work of particular decorators. A personalisation service available on some items means customers can also influence their designs. ‘We’ve had requests for all sorts,’ says Emma. ‘We don’t have many rules about what people can and can’t put on there!’

Much of the ‘official’ designing takes place at Emma and Matthew’s home in Oxfordshire. Emma’s are the sponge-decorated designs, such as Polka Dot and Wallflower, and Matthew’s are the hand-drawn illustrations, such as Birds and Cities of Dreams.

‘Matthew’s is a much better hand than mine but in a way there’s strength in the naivety of my style,’ Emma says. ‘It’s a dialogue. I’m always pushing for something extra. I’m the person who tends to say ‘If we’re doing a tractor, it has to be a classic one, and let’s put a dog behind the steering wheel’. There’s always a little bit of humour in what we do.’

The inspiration…

Inspiration comes from everyday life, not least Emma and Matthew’s own. The Cities of Dreams collection features Oxford (where they lived), Paris and Venice (where they visited), and London (where they started the business).

Their love of gardening and country living is also in evidence, whether in Emma’s Tiny Scattered Rose design or Matthew’s Farmyard collection. They have what Emma calls ‘a huge vegetable operation’ at home, while at the factory there’s a beautiful walled garden, tended by gardener Arthur Parkinson and home to five hens – two Buff Cochins and three Belgian Booted Millefleur Bantams.

The car park at the factory is planted with apple trees. ‘When we first put them in, people took them,’ Emma says. ‘We put up a sign saying: “Wait until they grow, and you can take as many apples as you like” – and people do.’

Emma and Matthew have created a factory that’s much more than a production site; it’s a community hub – something that Emma’s friend Reverend Geoff Eze, vicar of All Saints, Hanley, who happened to be in the café, alludes to as he describes Emma as an ‘exemplar to the community’.

It’s home to local events such as Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival, which returns this summer from 8 to 10 June. Launched in 2014, the festival grew from a conversation Emma had with former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent (and now director of the Victoria and Albert Museum), Tristram Hunt. A programme of author talks, panel discussions, workshops and live performances features a line up which includes comedian Alexander Armstrong, Ed Balls in conversation with Anne Robinson, and screen writer Debbie Horsfield, who adapted Poldark for TV, as well as Emma’s younger sister Clover Stroud speaking about her memoir The Wild Other.

Emma and Matthew have created a factory that’s much more than a production site; it’s a community hub.

‘Our aim was to bring the best writers here to Stoke,’ Emma says. ‘Part of the hope for the festival is that we might inspire local young people and foster a love of reading. It’s a hugely creative city rediscovering and celebrating its cultural roots.’

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