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“A lot of people think we don’t exist anymore,” says Neil Burton on the Wedgwood factory floor, located close to Stoke-on-Trent, the capital of the UK’s once-booming ceramics industry. Wedgwood’s recent past, like Stoke’s, has been chequered – something Burton is well aware of. He has worked here for 42 years, manning an engine turning lathe invented by Josiah Wedgwood himself in 1764 and has seen a world-famous icon of solid British manufacturing turn into a world-famous wreck. In 2009 it went into administration; 1,500 jobs were cut and much of the mass manufacturing was moved to Asia (previously only some was outsourced there). As Burton suggests, many thought it had folded altogether.

And the problem was Stoke-wide. Once upon a time, 70,000 people worked in the industry here. Just 7,000 do today.Yet things suddenly appeared brighter for Wedgwood. It partnered with Waterford and Royal Doulton, creating wwrd, and was scraped off the floor by private equity firm kps Capital Partners. In September, plans were announced to redevelop the whole Wedgwood site at Barlaston.

Bringing with it 100 more manufacturing jobs (and securing another 400), work has already begun on the £34m (€41m) redevelopment. The factory itself will be given a makeover, as will the offices and visitor centre, and is set to open in 2015. Although much of the mass-market production will remain in Indonesia, it’s a pat on the back for the artisans who make the popular Jasperware in Barlaston. As Burton admits, “Things seem to be picking up now, don’t they?”

It’s not just Wedgwood. Across town, monocle wanders through the abandoned Spode factory in the drizzle. The workers are long gone: Spode went into receivership in 2008. Yet behind a plastic curtain in a decaying brick building is an astonishing sign of renewal. Collections of beautiful pottery, interesting art installations and a pop-up café: it’s the tail end of the successful third edition of the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB).

In 2008 the North Staffordshire Regeneration Partnership charged ex-Arts Council brains Jeremy Theophilus and potter Barney Hare Duke with the challenge of reinvigorating the industry in Stoke-on-Trent. “Our objective originally was about revealing Stoke to the world and then bringing the world back to Stoke,” says Theophilus. “And actually revealing Stoke to its residents again. To [get them to] look at the city they’re familiar with in a very different way and to see what the future might be.”

Superficially at least, it seems to have worked. There is a buzz in the air at the biennial – a sense of vitality that isn’t immediately obvious elsewhere in Stoke. In turn, scratch beneath the surface in other parts of the city, open up the doors of factories that look abandoned, and the picture is also beginning to look slightly different. There may not be a phoenix soaring from the kilns quite yet but there seems to be a very definite future.

On a quiet stretch of road in Longton sits an unimposing single-storey postwar factory. Inside we find Tony Douthwaite, his wife Heather and brother Ken. Tony and Heather’s company Topaz China recently moved here from another site close by; with approximately 100 clients on their books, they’d simply outgrown the place. “We’ve never really been quiet to be honest,” says Tony at the production line.

Compared to the slightly dour, sedate air at Wedgwood, the atmosphere here is bustling and upbeat. Tony and the team are doing 15-hour days just to keep up with demand. “We’ve got the work and the capabilities, now we just need the workforce,” Heather says, manhandling a whole series of moulds. The Douthwaites currently manufacture items for London retailer scp and designers Repeat Repeat and Kathleen Hills.

The positive scene is repeated down the road at Ceramics by Design, a small manufacturer that produces bone china, fine china and earthenware. Here we meet London-based potter Billy Lloyd on one of his regular trips to Stoke-on-Trent.

“As you can see they’re bursting at the seams,” Lloyd says. “I’ve been coming here for 12 to 18 months now and it’s getting busier. People are moving into new spaces to expand. It’s great to see such productivity.” Lloyd is one of a whole new generation of potters keen to learn from the masters up here, including Ceramics by Design. He is one of a set that perhaps holds the key to Stoke’s future: a design who makes the most of the skills on offer.

Down the road is the studio of Reiko Kaneko. She is a 31-year-old half-English, half-Japanese, Central Saint Martins graduate who set up her business in 2007. In 2012 she made the decision to permanently move to Stoke, relishing the opportunity to work with everyone from mould-makers to pot bank workers – all within a two-mile radius of her studio (a place 20 times bigger than the one she used in London). She’s benefited from the knowledge engrained in the city.

“People come to the studio and see what I’m trying to do, and will come out of the woodwork with ways to achieve it,” she says. “The information is just in the air in Stoke-on-Trent.” What does she think could improve the industry here? “Everyone wants everything to go well in the area. I think they just want a sense of pride. More work I guess, more employment,” she says.

The collapse of the industry in Stoke-on-Trent happened for myriad reasons. One of the most glaringly clear was the decision made by the likes of Wedgwood to put profit over provenance. And yet the skills haven’t gone anywhere. For Stoke-on-Trent to truly rise again, it’s clear where the secret lies. As Theophilus at bcb admits, “there is huge potential for the middle-level boys to raise their heads above the parapet”. A generation of UK-wide potters who cherish the skills of Stoke workers are the people who will help make this happen. “All [ceramic] designers have a connection with the city. They might not live here but they get all their stuff made here.”

And what about the old greats? The floral plates that Wedgwood continues to turn out suggest it may be time for a creative rethink but the charming folk on the factory floor are at last optimistic. When monocle asks Burton at Wedgwood if he’s excited about the new digs, he answers with a smile: “Hopefully people will realise that we’re open for business again.”

Monocle fixes for Stoke-on-Trent

  1. World class classes
    The University of Staffordshire is a proud sponsor of the British ceramics industry. Its Ceramic Design MA should be pushed worldwide as the world leader of its kind.

  2. Repatriation
    Nothing against Indonesia but Stoke-on-Trent has some of the most skilled talent in the world. Plus, the base stamp of “Made in England” has more clout than ever.

  3. Cheap rates
    Creative people go where they can afford. Use the abandoned potteries to attract ceramicists from around the world with inexpensive studio spaces. As Reiko Kaneko says, “I’ve just got to figure out a way to get the yuppies up here.”

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