Creating Istalifi Ceramics

From raw material to finished product

By Turquoise Mountain

Istalif, Afghanistan

Filtering Clay (2012) by Ellie KealeyTurquoise Mountain

The Raw Materials

The artisans begin by selecting the clay. The best clay in Afghanistan is in Logar province, south of Kabul. The clay is ground down and then mixed with water. Traditionally, mixing is done with hands and feet and takes about two and a half hours.

Powdering Clay by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

A tool for powdering clay by hand.

Shaping clay (2017) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Throwing a Pot

Once the mixture is ready, the potter places the clay on the kick wheel and shapes it with his hands. Once the pot is formed, the potter sets it aside to dry. After the first drying, the potter makes small adjustments and trims the bottom of the pot. The pots need two more days of drying, first in the shade and then in direct sunlight.

Shaping clay (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Ustad Matin throwing a pot in the ceramics workshop of the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

Clay goblets (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Goblets drying at room temperature.

Drawing Patterns (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Adding the Decoration

The colouring of the bowls is made with a different kind of clay that comes from Ghorband district, north-west of Kabul. This clay is mixed with quartz in an even ratio and then thinly applied to the bowls. This "slip" functions as a base for the additional layers of colouring and glaze. The potters then etch designs onto the bowl. At this point, the bowls are placed in a gas kiln and fired for five and a half hours at 1050 degrees celsius.This is known as the bisque firing.

Sun drying bowls by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Bowls drying under the Afghan sun.

Drawing Patterns (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Potter etching geometric patterns on the inside of a dried bowl using a pair of compasses.

Fresh out of the kiln (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Ceramic wares in a kiln after the first, bisque firing.

Dipping in glaze (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

The Final Step

After the bisque firing, bowls have to sit for a day and then the last layer of glazing is added. The glaze is a combination of ishkar (the local name for ash plant roots), quartz, copper oxide, and sunflower seeds. Once applied to the bowls and left to dry, the traditional geometric patterns are etched into the surface. The bowls are put again in the kiln at 1,100 degrees celsius. After six hours, the kiln is turned off and the bowls are left to cool.

Dipping in glaze (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Potter glazing a ceramic bowl with the special ishkar glaze.

Istalifi Turquoise Bowls by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Last step (2018) by Turquoise MountainTurquoise Mountain

Removing the bowls from the kiln after the final firing.

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