Handmade: materials and the art of crafting

Materials scientist Anna Ploszajski has a new book - and it's pretty hands-on.....
04 May 2021

Interview with 

Anna Ploszajski

POTTERY

A potter working some clay on a wheel.

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Joining Chris Smith for this programme: materials scientist Anna Ploszajski. She's the author of a new book called Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making...

Anna - It's really the story of how I, as a material scientist, four years ago had this crushing realisation that really, I didn't know very much about materials at all. And this was brought about by a visit to a place called the Institute of Making at UCL, where they have a materials library full of about a thousand different materials. And one day when I visited them I had this crushing realisation that actually - although I knew all the theories of materials, and the formulae behind them, and I could draw you a beautiful graph of what they looked like on paper - I had no idea what they represent in the real world, in terms of how people are able to make with them, and their historical significance, and their cultural value as well. So the book is the story of my rediscovery of this other side of materials, which is the side of craft and hand making, and really examining the value and the expertise of people with alternative expertise to myself, which are the craftspeople and the makers.

Chris - People often say though, Anna, that materials scientists have something of a communication problem, in the sense that if a material scientist is doing their job well, their work is largely invisible. Because it works, it doesn't break, it doesn't ever go wrong, it doesn't prove a problem, and so no one notices it!

Anna - That's quite a funny way to look at it. I think that's probably common for a lot of engineers, right? If they're doing their job well, then the building doesn't fall down, or the computer doesn't crash, for sure.

Chris - But take glass, for example: classic material, one of the most important materials probably we've ever made or used, and most people will see straight through it!

Anna - Absolutely. And this was one of the themes that I explored in my 'glass' chapter - the fact that glass, as a material, is so important to science. It's really the reason that we use it in the lab: it's inert, but we can see through it. And we're interested in looking past glass at what it contains, rather than actually looking at the material itself. So that was a real epiphany when I was writing the book, and having a go at glassblowing itself: experiencing this material for what it is, rather than for what it can contain and what it can do.

Chris - So you actually went around and got up close and personal with all these materials, and made stuff?

Anna - Absolutely. The book has got ten different material chapters. Each chapter, I go and meet a maker or a craftsperson, and get my hands dirty and have a go at their craft. So we've got glassblowing, stonemasonry, pottery on the potter's wheel, blacksmithing; and it was amazing, really, as someone who only understood the materials on paper, to properly get my hands on them and experience the stiffening of glass as it cools out of the flame, or quite how much force you need to actually forge a steel bar in a blacksmith's workshop.

Chris - I'm intrigued to know: how did the pot throwing go? Because the people who are really good at that make it look dead easy, but I bet it's not. Did you get the wonky pot off the back of the thing, where it just flies all over the place?

Anna - Honestly, there were so many failed attempts when I attempted pottery. I did eventually achieve what sort of resembles a mug, but it is much, much more difficult than it looks, I have to say!

Chris - What was it going to be? I mean, was it a classic case of, you made a mug but actually that's not how it started out? Or did you set out to make a mug and actually succeed?

Anna - Mostly items on the potter's wheel end up as some sort of bowl or ashtray, or sometimes a plate if it all completely spins out centrifugal and you end up with something flat. So the mug was sort of the pinnacle achievement of my time on the wheel.

Chris - What did you take away from this, though? Because it's a really nice idea for a book, for someone who knows a lot about materials to then say, "well actually, let's get out of the lab, and get up close and personal with these things and really get my hands dirty." But what else did you learn from doing it?

Anna - I learnt these materials have intersected with my own life - very much so as well. So when I started writing the book, all I really wanted to write was about material science and making, but it turned out to be much more of an autobiography. Because the stories of these materials in our collective history as a society, but also at an individual level for myself, can tell us so much about ourselves. So for example, my chapter on plastics is the story of my Polish grandad George, who was born in Russia and then lived in Poland, and was a refugee during the Second World War, but ended up in the UK and started a plastics company, making objects out of plastics. And so the intersection of these different materials with my own life experiences is really the narrative driving the book forward. And my hope for the book is that people reading it will start to see how materials have intersected with their own lives as well, and tell their own stories with them.

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