Thursday, November 29, 2007

Understanding Ceramics and Tea Utensils

All these teapots and tea utensils you have are all made from different materials. Some are earthenware, some porcelain, some stoneware, some are bone china, etc. Ever wonder what the difference is? Let’s take a look.

Earthenware is typically a low-fire type clay vessel. The clay might come in different colors, the clay texture may be fine or rough. And the vessels may either be glazed or unglazed. They have a rustic feel and roughness to them. But be careful – depending on what temperature it was fired at, earthenware may be quite fragile; especially the very low-fire earthenware like raku.

Zisha (or purple sand) is a high-fire type of earthenware using a special type of clay mined around Yixing, Jiangsu, China. The high firing makes it durable. And the open-pored characteristic of the clay is highly desirable in brewing tea, because it improves the flavor of the tea.

Stoneware is fired at higher temperatures than earthenware, making it a little more durable than earthenware. And these are usually glazed vessels. This is used to make cheap utensils for the home.

Porcelain is fired at higher temperatures than stoneware. And it is very hard and durable. Porcelain was first invented in ancient China and traded throughout the world, and so it’s often called “china”. Porcelain comes in a wide variety of glazes. It is one of the best materials for tea ware. One of the characteristics of porcelain is the fine, white clay known as kaolin from which it is made.

Bone china
Bone china is a type of porcelain to which bone ash is added. It was invented in Britain, as Europeans sought to develop porcelain technology in the mid 1700s. Bone china has an ivory color.

So what’s better for tea utensils? It depends. If you go with utensils made in China, especially traditional Chinese tea ware, then your choices are earthenware, zisha, and porcelain.

Earthenware utensils are somewhat cheaper than porcelain utensils - depending on various factors. And they have a rustic appearance, often in dark colors. However, they are slightly less durable than porcelain, and the dark colors may not be appropriate to view the color of tea.

Zisha tea utensils come in various designs; and many are hand-made, and have collectible value – especially if made by a famous artisan. However, they must first be seasoned properly, then, constantly used to obtain the desired effect – which is to brew a better pot of tea. Zisha tea utensils come in natural colors of brown (known as purple), red, and yellow. Other colors are obtained by mixing the clay with pigments.

Porcelain utensils are usually white, or some shade of white. They may come in various types of glazes, and decorated variously. Look for porcelain utensils that are hand-painted. These have collectible value. However, most porcelain we see now is not hand-painted. Instead having an applied stencil-type decoration that gets stuck on the piece. Porcelain utensils are commonly used for tea because they’re very durable. And white glazed porcelain is preferred for judging a tea’s color and quality.

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