Next comes the building of the jar beyond the support. The potter pinches the edge of her base until it is thin and irregular, as the picture shows. This leaves room for the next coil of clay and some irregularities for it to stick to. Now she takes a handful of clay and rolls it between her hands into a long sausage. This she lays along the edge, on the inside, as in figures 3 and 4, pinching it into place with her fingers (figure 3). Then she adds another roll and another, turning the jar and its support so that she is always working on the near side. This helps to keep the curve regular, even without a potter's wheel.

Nine steps in building a jar

Plate IV-3. Nine steps in building a jar.

She does not try to give the sides of her jar the proper bulge at this first stage but builds them up straight, like a pail, (figure 8) Later she will round and thin them to the exact shape. If the jar she is making is a small one, she works straight ahead until it has reached the proper height. If It Is large, the soft clay will not hold up and she has to let it dry every now and then. Usually she works on several pots at once, so that she can add new coils to one, while the others are drying. She must watch the drying ones too and keep their edges moistened or the new clay will not stick.

Building and thinning the sides

Plate IV-4. Building and thinning the sides.

With big pots, she stops to do some shaping and thinning every now and then. With small ones, she may leave this process till the end. Scraping and shaping is one of the most skilled tasks in pottery making, for it means giving the pot its distinctive curve, and reducing its thick and lumpy walls to an even thinness. The tools used are little pieces of hard gourd shell, cut so that their edges have different curves, to fit any shape of pot. In the picture, you see Maria Martinez, who has built her pot up straight and is now going to push out its walls until they swell like the two finished pots in front of her. At her right lie the different pieces of gourd shell. With these, she scrapes and smooths the sides of the pots, until they are thin and even. Meantime, her left hand, inside the pot, is gently pushing the walls outward (figure 9 in plate IV-3). The motion must be slow and gentle, the right hand outside the pot always pressing against the left hand inside, so that the walls will not crack.

All the time she works, she is wetting the clay so it will shape properly and wetting her fingers so they will not stick to it. Now the damp pot must dry and stiffen before she can go further with it. She sets it in the shade, since the sun of the Southwest would dry it too fast, and it might crack. If the weather is rainy, she sets it indoors. It must dry for a day or two and if a little crack develops meantime she can mend it with damp clay. Big cracks are hopeless and when she sees one she breaks the vessel up and begins over again.

If the pot has dried safely, she can give it its final smoothing before the decoration. This is done with something sharp, once a flake of stone or a broken piece of pottery, now a metal knife. With this she scrapes all knobby and thick places and if the pot looks thin somewhere she adds a bit of damp clay. With cooking pots this is the last step before firing, but with decorated pots, there is plenty more to do.


The gritty surface of the pot is too rough for painting, so the potter gives it a layer of fine, soft, special clay, without any temper. This is called the slip and is usually white or red. Clay fine enough for a slip can be found only in certain places and women prize their supplies of it and pay high for them in trade.

The potter pounds up her slip clay in a little stone bowl or mortar. Then she mixes it with water to make a thin wash and wipes it onto the pot with a piece of buckskin, fur, or, in these days, a rag. She puts on several coats, letting the pot dry between times and if she wants the color very clear the coats may be as many as five or six. The color of the slip and the way it is put on is one of the chief points of difference in the pottery of the different pueblos. Some, as later pictures will show, cover a pot almost to the bottom. Some leave a wide, unslipped base. Some slip bowls both inside and outside and some only on one or the other.

Even this soft, untempered clay does not leave the pot surface smooth enough. While the slip is still damp, the potter rubs it with a smooth, water-worn pebble, whose curve is just right for that particular pot. She treasurers this pebble and a number of others in varying shapes as a modern carpenter might cherish a set of fine chisels. True, she did not buy them, but she, like her mother and grandmother before her, is always on the lookout for smooth, evenly curved stones and in the course of many generations, they have made a collection suitable for large pots, for small, for incurves, for outcurves, and straight sides. Gently and patiently she rubs her pebble all over the jar until the surface is so shiny that white purchasers often think it has a coat of some glassy material, as modern china has. They do not know the hours of work that go into this polishing. It is a job which a woman willingly hands over to her daughter or any other helper. Some, it is said, help out the polish by rubbing with a greasy rag but most do the work with their own muscle. The result is such a soft luster that it is unfortunate the jars are not waterproof, even after they are fired.