[Article taken from The Guardian]
Stoke City’s first ever cup final next month makes it a good time to be a Potter, but it’s also good to be a potter in the Staffordshire town. Spirits are high at the Portmeirion factory in Stoke-on-Trent thanks not just to the football team’s success but also to the royal wedding which is helping to showcase the company’s world famous wares.
The offerings include a “stunning” limited edition lion head vase, finished in 22 carat gold, which can be yours for £400. The Royal Worcester vase might be a stretch for even the most ardent royalist but the china mug, which carries the same mugshot of the happy couple, is a veritable snip at £15.
The royal wedding has seen the memorabilia machine crank into action with most souvenirs on offer – from tea-towels to knitted dolls and union jack biscuits – scoring top marks on the naffometer. The chintzy designs might make even Hyacinth Bucket balk but the Royal Worcester collection will deliver a sales fillip of at least £500,000 for Portmeirion this year.
Indeed its chairman Dick Steele reports that its Canadian distributor has just placed another order after the palace confirmed Prince William and Kate Middleton’s first official overseas trip as a married couple would be to the Commonwealth country this summer.
The royal wedding is the icing on the cake for Portmeirion which is already riding high thanks to the acquisition of the Royal Worcester and Spode brands in 2009. It clocked up record sales of more than £50m last year and expectations of another strong run means its squat factory on the edge of Stoke’s rundown city centre is running at full pelt.
A tour reveals the kind of scenes you used to see through the round window on Playschool 30 years ago: people making things. More than 500 to be precise. What is surprising is how little the manufacturing process appears to have changed in 200 years and – despite competition from robotic arms borrowed from the car industry – that more than 20 pairs of hands will touch each piece of pottery as it journeys through the factory or – as Margaret Scott, one of the company’s quality inspectors, prefers to call it – the “pot bank”.
“There are still a lot of hands involved where pots are concerned,” says Margaret, wiggling her fingers for extra effect. “It’s skilled work. You are working with a piece of clay that is fighting you all the way.”
To illustrate the point she introduces Paul who will mould 6,000 tea-cup handles that day. Next to him is Maxine who is “fettling” (smoothing) the seams the moulding trays leave behind. In another section a woman is hand-dipping mugs in a glaze mixture. Couldn’t a machine do that quicker? “It’s a skilled job,” fires back Margaret. “Why have a machine when Julie makes such a good job of it.”
In the 18th century the triad of clay, coal and canals turned the Staffordshire Potteries into the epicentre of the world’s ceramic production but the tide went out as quickly as it came in. As recently as the 1970s there were still 200 factories but today that figure is put at closer to 30, with an estimated 20,000 jobs lost between 1998 and 2008.
Recently, however, there have been green shoots of recovery. One of the area’s most famous names Wedgwood, which fell into administration in 2009, has announced a return to profit while newcomer Emma Bridgewater is also enjoying success with her polka dot wares. Portmeirion’s fortunes were greatly improved by adding Spode and Royal Worcester to its dresser. The brands had lost their way says Steele and it was able to acquire them from the administrators for just £2.2m.
It has repatriated some of Spode’s production from the far east, with the Blue Italian pattern once again being made in the town where Josiah Spode founded the company in 1770. “They had lost the plot on quality,” explains Steele with Blue Italian cups, saucers and plates being made in different countries and often different shades of blue when they arrived in Britain.
Despite owning patterns dating back more than 200 years, Portmeirion is cutting its cloth for a modern age when TV dinners rather than fine dining is the rage. “I’m not saying fine dining is dead,” adds Steele. “But it’s not as popular as it used to be. Gone are the days when a couple picked out their pattern before the wedding and then replaced the breakages each year.” The need to diversify makes for an eclectic showroom with the chichi Sophie Conran collection, which has become a wedding list favourite in John Lewis, nestling alongside serious bling in the shape of Royal Worcester’s signature Painted Fruit vases, which are hand decorated (in Worcester) and etched in gold.
Steele concedes the glitzy style is “not for everybody” but points to price tags of several thousand pounds.
Its biggest money-spinner is the Botanic Garden range, which features the pretty floral motifs, which was dreamt up by the group’s late founder Susan Williams-Ellis – daughter of Portmeirion architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis who had originally been tasked with sourcing pottery for the Welsh village’s souvenir shop.
With a cracked voice, Margaret confesses that she’s retiring this week, having followed her mother into the pot banks at 16. But she feels she is going out on a high: “Things are definitely picking up here – it is nice to see work coming back to Stoke-on-Trent.” Has she bought a royal mug as a retirement souvenir? “No” she says, adding tactfully: “People who work in pots tend to have a lot of pots anyway.”