In our ‘The story of’ series, we trace the steps that led us to find and craft each of our products. Because every tile, every tap, every colour and every pattern has a fascinating tale behind it. Each time, you’ll hear from a member of the Fired Earth team who was part of that journey of discovery and who can recount the beauty in our backstories.
Where better to begin with our first instalment of product stories than with the tile that started it all? Read on and you’ll hear first-hand from one of Fired Earth’s longest standing employees, Colin about his search for finding the perfect people behind our debut product – our Hand-made Classic Range of traditional terracotta tiles.
The beginnings of an idea
This range of tiles means an awful lot to us. Perhaps that’s no surprise because our name is a pretty major clue. Fired Earth quite literally means, terracotta. Back in the 1980s, when Fired Earth’s founder, Nicholas Kneale started things off, he’d identified a real gap. There was a lack of hand-made, authentic terracotta tiles in the UK, so he set about his search for an artisan manufacturer in Spain who were, quite literally, ‘firing the earth’ in a way that would bring his tile vision to life.
The start of the search
Nicholas travelled to Valencia and came across a charming tile factory. Small in size and time-honoured in their practices, he struck up a partnership and they were responsible for producing our Hand-made Classic Range for over 30 years.
Very sadly though, as a consequence of the economic downturn in Spain, our factory suffered and closed down along with many other artisan manufacturers. This meant that our quest was reignited and this time, I set about to search for our replacement makers. Choosing to stop production of our signature tile simply wasn’t an option. We see it now, and we saw it then, as our lifeblood.
A new dawn
I remember driving down Spain’s northern coast back in 2016. The rain was chucking down – not quite the scene I’d imagined. I visited factory after factory, and the search quickly became a frustrating one. It turned out that nowadays, hand-made was more semi hand-made, or it was ‘hand-finished’ which is not the same thing at all. I did begin to ask myself whether I was ever going to find a solution.
A week and umpteen factories later, I made my way to my last appointment. It was a tiny, unassuming factory deep inland from Murcia and surrounded by olive and citrus trees. I was warmly greeted by two brothers who proudly showed me around the factory that their father had established more than 60 years ago. At last things were beginning to look up – even the rain had stopped!
In the making
The brothers walked me through their production process. The word production always sounds like some mechanical and soulless operation, and this was anything but that. It was almost melodic being so old-fashioned and steady in pace.
Their clay was the perfect colour and the perfect grade, quarried right behind their factory. They crush it into a fine grain on-site, storing it for several years so that it can rest; and to allow for the chemical changes to take place that let it later be transformed into terracotta. It ends up being a beautiful aged clay that they mix with water, and filter to form what’s known as the ‘slip’ – effectively a thick, heavy mud. Remember what they say about ugly ducklings at this point.
This is just the raw stage. The real skill comes into play when the craftsmen lay their frames onto the sandy floor, pushing, shoving and scraping the slip into the mould; removing trapped air and creating the surface texture. I watched as they showed this to me, and it’s just fascinating witnessing the classic characteristics of a hand-made terracotta tile begin to emerge.
Take the frame away, and the tiles then dry for several days under the baking Spanish sun. An area the size of a football pitch, covered with an extraordinary mosaic of pattern of grey terracotta tiles in their early stages, slowly baking in an open-air environment. It was a beautiful thing.
The brothers showed me how they know when the tiles have reached optimum moisture content, and then, they’re brought to the kiln for firing. Here was one of the parts of the operation that really got me. This was no industrial conveyor kiln. Instead, the brothers used a wood-fired tunnel kiln – the centuries-old way of baking tiles in that region of Spain. But there was more. The wood comes from cuttings left over from pruning the local olive trees. They have a wood store where they stash it away until it’s dry enough for clean burning, which can take years. When they told me they have UNESCO Green credentials, it was the final piece of information that I needed to well and truly cement the relationship.
On my final day, I had found everything I’d wanted, and a whole lot more.
It may be a different factory to our first, but our Mercian makers are just as capable, if not more, of crafting the cherished, terracotta tiles for which we’ve become known. And they do so with the same authenticity and Spanish soul that’s been with us from day one. Something that we believe would have made Nicholas Kneale very proud indeed.