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However, the name potter's lathe is also used for the machine used for another shaping process, turning, which is similar to that used for the shaping of metal and wood articles. The wheel may also be used during the process of trimming excess body from dried wares and for applying incised decoration or rings of colour.
Many early ceramics were hand-built using a simple coiling technique in which clay body was rolled into long threads that were then pinched and beaten together to form the body of a vessel. In the coiling method of construction, all of the energy required to form the main part of a piece is supplied directly by the hands of the potter. This changed with the introduction of the fast-wheel, early forms of which utilised energy stored in the rotating mass of the heavy stone wheel itself.
The potter's wheel in myth and legend
The potter's wheel in literature
The way in which clay is shaped on a potter's wheel seems, even today, to have a magical quality to it; the clay body has the appearance of being a living thing that is being created or shaped by the potter. The potter and clay have long served as a metaphor for creation, and for the relationship of God to humankind:
- But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.
- –Isaiah 64:8
The "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" make sustained use of this metaphor. In FitzGerald's translation, a number of quatrains are collected into a Book of Pots, in which the pots engage in theological speculation:
And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried–
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
Another said–“Why, ne'er a peevish Boy,
“Would break the Bowl from which he drank in Joy;
“Shall He that made the vessel in pure Love
“And Fancy, in an after Rage destroy?”
None answer'd this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”
- The Origins of the Potter's Wheel multi-page article on Ceramics Today site
- Video of a potter on a potter's wheel shaping clay to form a bottle