By Cameron Vines
When it comes to Native American pottery, the American Southwest is a mecca. Whatever kind of pottery you’re into – Mata Ortiz, Horsehair, Acoma – you’ll find it in the Southwest. The prices can range from reasonable to outrageously expensive. You’ll find pieces that can take up a whole corner of a room to a corner of your work desk. While it is all beautiful, I find horsehair pottery to be truly spectacular, and best of all – affordable.
Pottery from various tribes in North America dates back more than 4,000 years. As with most things in this world, pottery sprung up from necessity. People, no matter the walk of life, need to be able to carry and store items, even cook in them. Ancient indigenous people created baskets from various types of plants. But no matter how tight the weaving on a basket, they could not hold water for long. At some point, they started to coat the outside of the baskets in mud, which they soon found would actually harden when heated. The technique obviously would become more refined as time went on. The mud, which was actually clay, needed to be mixed with something to keep it from shrinking when it heated which can lead to cracking. Various items could be added to the clay to help it be stronger; some used sand, foliage, or even shells. Eventually, this pottery became an art form, with people no longer shaping vessels around baskets, but shaping them on their own and then decorating them.
There is little evidence that tribes used a pottery wheel to shape their vessels. A few used the pinch method, but most used the coil method. The coil method involved rolling the clay into long sausage like coils and stacking them on top of each other to form the shape of whatever vessel they were making. Once formed, with extreme precision, the vessel is smoothed down. At this point, the piece can be etched then fired in a kiln or fired then etched. Painting and glazing can then be done once the piece has cooled. Obviously, 4000 years ago, the pottery was a bit different then what you’ll find today, but the methods are basically the same. The big difference is that Native American pottery, today, is a huge source of income for many people all over the Southwest.
Horsehair pottery has a distinctive step during the firing process that makes it different than other Native American pottery, where the piece is removed from the fire and horsehair is thrown on to the vessel. The heat causes the hair to carbonize and leave a squiggly line on the pottery. The smoke from the strands of hair causes the grey areas you’ll see in this type of pottery. No one knows for sure how this technique got started, but there is one story of a long haired woman removing a pot from her kiln and her hair falling on the hot pottery, carbonizing it and creating an amazing design; inspiring her to use her horse’s mane and tail hair on her next creation. However the first horsehair piece was created, whether by accident or on purpose, the horsehair creates a unique, one-of-a-kind design that can be done again and again, but never with the same design.
If you’re in the market for horsehair pottery, the Pickle Barrel Trading Post has an abundance. All of our pieces are signed and come with an authenticity card to verify the tribe and person that made this one-of-a-kind piece of art.