Handcrafted since 2005: The birth of our ceramic Steeping Mug
Diverse tea-drinking rituals and histories around the globe show us just how worldly the tea beverage is. Without these rich cultural differences, we might not think of tea as more than a healthy beverage that can keep us warm or quench our thirst. My goal in designing our Steepware line was to combine ease and practicality inspired by existing tea practices with the beauty of unique serving and use methods. In doing so, I hoped to both pay tribute to tea tradition as well as enlighten and hopefully enliven those who consume it. Furthermore, I strongly believed that both the tea we consume and the cup we drink it from need to uphold a standard of clean, sustainable, fair and responsible manufacturing practices. Thus began my journey of designing and sourcing our Steeping Mug back in 2005.
The first Steepware product I wanted to design was to be a westernized, “supersized” version of the traditional Chinese gaiwan. The gaiwan is a lidded tea bowl, which serves as a loose leaf steeping vessel. Once the tea is finished steeping, it is skillfully decanted, with the lid balanced so as to keep the leaves back in the bowl. The resulting infusion goes into a pitcher or cups for serving and drinking. Although this is an ideal way to steep loose tea, giving the tea leaves plenty of space to unfurl and infuse, it’s not a method for everyday use for most westerners. Using a gaiwan takes time, patience and practice, things we don’t often find time for when making a cup of tea. What I wanted to develop was a system that could deliver a “gaiwan-level” tea beverage with ease. It would need to accommodate more teas than just the very large leaf teas prevalent in China. And in order to produce the finest tea, it would need to be made entirely of fine grade porcelain. Given all these requirements, I decided that I needed to go to the source – the “ceramics capital” in Jingdezhen, China – where the finest ceramics have been manufactured for over 1800 years.
When I first ventured into China to look for potential partners, I was greatly discouraged by the working conditions in the first ten or twelve ceramic factories I visited. As often happens in life, just as I was giving up and planning to leave Jingdezhen, I was fortunate enough to find an intelligently and respectfully run artisan shop. Flanked by his two 16-year old twin daughters, I found Mr. Yu, whose father had taken over a defunct ceramic factory which had been abandoned during the cultural revolution. Even without the luxury of a shared language, Mr. Yu and I still managed to connect over our common appreciation for fine craftsmanship.
I loved not only the quality of the product his company produced but the obvious respect and commitment he had to his employees. These were expert artisans. It was apparent to me that they were much more skilled than workers producing goods for Mr. Yu. In China, artisans and craftsmen are given a higher ranking than merchants. They are highly skilled and go through a very selective educational system. If successful within their studies and careers, they earn wages far above the average.
The design for the westernized gaiwan I had in mind was not possible with the technology Mr. Yu currently had in place. I needed a tea infuser with very small filter holes (0.4 – 0.6 mm diameter) in the ceramic. This style and therefore techniques to create it isn’t prevalent in China. They drink only large, full leaf teas. Making an infuser with fine holes was a new challenge for his company, but they were willing to partner with me, and with the help of some Japanese tools we provided to him, Mr. Yu’s craftsmen produced fine-holed ceramic tea mugs.
Handcrafted Since 2005…
Our Steeping Mug has been a staple of our Ceramic Steepware line at The Tea Spot since that time. Each one is uniquely handcrafted by master artisans. We’ve now enjoyed a 14-year relationship with our Jingdezhen ceramic partners. As a family-owned business, they have recovered from regional floods and other adversities over the years, and are thriving. Both twins are now married, and Mr. and Mrs. Yu are now grandparents. The company is now run by one of his twins I met on my first visit there – Yu Ya Xi – a lovely and tough 30-year old boss-lady and graduate artisan herself. I’m honored to consider myself both a friend and long-time business partner with this kind, talented family.