The Kaolin Connection

Upon my friend’s invitation, I joined a field trip organised by the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong, to Jingdezhen, China, last February 20-24.  I had never heard of this city before, but apparently, it is considered the porcelain capital of China, with a rich history in ceramics production dating back at least 1700 years ago.

It’s undeniably a ceramic city, as you will see…

China - ceramic window

Ceramic window border

Wall of antique ceramic shards

Wall of ceramic shards

Ceramic bridge

Ceramic bridge

Ceramic trash bins (read the English text)

Ceramic trash bins (read the English text)

Great wall of ceramic

Great wall of ceramics

More ceramics

What did I tell you? Ceramics, ceramics, everywhere!

I have a fondness for ceramics, but my knowledge is paltry at best. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to be in the company of people with a keen appreciation and in-depth knowledge of oriental ceramics.  For our guide, we had a brilliant young archaeologist and scholar who took us to the museums, markets, pottery studios,  historical sites, and even her apartment – where she keeps a good collection of porcelain shards from the different dynasties.  I was quite the ignorant at the start of the trip.  I still am, but a wee bit less, and a lot more appreciative of the history of porcelain.

Tea and Antique Porcelain Shards at Prof. May Huang's house

Afternoon tea while studying antique porcelain shards.

Since I started making soap, I have always made it a point to find something soapy whenever I travel. I didn’t find handmade soap, nor did I discover new ingredients like I did during my trip to Taiwan, but I was thrilled to learn that kaolin clay, a common additive in soap making, had its origin in Jingdezhen!  It is more trivia than anything, but finding some kind of soap connection got me excited.

Kaolin: History and Importance

  • Towards the end of the South Song Dynasty (1127 -1279), top-layered china stones for ceramic production were getting exhausted. The search for alternative material led to the discovery of kaolin clay, named after the place where it was first mined – in Gaoling,  45 km northeast of Jingdezhen City.
  • Ceramics production may have started as early as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), but it was not until the discovery of kaolin clay, that kilns were able to fire ceramic bodies at higher temperatures of around 1300˚C, without breaking.
  • Because of the strength and durability it lends to porcelain, kaolin clay is called the “bone”, while the other component, china stone (feldspar), is considered the “muscle.”
  • Kaolin clay helps produce whiter and finer quality porcelain.
  • Chinese porcelain reached its epoch with the discovery of kaolin clay.
  • The famed blue and white wares from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) had to be fired at 1300˚C for the underglaze cobalt paint to turn into its characteristic brilliant blue colour.  Without kaolin clay, ceramic made purely with china stone would have crumbled at such a high temperature.
  • In 1712, Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, a Jesuit priest, brought back to France the porcelain-making techniques of the Chinese. In 1771, the French found kaolin near the town of Limoges, which, to this day, is famed for its porcelain.
  • In 1755, kaolin deposits were found in Cornwall.  This spurred the ceramics industry of England.
  • Nowadays, kaolin is used in almost all industries: paper, rubber, plastic, paint, chemical, medicine, textile, petroleum, building materials, semiconductor, cosmetics, etc.
Origins of Kaolin Clay: Gaoling Hill

Origins of Kaolin Clay: Gaoling Hill

Semi-processed koalin clods. They were transported from Goaling Hill to the Yaoli river, to be delivered to the imperial kilns.

Semi-processed koalin clods.

Underglaze painting

Underglaze painting

Kaolin (White): Uses in Soap and Skin-Care

  • Kaolin is said to help retain the scent of fragrance and essential oils in soap.  I don’t know for sure how effective it is, but in my Yogurt and Oats soap, the scent is holding quite well.
  • Even though kaolin makes porcelain whiter, it does not work the same way in soaps.  I read that it makes the colour of soap lighter, but it does not make it whiter.  (However, Maya of Infusions blog, just posted her latest creation using kaolin to whiten soap.  Does anyone else have experience using kaolin as a whitening agent?)
  • It can be used in shaving soaps for a silky slip.
  • It is a good skin detoxifier and cleanser, and is suitable for all skin types. It is considered one of the mildest clays and will not dry out the skin.
  • It can be used in mineral make-up, body powder, and natural deodorant.
  • Mixed with water,milk, yogurt, aloe vera, cucumber juice, mashed avocado, or your favourite  fruit/vegetable, it can be made into a face or body mask.

What is your experience with kaolin clay? Do you have other uses for it?

I tried to look for kaolin clay so I could say I have kaolin from the original source. But the truth is, after centuries of mining, the kaolin clay in Gaoling – considered to be the finest -has been depleted.  In its stead are mountains of discarded coarse kaolin – the leftover stuff after the clay has been washed and sifted.  Now covered with vegetation, the mountains were once gleaming white.  Kaolin is still mined elsewhere in China. I wanted to buy anyhow, but it’s sold by wholesale only – by tons (!), according to May, our wonderful archaeologist guide. The United States, particularly the state of Georgia, is currently the largest kaolin producer in the world.

I had no kaolin, but I did find something else, though:

Tea strainers and what I think is something for the hair

Tea strainers and what I think is something for the hair

I bought the above items from a street vendor.  I think the design of the bamboo tea strainers would be good for dusting mica on soap, and the wooden stick (does anyone know what it is for?) would be worth a try in making swirls.

When I was in City Super in Hong Kong, I couldn’t resist this Hello Kitty silicone mold, which, as you guessed, won’t be for muffins:

Hello Kitty soap mold

Hello Kitty silicone mold

So, I did come home with a few things for my soapy obsession.  If one looks hard enough, one will always find.  😺

Update: Maya just made an excellent follow-up post on using white kaolin in soap and its effects. Please head over to Infusions to read about it in detail.

29 thoughts on “The Kaolin Connection

  1. DivaSoap

    What an impressive story,Silvia! I enjoy your travel pieces and getting to know such a distant and exotic places. I ordered kaolin (an pink) clay some time ago and I can’t wait to get them, I’m so eager to try them both.
    Your Hello Kitty mould is so fun, every cavity is different kitty. Mine is just an ordinary Hello Kitty face! Of course, it’s not to be meant for muffins either,hihi!

    1. soapjam Post author

      I love the things I learn from travelling. I’m glad to know you enjoyed the post. 🙂
      I can imagine the pink kaolin will lend a beautiful colour to your soap.
      The Hello Kitty mold is the perfect size for guest soaps. I have to get back to soaping soon. It has been a while. Hahaha! 🙂

    1. soapjam Post author

      I just also learned about kaolin from my trip and I thought it was fascinating.
      I never thought I’d get sucked into buying a Hello Kitty mold, but I succumbed to its cuteness. I hope to see some of your Hello Kitty soaps. 🙂

  2. Infusions

    Hi Silvia! Sorry for being late to reply to your question (my daughter is going through a difficult teething period and demands a lot of attention, leaving me with very little time for anything else)
    I used kaolin for my soap to whiten the base of the soap but kaolin does not have the whitening power of titanium dioxide. When I use it, it is mostly to reinforce the natural white color but even then, I do not allow the soap to gel. Again, if you are going for the white-beige color combi you can allow the soap to gel but you should use quite a lot of kaolin to keep the white parts white. I usually use more than 1 table spoonful for a 500 g oil batch when I go for white. This is in short. Please let me give you more details in an additional post!
    And now, I am going to read your post above slowly and enjoy the story! Really thank you for sharing it (I have always wanted to know more about kaolin.)


    1. soapjam Post author

      Your daughter is growing up fast! I hope you share more photos of her. She is so cute. 🙂
      Thank you for sharing your experience with kaolin, Maya. I always gel my soap, thus never achieving a perfect white.
      Honestly, I dislike using titanium dioxide because it accelerates trace and I have a hard time mixing it properly.
      I got a bit excited at the possibility of using kaolin to whiten soap. I’m looking forward to your additional post! 🙂

  3. mijnzeep1

    I wish I was there too, Silvia! Thanks for sharing with us this, I love to use clays in my soaps, but it’s also nice to know more about these ingredients.
    Can’t wait to see your Hello Kitty soaps;)

    1. soapjam Post author

      Thank you, and welcome to my blog, Shelby. I hope to make Hello Kitty soaps soon – after I get over this flu that I have. 🙂

  4. Gordana

    Grate post Silvia! I really enjoyed reading it. Actually, I used kaolin clay recently and I gelled my soaps but I did not achieved perfect white. After reading Maya’s post about kaolin I am really inspired to post about my kaolin soaps soon 🙂

    1. soapjam Post author

      So glad to hear you enjoyed the post, Gordana! I would love to see your kaolin soaps. Your post would make a great addition to this “series” on kaolin. I myself don’t have a lot of experience with this clay. 🙂

  5. soapsudsations

    Thank you for the history lesson Silvia, I wish I’d known about Jingdezhen before, so we could’ve incorporated it into our China trip. It looks like a really cool place to visit. It’s sad that they’ve mined the kaolin to death there, and it’s not a renewable source, so it’s not like it can grow back. But I guess you still get to enjoy the ceramics they make there.

    The tea strainers are beautiful, but like you I have no idea what the stick is for. Could be used for anything you want, right?

    Like everyone else, I can’t wait to see your Hello Kitty soaps. They are going to be truly adorable.

    1. soapjam Post author

      Hi Monica! On the outset, Jingdezhen is unremarkable – a typical Chinese industrial city – or what is called a 4th-tier city, whatever that means. What made this trip exceptional was the way it was organized, and having an archaeologist who spoke good English as our guide. We also had a museum curator in the group, whose knowledge added depth to our educational tour. I was lucky to have been a part of this tour. I don’t collect art and antiques, but there was plenty of contemporary porcelain to choose from. The Saturday students’ market was fun and the stuff sold there were very affordable.
      The few times I made mica veins, I made a big mess. I hope the bamboo strainers will minimize the mess. Aren’t they rusticly charming? And of course, Hello Kitty is simply a bundle of pink cuteness. 🙂

  6. Cee

    I had no idea about the background history of kaolin clay…very interesting Sylvia, thanks for sharing that! Great souvenirs you picked up too!

  7. Roxana

    What a great post Sylvia! I found your background on Kaolin Clay very interesting. Thank you for posting! I don’t use it as much in my soaps and I did not now that it helps soap hold some of the fragrance. I think I just may start using it more often now! Thank you for the tip!

  8. ecovioletsoap

    Thanks for an interesting tour through Jingdezhen China! Cool that the buildings are covered with ceramics. I also like to look for soaping goodies while traveling (as well as fabrics and sewing stuff). Nice score on the Hello Kitty molds! 🙂

  9. Jenny

    What an interesting history of kaolin clay, Silvia! I didn’t know about its connection to ceramics. (Those are some beautiful photos of Jingdezhen!) And the Hello Kitty mold is too cute!

  10. ivyon

    I am enjoying surfing through your blog, although I can’t look anymore. 🙂 I love when I stumble upon something I know nothing about, and natural things always interest me. I hope I will learn a lot from you blog… (The connection is to thanks an Opiniated Man for his promotion post) Have a wonderful day!


      1. ivyon

        Hehe, I wouldn’t know, I was seeing him around commenting but never really read his blog. Good thing I did now, I have followed some awesome people. 😀

  11. Pingback: Kaolin Soap Collection | SoapJam

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