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…
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.