Ceramics infuse our lives. The plates we eat from, the mugs we drink out of, the bowls, vases and array of other items in our homes – some functional, some decorative – are made of china or other clay.
Until the late 1990s, many of the pieces we used in our homes were made in Britain, the majority in Stoke-on-Trent. In its heyday the city employed 70,000 people in the ceramics industry and world-leading brands like Spode and Wedgwood had their roots there.
But the drift of manufacturing eastwards caused a decline. Today fewer than 6,000 people in the city work in the industry, Wedgwood declared itself insolvent in 2009 and companies including Poole Pottery and Royal Doulton closed.
"The industry has declined dramatically," says Portmeirion Group managing director Michael Haynes. "Of the 300 companies working in Stoke-on-Trent 20 years ago, perhaps 15 exist today."
The British Ceramics Biennial (www.britishceramicsbiennial.com), which takes place in Stoke-on-Trent from this week until 13 November, aims to focus attention on the industry. There's a series of exhibitions, events and installations taking place. Highlights include Fresh, which showcases the work of 40 recent graduates and Award, a major exhibition of work by potters at the leading edge of contemporary ceramics.
While you're in the city you can also pay a visit to pottery museums including the City Museum and Wedgwood Museum (www.visitstoke.co.uk, for more) and there are a number of factory tours on offer where you can watch skilled craftsmen at work: you'll never look at a cup in the same way again.
One way to help the industry succeed is to find British-made ceramics for your home. There's plenty of covetable work on show at the Biennial and Stoke-on-Trent is also home to more than 25 pottery factory shops (find details for all at www.visitstoke.co.uk). Or if you're not going to Stoke, keep an eye out for British brands in a high-street store near you.