What is kaolin clay? History of Art

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Kaolin clay - looks like a white rock

A chunk of kaolin clay

Kaolin clay and porcelain

Kaolin is a kind of clay with a lot of aluminum, silica, and oxygen in it. It is the kind of clay you use to make porcelain.


Kaolin clay starts out as a kind of igneous rock called feldspar. When feldspar erodes in places that are hot and wet, like tropical rainforests, it turns into kaolin clay.

What is porcelain?

People dig up kaolin clay from under the ground. They mix it with water and use it to make porcelain. Porcelain is a kind of pottery that is very white and glassy. It is so glassy that light shines right through it.

Where does porcelain come from?

Even though there is plenty of kaolin clay in North America and South America, Europe, West Asia, and India, at first the only place where people knew how to make porcelain was China. Everywhere else in the world people had to buy their porcelain from China, and it was very expensive. That’s why potters in the Islamic Empire invented lead glazes – so they could make white cups that looked like porcelain but were much cheaper. Today we still use white glassy glazes on most of our dishes.

More about clay

More about clay pottery

Bibliography and further reading about clay and pottery:

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By |2018-04-15T15:41:36+00:00May 25th, 2017|Art, China, Geology|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is kaolin clay? History of Art. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 25, 2017. Web. December 15, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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