Discovering the Sifnos Pottery Tradition

Discovering the Sifnos Pottery Tradition

The naturally flameproof clay of Sifnos makes for exceptional pottery, a tradition that thrives to this day. One such potter is Costas Kalogirou, whose eldest son Antonis learned the trade from his father.

With 14 pottery workshops dotted across the island, there are plenty of chances to discover this unique legacy. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Visit the Pottery Workshops

The art of pottery is an integral part of Sifnos culture, and you can see it in action everywhere on the island. You’ll find shops selling utilitarian ceramics – like plates, mugs, and ashtrays – as well as decorative pieces with soft or bold colors. You can also visit a workshop and watch the potters at work.

The high quality of Sifnos clay soil, the availability of rainwater and fuel, and the sheltered bays that provide easy loading for transportation by caique have made the island one of the most prolific and renowned pottery centers in the Aegean. Today, the craft continues with a flourishing network of workshops scattered throughout the island’s villages and sheltered bays.

We visited the workshop of Giannis Apostolidis, whose family has been making pottery for generations. His “En Sifnos” workshop is located in Leivadas, on the central road from Kamares to Apollonia. Giannis uses his experience and creativity to conserve the traditional pottery tradition of the island, while creating modern pieces that are functional as well as decorative.

Another workshop worth visiting is that of Kostas Depastas, who uses simple methods for his earthen cooking utensils and vases. He digs his own clay, collects firewood for the wood-burning kilns, and has a reputation for being one of the best potters on Sifnos.

2. Watch the Potters at Work

Pottery making is inextricably linked with Sifnos’ history, culture and economy. It was developed thanks to the island’s naturally occurring flameproof clay, abundant water, access to fuel and sheltered bays ideal for loading and shipping pottery by caique. As a result, Sifnos grew to become one of the most prolific pottery centers in the Cyclades.

In the 19th century, potters from Sifnos travelled all over Greece and transferred their expertise, turning clay into masterful cooking utensils like tsikalas (pots) and masseto (jugs). The jugs were especially popular because of their resistance to fire and became the main product exported from Sifnos.

While jugs, pots and other utilitarian ceramics remain staples in Sifnos’s kitchens and tavernas, many Sifnian potters today produce decorative pieces. From vases to candle holders and from bowls to tiles, each artist has a unique style and aesthetic that has come to characterize Sifnian ceramics.

The good news is that Sifnos’s pottery traditions are well-protected and continue to thrive. In 2019, the nonprofit Archipelago Network launched a new project dedicated to safeguarding the island’s rich heritage of pottery craftsmanship and traditional maritime trades. They’re digitizing photographic archives from eight traditional workshops, as well as valuable diagrams and notes from the Ceramic Crafts Collection of postwar artist Cosmas Xenakis. They’ll make this collection widely available online, cementing the preservation of Sifnos’s unique pottery tradition for generations to come.

3. Learn the Art

In the past, Sifnos’ ceramics were so popular that they were shipped all over the Aegean. Whether on the island of Paros or in Attica, there are many places where you will encounter ceramics shops with their distinctive chimney pots that give away their origin in Sifnos. This distribution was not random: the potters of Sifnos migrated on a seasonal basis looking for better employment opportunities or for family reasons. In this way, their work traveled to islands where they settled permanently. This explains why even today you can find traces of their workshops in littoral villages such as Faros, Platis Gialos, Kamares and Vathi.

The clay of Sifnos is a natural resource that has facilitated the development of the craft for centuries. The rich deposits, the abounding water and the sunny weather contributed to the production of a wide variety of everyday objects.

From decorative vases and tableware to cooking utensils like mastelo pots and kilnas used for baking bread. Even today, Sifnos continues to produce utilitarian ceramics in its numerous workshops.

If you are interested in learning more about the art of pottery on Sifnos, it is a good idea to visit the workshops and ask for a class. The experienced potters will be happy to teach you the secrets of their trade. They will show you how to work the clay with a pelekouda and will teach you the technique of squeezing your own vase from the mold. They will also help you choose a piece that best represents the spirit of Sifnos.

4. Buy a Piece

When visiting Sifnos, it’s impossible not to be enchanted by the island’s ceramic heritage. Humble clay is meticulously transformed by local potters into functional pieces such as plates, storage jars, and cooking utensils—alongside pure artistic objects that showcase the artisan’s skill. The rich clay soil, abundant water supply, and strong sun provided the perfect recipe for Sifnos’ long pottery tradition.

Over the centuries, Sifnian pottery gained fame throughout Greece due to its high-quality refractory clay and resistance to fire. In fact, in the 17th to 19th century, Sifnos’ name became synonymous with tsikalas or “potters” and its ceramics were known as “Sifnian Ware”.

Today, there are still plenty of artisan workshops where curious travelers can watch the process firsthand as clay is shaped on pedal-powered pottery wheels and then ornately decorated. Many studios also offer pottery classes so that guests can create their own masterpieces.

Pottery is a part of Sifnos’ identity and it’s a symbol of the island’s culture. It can be seen in all the villages’ cobblestone alleyways, whitewashed splendour and postcard-perfect churches. It’s even in the food served at local tavernas, where potters’ dexterity and craftsmanship are evident in the dishes they serve their customers.