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Saturday, 26 November 2011

A brief history of printing cloth from the Medieval to Jane Austen’s time

Pictures mostly  taken from ‘English Printed Textiles’, V&A

Block Printing
Cennino Cennini of Padua wrote a treatise on the ‘Method of painting cloths by means of using moulds’ early in the 15th century.  The idea of painting cloths was already well established, as a cheap means to ape the expensively woven tapestries of the better off; bed curtains of the better off merchants were more likely to be painted than woven or embroidered.  This was the use of a wood block to print, and the method had been used in the Rhineland already for 300 years.
For furnishings it did not take long to apply glue instead of paint and powdered wool scattered on the glue aped voided velvets so popular in the early Renaissance.
These early printed cloths were not colour-fast and could not be washed as the colours would wash out.  Indian hand-painted cottons of the early 17th century  that were colour-fast showed that it could be done; but it took until the 1670’s to perfect, either fairly simultaneously invented in France, Holland and England, or somebody had an excellent industrial espionage in place. 
A crimp was placed in the printing industry by a series of legislations to protect weavers of fancy cloths in the early 18th century, prohibiting the printing of cotton cloth for home consumption, that was not to be removed until 1774. 
However despite this, the middle of the 18th century  saw the invention of the copper plate for printing, which permitted a greater size and complexity of the repeats available. 

Even on block printed fabrics, the use of different mordants printed on to the fabric could produce very different colours.  
A mordant is a ‘tooth’ to cause a dye to bind to cloth, and different mordants can affect the precise colour the dye turns out. This effect was used by roller printing a design onto a cloth with more than one different mordants, the cloth then dyed as a piece and the way the dye reacted with each mordant making a pattern of variants on the dye.  One of the popular colours treated this way was drab, a brownish yellow through to yellowish brown made of quercitron, from oak bark [after 1783].   Madder is another colour to which this technique can be applied giving a range of colours of red-orange, chocolate brown, black and lavender and it was the Indian techniques using this that were introduced into Europe.  Other colours might be added by hand.

Note that dyes are largely vegetable or animal  up to the introduction of mineral dyes in the mid 18th century – but more on dyes another time. For now a quote from the Household Cyclopaedia of 1881 shows that very little changed in broad:

Almost the only dye-stuffs employed by calico printers are indigo, madder, quercitron bark, or weld, ……… but weld is little used, except for delicate greenish yellows. The quercitron bark gives colors equally good; and is much cheaper and more convenient, not requiring so great a heat to fix it. Indigo, not requiring any mordant, is commonly applied at once, either by a block or by a pencil
The part removed mentions the coal tar colours of the great aniline revolution of the 1850’s

Block printed linen and cotton about 1750
printed in madder colours

Plate Printing
The first use of the engraved copper plate to print was in 1752 in Ireland, and rapidly spread.
The cheapest and easiest way to print was in monochrome, especially with the complexity that was available on an engraved copper plate where different densities of a colour might be achieved, generally either red or blue. Extra colours might be added with smaller wood blocks or by hand painting. The best known plate prints are the ‘toiles de Jouy’ from the works of Christopher-Philippe Oberkampf (1738-1815)

Early 19th Century fabric printed at Jouy-en-Josas in France – this piece is in the Victoria and Albert Museum and more about it can be found at

English examples include mythological and theatrical themes, but peculiarly English are the designs with large flowers and birds, usually printed in one of the colours derived from madder [rich purple, red, or sepia] or in indigo, ‘china blue’ which chemical process remained an English monopoly throughout the 18th century. Note these are furnishing fabrics not dress fabrics.
For designs the printers often  mixed and matched from disparate sources of other engravings without any seeming concern for the appropriateness of the mix.
Plate-printed cotton 1761 in red with scenes taken from disparate sources - pastoral scene from etching of 1652 by Nicholas Berchem, Peacock from engraving by Josephus Sympson 1740 after a painting by Marmaduke Craddock and stag and dog from 'animals of various species etc' by Francis Barlow.

Plate printed cotton about 1770. The original of the photo was in red but I have colourised it blue to give an impression of the indigo version which it was as likely to be as red.
Another technique was to print a pattern onto the warp yarns so that when the fabric was woven it appeared misty.  This fabric was called ‘cloud’ or ‘clouded’ and Jane Austen makes a reference to it in one of her letters, speaking of yellow and white cloud. This example is a modern piece from my own collection of fabrics.

Roller printing of fabrics

See also

As mentioned in my post about the new craze for cotton, roller printing enabled the familiar regency stripe that could also place a diagonal stripe on fabric.  Roller printing was developed in 1780 and one roller machine could print as much as twenty block printers. 

roller printed cotton about 1815. Original printed with indigo discharge and solid green; I've made a best guess. This one could well be a dress fabric
Roller printed cotton about 1820 in red
Roller printing is performed using a machine with a cast iron cylinder mounted on bearings beneath which an engraved copper cylinder picks up colour from a wooden roller revolving in a colour box, excess colour being stripped from it by a blade. The cast iron cylinder is a pressure cylinder to force the cloth onto the engraved copper, and is wrapped in a special material of wool and cotton lapping to allow for some give.  The copper cylinder contains one complete ‘repeat’ of the pattern so that when the fabric is passed through it, the whole length is duly printed.  In the earliest and simplest forms, for additional colours the fabric must be registered precisely onto the fabric; at first this was done by hand applied colour on block prints. Because of this, like the copper plate printing, much is monochrome.  

Later, not until after 1800, machines enabled other rollers bearing different colours; obviously the fewer the colours, the cheaper the cloth.  Block printing did not however disappear, since the size of the pattern repeat was governed by the practical size that a copper roller could be, and so larger designs were still printed by woodblock up to the middle of the 19th century [dying out in time to be revived by William Morris].  Early roller prints could be no more than 16” for the repeat, the maximum practical circumference of the roller, whereas flat copper plates could be up to 45” square [Barbara Brackman ‘Clues in the Calico’ who does not, however know her diameter from her circumference.  Knew what she meant though.]

Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts


  1. Fascinating information, Sarah! I love textiles as much as names! Thanks for putting me on to your blog. I'll put it on my list of favorites.

  2. This was fascinating!! I knew about the Indian textile painting tradition, but I had not realized that it was a technique being used by the Western Europeans..and I'm wondering: does the technique of cloth printing contribute, to any degree, to the technology of printing more generally?? And how many of the dyes that you are aware of are coming from the Levant and the Far East as part of the spice trade before 1500?? I know that alum, a key "mordant"--didn't know that word, thanks!!- was being mined in Chios, but were there other chemicals being used in cloth decoration?

    Thanks for this fascinating post!!

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  6. Nice blog. So where can I get more information about the history of textile printing?

    1. well, as I trawled through several quite specialist textile history books including the Cambridge History of textiles, a massive 2-volume work, as there was bugger-all on the internet, I have to suggest a library, I'm afraid. There's a bit about block-printing and roller-printing on Wiki, which is actually fairly reliable [always a nice surprise with Wiki which can be dodgy]. Also it depends where you want to start. You can get heavily involved in the block printing of fabrics for wall hangings and bed hangings of the 17th century, which were often printed with glue and sprinkled with flock or colours for a pattern through to the revival of hand placed wood blocks by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement - and that's only taking western europe into account

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