Fact Sheet: Blo ck and Calico Prin ting

A Liberty Wooden Printing Block 1

The decoration of fabric can be traced back to early history. One of the earliest techniques used to colour fabric was printing with a simple wooden block. Block printing is an ancient technique that has been used to decorate fabric as far back as 4th century BC. During this time, a print would have been made from a wooden block that printed a coloured paste on to a plain piece of cloth. These prints would not have been colourfast and were not suitable for clothing. Instead, they would have been used for furnishing fabrics. The Indian and Chinese have a long history of making beautiful fabrics and in the 15th century, Portugal traded with India and brought back highly decorated calico cloth. These designs were known as ‘Chintz’ and became very popular for home furnishings, especially a design known as ‘the tree of life’, which was imported by the East India Company.

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Fact Sheet devised by Sandrine Case and Clare Moloney, February 2010

Tree of Life Print, created by Liberty 2

Fashionable ladies of the day insisted that printed designs like the Tree of Life should be made wearable. The fabrics became so popular exporters could not keep up with demand and in the 17th Century Europeans began to experiment with their own printing techniques. Groups of Huguenot refugees who had settled in England (many of them in the Wandle area) played a huge part in the development of printing techniques.3 Demand for printed calico was high but by the end of the 17th Century the market was in danger of being saturated by both imported and home-made designs. Domestic silk and wool workers were afraid that their goods would not withstand the competition from overseas and they backed a bill to ban the printing of calico in England. In 1701, importing foreign printed goods was banned but this gave way to English printers setting up their own businesses. Unfortunately for the weavers and silk workers, the ban backfired and meant that the market was flooded with English prints and illegally smuggled Indian designs. Riots broke out and women wearing printed cottons had the cloths torn from their backs by supporters of the Weave and Silk Trade. By 1720, it became illegal to wear printed calico, however it was not illegal to export or to print on linen and so the printing trade continued to grow. In 1752 copper-plate printing was invented by Francis Nixon in Ireland. This change in technique meant more delicate and larger repeat patterns could be created. By 1783 Thomas Bell invented a printing machine which revolutionised the way in which fabric could be commercially and mass produced. One of the most successful calico printers on the river Wandle was Peter Mauvillian, a naturalized French Huguenot who in 1690 established a printing works at Ravensbury in Mitcham, and a second works at Wandsworth. Mauvillian was a successful printer and his was one of the largest calico firms of the period, employing up to 250 workers. Block Printing Process

Creating lengths of fabric for industry was a complex and laborious process. To become a skilled block printer at Liberty it took 7 years of training in the form of an apprenticeship. An apprentice would learn all the stages of block printing under the supervision of the master block printer. It was only after this lengthy training that an apprentice would have been deemed to have enough experience and skill to print for Liberty.

Above: Block Printer at Liberty Print-works in Merton during the 1950s4

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Fact Sheet devised by Sandrine Case and Clare Moloney, February 2010

The following extract by Harry Fairman, former Master Foreman at Liberty describes the stages of block printing at the Liberty Print-works5: # Carving the block: The first process for block printing was to create a carved wooden block to print from. Each colour used in the design would require its own block, which could take a skilled block maker up to two weeks to carve. Preparing the table: The tables were washed down and spread with a water gum. Chalk lines were then drawn to keep the cloth straight. Preparing Fabric: Silk worms create a natural gum when spinning their cocoon. Silk fabric needed to be boiled to remove the gum to allow the printing colour to soak evenly onto the fibres. The fabric was then dyed, rinsed and dried for printing. Printing: The printer has to check the line where he wants to print and marks out where he will print. The block is dipped into the colour in a felt tray and then carefully placed on the cloth. The block is tapped on the back with a heavy mallet which ensures the design of the block is transferred to the cloth. The next block is then carefully lined up to the position of the pin prick of ink left by the previous block. This is repeated until the first colour is completed. The remaining colours are then printed in the same manner. Once it is all printed, the fabric is stiff with ink and feels more like paper. Steaming: The silk is then taken to be fixed as the dyes would wash out if soaked in water. The fabric is cocooned in a backing cloth which prevents the dyes from transferring themselves onto other layers of silk.

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Rinsing: Once the colours were fixed the printing gums were washed out in the River Wandle (the water had better qualities than tap water). The silk was looped around a drum with the ends tied together to keep it continuously turning. The cloth was submerged in water so that any surplus gum or colour was washed away.

These days block printing is far too labour intensive and time consuming to be a profitable way to print fabric. Many of the original blocks used in Morris’ and Liberty’s era have been sold as ornaments or given to museums (such as Victoria & Albert Museum, Wandle Industrial Museum and The William Morris Gallery) as well as former Liberty 3
Fact Sheet devised by Sandrine Case and Clare Moloney, February 2010

employees. Today, many of the Liberty images from the original blocks have been transferred to screen so that they can be screen-printed or hand machine printed. However, traditional wooden printing blocks are still widely used in areas of India such as Gujarat and Rajasthan, and in parts of Africa there are villages where the art of block printing is being revived for export. The materials used include mud pastes for resist printing and natural vegetable dyes to colour the fabric.

Fabric design from Bagaru, Gujarat, India, - which uses both resist and direct printing techniques 6

There are numerous methods for block printing and they include: # Printing colour directly on to cloth. # ‘Discharge’ printing. This involves printing a bleaching agent onto a previously dyed cloth to remove colour. This process was first used in the 19th Century # Printing various mordents thickened with gum so that when dipped into the dye bath, a range of shades can be produced. # Resist printing. This involves printing a paste that blocks the dye from absorbing into the cloth. The River and Cloth workshops in Block Printing will explore resist and direct colour printing techniques.

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Fact Sheet devised by Sandrine Case and Clare Moloney, February 2010

Notes to Text:

1 Image reproduced here with kind permission from Lapwing Printworks – please see http://forwhatischatteris.blogspot.com 2 Silver Tree of Life Print, created by Liberty of London 3 See Fact Sheet on Huguenots and the Wandle Valley for further information 4 From Liberty & Co In The Fifties And Sixties – A Taste for Design, Anna Buruma, London, ACC Editions, 2008, 5 See section entitled: ‘Reminiscences of Harry Fairman, Master Foreman and Block Printer in: Trouble at Mill, a Brief History of the Former Liberty Works Including Textile Printing at Merton Printers Ltd (Libertys) 1965-1982, David Luff, Merton Historical Society, London, 2002 6 Image created by The Craft And Artisans – http://www.craftandartisans.com/hand-blockprinting-of-bagru-rajasthan.html

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Fact Sheet devised by Sandrine Case and Clare Moloney, February 2010