Woodblock printing on textiles
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Woodblock printing on textiles is the process of printing patterns on textiles, usually of linen, cotton or silk, by means of incised wooden blocks. It is the earliest, simplest and slowest of all methods of textile printing. Block printing by hand is a slow process. It is, however, capable of yielding highly artistic results, some of which are unobtainable by any other method.
Printing patterns on textiles is so closely related in its ornamental effects to other different methods of similar intention, such as by painting and by processes of dyeing and weaving, that it is almost impossible to determine from the picturesque indications afforded by ancient records and writings of pre-Christian, classical or even medieval times, how far, if at all, allusion is being made in them to this particular process. Hence its original invention must probably remain a matter of inference only. As a process, the employment of which has been immensely developed and modified in Europe in the nineteenth century by machinery anti the adoption of stereotypes and engraved metal plates, it is doubtless traceable to a primeval use of blocks of stone, wood, etc., so cut or carved as to make impressions on surfaces of any material; and where the existence of these can be traced in ancient civilizations, e.g. of China, Egypt and Assyria, there is a probability that printing ornament upon textiles may have been practiced at a very early period. Nevertheless, highly skilled as the Chinese are, and for ages have been, in ornamental weaving and other branches of textile art, there seem to be no direct evidences of their having resorted so extensively to printing for the decoration of textiles as peoples in the East Indies, those, for instance, of the Punjab and Bombay, from whose posterity 16th-century European and especially Dutch merchants bought goods for Occidental trade in Indiennes or printed and painted calicoes.
As in, the case of weaving and embroideries, specimens of printed stuffs have of recent years been obtained from disused cemeteries in Upper Egypt (Akhmim and elsewhere) and tell us of Egypto-Roman use of such things. Some few of them are now lodged in European museums. For indications that earlier Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were likely to have been acquainted with the process, one has to rely upon less certain evidence. Of textiles painted by Egyptians there are many actual examples. Apart from these there are wall paintings, e.g., those of Beni Hassan—about 2100 B.C. in which are represented certain Afro-Asiatic people wearing costumes irregularly patterned with spots, stripes and zigzags, which may have been more readily stamped than embroidered or woven. A rather more complicated and orderly pattern well suited to stamping occurs in a painting about 1320 BC, of Hathor and King Meneptha I. Herodotus, referring to the garments of inhabitants of the Caucasus, says that representations of various animals were dyed into them so as to be irremovable by washing. Pliny describes a very remarkable process employed in Egypt for the colouring of tissues. After pressing the material, which is white at first, they saturate it, not with colours, but with mordants that are calculated to absorb colour. He does not explain how this saturation is done. But as it is clearly for the purpose of obtaining a decorative effect, stamping or brushing the mordants into the material may be inferred. When this was finished the cloth was plunged into a cauldron of boiling dye and removed the next moment fully coloured. It is a singular fact, too, that although the dye in the pan is of one uniform colour, the material when taken out of it is of various colours according to the nature of the mordants that have been respectively applied to it. Egypto-Roman bits of printed stuffs from Akhmim exhibit the use, some three hundred years later than the time of Pliny, of boldly cut blocks for stamping figure-subjects and patterns onto textiles. Almost concurrent with their discovery was that of a fragment of printed cotton at Arles in the grave of St Caesarius, who was bishop there about A.D. 542. Equal in archaeological value are similar fragments found in an ancient tomb at Quedlinburg. These, however, are of comparatively simple patterns.
Museum specimens establish the fact that more important pattern printing on textiles had become a developed industry in parts of Europe towards the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th century.
According to Forrer (Die Kunst des Zeugdrucks, 1898) medieval Rhenish monasteries were the cradles of the artistic craft of ornamental stamp or block cutting, although it is now recognised that some of the examples he relied on are modern forgeries. In rare monastic manuscripts earlier in date than the 13th century, initial letters (especially those that recurred frequently) were sometimes stamped from hand-cut blocks; and German deeds of the 14th century bear names of block cutters and textile stampers as those of witnesses. Between the 11th and 14th centuries there was apparently in Germany no such weaving of rich ornamental stuffs as that carried on in Spain and Italy, but her competitive and commercial instincts led her to adapt her art of stamping to the decoration of coarse textiles, and thus to produce rather rough imitations of patterns woven in the Saracenic, Byzantine and Italian silks and brocades.
Amongst the more ancient relics of Rhenish printed textiles are some of thin silken stuff, impressed with rude and simplified versions of such patterns in gold and silver foil. Of these, and of a considerable number of later variously dyed stout linens with patterns printed in dark tones or in black, specimens have been collected from reliquaries, tombs and old churches. From these several bits of evidence Dr. Forrer propounds an opinion that the printing of patterns on textiles as carried on in several Rhenish towns preceded that of printing on paper. He proceeds to show that from after the 14th century increasing luxury and prosperity promoted a freer use of woven and embroidered stuffs, in consequence of which textile printing fell into neglect, and it was not until three centuries later that it revived, very largely under the influence of trade importing into Europe quantities of Indian printed and painted calicoes.
Early modern Europe
Augsburg, famous in the 17th century for its printing on linens, etc., supplied Alsace and Switzerland with many craftsmen in this process. After the revocation of the edict of Nantes, French refugees took part in starting manufactories of both painted and printed cloths in Holland, England and Switzerland; some few of the refugees were allowed back into France to do the same in Normandy: manufactories were also set up in Paris, Marseilles, Nantes and Angers; but there was still greater activity at Geneva, Neuchtel, Zurich, St Gall and Basel. The first textile printing works in Great Britain are said to have been begun towards the end of the 17th century by a Frenchman on the banks of the Thames near Richmond, and soon afterwards a more considerable factory was established at Bromley Hall in Essex; many others were opened in Surrey early in the 18th century. At Muihouse the enterprise of Koechlin, Schmatzer and Dollfus in 1746, as well as that of Oberkampf at Jouy, led to a still wider spread of the industry in Alsace.[clarification needed] In almost every place in Europe where it was taken up and followed, it was met by local and national prohibitions or trade protective regulations and acts, which, however, were gradually overcome.
Preparing the block
Woodblocks for textile printing may be made of box, lime, holly, sycamore, plane or pear wood, the latter three being most generally employed. They vary in size considerably, but must always be between two and three inches thick, otherwise they are liable to warping, which is additionally guarded against by backing the wood chosen with two or more pieces of cheaper wood, such as deal or pine. The several pieces or blocks are tongued and grooved to fit each other, and are then securely glued together, under pressure, into one solid block with the grain of each alternate piece running in a different direction.
The block, being planed quite smooth and perfectly flat, next has the design drawn upon, or transferred to it. This latter is effected by rubbing off, upon its flat surface, a tracing in lampblack and oil, of the outlines of the masses of the design. The portions to be left in relief are then tinted, between their outlines, an ammoniacal carmine or magenta, for the purpose of distinguishing them from those portions that have to be cut away. As a separate block is required for each distinct colour in the design, a separate tracing must be made of each and transferred (or put on as it a termed) to its own special block.
Having thus received a tracing of the pattern the block is thoroughly damped and kept in this condition by being covered with wet cloths during the whole process of cutting. The blockcutter commences by carving out the wood around the heavier masses first, leaving the finer and more delicate work until the last so as to avoid any risk of injuring it during the cutting of the coarser parts. When large masses of colour occur in a pattern, the corresponding parts on the block are usually cut in outline, the object being filled in between the outlines with felt, which not only absorbs the colour better, but gives a much more even impression than it is possible to obtain with a large surface of wood. When finished, the block presents the appearance of flat relief carving, the design standing out like letterpress type.
Fine details are very difficult to cut in wood, and, even when successfully cut, wear down very rapidly or break off in printing. They are therefore almost invariably built up in strips of brass or copper, bent to shape and driven edgewise into the flat surface of the block. This method is known as coppering, and by its means many delicate little forms, such as stars, rosettes and fine spots can be printed, which would otherwise be quite impossible to produce by hand or machine block printing.
Frequently, too, the process of coppering is used for the purpose of making a mold, from which an entire block can be made and duplicated as often as desired, by casting. In this case the metal strips are driven to a predetermined depth into the face of a piece of lime-wood cut across the grain, and, when the whole design is completed in this way, the block is placed, metal face downwards in a tray of molten type-metal or solder, which transmits sufficient heat to the inserted portions of the strips of copper to enable them to carbonize the wood immediately in contact with them and, at the same time, firmly attaches itself to the outstanding portions. When cold a slight tap with a hammer on the back of the limewood block easily detaches the cake of the type-metal or alloy and along with it, of course, the strips of copper to which it is firmly soldered, leaving a matrix, or mold, in wood of the original design. The casting is made in an alloy of low melting-point, anti, after cooling, is filed or ground until all its projections are of the same height and perfectly smooth, after which it is screwed onto a wooden support and is ready for printing. Similar molds are also made by burning out the lines of the pattern with a red-hot steel punch, capable of being raised or lowered at will, and under which the block is moved about by hand along the lines of the pattern.
In addition to the engraved block, a printing table and colour sieve are required. The table consists of a stout framework of wood or iron supporting a thick slab of stone varying in size according to the width of cloth to be printed. Over the stone table top a thick piece of woolen printers blanket is tightly stretched to supply the elasticity necessary to give the block every chance of making a good impression on the cloth. At one end, the table is provided with a couple of iron brackets to carry the roll of cloth to be printed and, at the other, a series of guide rollers, extending to the ceiling, are arranged for the purpose of suspending and drying the newly printed goods. The colour sieve consists of a tub (known as the swimming tub) half filled with starch paste, On the surface of which floats a frame covered at the bottom with a tightly stretched piece Of mackintosh or oiled calico. On this the colour sieve proper, a frame similar to, the last but covered with fine woolen cloth, is placed, and forms when in position a sort of elastic colour trough over the bottom of which the colour is spread evenly with a brush.
The printer commences by drawing a length of cloth, from the roll, over the table, and marks it with a piece of coloured chalk and a ruler to indicate where the first impression of the block is to be applied.
He then applies his block in two different directions to the colour on the sieve and finally presses it firmly and steadily on the cloth, ensuring a good impression by striking it smartly on the back with a wooden mallet. The second impression is made in the same way, the printer taking care to see that it fits exactly to the first, a point which he can make sure of by means of the pins with which the blocks are provided at each corner and which are arranged in such a way that when those at the right side or at the top of the block fall upon those at the left side or the bottom of the previous impression the two printings join up exactly and continue the pattern without a break. Each succeeding impression is made in precisely the same manner until the length of cloth on the table is fully printed. When this is done it is wound over the drying rollers, thus bringing forward a fresh length to be treated similarly.
If the pattern contains several colours the cloth is usually first printed throughout with one, then dried, re-wound and printed with the second, the same operations being repeated until all the colours are printed.
Many modifications of block printing have been tried from time to time, but of these only two tobying and rainbowing are of any practical value. The object of tobey printing is to print the several colours of a multicolour pattern at one operation and for this purpose a block with the whole of the pattern cut upon it, and a specially constructed colour sieve are employed. The sieve consists of a thick block of wood, on one side of which a series of compartments are hollowed out, corresponding roughly in shape, size and position to the various objects cut on the block. The tops of the dividing walls of these compartments are then coated with melted pitch, and a piece of fine woolen cloth is stretched over the whole and pressed well down on the pitch so as to adhere firmly to the top of each wall; finally a piece of string soaked in pitch is cemented over the woolen cloth along the lines of the dividing walls, and after boring a hole through the bottom of each compartment the sieve is ready for use. In operation each compartment is filled with its special colour through a pipe connecting it with a colour box situated at the side of the sieve and a little above it, so as to exert just sufficient pressure on the colour to force it gently through the woolen cloth, but not enough to cause it to overflow its proper limits, formed by the pitch-soaked string boundary lines.
The block is then carefully pressed on the sieve, and, as the different parts of its pattern fall on different parts of the sieve, each takes up a certain colour that it transfers to the cloth in the usual way. By this method of tobying from two to six colours may be printed at one operation, but it is obvious that it is only applicable to patterns where the different coloured objects are placed at some small distance apart, and that, therefore, it is of but limited application.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.