Tea Party Winners: Debra E. Marvin's winner is: Kathleen, Jennifer Hudson Taylor's winner of her MacGregor Legacy series is Chris Granville and second winner is Britney Adams for the plaque and For Love or Country novel:, Angela K. Couch's winner is: , Carrie Fancett Pagels's winner per random.org is Beverly Duell-Moore for a copy of BCB and second winner for colonial goodies is: Carrie Moore Gould, Denise Weimer's winner: Janet Marie Dowell, Shannon McNear's winner is: Adriann Harris, Pegg Thomas's winner is: Susan C

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dyeing and Blocking- The history behind Printed Fabrics by Debra E. Marvin

In the 18th Century, among the many fascinating items Europeans began to ‘need’ from the far east were printed fabrics. “Fast Printed” meant the colors were not supposed to run, not the speed of creation. By 1700 English, French, and Dutch craftsmen had figured out how to fix their dyes and create prints with the use of elaborate carved woodblocks, but they were slow to catch imports for their desirability.  
Of course, the labor was backbreaking – cold, dark workrooms with boiling vats of dye. Bleak, monotonous work for very long days. Sadly, few samples of the earliest of prints survive. Cotton took dye best and natural fabrics deteriorate unless kept under the best of situations.
The Madder Plant. Roots were the source of red dye

Most dying centered around two major colors – red and blue and were created by the use of MADDER for red and INDIGO for blue.

It’s incredible to see the intricate details carved on old woodblocks.  Dots worked into the patterns (or not) helped the worker line up the block from spot to spot. A block was colored (think of stamping –rolled on, or pressed onto the dye) and pressed against fabric, then imprinted with a tap from a mallet. The process continued, block by block down the yards and yards of fabric. Consider that in a yard and a half , the process on 45” material would have been done 91 times alone with a 4”  sq. block.  (note-45” wide material is the norm now, not then!)

If you are like me, you love TOILE. Here’s an excellent representation of detail but done in one color.

Imagine the work that went into this fabric!

Amazing printed fabric from 1775-1800

Block printing was not perfect and that’s the charm of it. A discerning seamstress might well pass on fabric that was not lined up properly, or had the occasional smear, but someone would use it.  It’s not surprising that prints were not found on the clothes of servants and the working class in the 18th Century!

CREATING THE WOOD  PATTERN BLOCKS was a time-consuming enterprise, starting with a thick block of wood made from sycamore / planetree or pear wood (primarily  in England). They had to be of quality to resist warping when wet, and were backed with two or three other layers of wood, often pine. Grains ran in opposite directions in each layer to further prevent warping.

The block was sanded completely flat and smooth before accepting the sketched on design which was transferred on.  The design started on paper, as it had to be copied over to other blocks if the design had multiple colors. For each color the area of the design was left and the balance carved away. I understand the process from making printing blocks out of a linoleum type material, but the skill involved to make a multi-colored block amazes me.

At times, small details had to be made in metal and added to the block, as small cuts tend to wear away or chip off. The use of copper added a very intense amount of work in such cases.

The process to print continues with the choice of a good cloth, fast dyes, and steady hands. And patience!

For a multi-color print, the entire bolt of fabric had to be hand printed in one color and allowed to dry. A second, third or fourth color could be added with different blocks for the same pattern and additional stamping and drying time. In some cases, if a color was only used in a small part, it was hand painted on.

For many years in England, import of printed fabric was illegal. People loved it but it took away from the domestic fabric industry—until British craftsmen could compete with Indian craftsmen!  Textiles from India led the market for a long time. India muslin and calico remained in high demand even after British mills were rolling out cotton fabric.

Here are few more ways to create printed cloth:
Mordant Dyeing (chemical fixatives stamped to the cloth which was then put into a pot of dye)
Resist Dyeing (placing a resist material, like a wax, on the fabric where dye was not to attach)
Hand Painting!

Flower designs were popular, and still are. Fabric printing by mid 18th century was done to mimic embroidery.  Later, bolder patterns of twisting stems and lines came along but so did small designs which were much easier and cheaper to produce! Now the working class could wear  simple prints.

The term Calico represents printed cotton and may have originated in America as the general term for cotton prints coming from the port of Calicut, India. Chintz, another popular cotton print (generally with a more polished cotton thread and therefore a shinier fabric) is believed to have come from the Hindi word Chint which meant variegated.

I won’t take for granted the classic look of printed cotton when I consider its not so humble beginnings.
For anyone creating period clothing, it is important to look at what materials were used at the time.


  1. Thanks for visiting today and sharing my love of fabrics. I'll be back and forth on this crazy Friday, but look forward to your comments!

  2. Thanks for posting! Having worked in a theatre costume shop, I know it's important to not just make the appropriate style of garment, but also use the right kinds of fabric for a period play; working there certainly fed my love of sewing and period fashions. And thanks for the link -that KCI Digital Archive site is fascinating!

    1. Hi Rachael. This post went up one day and August and came back into hiding so I apologize for the delay or confusion. THanks for commenting on my post about block printing - the history of printed fabric. I am a real costume and fabric nut so I wonder why it took me so long to look into this!

      thanks for stopping in!

  3. SO kewl! I've been researching colonial fabrics but somehow just couldn't picture this technique until seeing your post. :-) Makes me want to try to print my own!

  4. I would love to try this too, Shannon! In very small amounts. I've seen a lot of techniques to color fabrics and create designs so this was a natural extension of it. Apparently, old wood print blocks are available on Ebay, and elsewhere. I think you can also use existing things that have good texture.

    If nothing else, it certainly opened my eyes to the amount of work that went into early prints and why the working class wore solids!

  5. Wow! I sure learned a lot. Thank you so much for this very informative post, Debra! Sounds like really backbreaking work. We have so little idea of how hard people had to work before labor was mechanized--and that's undoubtedly why the more enterprising laborers came up with machines to replace hand labor. lol!

    1. I learned a lot, too, Joan. After the block printing, roller printing on a big 'machine' came along but still had to be done one color at a time. Those amazing Colonial era--or more especially those amazing French patterns on the continent still amaze me with so many colors done one at a time!

  6. WOW, Deb, I truly never realized all the work that went into print fabrics back in the day!! No wonder only wealthy people wore them!!

    Excellent article ... and a little mind-boggling to a gal who hates research ... ;)


    1. I wish I had some reference to the practical cost of a printed fabric in today's dollars. The sample photo I used of that lovely print must have been quite expensive!
      thanks Julie!

  7. Woah, who knew what all went into printed fabric way back then?! I can't imagine the tedious work it involved. Great post! That is quite the research you did. :)

    1. It started as a post about the types of fabrics available in the colonies in the late 18th C but when I dug in and learned more about the print industry, I had to keep going.

      thanks for commenting, Susan!

  8. Wow! Great research Debra.
    I can well understand why embroidery continued to be used to create prints.

    1. Thank you Janet. I enjoyed it but now I want to play with fabric myself .As if I have nothing else to do!

  9. Excellent article! I love reading about how things were made in bygone days.

    1. Thanks Susan. I found so much of interest I will probably be on a textile kick for awhile!

  10. Interesting post, Debra!

    Beautiful fabrics but, what a lot of work! I now have more respect for the toile I think is so pretty!

    Thanks, Debra!

  11. I suppose most of those early prints that were sold as 'seconds' are long rotted and gone. A few early samples of print fabric remain where they were reused or used as lining... but I imagine there were a lot of mis prints and smears. I pity the person who ruined a print job after so much time and expense!


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