Printing Pretty Pictures

On textiles that is.  Yesterday CHS hosted a teacher development workshop for art teachers.  For my part, I brought out some examples of printed textiles from the 18th and 19th centuries and we discussed the processes involved in printing textiles with brilliant colors and patterns.  Well, since I already spent time brushing up on the processes of old, I thought I would share that knowledge with all of you as well…


Pocket. 1800-1810. Gift of Mrs. John A. Davison. 1999.41.1.

Before we can discuss how images were transferred to fabric, we must first discuss the different types of printing/dyes that were available.  Until the discovery of the first synthetic dye, Mauvine, in 1856, all of the colors on fabrics came from nature.  These natural dyes were plant based, animal based, even insect based, and they all produced their own unique set of colors.  In order to affix the dye to the fabric a mordant was needed.  A mordant is a substance, such as tin or iron, that combines with the natural dye in order to create an insoluble compound that attaches permanently to the fibers.  Mordants can be placed on all of the fabric or be thickened and placed only on certain parts of the fabric. 

After the mordant has been applied to the fabric depending on the dye being used (different dyes require different mordants), the dying process can happen in a variety of ways.  Discharge printing is a form of dying the entire cloth and then applying an agent that will remove dye from certain areas leaving a pattern.  Another style of printing, with the same basic concept, is resist printing.  In resist printing a substance is printed on the fabric that will repel the dye leaving a design in the color that is beneath the resist.  Think of art class when you would draw a picture on white paper with a white crayon and when you painted over it the crayon drawing remained.

Often discharge printing and resist printing are combined with other forms of printing in order to create a colored pattern.  For instance, say you wanted to dye a large piece of fabric a dark color, but you also wanted a design on it.  You would use either the discharge or resist forms of printing to print on your pattern, then you would dye the entire piece of fabric the background color.  After that was done, you could go back to those white spots you created and print them with a mordant and dip them in another color of dye.  Here is an example of a dress from the 18th century likely done in this fashion…


Dress. About 1775-1785. Gift of the Lyman Allyn Museum, New London. 1959.54.4.

One of the most interesting types of printing was madder printing.  Madder is a dye extracted from the root of the madder plant.  The dye contains a variety of color possibilities depending on the mordant used (rather than the usual one color and one mordant combination).  The colors range from orange to brown and pink to red.  For this reason, madder became quit popular for use in dyeing textiles.  A textile printer could print various mordants in different places on the fabric and then dip the entire cloth in a dye bath of madder.  The colorants would affix to their preferred mordant and out of the dye bath would come a single piece of cloth with a variety of colors.


Fabric Panel. 1858. 2007.4.1.62.

Although, without chemical testing, there is no way to be 100% sure, the above fabric swatch is likely madder dyed.  The various red and brown colors could all have been obtainable with a simple madder root dye bath.

Now, you are probably curious about how an image would be printed on the fabric.  There are a variety of ways to accomplish this.  One of the earliest forms of textile printing is wood block printing.  Wood block printing refers to the use of carved wood blocks to distribute mordants onto fabric.  The block would be used much like a stamp is used today.  The mordant would sit on top of the block and then the block would be pressed to the fabric.  Most wood blocks were not large as the bigger they were the heavier they got and the more people it took to mordant them and then press them to the fabric.  The dress below is a great example of a woodblock printed fabric.


Maternity Dress. About 1800. Bequest of Martha R. Lambert. 1979.68.864.

Wood block printing remained the main type of printing for many years until the development of copper plate printing.  Copper plate printing is similar to wood block printing in that the mordant is applied directly to the plate and then pressed to the fabric.  Copper plates allowed for more detailed print designs and also larger-scaled designs as a copper plate could easily be as long as 40 inches and as wide as the fabric without fear of breaking or becoming too heavy.  The fine lines used in copper plate prints often distinguish them from wood block prints.


Handkerchief. 1850-1875. Gift of G. Fox & Co. 1949.2.15.

One of the biggest changes in textile printing, that eventually led to printed textiles becoming increasingly more affordable, was the use of copper cylinders for printing.  The copper was etched in the same way as copper plates, but the copper was then attached to a large cylinder.  Although the circumference of the cylinder limited the size of the print repeat, it was a much more cost-effective and less time-intensive process.  Stripes became very popular with copper cylinders because of the ease at which the design would line up automatically as fabric was passed under the roller (which was constantly being mordanted), as opposed to the old way of manually lining up each plate one after the other and hoping to get the best match possible.  The dress below is a great example of a copper cylinder print.


Dress. About 1845. Gift of Barbara Kane. 1987.210.0.

So…there is just a quick and dirty lesson on mordants and dyes and printing techniques all rolled into one.  There are some great books out there on the subject and if you are at all interested in chemistry it is all quite fascinating.  In fact, the experimentation of dyers was the birth of organic chemistry!


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