Image courtesy of hubertl/Eigenes Werk - via Wikimedia Commons (License)
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.
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.
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 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 - this technique can be seen on some of our smallest blocks.
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. 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. When in position this forms a sort of elastic colour trough over the bottom of which the colour is spread evenly with a brush.
Image courtesy of Anne Roberts via Wikimedia Commons (License)
The printer then applies the 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 she 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.
One of the nicest uses we have found for the printing blocks is as an ornament - just dry-brush some acrylic paint in contrasting colours for a magical, unique effect!