Block printing (wallpaper and textiles)
Printing onto wallpaper or fabric by hand, including carving the blocks, either into wood or lino, and manually printing the imagery, building up the design in individual colour layers.
|Historic area of significance||India, East Asia|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||16th/17th Century|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||1 commercial block printing company producing large amounts of fabric
11-20 textile printers
11-20 wallpaper printers
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)||Estimated 50+ textile printers
6-10 Wallpaper makers
|Current no. of trainees||7 apprentices at Turnbull & Stockdale|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers||Not known|
|Current total no. of leisure makers||Not known – it is likely that there are many people printing as a hobby or as a very small enterprise|
Hand Block Printing is possibly the oldest printing technique in the world with the oldest known surviving block prints found in Egypt and dated to the 9th Century.
Block printed fabric – In the 18th Century most printed cottons were imported to the UK from India and were the preserve of the upper classes. Towards the end of the 18th Century, they began being mass produced in Europe and became a more affordable everyday fabric. Today, block printing and the carving of wood blocks is still carried out widely in East Asia and India.
The last remaining textile block printing company in the UK is Turnbull & Stockdale based on the Isle of Man. They have retained all the traditional block printing skills and knowledge in-house and supply hand printed fabric through their workshop in Thailand where they have seven apprentices. Turnbull & Stockdale also cut and maintain wood printing blocks and carry out a range of heritage printing processes such as warp printing.
Block printed wallpaper – Paper didn’t reach Europe until the 12th Century, despite being invented in China hundreds of years prior, and it wasn’t until the 16th Century that printed wallpaper began to be produced. Britain was one of the first countries to employ the hand block printing technique specifically for wallpaper after adapting the process from Chinese and Indian textile production of the time. The first printed wallpapers were produced as an alternative to the tapestries and wall hangings that came before them and were printed in monochrome carbon ink with colour brushed onto the design by hand afterwards, if it was required. The very earliest designs were Damasks which reflected the popular Chinese Silk Damasks that were trading amongst the wealthy in Europe. Wallpaper was also a commodity for the wealthy in the beginning with the printing technique being a highly skilled and laborious process.
Hand-blocked wallpapers use hand-carved blocks and by the 18th century designs include panoramic views of antique architecture, exotic landscapes and pastoral subjects, as well as repeating patterns of stylized flowers, people and animals.
Artisan block printing – Block printing is currently enjoying a modest revival as a craft. There has been a recent resurgence in people who are interested in artisan made papers and fabrics, and value the special qualities that hand block printing can bring.
Social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest have led to many people starting block printing as a hobby or as a small craft business. Some printers are also running courses in block printing and hobby printing kits and supplies are readily available.
- Printing from wooden blocks: While companies such as Cole & Sons have an archive of their blocks to design from and refer to, they are rarely used today as working tools.
- Wallpaper printing from lino blocks: There is an artisan tradition of printing from hand-cut lino blocks. The design is laid out and cut into lino blocks, either in relief or intaglio. The paper is pre-coloured, paint is added to the block, and the design is printed, either with a handheld roller or a hand-planked printing press. There are three makers in the UK practising this technique to make wallpaper
- Fabric printing from lino blocks: The prepared fabric is secured to the printing table and ink is applied to the block. The design is printed using either hand pressure or roller, or in the case of a lino block backed with wood for strength, a mallet tap is used to discharge the ink from the block onto the fabric.
- Print block making
- Warp printing
- Wallpaper making
- Domino wallpaper making (printed on overlapping sheets rather than rolls)
- Textile printing
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: It is hard to make a viable income from block printing as it is a slow and exacting process. It has now become a niche product aimed at the mid/high range market.
- Market issues: Marketing of hand printed products has become more reliant on a specific ‘appreciative’ consumer market and the actual making, rather than the product itself, becomes just as important (and time consuming) marketing wise.
- Competition from overseas makers and large, commercial makers: It is difficult for small makers to compete with larger companies who mass produce fabric using cheaper, faster techniques. Despite this, there has been a resurgence in people who are interested in artisan made products and value the special qualities that hand block printing can bring.
- Lack of awareness: young people are not aware of the process and new entrants are tending to come to it when they are in their late 20s and 30s.
- Training: Lack of specific training in colleges but also lack of existing practitioners where students might find further formalised training/experience.
- Domination of digital: design and patterning is now heavily dominated by digital and this could pose a threat to hand printing and non-digital design processes.
- The Wallpaper History Society
Craftspeople currently known
- Paul Turnbull, Turnbull & Stockdale – UK company with a long history of block printing high end textiles
- Linda Baxter
- Louisa Loakes
- Sarah Burns
- Vicky Putler
- Cameron Short and Janet Tristram – lino and wood block textile printers
- Jenney Kelly, Jenney Wren
- Jenny Stringer
- Hugh Dunford Wood, Lyme Regis – learned as the apprentice of Peggy Angus in Camden Town in the 1970s
- Cameron Short, Thorncombe, Dorset
- Katherine Morris, London
- James Randolph Rogers
- Sarah Jane Palmer, Muriel Design
- Anneliese Appleby
- Louise Altman, Out of Bounds
- Allyson McDermott
- Deborah Bowness
Businesses employing two or more makers:
- Cole & Son (Wallpapers) Ltd, London. Hand block print wallpaper from original wooden blocks, but do not carve blocks.
- Timorous Beasties
- Anstey Wallpaper Company – makes William Morris wallpaper using block printing
- Bruce Fine Papers
Hugh Dunford Wood will be 74 at his next birthday and has no-one to take over printing from his blocks.