Printing with natural dyes

Updated: May 22, 2020

As I worked my way through several 18th century dye manuals I could not miss the reference to using natural dyes in calico printing. Calico is a simple name for many different techniques that involve the application of patterned mordants and dyes with the use of wooden carved blocks, or with pencils, or screens, Calico printed textiles are called chintz. The amazing books of Edward Bancroft and Berthollet can be purchased as reproductions and are much worthwhile reading. On top of this the books of E.A. Parnell and Crace-Calvert were crucial for my research. Soon I was sucked in the ins and outs of 18th century fashion, the economics behind the dyes, and; the how-to in a modern day setting.

The English were much enchanted by the colourful block prints they encountered in India when they first set up their trading posts for the East India Company in Surat (1619), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668), and Calcutta (1690). The cheap finely woven cottons were swiftly imported to England together with silk piece goods, indigo, saltpetre and spices from South India. There they found much favour as a cheerful alternative for the heavy wools and stiff linens of the time.

Block print patterns from a period book, click image for more details 

The ruling fashion of puffy wide dresses with a narrow bodice helped the prints come out in their best and for the working class it was soon the craze of the day. The fabrics were so cheap and widely available, even the poorest of the poor could afford them, which certainly was not the case with the richly embroidered fashion that came before. By 1700 the value of chintz (the name for calico printed textiles) import overtook the total value of the spice trade (1). Growth in one field organically leads to a decline in another, and the wool industry saw a huge drop in demand. To protect the British industry the government first increased import taxes to a staggering 50%, while abandoning export duty on English woolen produce. In 1720 import of foreign chintzes was banned altogether, only to be allowed again in 1774. The French (where calico is called Indiennes) did the same but had a much harder time banning smuggled textiles from their land borders. How this effected the local block printing industry in India is a story for another day.

Examples of 18th century common dresses with calico printing;

Toiles Indiennes, calico prints for the French market ca 1750, images from this museum collection; (click image for more)

While it was strictly forbidden to bring in printed goods from India, there was still the possibility of importing raw cotton and printing it in England. The traditional block printing technique was way too slow and labour intensive to be cost-effective and this lead to a period of fast innovation. Screen printing, printing machines with huge cylinders and special steam houses made calico a local industry that was thriving. Chintzes remained the hype of the time until the sleeker, more flowing dresses that came into fashion, demanded a different type of textile. Even so, calico printing was still (and is still) popular in home decor and as such the industry remained, albeit on a smaller scale.

These prints show in detail the machinery and set up for these dye and print houses;

An interesting article about 18th century block and cylinder print industry in Lancashire can be found here

Madder was the most common dye stuff for calico printing, which I discussed in the previous blog. Look at this stunning copper engraving print on cotton using madder dye paste. Designed by Jean Baptiste Huet in 1795.

All the books and articles in spite, the most interesting question remained; can I do this at home? The short answer is yes, but it needs good thinking and some equipment beyond your regular dye pots. Of course there is no way I could reproduce the industrial methods of the time (not just because I can't build a 'small chamber built of masonry about four or five feet in length by three feet in width and three feet in height' for steaming), but to try in a small setting was interesting and do-able.

The first important thing is thicken the dyes. Unlike regular natural dyeing, the dye needs to be rather thick to not feather and smudge on the dry textile. In the old days there were a plethora of natural thickeners with each their pro's and cons. Parnell (2) sums up and mentions gum Senegal separate from gum arabic, but most other literature will consider them one and the same.

1 British Gum (roasted starch)

2 Calcined potato starch

3 China clay mixed with gum Arabic or gum Senegal

4 Dextrine

5 Gum Arabic

6 Gum Senegal

7 Gum tragacanth

8 Pipe clay mixed with gum Arabic or gum Senegal

9 Rice starch

10 Salep

11 Sago, common and torrefied

12 Sulphate of lead mixed with gum arabic or gum Senegal

13 Wheat starch

Nowadays most printers will use Guar Gum.

Then we need the right dye, and even though in principal you could do this with any natural dye, the best thing to do is use a dye with a good light-fastness such as madder, weld, and cutch.

In these samples I used a screen with a stencil underneath, from left to right; weld, weld mixed with madder and madder. Here done on handwoven vintage linen and organic wool merino.

After this I used larger screens with my own designs added, that I had done by a screen print studio near me. Vintage illustration of pomegranates printed with (left to right) weld, cochineal. and Himalayan rhubarb.

I have made a step by step tutorial for the complete process of printing with natural dyes, for the best results in a home setting. Discussed and explained is;

How to make a dye paste with extract and regular dye powder.

How to store the dye paste.

How to apply the paste.

Setting the dye and correct finishing of your printing project.

As usual with lots of pictures and clearly explained steps and recipes.

I have even included the graphics to make your own screen for screen printing.

Purchase the complete instructions here

You can also find sets with the ingredients needed for at least 8 shades of print paste here.

Happy printing!

Ps; we will be doing this and much much more in the 2020 Lautrec Masterclass.


2 Edward Parnell - A Practical treatise

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