A Brief History of Block Printing on Fabric
It is difficult to pin down exactly when humanity first started printing fabric, but the earliest surviving examples of block printed fabric can be found in China from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)1, 2. While the earliest examples of block printing on fabric can be found in China, other forms of textile decoration came to prominence there over time. Printing on paper eventually became the primary application of the block printing process in China 3.
|Textile printing block from Egypt, circa 1000 AD
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
|Fragment from a 9th Cetury
Egyptian garment, Metropolitan
Museum of Art, NYC
|Gold Leaf Lions on Linen, Seljuk 11th Century, Iran or Iraq, Cleveland Museum of Art.
|Border from a wall hanging,
Germany 14th Century
Victoria and Albert Museum
The technology of block printing textiles in India from the 12th century onward was particularly advanced, allowing for highly detailed and brilliantly colored designs on fabric.
In western Europe, block printing on fabric arrived around the latter half of the 13th century and only really flourished in the Rhenish Provinces of what is now Germany.
|Ceremonial textiles, Gujarat, a piece of hand-printed cotton from the 15th century in the holdings of the Victoria
and Albert Museum, London.
The advanced techniques developed in India would eventually make their way to Europe and transform the way garments were printed in Europe, but not until the mid-17th century 10.
The cloth I attempted to recreate comes from the 13th or 14th century, a central Asian piece from the Mongol period currently in the holdings of the Cleveland Museum of Art 11 , seen above.
To replicate the design and pattern, I took the following steps:
- I created a knife from steel and cherry wood based on drawings, images and descriptions of an extant knife excavated from a dig at Novgorod, dated to the 12th century.
- I extracted the motif and design of the ogive (the design element) from the cloth I wished to duplicate, utilizing modern technology (Photoshop) to clarify the original image and then print the isolated motif.
- I handcarved a piece of cherry wood, creating a relief image of the ogive to utilize in block printing.
- I researched and utilized a period recipe for block printing ink from a translation of Il Libro dell’Arte (The Book of Art), written by Cenninno Cennini in the early 14th century.
- I utilized the block I had carved and the ink I had made to print the ogive motif in a pattern on a piece of silk to replicate the original cloth.
Making a 12th Century Wood Carving Knife
|A page of images of extant knife blades made
from iron found in archaological digs in
Novgorod, from the book Wood Use in Medieval
Novgorod by Jon G. Hather and Mark A. Brisbane
For this project, I used:
- A section of steel bar stock
- Coal for use in a forge
- A forge
- Wood glue
- Cherry fruitwood
- A grinder
- A sharpening wheel
- A burring wheel
- An acetalyne torch
|Four iron knives from a museum in Novgorod. Photo
courtesy Dr. Michael J. Fuller, Professor Emeritus of
Anthropology, St. Louis Community Collete.
(known in the SCA as Master Michael of Safita)
The extant knife I chose to duplicate is from an archaeological dig in Novgorod 13 . The city was at one time part of the Mongol Empire and the knife could have plausibly been used to carve the block I attempted to
I picked this particular knife because the image, shown here on the left, came with scale measurements. With this information I was able to make a scale drawing of the original blade.
At this point I needed assistance. I engaged the help of a friend who does a lot of metalwork. He cut the basic shape I had devised from a steel bar using an acetylene torch.
I was then left with this knife-shaped hunk of steel.
Normalizing the blade is accomplished by heating the steel to the point it ceases to be affected by a magnet.
Once the metal reaches that temperature, it is then allowed to cool slowly. Doing this helps soften the blade to make it easier to shape.
I then took the blade back to the forge and heated it to demagnetize it again. This time, we quenched the blade in oil to harden the steel.
Once the knife had a functional edge, I took it to another friend, who helped me acquire a very sharp edge and a higher polish on the blade using a deburring wheel.
With the blade complete, all that remained was adding a hilt.
I took two pieces of cherry and carved out the area where the tang would reside, using knives and a Dremel tool.
In period, pine rosin would have been used to seal the hilt to the tang. Since I had no pine rosin, I used epoxy to fill the tang cavity, and sealed the rest of the hilt with wood glue, clamping the hilt in several places to fuse it to the blade tang.
Once both the epoxy and wood glue had cured, I worked the hilt with a belt sander and softened the shape using several grits of sheet sand paper.
I made the hilt somewhat shorter than the original so that it could tuck conveniently and comfortably into the palm of my hand. This adjustment gave me a greater degree of control over the knife.
Extracting the ogive motif from the extant 14th century Central Asian fabric
The design was found in a period silk brocade fragment that is currently housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I obtained photographs of the piece from the museum’s website.
Utilizing skills I have developed with modern technology, I extracted the basis motif of this palmette ogive from a photograph of the tapestry with the assistance of Adobe Photoshop. I then rendered the motif into a computer file that could be printed.
Carving the Wood Block
- A piece of cherry fruitwood
- The knife I made myself constructed from cherry fruitwood, epoxy, wood glue and steel
- An Exacto-style razor knife
My preferred wood is cherry. Cennini 14 in particular recommends pearwood, preferred in period not only for its hardness, but also for its tightness of grain.
The chosen board was both planed and sanded perfectly flat. Flatness is necessary for a proper print. I lightly braised the surface of the block using a laser engraver to mark where I would need to carve.
The shape of the tip on the period knife was especially useful for popping out chips and cleaning and smoothing carved areas. I ended up using the period knife for around 30% of the carve. I suspect that percentage will go up once I have had more time to get to know the knife better.
Making a Simple Period Ink for Block Printing
My first experiments with trying to produce period type ink was a mixture of rust, a pinch of gum arabic, and boiled linseed oil, an attempt to augment Cennini’s original recipe 15 inspired by the experiments of Viscountess Morrigan Clubfoot of the Kingdom of Avacal.
I determined my ratios off that first batch and ended up with a very oily, messy paint.
I did get a few decent printings and I learned a few things from the experimentation. Not only did I determine that the best way to apply oil-based ink to the block was to apply ink to the brayer via the stamp pad, but I also learned that wood works better than linoleum for even paint transfer with oil based paints.
The cure time for this type of paint is five to seven days of air drying.
At the same time I made and experimented with rust ink, I tried a similar formulation using powdered indigo. That ink did not take at all. The rust certainly dyed the fabric well, but eventually the chemistry of the iron salts will tear up the fibers that contain them.
For the purposes of this project, I decided to use one of Cennini’s recipes to make the block printing ink used for this project’s sampler. The recipe is quite simple. It calls for charcoal made from pine ground to a powder and mixed with a liquid lacquer. Cennini does not say what kind of lacquer to use, so I had to experiment a bit.
I utilized these ingredients:
- A molcajete and a round jar for crushing charcoal
- Boiled linseed oil
- Gum arabic
I ground compressed charcoal with an improvised mortar and pestle. I added a pinch of gum arabic and then started adding boiled linseed oil, mixing the ingredients until the ink was about the consistency of maple syrup.
I then put thick cotton gauze on top of the ink to make a stamp pad. I rolled my brayer across the ink pad and then applied the ink to the block. The ink has a thinner appearance on the block than modern inks and paints. However, because the ratio of dry to wet was correct this time, there was no excess oil on the fabric from the printing. The period ink printed consistently for the creation of the sampler.
Block Printing on Fabric
Block printing on fabric is a relatively simple process. There are two documented ways which textiles were block printed prior to the 17th century. The first was described by Cennini in Il Libro dell’Arte., which I referenced earlier. A frame is placed on top of the fabric held up between two tables. The inked block is then place within the frame and the fabric underneath is rubbed with a smooth stick or rod.
The second period method was originally described in Nüremberger Kunstbuch 16 during the late 15th century. The fabric is placed on a table with a frame placed on top. The block is inked and placed on top of the fabric within the frame. A rolling pin is then rolled across the top of the block to evenly apply pressure to the fabric.
There are easier ways than these to block print. At its core, block printing is applying paint to a decorative block and pressing that block into fabric to leave an imprint. There are many ways to accomplish this.
Once your fabric has been planned, it is time to start block printing. I generally place between four and eight layers of felt between the fabric and the table. This helps get a sharper printing and lessens wear and tear on the block.
There are several ways one can press the inked block. Using a rolling pin is quite period, as the Nüremberger Kunstbuch describes. Some use a rubber mallet. I just use my body weight to press in the block, pressing multiple places on the block. The larger the block, the more places on the block that must be pressed to get a clean printing. Once the fabric is block printed, the paint has to be cured to make it washing machine safe. With many modern inks and paints, heat is required to cure the fabric print. Some, especially period inks, require other steps to be made washing machine safe.
For this project, I used:
- The piece of cherry fruitwood I had carved into an ogive motif with the knife I made myself constructed from cherry fruitwood, epoxy, wood glue and steel
- Ink I made myself from a recipe by Cennini
- A brayer
- A piece of silk for printing
- Several layers of felt
The purpose of this project was to artistically explore the origins of my block printing craft. Learning how to carve blocks was difficult, especially with my fine motor control issues that come with my dyspraxia, but it was a worthwhile endeavor.
What I found more interesting was how well the wood carving knife actually worked for carving the block. I had a few knife makers scratch their head over the shape of the blade, but its curve makes a huge difference in how I control it. With the augmented handle, it acts like an extension of my hand. It felt good carving a design with a tool I made myself.
The block printing itself was straight forward. Aside from making the ink myself and the differences in the curing, the printing was just like any of a dozen or more I have done in the last year.
There is a Zen to the process that makes it feel common and simple, yet the rendered results are elegant and often intricate. That is the beauty of this fiber medium. It allows almost anyone to create a higher level of garment without spending a fortune in materials or time.
1 and 10. Humphreys, Noel H. A History of the Art of Printing, 1867. Digital Library of India Item 2015.213607 retrieved September 18, 2019 from https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.213607, pages 42-43
2. Whitfield, Farrer and Vainker, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese Art from the Silk Route, 1990. University of California. Retrieved September 16, 2019 from
https://www.google.com/books/edition/Caves_of_the_Thousand_Buddhas/zaA0AQAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0&bsq=han%20dynasty, page 10.
3. Hind, Arthur M. An Introduction to the History of Woodcut. DoPublications Inc., New York, 1963, a reprinting of the same fro Houghton Mifflin, 1895, retrieved from the Internet Archive September 19, 2019 from this address: https://archive.org/details/introductiontohi0000hind, pages 64-70.
4. Schaefer. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section One, the Near and Middle East, Volume 82: Enigmatic Charms: Medieval Arabic Block Printed Amulets in American and European Libraries and Museums, Brill, 2006, retrieved from Google Books, page 31.
5. Darya Chernyshenko. "Attribution of printed fabrics from barrow No. 2 at s. Levenka Starodubsky district from the excavations of D.Ya. Samokvasova." Kaup Living History of the Baltics, retrieved from this site (translated via Google): http://kaup.ru/index.php/lib/articles/135-atributsiya-nabivnykh-tkanej-iz-kurgana-2-u-s-levenka-starodubskogo-uezda-iz-raskopok-d-ya-samokvasova.html
6. Kargashina, Marya “Medieval Russian Finds of Printed Fabric” July 20, 2018. Found here: https://kargashina.wordpress.com/2018/07/20/medieval-russian-finds-of-printed-fabric/
7. "Archaeological Textiles of the 10th to the 12th Century from the Gaigovo Barrow Group in Russia" by Svetlana Kochkurkina and Olga Orfinskaya, printed in the Archaological Textiles Review #58 (2016), retrieved from this website: http://atnfriends.com/download/ATR58compressed.pdf
8. "Fragment with Gold Leaf Lions," Cleveland Museum of Art, seen here: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1950.558
9. Thakar, Rajendra “History of Block Printing in India” Found here: https://www.academia.edu/7707115/HISTORY_OF_BLOCK_PRINTING_IN_INDIA
11. “Textile with Palmettes” Cleveland Museum of Art, as seen here: clevelandart.org/art/1993.253
12. M. Brisbane & J. Hather (eds.) Wood Use in Medieval Novgorod. Retrieved from Academia.edu at this address:
13. Fuller, Michael J. "Novgorod Metal Artifacts." Retrieved from the website of St. Louis Community College here: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/NovgorodMetalp.html
14. Cennini, Cennino Translator: Harringham, Christiana. The Book of the Art. London: Ruskin House, 1899. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, here: https://archive.org/details/bookofartofcenni00cennuoft/page/158 . Page 158.
15 Ibid., page 159.
16. Hampe, Theodor, editor. Nürnberger Ratsverlässe über Kunst und Kunstler im Zeitalter ..., Volumes 2-3. Retrieved via Google Books, here.
Further reference images of block printing in history:
Block printed motifs found in The Black Grave by Dmitry Samokvasov at Chernihiv, Ukraine in 1872-1873, dated to the 10th century, referenced here:
The originals are held in the Moscow State Historic Museum.
Fragment of a wood-block print on linen. Egypt, Mamluk period, 1200s-1300s. Block printing on linen tabby ground. Print of fishes held at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Printed linen from Germany, 1350-1400. Victoria and Albert Museum, seen here.
Rhine Valley/Germanic print on linen, 12th-13th century, fragment from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
This is an expansion on an entry for Gleann Abhann Kingdom Arts and Sciences Fair, September 2019. It has been selected to represent the kingdom as one of three entries at the Gulf Wars Arts and Sciences Champions Display. Further research has already been added and will continue to be added as it is encountered and interpreted.