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There are many methods for printing textiles, some relatively recent inventions, others in existence for thousands of years. Each printing method has its own advantages – some are quick to execute, others are cheap and cost effective, with certain techniques the only ones possible in the production of a particular type of pattern.

There are four main ways of generating a pattern on fabric:

  • Mordant printing – where a substance known as a mordant is first applied to the cloth before it is dyed. The mordant (also known as a fixing agent) combines with the dyestuff and the textile fibre, leaving an insoluble colour. Not all dyestuffs require a mordant, but madder, the main component in Turkey red, does.
  • Direct printing – where colour is transferred directly onto the cloth to produce a pattern. Wood blocks, copper rollers and screens are all examples of different techniques for direct printing.
  • Discharge dyeing, though not technically a printing method, is still used to produce a pattern on cloth. The cloth is dyed and then a bleaching agent is used to remove or ‘discharge’ the colour from certain areas, creating the desired pattern.
  • Resist dyeing is where a substance applied to the cloth in patterns is used to resist the dyestuff, so that only certain areas of the fabric can take on the colour. Batik dyeing is an example of this method, with wax employed to prevent the dyestuff from penetrating the cloth. Another is tie-dyeing, which involves pieces of string tied tightly around small parts of the cloth, which again prevents the dye from reaching the fibre.

All of these methods were used in the Vale of Leven, and as the NMS Turkey Red Collection shows, multiple methods were commonly applied to a single piece of fabric to create complex patterns. 

Block printing

Of the direct printing techniques, block printing is the oldest and is thought to have originated in Persia or Egypt, before being perfected in India and later adopted in Europe. Block printing was the first to be used on any scale in Britain and was employed in printing on calico, wool and linen as well as Turkey red dyed cottons. The required design would be carved into a block of hard wood, such as holly, leaving the pattern in relief. If the pattern required different colours, a separate block would be used for each colour. If fine lines were needed for small details such as flowers or birds’ feet, copper strips could be hammered into the block. Each block was made with ‘pitch pins’, which were used to register the blocks and ensure that the colour was transferred correctly. The size of the block would depend on the size of the pattern. The blocks used by the Scottish Turkey red firms were typically ten inches long by five inches broad and the printing took place at tables thirty feet long with printers and their assistants working in pairs on each side of the table.

Copper plates and cylinders

Printing with copper plates was first invented in the mid-eighteenth century and the principle was much the same as block printing, with the design etched into copper rather than engraved in relief on wood. Copper plates allowed finer designs than blocks, on larger surfaces, giving rise to bigger and more intricate designs. They were used to generate fine black detail over white or red areas of fabric and were particularly important for handkerchief designs. Cylinder printing, the next step from copper plate printing, effectively revolutionised the industry and was first patented by Thomas Bell of Glasgow in 1783. Designs were carved onto copper cylinders or rollers, which were mounted on a large central cylinder. Each cylinder was fed with its own colour as the cloth was passed through, with multi-coloured patterns achieved through the use of multiple cylinders. Unlike block and copper plate printing, cylinder printing was a fully mechanised process, but could only be used where the design was repeated through the length of the fabric. This reduced the utility for Turkey red firms, who produced many designs for sari pieces and scarves where the end patterns and borders were different to the filling patterns. 

Lead plate printing

Lead plate printing is not technically a printing process at all, since extra colour is not imparted or transferred onto the cloth, but rather the colour is ‘discharged’ from already-dyed cloth through the use of bleaching agents. The discharge process was important in the early history of the Turkey red industry and was particularly associated with the production of bandanna handkerchiefs by companies like Henry Monteith and Co. The actual colour achieved in the discharge process depended on the solution that formed the discharging agent – a mixture of sulphuric acid and chloride of lime produced white areas, while chromate of lead produced yellow areas. The technique involved two plates of lead, with the required patterns carved into each plate and the cloth clamped between the plates. The discharging liquor was passed through the plates and where it came into contact with the cloth, the colour was bleached away to leave a pattern, most commonly of spots and stripes. Flat presses, involving copper plates mounted on rails that moved along the length of the cloth, were another form of discharge printing in the later nineteenth century. 

Next: The rise of synthetic dyes >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Dyeing and printing techniques.’

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