Travel the world, and you’ll discover a huge range of traditional printed materials; from the intricate floral fabrics of Asia, to the geometric patterns of Africa. We’ll often appreciate the design and colour of these great garments – without knowing how the effect was achieved; and just how complex some of the printing methods are!
Here’s a glimpse into some of the world’s most fascinating fabric printing techniques.
Traditional Fabric Printing Methods
- Woodblock printing. India is well-known for producing some of the world’s most detailed fabric designs. Whilst many of their materials are stitched or woven, wood-block printing is also frequently used; which is ideal for producing repeating patterns on cloth.
The carving of the wood block is an art-form in itself; and requires a team of specialist wood-carvers, who transform a block or plank of wood into an intricate pattern. Ink is then applied to the block, which is then pressed on to the cloth. This method is also used by many artisans across South-East Asia.
- Indonesia (and in particular, Java) is famous for Batik fabric printing; though it’s a technique that’s also used in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Singapore and Nigeria. Firstly, the cloth is washed and beaten, then the artist applies the pattern in hot wax, using a pen-like instrument. Then, the piece of fabric is dyed and the wax removed; which reveals the beautiful pattern underneath.
Each country has their own variation on batik – both in technique, and the patterns they use. For example, Javanese batik often uses repeating geometric forms, Japanese batik features animals, birds and flowers, and European batik frequently uses images of houses or people.
- Screen-printing. China is the birthplace of what we now know as screen-printing; though the technique has changed beyond measure over the years. Dating back as far as the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279AD), it’s essentially a form of stencilling. The fabric is pulled tight over a frame, then a stencil is fixed in place, and ink applied over the surface. When the stencil is removed, it leaves a visible pattern.
These days, the technique is much more sophisticated; and uses chemicals plus a specialist mesh to create a more detailed design.
- Tie-dye. One of the most modern forms of fabric printing is tie-dying – which originated from the US in the mid-1960s. Forever associated with bohemian ‘hippy’ culture, tie-dye essentially involves folding, scrunching or binding a garment (often with rubber bands), then dying the fabric. After the binding is removed, a vibrant, psychedelic pattern is left.
More sophisticated forms of tie-dye feature additional steps; such as extra applications of dye, multiple dyes used in sequence, or using different forms of ‘resist’ – for example a stencil, rather than a rubber band.
- Calico printing originated in India, and initially used the wood-block printing technique. However, in the 17th century, Europeans started to adopt the style, and adapted the printing method, using copper rollers to create the pattern instead.
Hargreaves and Company, in Preston, Lancashire, were the first to mass-produce calico-printed material – in 1785.
Traditional Fabrics, Modern Techniques
Of course, these days, printing methods have been updated, enabling artisan fabric makers to work at a quicker pace. However, the remarkable patterns, imagery and form are still evident in the garments we see today – and each one has a rich history behind it.
If you’d like to see some examples of traditionally-inspired garments, click here.