The beautiful cottons from the East, printed by means of block prints, have a charm and interest which people of taste are quick to appreciate. At one time printing on materials could only be done by means of a block, and this art reached a high degree of excellence in the hands of the Hindoos, whose primitive methods were introduced into Europe in the seventeenth century. Although long since discarded for fabrics, practically the same methods are still used for printing wall-papers by hand, so it is not surprising to find that block printing to-day is one of the latest developments among craft-workers.
Fabrics printed by means of a block print have somewhat the appearance of having been stencilled, but there is a certain difference in the characteristics of the work that appeals to those who understand both methods.
There is a fascination in doing the work that carries away the craft-worker, and she becomes most enthusiastic in praise of the block print. There is a subtle charm about the appearance of the print with its iridescent effect that is most pleasing. Small geometrical designs are used, and it has been found that the most delicate lines and curves can be made by use of the block print.
A separate block is used for each colour, and these are made of fine, close-grained wood. Holly, boxwood, maple, or basewood are any of them suitable woods; some of a child's building blocks can be utilized. They are made of maple, and are just about the right size for the blocks, which should be from an inch to one and a half inches in thickness.
The first process is to plane and sand-paper the block on both sides, when it is ready for the design. Draw the pattern on Japanese tracing-paper, and paste it on the block. Then cut out the background of the design, leaving the figure in relief. Most workers find they can carve successfully with a Sloyd knife or a sharp penknife, while others think they must have half a dozen carving tools to do good work. The natives of the Orient confine themselves to one tool, and become so skilled in using it that the most delicate lines and curves are made with it. It is found best to hold the block in place by cleats while it is being carved, although a few skilled workers claim that they can do it easier when they hold it in the palm of the left hand.
The blocks of different workers vary considerably in appearance, some having a deep cutting of the wood while others have only a slight depression on the block. When carving, straight lines should be cut vertically directly on the outline of the design. The background is then chipped away. A beginner must be content to work slowly, or she will find that she has broken some of the design away, in consequence of which she will have to provide herself with a new block. When the blocks are ready, take a dozen or so squares of coarse muslin or cheesecloth, and make a pad a little larger than the wood block. The pad can be laid on a plate or piece of glass, or even nailed to a board. Other craft-workers prefer to use felt, and find it sucks up the colour better; it should be glued to a piece of glass or wood.
In choosing a medium, either oil-colour or dyes can be used, but most prefer oil-colour, as there is no trouble about making the colour fast afterwards. The paint is mixed with turpentine until it is the consistency of cream, and then a few drops of mucilage are added to keep the colour from spreading. The pigment is laid over the pad with a paintbrush until the pad has fully absorbed it. In order to know whether there is enough colour on the pad, turn it upside down and let any superfluous colour drop off.
Table-Cloth, Block Printed.
Blocks For Printing.
Now take the block in the right hand and press the carved side on the pad. Then wipe off the colour and repeat this process until the pores of the new block are completely filled. Then polish with a cloth, when it will be found ready for printing.
There are any number of delightful materials on which to print. Denim, pongee, cheese-cloth, chiffon, crash, linen, and unbleached muslin are all of them suitable. I should suggest beginning with unbleached muslin, as it is inexpensive for experimenting with, and easy to print.
Proceed to tack the material firmly to a drawing-board, taking care that no creases are left, and decide just where the printing is to be placed. It is best to put a row of pins as a guide for the block, for when it is once laid down on the fabric, it cannot be moved without spoiling it. Having laid the block on the pad, lift it and press it on the fabric, which will leave a fine, even impress. If it is intended to be very dark and clearly defined, it must be hammered with a wooden mallet on the back. The harder the blow the darker the print, but the worker must be very careful to get the same depth of colour by each impress. A certain amount of variation will always appear, many workers claiming this is one of the charms of block-printed fabrics.
When once the work is in process, it is remarkable how quickly it can be done, - probably about three times as quickly as stencilling, - and many people find the task of cutting the block takes no longer than cutting a stencil, but the block has the advantage in that it will not wear out.
Thin fabrics require clear colours, somewhat darker than the background, but it will be noticed that there is a kind of grain texture in the printed fabric which is very soft and delicate, having somewhat of an iridescent appearance. When I first experimented in block printing I was very much worried at this appearance, as I felt the work was not sharp and clear like the stencilling I had been accustomed to do; but when I studied the block printing of other craft-workers, I realized that this was one of the characteristics of block printing, and is attractive when the work is viewed as a whole.
Block-Printed Drapery Seen At The Pratt's Institute.
Block printing can not only be used for ornamenting fabrics, but is very interesting for leather and for ornamenting the inside covers of books.
The illustrations show the kind of designs best suited for block printing. They are especially effective when used as borders on tablecloths, curtains, and bureau scarfs. Portieres made of dark material can be printed with pale colours, mixed with white. A very pretty one was made from brown denim, and had a set pattern of just one rose, somewhat square in design, placed quite close together for about 2 feet up the hanging. White may be used on blue with good effect, but one of the most artistic materials for portieres is Russian crash. This is only 15 inches wide, but three widths joined by strap hinges of coarse embroidery give a stunning effect to the hanging - the narrow width adding rather than detracting, because of the hinges. Mummy-cloth is another material well suited for block printing. It is a pinkish tan colour, and has a soft, antique look about it, which its name suggests. It is said to be a copy of the cloth that mummies are wrapped in.
The craft of block printing is quickly learned, and, after the first technicalities are mastered, is very easy to do; but it requires care in carrying out the details and great nicety in handling the block so as to have a perfect impress.