Ink, Print, Repeat: A hands-on approach to early printed textiles

October 17, 2019

The earliest print in Making an Impression, a display on Western relief printmaking in Rooms 88a and 90 at the V&A until September 2020, is a woodcut of Christ, Saint John and the Virgin Mary. Multiple images would have been taken from the carved block but this one was also hand coloured, making it unique. Certain details of the image have been picked out in green or red paint, including Christ’s wounds, to emphasise them and inspire the viewer to greater religious devotion.

With the design sketched out, the lino is ready to cut

Woodblocks were probably first used to print on paper in Europe towards the end of the fourteenth century, but printing on textiles was developed centuries earlier. In around 1390, Italian artist and craftsman Cennino Cennini included instructions on how print on linen cloth in his Il Libro dell’Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook). Significantly, Cennini recommended that the patterns cut into the wood block should imitate ‘whatever style of silk cloth you wish, either leaves or animals’, a reminder that some of the appeal of printed fabrics was that they could replicate more expensive, woven ones.

Earlier this week, students on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA programme took part in a workshop to make their own relief prints with lino, a more practical substitute for the different types of seasoned wood, such as pear, box or nut, employed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For design inspiration we turned to the wide range of block-printed textiles from this period in the museum’s collections. Although Cennini notes that printed cloths were used as children’s clothes or lectern covers for churches, these surviving fragments give away few clues about their original function.  As we might expect, the patterns are similar to woven or embroidered fabrics, including floral, animal or pomegranate motifs, but none of the ones we identified were specifically religious.

Printing linocuts
History of Design MA students in different phases of printing their linoblocks
A selection of the students’ prints on paper and linen including one inspired by the linen in the image above

An important characteristic of printed cloths is that they could be serially produced for the open market, often using medium-cost fabrics. It was also easier and much quicker to create a pattern by printing than weaving. However, this did not mean they were cheap. It was still a labour-intensive process and recent research on the material lives of the ‘middling sort’ in England shows that large-scale cloth hangings for the home tended to be painted rather than printed. We discovered that reproducing any of the designs in the V&A collection required a significant level of skill. Simplification was necessary, usually best achieved by isolating a single motif.

We tried printing on different materials and some designs seemed better suited to paper, cotton or linen. The adaptability of a design clearly increased its potential. We can often trace cross-pollination between different forms of printing and textiles. One student based her print on a pomegranate motif that can be found on a French printed linen in the V&A as well as an Italian woven silk in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Fig. 4 Block printed linen, with crushed mica, France, 1550-1599, V&A 1546-1899
Fig. 5 Silk velvet with metal threads, Italian, 16th century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Nanette B. Kelekian, in honor of Olga Raggio, 2002.494.127

Most of the printed fabrics we looked at came from European countries. Several of them are thought to have been made in Southern Germany, an area at the forefront of book printing at the time. Although some designs were very detailed, they were almost all printed in a single colour, often red, on a contrasting fabric. The only exception to this was a fifteenth-century block printed and resist dyed cotton probably made in Gujarat, India, that provided a starting point for one of the student’s prints. It was made with a more sophisticated printing technique, highlighting the fact that block printing on textiles was a well-established craft in India long before it was taken up in Europe. Characteristically, the whole fabric is dyed, rather than just the surface.

Cennini noted that it is important to work systematically, making sure the carved incisions do not clog up with ink. Achieving consistency when inking and pressing down the linoblock was one of the biggest challenges we encountered during our workshop. And yet, it is surprisingly hard to spot any overlaps, blurred lines or other mistakes in early modern fabrics in the museum’s collections. Cennini concluded with a very pertinent assessment of the learning process, saying that ‘for one thing will teach you another, both by experience and by theoretical understanding’. We found that a combination of theory and practice can open up a new set of questions and approaches to thinking about patterns and printmaking in future.

Fig. 6 Block printed linen, German, 1400-30, V&A 8303-1863
Circular design inspired by fifteenth-century Indian printed cotton

To find out more about the V&A/RCA History of Design postgraduate programme see our pages on the V&A and RCA websites.

You can find out how to apply for 2020 – 1 admission to the History of Design MA on the application pages.

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