Textile (England), 1760–80
Medium: cotton Technique: printed by engraved copper plate on plain weave foundation Label: cotton, printed by engraved copper plate. Museum purchase from Au Panier Fleuri Fund. 1960-55-1
What is this?
Length of printed cotton with a large scale design of curving bamboo-like stems with pineapples and feathers as foliage, in blue on a white ground.
Why is this in our collection?
Unlike most other dyes, indigo does not dissolve in water, so it must be chemically reduced to properly saturate fibers. When reduced, the dye becomes colorless and water soluble, penetrating the fabric when it is submerged. Only when the fabric is lifted out of the dye and exposed to air does the indigo return to its original deep blue color. The use of indigo dye is easy enough when the dyer wishes to dye a whole, or even a section, of yarn or fabric. It becomes problematic, however, when the dyer wishes to use the dyestuff to print.
In the 1740s, a top-secret English invention called ‘China Blue’ solved this problem. In this process, the dyestuff was finely ground into a printable paste that could be applied to fabric. The printed fabric was then alternately submerged in baths of reducing agents and exposed to air to bring out the blue color. This development, combined with the invention of the copper plate printing process in the 1740s, enabled the production of indigo-dyed cooper plate-printed fabrics such as this.