Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Pillar Prints---Digression into Indigo Resists

Terry Terrell and I are working on an online discussion of Pillar Print chintzes for members of the American Quilt Study Group next Monday August 29th. We aren't really experts as such on that particular style but she knows a lot about floral chintzes and botany and I know a lot about printed pattern so we are combining our expertise to entertain (& enlighten?) 22 AQSG members.

We wanted it to be interactive so we have a small enrollment, already full. I'll put my slideshow up here when we get done.

In pillar prints the dominant image is vaguely architectural
in this example with somewhat human figures holding
up the column

One of our missions is to date the style---architectural prints in a stripe set featuring columns. We reviewed the literature---Peter Floud of the Victoria & Albert Museum wrote the standard histories in the 1950s & 60's and he says:

There were two spells of popularity---
1800-1808---polychrome woodblock prints
1825-1830----roller printed

A polychrome roller-printed pillar print---
Floud would date it 1825-1830 (rather narrow range?)

We each have a few actual document prints but most of our information comes from online photos. 

These multicolored roller printed fabrics are the kind we enounter in American quilts.

How are we going to tell what's woodblock-printed or roller-printed? It's hard to determine even if you have the fabric on your worktable.

See a large photo here:

I thought you might be interested in our discussion of this particular woodblock pillar print that the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (Smithsonian) has online. They have two pieces.

Their caption tells us that it is cotton and linen (mixed yarns? Fustian? asks I) and is "resist printed, indigo dyed." Their estimated date is 1750-1775, a lot earlier than Floud's dating, which he based on some dated samples in the V&A's collection. Those were multicolored and this is not so it may be the earliest pillar print we found.

We first determined that it looks like a wood block print to us too. For one thing the pillars (there are two) do not have a continuous repeat (the design idea that cylinders or rollers did so well.) Notice pillar 1 with straight flutes) is repeated once and pillar 2 with serpentine flutes is done 3 times here. Obviously the pillars were added one at a time---by some form of hand block.

Applying resist paste by wood block today in Indonesia

When trying to determine a woodblock print one looks for the registration mark, a small unobtrusive point that helped the hand applicator know where to line up the images. Is that little blue blob to the left of the fluted pillar here a registration mark?

It might look like an error but it's rather consistent.
Here's where looking at this in the cloth would be very helpful.
It seems there are 4 or 5 distinct blocks in use, 2 pillars, 2 or 3 florals.

The caption tells us the printing technique is "resist printed, indigo dyed." Looks good to us but could you get that kind of detail in the pillars using a wood-block applied resist paste?

Recent batik fabric from Asian Journey blog

We are familiar with resist printed fabrics we call batiks after an Indonesian word for the technique of printing wax onto fabric that then resists the indigo dyes applied later. One resist medium is wax and wax crackles and dye leaks under it.

The crackles become part of batik's charm.

The floral in the pillar print.

A more common medium for resist would be a paste, which does not crack. Dye does leak under it in smudges---again part of the technique's charm. Do note the tiny dots defining the leaves here. Those are formed by metal pins inserted into the wood block. The pins print the resist paste as dots, a technique called picotage. Wires might have been inserted to define the vines.

Valence with decorative trim at the top.

So is this indigo resist dyed fabric 1750-1775??? Hard to say. 
Where was it printed? Hard to say.
Amelia Peck calls them Puzzling Fabrics and they remain so.

The Cooper Hewitt's valence is dated earlier than Floud's dates and it might even be an American print done in the colonies or the new U.S.---We wish we knew more. 

There are a few experts today. See Winterthur Museum curator Linda Eaton's excellent take:

Amelia Peck, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote about indigo resist prints, below in the notes for her 2013 catalog Interwoven Globe.

Margaret OrdoƱez & Mary Gale have written about the indigo resist style:
"Eighteenth-Century Indigo-Resist Fabrics: Their Use in Quilts and Bed Hangings," AQSG's Uncoverings 25, 2004.
(Unfortunately no pictures in this online file.) Buy the book.

See this indigo-resist dyed quilt at the International Quilt Museum.

We are not going to go into such detail in our 40 minute overview of Pillar Prints but I thought you'd be interested in our digression, which is always fun for us.


  1. I have a question about the term "indigo resist-dyed." What I understand is that resist paste is block printed on cloth, and dye will not adhere in the areas so printed. In the case of indigo designs (the positive) on white cloth (the negative), resist-dyeing suggests that the white areas between design elements and within the designs themselves are where the resist paste has been applied. So the negative (white) areas are resisted. With indigo dyeing, if shades of blue are desired in the design then following the first dip of the resisted cloth into the indigo dye, parts of the blue design are themselves resisted and the cloth dipped again, making the unresisted blue areas darker.

    Is this interpretation correct?

  2. Lori and I did a lot of work on indigo resist for our book Indigo Quilts of the Poos Collection including examining textiles at the VA&, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Albany Institute and others. Yes, Xenia, you have the process normally used correct. However, there are styles with this white background which have been a puzzle. We have documented textiles where it is clear that the indigo dye is painted on and not dipped. This is often referred to as China Blue. It seems there are ancient techniques similar to China Blue which result in a darker blue than we see with the China Blue process. We found these in several museums and Lori presented some examples at a Williamsburg Symposium. In this case, perhaps the resist is block printed, and the indigo is painted in the area near the resist, but not extensively on the fabric. Another technique noted in this example is a blurring which looks to be a discharge technique. This is commonly seen to get the 3 colors seen here (light blue, darker blue, white). If you have our book, you might want to refer to it for more detail.

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