Sunday, March 3, 2013

Black Prints: Neons or Novelties

Black prints seems to be the topic here lately. Blacks with a true black background are among the easiest prints to date, so a good knowledge of black ground prints is useful to the Quilt Detective. See some posts on black and gray here:

Black cotton prints are a good clue to a date "After 1890." Many different print styles developed once black for cotton was available to dyers, printers and customers. 

My favorite is something that quilt historians have been calling neon prints for the past twenty years or so. In my book on fabrics Making History I devoted a couple of pages to Black Novelty or Neon prints.

My first experience with them was the Morning Star top above, which is full of these black prints with bright colored figures. When I bought the top I was surprised to see so many of these dramatic prints.

Morning Star by Bobbi Finley
Bobbi interpreted my antique top in reproduction prints.

Swatch book with black cottons from about 1900.

I found quite a few black prints with colorful figures in mill books from the early 20th century at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell. The earliest examples I found there were produced by the Merrimack Manufacturing Company in 1896, three years after sulfur black dye was discovered.

Realizing how colorful some of the dark prints actually were changes one's perspective on the black and white photos of fashionable women from the early 20th century.

Above are some antique prints pictured in 
Making History: Quilts & Fabric From 1890-1970

And here are details from online auctions.
The backgrounds are a true black and the figures are quite vivid. You can see why we call them neon prints today. At the time the catalogs called them "Black Novelty Goods" or "Fancy Black Novelties."

They were an interesting combination of novelty and nostalgia.
The colors were brand-new 1900, but the print styles echo some of the quirky designs from the 1820-1850 period such as:
  • Serpentine Stripes
  • Eccentric geometrics
  • Corals and seaweeds
  • Rainbow or fondu prints

Like other black ground prints, the black novelty prints are a good clue to a date after 1890---and I'd be more conservative and say after 1900. They fell out of fashion about 1920.

You sometimes have to look for them to notice the Black Novelty prints.
This top at a distance looks rather subdued but closeups reveal how fashionable the maker was.
Note the squares of neon prints in the inner side borders.

The black backgrounds rarely rot, fade or bleed but the bright dyes in the colored figures can be quite fugitive, especially when washed. We often see these prints at their best in unwashed tops and blocks. When washed, the color can fade and sometimes there is just a trace of color left.

Reproduction prints pictured in Making History.

YEARS ago Terry Thompson and I did a line for Moda called Ragtime that echoes these neon prints.
I am always pleased to find some still available in online shops. Do a websearch for the words Ragtime Moda and see what comes up.


A lace print jumps out among the mourning grays.

Two colorways of the same antique print.

Read more about neon prints here:


  1. I have been interested in black printed fabric but experienced recently blacks that rotted because of the mordants in the dye. How can you tell that a black is safe to use?

  2. Julie--in the last post I did on black I talked about sulfur black, which can sometimes rot. I am afraid some blacks are still dyed with that. We don't use it at Moda. I don't know how to determine the dyes used in cotton.

  3. I would have thought those were modern prints by the looks of the designs.


  4. Great post! I just love those neons on black and collect pieces of them when I see them! Hopefully more reproductions will be made. The examples you have shown are just wonderful fabrics - thanks

  5. Love them!! Serpentines are my favorites.

  6. The idea that these mature, very staid and proper looking ladies in the old photos are up to their necks in neons is blowing my mind. I'll never be able to look at them again with the same seriousness. I'll be thinking "Tee hee, I know your secret! You're dressed up like the ligjhts in Times Square!"

  7. I loved this line. Bought a lot of it and I think it is about gone. Have almost finished a top made with it exclusively....love the brilliance of it. Who knew!