Textile Bleaching and Printing in Wallington and Carshalton

1 The Bleaching process:

The following account of pre-chlorine bleaching is based on Rees's Cyclopaedia.

Cotton is naturally oily and a frowins a mixture of flour and water was put on the tread to make it easier to weave. The first stage in bleaching was to put the cloth into water and to leave it for about 14 hours so that it fermented slightly. It was then washed in clear water removing much dirt.

The cloth was put on the bleach field for 3 or 4 days then either boiled or bucked.

Boiling (IV 1):

The boiling pan consisted of a cola heated copper with a rotating wooden frame called a winch above it. The pan was filled with water or a weak alkaline solution. The cloths are tied end. They are then repeatedly winched in and out of the copper till no more colour comes out. They were then washed.

A Glimpse of the Past

From Camden's Britannia, 6th Ed, 1607. Translated by Philemon Holland, 1610.The cloth is then dried and soured.

"The cleare rivulet Wandle . . . so full of the best trouts, issueth from his head neare Carshalton and Woodcot. . . . Wandle, while it is yet small, receiveth his first increase by a rill springing at Croidon . . . which standing under the hills, is very well known, as well for the house of the archbishops of Canterburie, unto whom it hath belonged now this long time, as for charcoles which the townspeople make good chaffer of."

The cloth was put in a large wooden bucking tub. An alkaline solution was then heated in a copper above and to one side of the tub. The solution was then run into the tub through a tap. After the cloth has soaked for a while it was run out through a tap at the bottom and pumped up into the copper where it was reheated. As the cycle was repeated the water evaporates and the solution gradually become more and more concentrated and black with dirt. The cloth was removed and wrung out to recover as much alkaline as possible. The water is evaporated from this, the residue is roasted to remove the dirt and the alkaline used again.

After bucking or boiling the cloth was laid on the bleach field for several days. The process of boiling or backing and laying on the field was then repeated 4 to 6 times for cotton; 12 to 20 times for linen. The concentration of alkaline was gradually reduced with each cycle to avoid damaging the cloth.

Souring (IV 2):

The fabric is put in a weak solution of sulphuric acid for about 12 hours. The was done in a gently heated ‘kettle' partly set in the ground and made of lead to withstand the acid. There was generally a winch over it so the cloth could be worked in the acid. The cloth was then thoroughly washed.


Calico was introduced into Europe from the east probably to Holland in the 17th century. The process soon appeared in England. There were early works at Richmond and Bromley Hall, Essex, probably started in the 1690s. The industry was opposed by the weavers and, for much of the 18th century it was hindered by legislative restrictions. These were eased in 1736 and abolished in 1774 although the material continued to be taxed into the 19th century.


It was necessary to wash the cloth after every operation in which acid or alkaline was used. There were many methods of washing but in the early 19th century the wash wheel seems to have been preferred (II 1). This was a water wheel which had solid sides so that a round chamber was formed in the centre. The chamber was divided into four quarters. Each quarter was loaded with cloth through an opening in the side. Water was continuously run into the chambers from a pipe. As the wheel tuened the cloth was washed by churning it around in the water.

When the cloth was taken from the wash wheel it was streamed either in running water or by winding the cloth round a rotating wooden which was partly immersed in water (II 1 & 3). The cloth was then dried by squeezing it between rollers – in effect a water powered mangle.

A Glimpse of the Past

From Source unknown

"CARPET WASHING Morris & Co. provided this service both for their own and for historical carpets.

Initial trials used the river Wandle outside the Merton Abbey factory.

In February 1883 Morris wrote to Jenny about the washing of a Persian carpet: 'I was frightened at first: for after we first put it into the river it cockled up . . . the cotton warp shrinking with the wet; I thought my £80 had gone down the Wandle: but all came right when it was dry.

'The design was cut into wooden blocks of sycamore or pear, 2 to 3 inches thick, 9 or 10 inches long and 5 wide. Fine lines could be printed by inserting narrow strips of flattened copper wire into the block."

The whole process was dependent on sunshine so work had to stop in the winter and could be slow in a dull summer. This meant that a large amount of capital was tied up in stock

The colour to be printed was spread by a child on fine woollen cloth stretched in a frame over the wax cloth top of a wooden drum or sieve which floats in a tub full of old paste so that it is slightly resilient. The printer presses the block on the drum head and then applies it to the calico which is laid on a blanket stretched over a table. The back of the block is then hit with a wooden mallet to ensure that the ink is transferred to the calico.

The process needed great skill and care. Printing a piece of cloth 28 yards long and 30 inches wide needed 672 applications of block 9 by 5 inches. A separate printing was needed for each colour. If 3 were used there would have to be 2016 applications of the block. Many of the elaborate designs produced by Kilburn had more colours than this. The blocks had metal pins in the corners which were used to align them on the cloth. Any miss alignment would spoil the pattern.

Printing shops were generally oblong with many large windows to give the best possible light. The printing tables had a roll of cloth at one end. The cloth was wound off onto the table top for printing. The printed cloth was supported by a number of hanging rollers at the other end of the table. These were used to support the cloth while the ink dried. When the cloth was dry it was wound onto a large roll.

When the cloth had been printed some fine detail of difficult to handle colours was added by pencilling. The pencils were simply thin pieces of wood. They were dipped in colour and used to draw on the cloth.

By John Phillips Revised 19 March 2002

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