As calico printing is more immediately connected with the Wandle, its history and the ingenious process of that manufacture are worthy of attention. Augsburg in Germany, is said to have been the first European city where the inhabitants attempted to imitate those productions of the East, denominated by the name of chintz.
The neatness of the German soon exceeded that of the original manufacture, as France was found to afford a ready market for these elegant garments, the manufacturers endeavoured to adapt them to the taste of that gay people, by introducing borders and other decorations of beaten gold and silver.
After some time the French themselves acquired the ability of manufacturing for themselves, and the art of calico printing was introduced into England about the latter end of the seventeenth century, being most probably brought here, with many other valuable branches of manufacture, by the distressed subjects of Louis xiv who were expatriated in consequence of the cruel Edict of Nantes, set forth by that inconsiderate monarch against the protestants.
The perfection of ingenious discovery, however, is proverbial with respect to Great Britain, at least, it was in this instance; for, during the last forty years of the eighteenth century, the vast improvement in calics, both in design and execution, that, till the destructive French war, this country was enabled, from the excellence, to stand preeminent in all the foreign markets; and we trust that ere long the ravage of mankind by war, and bloodshed, will again give place to the benign influence of peace and mutual commerce; and that this, as well as other articles of British manufacture, will be duly appreciated and ingenuity amply rewarded.
The first operation the cloth undergoes in our factories on the Wandle after it is received by the printers, is that of boiling in water with an infusion of American ash, to prepare it for the bleaching it must undergo in the different stages of printing.
This alcali is cleansed away by rinsing in vitriol and water, and the vitriol, is in its turn, detached by a copious application of pure water; after which the goods are dried and calendered, and are then fit for printing. It is not in our recollection, that any other manufacture of so many distinct branches as that of printing linen, has been carried on under one roof; for here, the designer of the pattern, the ingenious cutter on the wood, the colour-maker, the printer, the boiler, the penciller, and a variety of others in subordinate capacitys, occupying their different stations, receive and pass the goods in their progressive state, till they are fit to return to the draper from whom the linen was first received.
The pattern being drawn on a paper, in its proper colours, the cutter begins to prepare the blocks, making a separate block for every distinct colour or shade of colour to be printed, which in some patterns amount to fifteen, exclusive of those which are put in by the pencil. The printer begins with the block, which gives the general outline of the patterns and then the different shades of black red and purple. These colours, which are always the first that are inserted, are afterwards fixed, and as the technical phrase is, "brought up", that is, receive their greatest lustre by being boiled in water with an infusion of the root of madder, the particles left by the madder, on the cloth being extracted by its being again boiled with cow dung. After being rinsed in a stream of water, it is boiled a third time with bran; it is then laid on grass, with the impression downwards, and is kept constantly wet. Having lain in this state for a week or ten days, it is again calendered, and returned to the printer, whoproceeds to put in different shades of blue and yellow, which are fixed on the cloth by boiling it in a decoction of a plant called wold, the flower of which only is applicable to the purpose; the cloth is then again rinsed, boiled in bran and laid on the grass as before.
These operations are repeated till every tint is conveyed on the cloth which the original pattern contains, excepting, perhaps, some few which from the nature of the materials of which they are composed, are obliged to be inserted by a pencil; but of these blue is the only one which is not liable to be discharged by soap.
The colours which are thus pencilled on the cloth are dried by a stove, which is the last operation performed by the calico printer, who then returns the cloth to the draper. Before the linen however, is offered for sale, it undergoes the operation of glazing, by fixing a thin coat of wax on the cloth which is thus rendered more brilliant in appearance, and less liable to be soiled in wearing.
The pencilling is chiefly performed by children, or by girls from twelve to twenty years of age, who can earn about six shillings a week and upwards per week. The wages of most of the other persons employed are sufficiently high to enable them to support their families with much comfort.
It must be observed, that the process which has been described, is entirely on the same plan as that of printing what are termed wooden cuts on paper, with the distinction of having a different cut for each colour.
There is, however, another mode of printing linen, which is performed by engraved plates and a rolling press. but this is not equal in beauty to the former, and it is believed that two colours are the utmost that by this process have been inserted. Handkerchiefs and other small articles, are executed in this mode with great expedition and advantage.
The excise laws are extended to this manufacture of British cloth; the whole of the duty is, however, returned on those goods which are exported.
David Hughson L.L.D.
from "An Accurate History and Description of the British Metropolis and its Neighbourhood 1813".