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Textile Printing: History & Techniques

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Textile prints have been around for centuries. Learn about the history of printed textiles and the traditional techniques for creating beautifully decorated fabrics in this lesson.

The Basics of Printed Textiles

Printing on textiles, which are materials made from natural or man-made fibers, has been around since the 3rd Century B.C. People create printed textiles to produce attractive designs on fabric. These designs form artistic arrangements or motifs in a variety of colors and patterns. Dyes or pigments bond with fibers in the fabric and help to protect printed fabrics from fading. The two primary techniques of printing on textile fabrics can be classified as coloring and patterning. The former technique consists of the direct application of color to fabric whereas the latter technique involves painting with resist techniques using patterns prior to coloring or dyeing the fabric.

Colorful Textile Print
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Early History of Asian Textiles

The Asian continent has the longest tradition of decorating fabrics using textile printing methods. For instance, in 327 B.C. when Alexander the Great invaded India, colorful, printed textiles were found. These textiles were typically printed with a carved structure, such as a wood block or rubber stamp, was adhered dye to the fabric. The process for this kind of textile decoration or design was called relief or block printing.

Wood Block for Textile Printing
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By the 2nd Century A.D., Chinese textile printers introduced stencil techniques for fabric adornment to Japan where the process was further developed. All over the world, similar developments continued to happen that resulted in the evolution of prints, including batik, tie-dye, and shibori. Around this time, intricately designed Indian fabrics were also being imported into Europe and Africa.

Batik, an Indonesian word, is now a generic term for a process of dyeing a fabric via a resist technique. Over 2,000 years old, this textile printing method often uses wax as a dye-resistant substance that blocks color absorption. Batik increases the artistic freedom of designers as they are able to draw patterns before immersing the fabric in dye. A durable batik product results, surpassing the cororfastness or fade-resistance of other painted or printed cloths.

A Swatch of Shibori Fabric
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During the 8th Century, the technique of shibori first came into Japan from China. The word shibori comes from 'shiboru,' a term that means, 'to wring, squeeze, and press.' During the shibori process, textile printers fold, stitch, and even bind or knot cloth (usually silk or cotton) before dyeing it. The hallmark of this method is that it gives fabric a three-dimensional form during processes of manipulation, such as binding and knotting. Thus, a characteristic of shibori is a blurry-edged pattern, which is quite different than sharp edges created by stencils, wax, or paste. With the passage of time, shibori has come to be known as tie-dye, but a better term for this textile printing technique is shaped resist dyeing.

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