Printing block collection and a 70 piece puzzle


Museums are like icebergs, what you see is only a fraction of what is really there.  Quarry Bank is no exception and in the unassuming rooms at the back of the Mill, which house the collection and archive, are many intriguing items.

The Drawn Out of Love exhibition has taught me a lot about artistic printing so when Ally our Collections and Archive Officer told me about our collection of over 1,500 textile printing blocks, I couldn’t wait to have a look.

Dapple Deer, wood engraving by Barbara Greg
Dapple Deer, wood engraving by Barbara Greg from the ‘Drawn Out of Love’ exhibition

Beautifully designed, our collection of wooden printing blocks were used for a very different purpose to those in the exhibition.  These textile printing blocks were used to print patterns onto cotton fabric, which was then exported around the world.

Most of the blocks in the collection date to the late 19th century and the influence of trade, particularly throughout what was then the British Empire, can be seen.

Printing block inscribed 'Abdull  Sattar Mohamed Bros.Rangoon'
Inscribed on this block is ‘Abdull Sattar Mohamed Bros. Rangoon’
Wooden printing block which reads 'Calcutta'

As you can see the blocks are designed in reverse so when dye is added and the block pressed onto the fabric, the design will appear the right way round.

The Greg family used them to identify cloth which came from Quarry Bank.  This block, probably 20th century, reads R.G (for Greg) & co. Quarry Bank Mills and has the Greg family crest in the centre.

Printing block used on cloth sent around the world from Quarry Bank Mill
Printing block used on cloth sent around the world from Quarry Bank Mill

Some have elaborate designs.

Wooden printing block reading 'Celebrated Shirting known all over the world'
‘Celebrated Shirting known all over the world’

Others are more practical, giving the type of cloth.

Wooden printing block which reads 'bleached'
Wooden printing block which reads 'Algadon'.  This means cotton in Spanish
‘Algodon’ means cotton in Spanish

Others are carved with patterns, each block coming together with the others to build up a design.

One particularly complicated pattern is made up of 70 individual blocks, each of which states the colour to be used when printing.

While we therefore know what colour the overall pattern would have been, unfortunately they are not numbered, so we don’t know what order they should go in!

Trying to piece them together would be like doing a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces look very similar and without any idea of what the final picture should look like.


Wooden printing block with a flower pattern
This beautiful flower printing block is one of 70 blocks which make a single pattern.
Over 70 wooden printing blocks on shelves in the Quarry Bank Archive
The 70 blocks numbered 8301.

I can only imagine how painstaking this kind of pattern would have been to hand print.  They certainly must have had steady hands.

Blocks like this would have been used to print textiles for upholstery and the finished results may have looked something like this.

Patterned fabric
Patterned fabric

Most of the blocks were produced locally and are an important part of the textile history of the North West.

Makers mark on a printing block which reads 'Ellinger & Co. Manchester
Mark which shows this printing block was made in Manchester

Caring for objects like these, part of our extensive archive and collection, is a very important aspect of the work the National Trust do here at Quarry Bank.  I very much look forward to bringing you more behind the scenes stories.

If you feel inspired to have a go at printing why not try our printing workshop for adult beginners with artist Lily Cheetham, this Sunday 2-4pm 


One Comment Add yours

  1. Hi Kate

    Great post and hopefully I can clarify a couple of things.
    There are two different types of objects here that at first sight look similar but are very different. Firstly there are the fabric printing blocks, which are used in combination to build up a pattern on a piece of cloth. Secondly, there are trademark stamps, which are the names and logos which were stamped on the front of every piece of cloth to identify the merchant who sold it and often included an image (or brand) which would appeal to the buyers in the market where that fabric was sold such as Africa or S. America.
    There are often stamp makers’ names embossed into the side of stamps but often, the owner of the stamp would put his company name on the stamp so that whoever was doing the printing knew who it belonged to. The name on the side of the stamp you illustrate was a merchant, not a stampmaker.
    The stamps would often be kept at bleachworks or printing companies because they would generally fold, stamp and bale the fabric to the merchants’ specifications in the “making-up” and “packing” rooms.
    A large amount of information and examples are on my website so if anyone wants to look more into the topic, please google “textile trademarks stamp” . Bear in mind that the larger of Manchester’s 800 or so merchants could own up to 10,000 different trademarks, each one specific to the markets where the cloth was exported to. That means these are all that’s left of probably the biggest ethnic art collection in the world.


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