18th Century Printed Cotton Do’s & Don’t’s

A beautiful printed cotton gown, 1785-95. The Met.
A very condensed version of this essay, without pictures, appears in The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking. Because there is *so much more* to be said about 18th century printed cottons, we're publishing the original version of this essay by Abby here. Enjoy!
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A beautiful cotton printed with flowers is one of the most beloved and recognizable aesthetics of the 18th century. It’s during this century when the imported Indian fabric blows up the Georgian fashion industry. These fabrics are so popular that they come in and out of fashion even today. While this popularity of printed floral cottons can be a blessing, when pursuing an accurate 18th century look, it can be a murky swamp of confusion.

Cotton with a woven stripe and overprint - 1796 - The Met.
Not all modern floral cottons are created equal. The vast majority of printed cottons available in big box fabric stores are totally wrong for this period. It takes a careful, trained eye to spot a printed cotton appropriate for an 18th century gown. To make it even trickier, new original prints and designs are being discovered every day! To start training your eye for printed cottons the best thing to do is carefully study original gowns and fabrics in museums and pay very close attention to how they have dated the textile and the function of the textile.

Trying to create guidelines and rules for period correct printed cottons is tricky. The study of printed cottons, their design, manufacture and appearance, is complex, and as with most things historical, there are always oddities and exceptions to “the rules.” While we strongly recommend that you go down the textile rabbit hole yourself, here is a rough guide to get you started.

Expense

Today, we are so used to cotton being a cheap utilitarian fabric that it’s difficult to understand just how expensive an 18th century printed cotton could be. The more colors in a printed cotton, the more expensive it would have been. Each dye/color required a different mordant and a special application that ended with the customer shelling out serious cash for enough yardage for a gown. Keep in mind that it was not uncommon for a multicolored printed cotton to cost more than a medium-grade silk taffeta. In today’s costuming world, just because it’s cotton doesn’t mean it’s “cheap” by 18th century standards!

Examples of expensive vs. cheap printed cotton.
However, there were also cheap cottons. Fashion was big business and the lower classes also wanted to look fashionable. If you want a ‘cheap’ printed cotton for your lower class gown, look for a single or two color design with inconsistent or offset printing.

Technology

The available technology, or lack thereof, had a strong effect on printed cotton designs in the 18th century. Floral printed cottons originated in India in the 17th century and quickly became some of the most popular clothing fabrics. To create the designs, artisans would use carved wooden blocks brushed with mordant to make the dye adhere to the fabric, stamp the design on the fabric, dye the whole piece of fabric, rinsing it to reveal the stamped design, and repeat this process as needed to create their beautiful fabrics. Dyes were natural in the 18th century, primarily coming from vegetables and plants. Different dyestuffs need different mordants to fix the color onto the fabric, and so this printing method could be repeated a number of times to achieve the desired outcome.

A carved wooden block for fabric printing.
If the design contained a lot of delicate flowers, artisans would hand paint in each flower to achieve the color desired. This is why multicolored printed cottons were so incredibly expensive in the 18th century, and why the amount of color in a printed cotton correlates with its expense.

Copper plate printing, which is the method used to create the “toile” prints we are familiar with today, was developed in Ireland in the early 1750s. Though you could get incredibly detailed designs, you were restricted on single color printing with the plates, which could be hand painted in later with different colors. Roller printing was invented even later in England, in the 1790s. As an improvement on the copperplate method, roller printing helps bring the cost of printed cottons way down at the end of the 18th and early 19th century.

A copper roller printing press in Le Musee de l'Impression sur Etoffes, Mulhouse, France. 
The restrictions the artisans faced when creating their printed cottons is why it is important to view historic cotton designs and colors independently from silks and wool. Silk and wool take dye differently than cotton, resulting in a wide assortment of hues and saturation that are not achievable with cotton. Designs that could be painted or woven in silk, cannot always be recreated in cotton, and it is important to keep this in mind when you’re buying your next floral cotton fabric. Was this design achievable with 18th century technology? Am I using a painted or brocaded silk as my inspiration? Does it look like natural dye colors? Etc.

When looking at dress inspiration, be mindful of what the fabric actually is. Is the design brocaded silk, hand-painted silk, embroidery, printed cotton? Look closely and read the descriptions on museum listings. All of these are from The Met.
Scale & Density

Printed cottons were manufactured with their use in mind. The scale and density of the print played a role, with larger, sometimes denser prints often used in furnishings or surviving from earlier in the 18th century.

First, let’s talk about bed curtains or furnishing prints used for gown fabrics. Yes, gowns made out of old bed curtains do exist in museums today, but ask yourself, “is that actually commonplace and something I should do?” If your goal is to be fashionably dressed for the 1780s, the answer is probably no. Bed curtains were a luxury item unto themselves, the scale and density of the print quite larger to balance the print in correlation to the size of the bed. For most gowns the scale and density of a bed hanging is just too visually overwhelming for a body to carry off.

Notice the difference in scale between the print on the bed curtains and coverlet and the Colonial Williamsburg reproduction dress print on Lauren's jacket.
This also applies to what we call “toile” today. While there are a very small selection of original toile printed gown that survive in collections, it does not mean that you should be making a gown out of it, tempting though it may be.

This incredibly rare and unique gown is held in the Snowshill collection. It is copper-printed toile, and appears to be the only toile-printed gown of its kind known today. We don't know the context of this gown - why it was made and who wore it - but toile is most definitely NOT a common textile for clothing in the 18th century.
Another issue of scale is a matter of dating. Printed floral designs changed constantly and were subject to trends just like everything else. Typically, the bigger the print the older it is. Since older style gowns were just, well, wider all over -wide sleeves, wide hoops, robings that can make a broad-shouldered lady look like a linebacker - it makes sense that the cotton prints of that time were bigger. However, smaller scale prints with open grounds coincide with the narrower silhouette of the later 1770s, 80s, and 90s.

Thie poor sacque gown has obviously been remade and Victorian-ized, but the scale of the print would indicate that the textile is likely from the first half of the 18th century. Whitacker Auction, c. 1750-1775.
A much smaller and denser print on this 1796 gown. The Met, C.I.55.50.4
Color

The color of the ground and flowers are other factors in selecting a printed cotton. Pay particular attention to what colors appear where on original textiles. While white grounds were arguably the most common for printed cottons, you do see that  dark brown, Turkey red, and blue were used for colorful grounds.

A dark brown ground on this c. 1774 printed cotton English gown. The Met, 26.38a

Pastel grounds, however, don't seem to exist at this time. Avoid that yellow and blue floral cotton in your local fabric store, along with pink, powder blue, or mint green. Nope. No Ma’am. Almost every printed floral cotton in your big box fabric store is going to be wrong for the 18th century.

Look closely - this is not a solid pink ground, but very dense dots (vermicelli). Manchester Art Gallery c. 1774 
Consider instead this documented reproduction from Colonial Williamsburg - a white ground with polychrome printing.
A white ground with colored flowers is the ‘safest’ choice for an 18th century gown. Shades of red, pink, blue, purple and yellow were used for flowers, while green, black, and brown were used for the vines and stems. When looking at original fabric samples in museum collections, consider as well that historic dyes were often unstable  - that brown flower was probably purple when the fabric was new.
Another good print from Colonial Williamsburg, but notice the brown flowers - the original this design was taken from probably had purple flowers.
Final thoughts

A few more thoughts on printed cottons to keep in mind when you’re going fabric shopping.

First, if it looks Victorian walk away. Saccharin cabbage roses have no place in the 18th century. Second, if the print looks like it is inspired by silk or wool damask or jacquard, leave it behind. What works for weaving, does not work for printed cottons.

It doesn't have to be complex - a simple floral or geometric design may also be very accurate. Bodice front panel of printed cotton, c. 1770-80 Platt Hall, Manchester Gallery.
Third, always exercise caution with a certain amount of forgiveness. That carefully reproduced printed cotton from a museum is a safe bet, but that does not mean they’re perfect. It is common for scale and color to be messed up in the reproduction process. Does that mean you shouldn’t use it? No, but it does mean that you should be prepared for inaccuracies that will happen. That perfect printed cotton is hard to find, and just like in the 18th century, sometimes you’re going to have to pay a lot more for it than you would for 100% silk taffeta. If you are overwhelmed by the idea of a printed cotton, but you want your gown to be made out of a cotton, remember that small stripes, polka dots, and some basic geometric shapes are totally accurate for the 18th century and are easily found in your local fabric stores!







Comments

  1. Very educational post; thank you. I do have a question, though, based on these two sentences:

    "Second, if the print looks like it is inspired by silk or wool damask or jacquard, leave it behind. What works for weaving, does not work for printed cottons."

    Good advice, but how does one tell if a print is inspired by silk or wool damask, or a jacquard? Perhaps a follow-up post would be in order.

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    Replies
    1. I'd love to see that clarification too! I know there are at least a couple of late-century plain silk gowns with floral designs painted on them that actually look like they are mimicking the printed cotton, and considering how expensive said cotton was at times, I think it might occasionally be hard to tell whom is inspiring whom from the 1770s on. Bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. I can see it being easier to avoid the cottons that are trying to look like the super-luxe liseres and lampases of the 1750s/60s, but it gets a bit murky as the decades go on. Excellent article though.

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  3. For print colors, I always refer to Antoine Raspal's "L'Atelier de couture". What color is acceptable for background in a print? Mustard, red madder, black, dark blue, dark green and some lighter greyish green. The pattern of different prints clash, but the colors match.

    Sure, colors trendy in Provence may not have been with printers elsewhere, but one can justify their persona's out of place print by someone buying the fabrics for them in the French Caribbeans, from a Acadian sailor in Boston or trader in New Orleans. ^_~

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  4. You can get block printed India Cottons from eBay, very reasonably. There are some prints that are ok-ish for 18th century, and the weight is much nicer than a quilting cotton. I picked a darkish blue with white flowers and badly off set green stems (doing a more middle class project) I suspect the flowers are a little too big to be fashionable, but I'm very happy with the colors.

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  5. Thank you for this very interesting article. Would plain cotton be accurate?

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