Relief printing

When I was on holiday in Rajasthan in India a few years ago, I visited some workshops where they printed fabrics with woodblocks. It was a fascinating process, so I thought I’d sign up for a two-day relief printing course at Morley College to learn the basics. The course synopsis said that we would learn about lino and woodblock printing on ink and paper, but I thought I might be able to learn enough to adapt the techniques to fabric.

D’oh! It turns out that relief printing usually results in a negative print – that is, if you cut away bits of the lino or woodblock in the pattern that you want and ink up the block, it’s the background that prints, leaving your pattern in the un-inked areas. To get a positive print, you’d have to cut away an awful lot of the block. Apparently, in Japanese woodblock prints, this is what happens to produce a key block. Not surprisingly, it takes a great deal of time and skill to produce such fine outlines, so it’s not something we tackled in our two-day course!

It takes a great deal of time and skill to produce a Japanese key block

So unless I want to use a lot of fabric paint, the lino and woodblock techniques I learned on the course are likely to be of little use for printing textiles. However, now I have a set of carving tools, there’s nothing to stop me carving simpler shapes on a woodblock and printing with that (like potato printing).

Anyway, I thought I might as well summarise some of the techniques we learned. Starting with lino, which is the easiest to cut, we used the reduction method to produce a three-colour print. So we first printed a yellow square using an uncut lino block (just lightly sanded with wet-and-dry paper).

First colour: uncut lino block in yellow

Then we cut away some of the block and inked it up in red before printing on top of the yellow.

Part of block cut away and inked in red over yellow

We completed the series by cutting more block away and printing in blue on top of the red and yellow. I didn’t get the registration quite right, so it’s a bit like looking at a 3D picture without the specs…

Three-colour lino print - slightly out of registration

Finally, we experimented with spreading a mixture of caustic soda and wallpaper paste onto parts of the block. This eats away at the lino, giving an interesting half-tone effect.

Caustic soda was added to the clouds and the edges of the sea

Another way to get a positive rather than negative image is to ink up with an opaque white ink and print on black or dark paper.  The example below also uses the Chine collé technique, where you print on to a smaller, thinner sheet of paper sandwiched between the press and the main paper. The press helps bond the two papers together.

Chine collé lino cut tiger

We also had a go at embossing, using lino blocks. Here’s the same tiger lino cut as an embossed print.

Embossed tiger
Embossed lino cut tiger

All the prints above were produced using presses. For our final work, a woodblock print, we used a baren, or hand-held disc, to rub the surface of the paper against the block to transfer the ink. The wood absorbs a fair amount of ink, so you need to add more ink than on lino. And apparently the prints get darker after two or three presses.

Tango woodblock print
Shall we dance?


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Flextiles uses shibori, ecoprinting and felting to create original, one-off upcycled pieces. Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.

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