Angel Hughes, owner of home emporium Tobias and the Angel in Barnes, south west London, says that she came to block printing rather unexpectedly. When the charity Yately Industries for the Disabled, decided to close its block printing workshop, Hughes bought its 3,000 blocks and all the equipment after seeing it in action. “When I saw the process, I was completely hooked,” she says of the moment about twelve years ago. “It felt like magic to me.”
Excited by the variety of block designs in the Yately collection, Hughes began experimenting. “Knowing absolutely nothing, I started to learn,” she says. And how? “By trial and error, by enthusiasm and by not giving up; I still think it’s a miracle I ever got anywhere.” Hughes chose to use Procion dyes, which bond with the fabric, rather than sitting on the surface. “I wanted to be able to make washable duvet covers, tea towels, curtains and things you could wear,” she explains of her choice. “I also found that pigment dyes, because they sit on the surface of the cloth, tend to fill the weave so they have a slightly sticky look.” Today, her preferred method is to mix a dye paste which is then brushed on to a curved pad. “The aim is to lift the dye on to the surface of the block, controlling the movement of the block with your fingers, before placing it on the cloth,” she explains. And what is her response to those who say that block printing is simple? “I don’t think I’ve ever used my brain more,” she says emphatically. “You have to be aware of so many different things, including the richness of the ink, the quality of the cloth, the choice of pattern; when you get the combination right you can be very pleased with yourself.” The details, she insists, are very important. “You have got to get it right: for example, a very finely cut pattern will not work well on a coarse cloth. For a fine pattern, you need a fine surface.”
Today, Hughes enjoys printing on wool, velvet, cotton and linen, and says that her passion for the method continues. “You are never going to produce exactly the same amount of dye in exactly the same place on two sets of block prints,” she explains. “That gives a special kind of liveliness to the fabric.”BLOCK PRINTING WITH TOBIAS AND THE ANGEL Tuesday 12 July Book your place here. This is an extract from Amelia Thorpe's article in the Southern issue of Selvedge.