Georg Stark is one of a handful of traditional indigo printers and dyers left in Germany. He has also been researching the history of this craft for some 35 years. All of this experience made for a fascinating lecture recently at the TRC on the 14th of February.
Over 150 years ago indigo printing with wooden blocks was practiced all over Europe, from Spain to Russia. One of the first recorded workshops for printing cotton opened in 1672 in Amersfoort. An even earlier workshop to print and dye cotton, run by Armenians, was opened in Marseille, France. In 1681 the first workshop opened in southern Germany. By the 1730s there was a Dutch poem that boasted that “we on the Amstel can do the same quality of work as the cotton printers of Java.” The Dutch East India Company (VOC) had an important role in the transfer of this skill to Europe, as it regularly brought ready-made garments from India to Europe and beyond.
Georg brought with him several print blocks. Making such blocks (always of pear wood) was also a skilled craft in Europe. Georg had examples of European blocks that were 300 years old. The design was often made of clusters of thin metal pins. Some blocks used over 2,000 pins in their designs. He also showed the audience a hand-sized, flat sided glass globe, of approximately the same age. These glass tools were used to ‘finish’ the cotton. By extensively rubbing the dyed fabric a fine sheen was produced, which imitated the look of more expensive silk fabrics.
Georg made a persuasive argument that the design motifs were fairly standard throughout Europe. Rather than being developed uniquely in specific regions, as is frequently thought, the designs often originated from the textile trade with India. In term, motifs from India were influenced by China (e.g., chrysanthemums and peonies) and Persia (e.g., lions, peacock feathers).
This argument for early globalization was bolstered by a short presentation that TRC Director Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood made. In the early 1980s, while working on an archaeological excavation in Quseir al-Qadim on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, she catalogued the finds of almost 5,000 textile fragments, of which some thirty block printed examples. Often dyed an indigo-like blue, these block printed textiles have all been dated to between 1250-1350 CE. The textiles were made in India for the Mediterranean market—and many of the motifs were almost identical to more modern examples that Georg showed. It was an extra treat to see some of the real 14th century fragments from Quseir that are now in the TRC collection.
Shelley Anderson, Monday 19th February 2018
PS: Georg donated to the TRC a special indigo cloth, which in the 1970s had been prepared by Koob Vloedgraven, the last indigo dyer in Staphorst. Click on the illustration to learn more.