The Russian Cotton Printing Industry – Part 1: Block printing

I wrote a post some time ago about visiting the city of Ivanovo, historically the centre of the Russian cotton printing industry, but thought I’d expand on the theme of cotton printing in Russia, as it’s fresh in my mind after preparing a talk about it recently.

The cotton printing industry in Russia became concentrated in an area to the north-east of Moscow, centred around the cities of Ivanovo and Vladimir. (Vladimir is about 190 km east of Moscow.) Factories were also set up in and around Moscow and St Petersburg.

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Why this area?  The soil and the climate were not suitable for growing cereal crops, but were good for growing flax. So, from the 17th century or earlier, linen (produced from the fibres of flax) began to be produced in peasant households. The area had a plentiful supply of water in the form of many rivers – the Volga and its tributaries – needed for various processes in the production and dyeing of linen. And the rivers and various established trade routes facilitated the import of raw materials and export of finished goods from and to both east and west.

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Peasant girl breaking flax fibres. Photograph by Prokudin-Gorskii, 1910

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Block-printed linen. 17th c.

Peasant girls of northern Russia were expected to start learning from an early age all the processes of making linen in the home – first spinning the thread, then setting up a loom and weaving the cloth.  They would make all the clothes they would need for their future married life and many other textiles, such as embroidered towels and shirts, for giving to their future in-laws. The dyeing and printing of linen cloth might also be done in individual households, but often certain families, or whole villages, developed these skills, and others brought their own cloth to them to be decorated. Itinerant peddlars travelled from village to village, selling printed cloth or taking orders for particular designs.

Block-printed cloth in Russian is набоика – ‘naboika’ – the word deriving from a verb to hit or strike – because of the action of the large wooden hammer used against the wooden block to transfer the pattern on to the cloth.

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Lacquer-miniature panel, painted in the village of Palekh (20th c.), showing processes in textile printing, including washing and bleaching linen in the sun (bottom left), making printing blocks (top right), block-printing by hand (centre), transporting finished textiles by land and water (bottom right). The top left corner shows the earliest and latest stages – making the thread by hand with a distaff and drop spindle, and printing with copper rollers in a factory.

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