Across the Atlantic

English manufacturers who had mastered the complicated art of mordant dyeing on cotton fabrics kept a stranglehold on American markets in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They imported raw cotton grown in the southern United States, weaving it into cloth and printing it with the latest fashions, before returning it to the U.S. for sale.  In fact, during the last decades of the 18th century, the British government outlawed the exportation of machinery for printing cotton, ensuring that American consumers must import these desirable goods.

A few entrepreneurs were able to overcome the restrictions. John Hewson, for example, emigrated from England to Philadelphia in 1773 with specifications to set up one of the first textile printing factories here. He succeeded in running a small printing factory during the 1770s.

France became a player in  textile printing in the 1770s when Christophe-Phillippe Oberkampf, began to produce highly detailed  textiles by using large copper plates. The fineness of the copper engravings produced high quality imagery, often drawn from Biblical or literary sources.

Great Britain, however, remained the main supplier of printed cottons for the American market. When the U.S. and Britain battled during the War of 1812, trade between these countries slowed, but rebounded quickly after a ceasefire.  British exporters then flooded the American market with stores of printed cotton fabrics, shipping thousands of yards of fabrics across the Atlantic.

One of the most commonly seen prints exported to the American market is a print of a pheasant poised under a palm tree, produced at the Bannister Hall Company of Lancashire, England, circa 1815. Other printed designs—including additional game bird variations produced in multiple colorways, a floral-decorated urn with ornate handles, a bountiful bouquet of calla lilies and tulips, an elegant wicker basket, and a peacock poised on a classical pedestal—appear again and again in chintz appliqué quilts and chintz wholecloth quilts. As quilt styles changed, quiltmakers also cut these chintzes to use in block-style quilts.