As early as the 1630s, the East India Company was importing hand painted, block printed and plain cotton for the English market. The exotic and colorful imported cottons from India immediately attracted consumers, who previously had only known the muted woolens and linens historically produced in Europe.
Textile printing and dyeing was virtually unknown in Europe, as was cotton production. For many decades, Europeans were unable to produce pure cotton cloth and had great difficulty replicating the brilliant and colorfast cotton prints in which the dyers of India excelled. However, they were determined to learn the ‘secrets’ of calico printing in order to substitute domestic production for imported goods.
During the late 1600s and early 1700s, printers established rudimentary printworks in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, England and Scotland. Early efforts were quite simple, sometimes limited to one color. The French pioneered much of the multi-colored, calico printing, and soon became the acknowledged leaders. Other European printers closely followed and even deliberately copied their designs and color schemes.
Printing technology evolved as Europeans sought to find faster and more efficient processes. Carved wooden blocks printed most early designs. Next, printers invented an engraved copper plate printing process so they could achieve larger and more finely detailed design. Roller or cylinder prints (patented in 1783 by Scotsman Thomas Bell) evolved from copperplate printing technology and revolutionized the printing industry. By employing a revolving engraved metal cylinder, mill workers could print cloth continuously, greatly speeding production.
The growing availability of colorful cotton prints in a range of patterns, qualities, and prices meant that more and more consumers could afford them. The pieced, repeating block quilt, an American icon, grew in popularity along with the availability of cotton prints. And as the availability and range of prints grew, late 19th century quiltmakers emphasized an impressive variety of fabrics, rather than impressive quilting. Charm quilts with no two pieces alike and postage stamp quilts made of one-inch squares accordingly rose in popularity.