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While some of the hand block prints are made from blocks cut a century ago by English or French craftsmen, patterns are being produced by American designers to meet the increasing demand for designs that have not been so much used. All kinds of beautiful things serve as inspiration to the creators of these patterns. Perhaps a Chinese vase will give a motif. In one case a picture by the great Dutch painter of flowers, Jan Van Huysum, supplied the inspiration.
Although machinery has done wonders in lessening the amount of labor in the making of printed cottons and linens, it has not been able to replace the craftsmans' hand in the finer sorts of prints. In machine printing, for example, not more than twelve colors can be used. In hand work the number of hues is limited only by the cost. The slight irregularities in the pattern and the subtle variation of tone noticeable in hand work give a character to a handblock print which is absent from the perfect regularity of machine work.
In some hand-made designs ninety different blocks are used to produce a small area on the sixty-yard piece. These blocks must be dipped into color and placed accurately on the fabric; then, with a deft thump of a mallet, just the right amount of color is impressed upon the cotton or linen. This method has been employed since the first half of the seventeenth century, when the hand-block process of printing on linen and cotton was introduced into Europe from the Orient.
In India, where these decorated fabrics originated, the designs were at first drawn and painted by hand. The early examples, brought to England by ships of the East India Company, were highly prized. The block process was a later development, and early compromise with trade for a greater output. Slow and laborious as it still is, the block print method allowed an art to develop, from the making of a single piece for an Indian Rajah to the furnishing of many copies for a larger number of patrons.
While most of the cretonnes and hand-block prints are either old designs or modern ones inspired by Indian prints, European brocades and other fabric designs reminiscent of past periods, the newer note of art is represented by a small but virile group.