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Transfer printing

Transfer printed decoration on porcelain was begun in England in 1756 and was developed by John Sadler and Guy Green of Liverpool. It was then adopted by Josiah Wedgwood who used it on his ivory based "Creamware". Thomas Spode early introduced blue transfer printed wares, using an improved version of the method of Ralph Baddeley in Shelton.

The printing method greatly reduced the effort required to produce large numbers of the same pattern. The relatively low cost of printing allowed more people to purchase quality tableware and its popularity made many potters wealthy. Most of the transfer ware manufactured in England came out of the Staffordshire region.

From 1773 the East India Company had begun to reduce their imports of chinaware, making it difficult for families to obtain replacements and additions.

In 1784, the enormous tax in England on tea, was dramatically reduced which significantly increasing the frequency and enjoyment of tea drinking, which in turn, increased the demand for tea services and pots. The same year, in 1784, to meet this demand for more porcelain decorated in the classical Chinese decorations, Josiah Spode I perfected the process of blue underglaze printing on earthenware, from hand-engraved copper plates.

Initially, the patterns were reproductions of the Chinese porcelain designs, firmly establishing the popularity of blue and white themes, but others soon followed, including the earliest blue florals. This not only assured Spodes fame and the future prosperity of his company, but was essential to the phenomenal growth of the English tableware industry.

The Spode transfer printing process was almost identical with the printing of a fine etching and was done from copper plates in which the design had been deeply engraved by hand. Dot punching was used for softer shadings and provided tones over large areas.

After the engraving was done color mixed with oil was worked into the depths of the engraving. This was done on a stove that kept the copper plate hot, so that the color would run more freely. Colour was rubbed into the engraving with a wooden "dabber". When the engraving was filled, the surface was carefully scraped clean, leaving the color only in the engraved lines and the punched dots. After the excess colour had been removed the copper plate was bossed to even eliminate the thin film that was left by the scraper.

To catch the decoration onto a softer media a sheet of strong tissue paper, "sized" with soft soap and water, was laid smoothly on the copper engraving, which was then run under the roller of an etching press. The roller was covered with a soft felt to force the paper into contact with every line and dot of the pattern.

The engraving was then put back on the hot stove and the printed tissue paper was pulled away from the engraving. When the tissue was lifted it would draw with it all of the color from the engraving and the design would now be on the tissue. Next the the separate parts of the printed decoration that would be needed for the piece to be decorated, would now be cut-out out of the sheet of paper.

The Transferrer, who were mostly skillful girls, would now place the pieces of printed tissue carefully into position on the ware, where they would be held stuck to the porcelain by the tackiness of the colour. The print would be vigorously rubbed down with a stiff-bristled brush, lubricated with soft soap. Finally, to remove the tissue, is would now be washed off with cold water. When the tissue was washed off, it would leave the design on the ware.

The decorated ware would now be fired for ten hours at between 680C and 750C in the "hardening-on" kiln, so that the oil from the color would evaporate and the decoration would be fixed to the ware. After hardening-on, the ware could be glazed and re-fired at 1050C, which is also when the design would turn blue.

Three original patterns from the period 1790 to 1820 - Blue Italian, Tower Blue and Willow - are still produced at Spode today. The method of transfer printing was introduced by the Maastricht potteries around 1840 with copper plates engraved in England. In Japan a similar method using transfer patterns was introduced by the late 19th century called Inbante.

On Chinese porcelain transfer prints seems to have been introduced even later and most Chinese porcelain pieces which appears to have been transfer printed seems to date to the first decades of the 20th century. The method seems to have been abandoned before WWII.