THE SECRETS AND CHARMS OF TISSUE TRANSFER PRINTING: A VERY BRITISH CRAFT
By Steven Moore
WHAT GOES INTO A TEAPOT?
A Burleigh Teapot is not just your average piece of serveware. Each piece of Burleigh crockery is 100% handmade and therefore 100% unique.
If you're looking to add something extra special to your tea rituals then why not Experience More with Burleigh?
Each piece of Burleighware is made from high quality English clay; which takes 25 skilled pairs of hands to craft and mould the clay into the beautiful, intricately decorated teaware that we love today.
Burleigh, based in Middleport, Stoke-On-Trent, prides itself on the attention to detail it pays during the manufacturing process. With many generations of families working within the factory, these talents have been passed down through the years to ensure that traditional British pottery remains true to form. With new developments to ensure all products are dishwasher and microwave-safe, Burleigh is the perfect fusion of classic design with contemporary needs to make the most of your tea experience.
THE TISSUE TRANSFER PROCESS
Burleigh is the only pottery in the world to continue to use the centuries old tissue transfer printing process. An English invention developed in the 18th Century, its introduction lead to England ruling the world of blue and white ceramics. But to find out why blue and white, we must look back further in time.
HISTORY OF BLUE AND WHITE CERAMICS
Blue and white ceramics have been prized for centuries. Once the sole preserve of the Emperor of China, they were decorated with precious cobalt blue pigment from Persia, which cost twice the price of gold!
THE TISSUE TRANSFER PROCESS
Over the years, a few pieces of Chinese blue and white came West, mainly as diplomatic gifts. These inestimable treasures were often mounted in gold or with jewels by their owners, as they were considered to be ‘White Gold.’
Although by the 17th Century, and with the tea drinking craze landing on these shores, more and more blue and white came out of China, it was still expensive. Even as the production of ceramics was refined and industrialised in the West, the price of the rare Cobalt pigment and hand painting meant that ceramics were still very much the preserve of the few.
This began to change with the discovery of a method for making Cobalt pigment, known as ‘Smalt’, but also the invention of tissue transfer printing that really changed things and made England a world leader in ceramics.
TRANSFER PRINTING IN BRITAIN
Transfer printing ceramics began in England in the 1750s and sprung from the earlier method of transferring designs onto enamels. Several people claim to have invented it, but as not one of them took out a patent, the ‘Secret’ soon leaked out, with several makers using this process.
Unlike their Chinese counterparts, with hand painted decoration under the glaze, these early attempts at competition had decoration over the glaze. This meant that, with use, the pattern would wear off.
Most of these early prints mirrored the fine art engravings they copied. Black was the key colour, which worked well with the cream coloured wares popular at the time. For ladies taking tea, this was a popular subject!
Later, around 1780, an underglaze process was invented that meant the designs were protected under the glaze from wear and tear. Because the design was under the glaze, just like the expensive Chinese wares, the pattern was made permanent.
BURLEIGH BLACK REGAL PEACOCK COLLECTION
This changed things. The colour of the ware changed from cream to a blueish white, known as ‘Pearlware’ and the colour from black to blue. The reason for this change was to mimic the fine ceramics of the Chinese.
Thus blue and white as we know it was born and pagodas, willow trees, fishermen and love birds all began to appear across our china. Today we call it “Willow Pattern” but during the 18th Century it was called “Nanking”, to associate it with China.
HOW TO TISSUE PRINT A PIECE OF BURLEIGH: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE
STEP 1: COPPER PLATE
The copper plate is a crucial part of the tissue transfer process. Carefully engraved with the intricate patterns used to create the beautiful ceramics you see today, the most recent copper plate belonging to Burleigh was created in 2014 and took approximately 2,000 hours to engrave. The copper plate is chrome plated to protect the fine engravings. The plate must be redone every two weeks to maintain its quality.
This painstakingly engraved plate is then fitted to a printing machine. Burleigh have given this task their faithful service since 1889.
STEP 2: PRINTING
Once fitted, the inside of the roller is heated, and oil based ink is pushed into the engraved images. Fine tissue is passed through and the pattern is printed onto this tissue. However, due to the oil, this remains tacky. The next job is to tear off lengths of printed tissue, and hang them on a washing line.
Next, the printers (who have trained for seven years) select a length of printed tissue from the washing line and cut out the prints they need. Further cutting is needed to select the right borders and motifs for the design. Each design is printed with a combination of borders and motifs to fit the shape of the ware to be printed upon.
STEP 3: TRANSFER
Because the tissue can stretch a little, it can be placed (by hand) around the ware and fitted to parts that machine processes can’t reach. Carrying out the process by hand means we can decorate our ceramics all over with intricate designs. At this point, any excess is trimmed off by hand.
Once the patterns have been placed on the ware (the tackiness of the ink keeps them in place), they are ‘rubbed’ with a stiff brush loaded with soft soap. We use the soft soap to help the brush move over the tissue without the risk of damaging it. The ‘rubbing’ process pushes the ink into the ware, which has so far only been fired once. At this point (known as ‘biscuit’) it’s porous and must be evenly rubbed all over to ensure the pattern is printed properly.
The tissue paper is washed off by this process, but because the ink contains linseed oil, the pattern remains on the ware. After this, the printed object is fired and the pattern is ‘hardened on.’
This process is unique to Burleigh, and produces wares with a subtlety and tone that modern processes simply cannot match. When Burleigh say their pottery is handmade, they mean it!
We’d like to say a huge thank you to Steven for providing us with this insight into the fascinating world of tissue transfer printing.
Steven is one of the UK’s leading ceramic experts. Well known for his appearances on BBC One’s ‘The Antiques Roadshow’ he is also Ambassador for The Prince’s Regeneration Trust, one of HRH the Prince of Wales’s charities, who recently restored Middleport Pottery, the home of Burleigh.
Steven is passionate about all ceramics made in Britain, be they historic or contemporary. He is never seen with a mug, always a tea cup and saucer (and one made in England!).