Textile printing involves the production of a predetermined colored pattern on a cloth, usually with a definite repeat. It can be described as a localised form of dyeing, applying coloring to selected areas of the fabric to build up the design.
The most change in fashion and design that has ever occurred in European textiles was the general introduction of printed fabrics. The first printed cloths were produced in India and China over four thousand years ago. European textile printing dates from about the tenth century. Until relatively cheap printed cloths became available, patterns on European dress were the result of weaving or embroidery. Such clothes could just be afforded by the wealthy.
New procedures for printing textile goods may be traced rear to the block printing of silks in ancient China. In this technique a wooden block with a raised pattern on the surface was curved in into the printing colorant and then pressed face down on to fabric. The desired pattern was obtained by repeating the process using different colors. Printings by brushing colorant through thin metal stencils and the transfer of illustrations to the printed page from engraved rollers in a printing press were also widespread by the fifteenth century.
Block-printing remained a practical proposition until the roller printing machine was invented by James Bell in 1783. This enabled six colors to be printed at a speed equivalent to that of 40 hand-block printers. The success of the machine depended on the hard rollers, each of which bore an engraving (i.e. an intaglio engraving, in which the depth of the recess on the roller determines the intensity of the print produced) corresponding to a exacting color component of the design. The machines were capable of continuously printing six different colors in sequence, with the rollers pressed against the textile.