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Printed linen

Printed linen

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (possibly, made)
    Germany (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1350-1400 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Block printed linen (plain weave structure)

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval and Renaissance, Room 10c, case 8

Painting or applying colour to textiles dates back nearly two thousand years. However, little is known about printing or the makers of printed textiles in the 14th century, the period to which this piece can be dated stylistically. Its flowing pattern, composed of flowering vines, birds and beasts, appears to be typical of the second quarter of the century and may emulate the patterns on expensive woven silks. If so, the printed version was probably cheaper and made the design more accessible to consumers of limited means.

The first reference to European textile printing dates to the early fifteenth century when it is mentioned in trade regulations in Florence. The technique was described in a treatise published by the Italian painter Cennino Cennini in 1437, and had spread to Germany and England by the last quarter of the century, and to Sweden by the early sixteenth century. It was similar to the method used to create woodcut illustrations in books: a wooden block was engraved with an image or pattern, pigment was applied to its surface, and it was then stamped on to linen.

Physical description

The narrow rectangular fragment of natural linen is block printed with a medium-grey pattern, probably originally black. The design depicts:
1. Birds, possibly peacocks or phoenix.
2. Vine motif with leaves and stylised flowers.
3. Lozenge motif containing Maltese cross/four petalled flower.
The linen ground is a twill weave. There are two layers of plain-weave unprinted natural linen sewn to the back of the printed linen.

Place of Origin

Italy (possibly, made)
Germany (possibly, made)


ca. 1350-1400 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Block printed linen (plain weave structure)


Length: 36 cm, Width: 7 cm

Object history note

Acquired in 1863 as part of the collection of Dr. Franz Bock. Another fragment with the same design and with similar provenance is preserved in the Musée National du Moyen Age, Paris (Inv. Cl 3056; dimensions 33.4 (L) x 12.8 cm (W). This latter is illustrated in Le Coton et la Mode. 1 000 ans d'aventures. Paris: Paris Musées & Somogy Éditions d'Art, 2000, p. 40, summary description cat. no. 13.

Historical significance: Rare example of an early printed textile of a relatively under-documented type.

Historical context note

The origin of these textiles seems open to some debate. In the original accession register entry they were traditionally attributed to Germany, although more recently very similar pieces have been labelled in the museum as Italian (monochromatic prints with brocaded-silk style designs). A larger fragment of this textile, showing the full repeat, is 8615-1863. There are also three fragments of blue dyed linen (7095-1860, 7095A-1860, and 1514-1899) that have a print which is identical to that upon a silk dalmatic preserved in Straslund. This print features a bird, probably a heron or a crane, reacting to a lion-like animal, entwined with flowing vines and foliage. It seems possible that the printed textiles emulated more expensive woven silks, making identical patterns and designs more accessible to consumers of limited means, although even so, they would not have been "cheap".

Little is known about printed linens of this period. Studies of medieval textiles often focus upon the weaving industry, or upon decorated silk and woollen textiles. Painters of the period seem to have favoured plain linen and cotton over their printed equivalents, reserving their portrayals of patterned textiles for silks and woollens. However, these flowing patterns, composed of flowering vines, and often incorporating birds and beasts, appear to be typical of the 2nd quarter of the 14th century (See Crowfoot et al., Textiles and Clothing. Museum of London, 2001, pp. 101 & 117).

- Daniel Milford-Cottam (2006)

Descriptive line

Linen, block-printed grey (black) on natural creamy colour, 1350-1400, Italian or North European; motif of birds and foliage

Production Note

Originally accessioned as Flemish. Similar textiles in the collection are labelled as German, but Donald King's key essay of 1962 proposed that printing may have originated in Italy and spread outwards from there to Germany and neighbouring states.




Weaving; Block printing




Textiles and Fashion Collection

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