“Ten years ago, when I’d say to people I specialise in block printing, hardly anyone had a clue what I meant. But it’s now on the map,” recalls designer Molly Mahon, who set up in business in 2011, making hand-printed fabrics and wallpapers in distinctive and unusual colourways.
She now produces an ever-expanding homeware line, including tablecloths, cushion covers, lamp shades and rugs.
Block printing entails drawing a motif on the flat, planed top of a wood or lino block, then carving out the area around this using a drill or chisel.
The remaining raised area is inked, then pressed firmly on to paper or fabric spread out on a sturdy table. A pattern is gradually built up by repeating this action.
Mahon, who lives in a cottage in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex with husband Rollo, also co-director of the business, and children, Lani, 13, Algie, 11, and Orlando, seven, can take much of the credit for reviving and revitalising this ancient craft.
Published last month, her new book, House of Print — A Modern Block Printer’s Take on Design, Colour and Pattern (Pavilion, £16.99), explores her inspirations and provides practical instructions for printing fabric.
“This book is my love letter to block print,” she writes in the introduction. “I hope it ignites your creativity and opens your eyes to the beauty of this wonderful craft.”
Mahon adds: “Block printing has such a rich history… and a great deal of my enjoyment comes from giving it a contemporary slant for today’s homes.”
Indeed, woodblock printing — its original name — has a long, varied pedigree.
It was first used before 220 AD in China to print on textiles, then paper. Textiles have been block printed in India since the 10th century or before and Jaipur in Rajasthan, where some of Mahon’s fabrics are produced, is a major centre for the craft to this day.
Until the coronavirus pandemic, Mahon travelled there once or twice a year, and says the artisans she collaborates with also mentor and educate her about the history of the technique.
Inspired by nature and the Bloomsbury Group
“Chintz, which was imported to England in the 17th century, was originally woodblock printed,” she explains. “It sometimes required up to 12 wood blocks printing motifs one on top of the other to achieve the finished design.”
By comparison, Mahon’s prints are pared-down, often restricted to one or two colours, which gives them a bold, modern look.
“My designs start as simple drawings, many inspired by nature,” she says.
Some of her earliest ideas came to her while walking with her children in the woods near her home. “They’d be constantly inspecting beetles or bluebells and that taught me to be more aware of nature.”
Mahon’s graphic repeat patterns feature stylised oak leaves, ferns, birds, butterflies, honeysuckle, coral, cantering horses, stars and marigolds.
They come in colours inspired in particular by India and by Bloomsbury Group artist Vanessa Bell — fresh lettuce green, radiant yellow, zingy raspberry pink, earthier indigo and ochre.
She has run block printing workshops at Daylesford Organic Farm in the Cotswolds; at Charleston, which was the country retreat of Bell and fellow artist Duncan Grant, not far from where Mahon lives, and at homeware brand Toast’s shops. Several more set for this summer have been postponed until next month due to lockdown.
Undeterred, Mahon posted videos of her demonstrating the craft using potato printing, on her Instagram page and YouTube channel. These proved hugely popular and she now has 50,000 Instagram followers.
She says: “I was mortified that suddenly I couldn’t share my knowledge at the workshops, so I decided to show how to block print at home easily by other means. People were soon sharing their designs on social media. The sense of community this engendered was massive.”
A creative outlet that became a business
Mahon got hooked on block printing by chance while running an events firm in London in her twenties.
“At the time, I needed a creative outlet,” she says. “My mother, an artist, had a big influence on me and I knew I had a creative side.
I attended several evening classes and went on a block printing course. It excited me and gave me an energy I hadn’t experienced with anything else.”
Soon after, Mahon decorated a shepherd’s hut, which a friend rented out, lining the walls with a marigold-motif fabric and painting the ceiling with yellow and blue stripes. “People said they loved the wallcovering and that kick-started my business.”
She began selling at design fairs, while artisanal textiles and wallcoverings firm Tissus d’Hélène launched her first collection of designs. Now US textile company Schumacher stocks her fabrics. She prints privately commissioned designs herself in her garden studio.
Mahon’s handmade prints appeal for their irregularities, she says: “The imperfections of this handicraft are what give it its real interest and charm. They’re what make the prints lively.”