Charlotte Small joined the family-run bespoke printers, Barnard & Westwood, holders of two royal warrants, following a hand embroidery degree with the Royal School of Needlework. Here, she talks about her apprenticeship and why the die-stamping machine, which has had such a strong, physical connection back through British printing history, captivated her from the start…
People often ask about my jump from embroidery to printing, but in my mind these two very different crafts are more related than you might think. I relish in crafts that are intricate, traditional and delicate. Many might believe that working with these mighty antique machines cannot be a delicate process, but I disagree. The process is a long and detailed procedure beginning with the dies that produce such elegant and detailed prints.
Die stamping is often referred to as copper-plate, engraved or intaglio printing. These names refer to the traditional copper plate used to print. These copper plates (dies) engraved with the mirror image of the desired print are fixed into the back of the machine on to a moving mechanical arm. As this swings forward into the front of the machine, rollers ink up the die before a wipe brushes the surface leaving just the ink in the impression. The wipe consists of a felted pad covered in continuously rotating paper, which is pulled through the machine on to rollers. Huge rotating cogs turn and click into place, stretching the paper tight over the pad.
The machines are hand fed at the front of the machine. It has a rhythm to it that I am inspired by and many of the crafts I love share this quality. There is a beauty to repetition; you can lose yourself in the act of making. I find printing a multisensory feast with the pulsing noise, the bright luxurious colours and the smell of the ink. The sound of the die-stamping press is reminiscent of a giant industrial clock slowly winding itself tight, the whole process has a beautiful beat to it. It is the music of craft.
One of my favourite, but I think hardest to master, skills involved with die stamping is the process of cutting the force. A force is made up of compressed hardboard on a solid base underneath the die. It acts as a male impression of the engraved (female) image in the die. This is designed to focus the pressure on to the area you would like to print while simultaneously relieving stress from the rest of the paper.
The force leaves a distinct impression on the back of the paper which is unique to both the job and the die stamper. To those in the business, a force is like a die stamper’s signature. It is the mark of a skilled craftsman and is our connection back to the process of creating the object.
The die stamping machines captivated me from the beginning of my apprenticeship. They have such a strong, physical connection back through British printing history. The handles are worn down by the many hands of skilled workers and there are layers upon layers of bright inks built up in the same distinctive areas, particularly where you will rest your hand to support yourself while endlessly adjusting countless bolts.
Sadly, these presses have been out of production since the 1970s and very few remain. In the Barnard & Westwood factory, our oldest press dates back to the 1920s and our youngest, from around the 1940s. Like many old designs, these machines are built to last but they still show signs of their age. I often think of them as old ladies, they can often be grumpy and a little stiff first thing in the morning but with persuasion they slowly creek back into life and are soon racing along at full whack.
I am a self-confessed collector (hoarder) of all things old and peculiar. I adore objects, their stories, their lives and their importance in our lives. I was raised by antique dealers so have always drawn a deeper connection with objects. This has very much been the case with not only the machines but with the finished products. Invitations hold the most resonance for me. Call me an old romantic but especially wedding invites. It is the feeling that someone will keep an invite that we have been so much a part of and treasure it. Maybe one day another keen collector will find them in a trunk as I have done many times and wonder about its story.
As you can see I’m passionate, if not a little mad, but I strongly believe that retaining traditional crafts is essential. People should be aware of these skills and should be enjoying these beautiful products. They are our history and our culture, and if we forget them we may lose touch with the magnificence of human skill for ever.
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