Monday, 11 May 2020

Strawberry Thief

Strawberry season approaches...

Strawberry Thief by William Morris

Strawberry Thief is one of William Morris's most popular repeating designs for textiles.[1] It takes as its subject the thrushes that Morris found stealing fruit in his kitchen garden of his countryside home, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire. To print the pattern Morris used the painstaking indigo-discharge method he admired above all forms of printing. He first attempted to print by this method in 1875 but it was not until 1881, when he moved into his factory at Merton Abbey, near Wimbledon, that he succeeded. In May 1883 Morris wrote to his daughter, "I was a great deal at Merton last week ... anxiously superintending the first printing of the Strawberry thief, which I think we shall manage this time." Pleased with this success, he registered the design with the Patents Office. This pattern was the first design using the technique in which red (in this case alizarin dye) and yellow (weld) were added to the basic blue and white ground.
The entire process would have taken days to complete and consequently, this was one of Morris & Co.'s most expensive cottons. Customers were not put off by the high price, however, and Strawberry Thief proved to be one of Morris' most commercially successful patterns.

While Morris may be a cliched touchtone for anyone interested in pattern, there is good reason for his prevalence. He was amongst other things combining a sense of heritage with ground breaking advances such as discharge printing mentioned above.

Being a Midlands girl I have to give other Arts & Crafts designers a 'shout out' quickly, near to my family home in Wolverhampton is the town of Ironbrigde. This quite spot has a grand claim to fame the "Birth Place of Industry"and the great Jackfield Tile Museum, amongst other attractions expands the history of the area.

The museum group has some online resources for these restricted times. 

The other honourable mention is for William de Morgan (great name!) 1839 - 1917. Local to Wolves again, Wightwick Manor has a large collection of De Morgan work. This guy had a real flair for the fabulous, mythical creatures, medieval myth galore.

Back to strawberries... I had an idea that I would be able to find some coloured paper or ink to replicate the discharge process that I am familiar with from textile screen printing. However this proved harder than I expected.

Sometime tissue paper or certain inks will respond to household bleach, starting with a strong all over coloured background you can effectively draw with the bleach, creating pale ground for another colour or outlines to go over.

I tested lots of coloured card with just a spot of bleach on a cotton bud

(Do follow safety precautions when handling bleach - it is a household item, read manufactures instructions for use, wear gloves and eye protection.)

In the end all I could find was beetroot juice...

original sketch of strawberry flowers, painting in the dark background.

Now its not often I imagine that the V&A Museum is not the go to resource for applied arts, but in researching this post I came across a brilliant web page about Strawberry Thief at

You can zoom in and almost examine the fabric. The whole fabric would have been dyed blue with indigo, then discharge printed to bleach the pattern out and then top printed with colours so that they were not competing with the blue background directly. You can see where coloured areas overlap creating more shades and subtlety... Love it.

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