Cotton Block Printing with Nathalie Cassée
Nathalie Cassée is a block printer and cultural entrepreneur. She founded the block print studio De Katoendrukkerij in the Dutch city of Amersfoort. Based in a 17th mill rooted in the city's textile past, the studio sets out to bring the history of block printing to life in contemporary form. We caught up with her to find out more.
ECT: Amersfoort and this mill have a long history of cotton printing - can you tell us a more?
NC: Amersfoort is the cradle of block printing in Europe and the Western world and De Volmolen is a former fulling mill dating back to 1645. It had been empty for some time when, in 2020, the municipality and residents of the city chose my concept of De Katoendrukkerij to set up here. The technique of block printing came to The Netherlands from India with the Dutch East India Company in the 16th and 17th centuries. Prior to that, in the west, we were unable to print fabric with natural dyes. Demand for these painted and printed cottons - known as chintzes - was so great that, instead of sailing up and down to India, entrepreneurs in Europe started to experiment with printing cotton here. The first documented block print workshop was established by two Dutch East India Company members in Amersfoort in the 17th century. With De Katoendrukkerij, we are telling the story of block printing and the centuries-old textile industry in the city and bringing this history to life in a contemporary form.
De Volmolen Mill, Amersfoort, Copyright Michelle Koopmans
ECT: Yours is the only block print workshop in the Netherlands. When and why did you become interested in block printing?
NC: I have been travelling to India two or three times a year to source high quality textiles and other handcrafted products since 2007. The lovely wooden block prints I encountered on my early visits sparked my interest (my father is a graphic artist, so I was already familiar with printing techniques), and I started to explore the history and practice of wood block printing. Each time I visited I also took lessons from experienced block printers in resist printing, direct printing, printing with natural dyes etc. and then continued to enrich my practice of printing and teaching Europe, finding different workshops and artists to work with.
ECT: Can you tell us a bit about your work?
NC: A big part of my work is inspiring others and cooperating with national and international designers and artists to help them realise their block print projects. I also print fashion or art projects for designers and artists. I print mainly homewares with my own designs, under the product line Kashmir Heritage. I love to collect vintage linens and cottons and re-use them for cushions, furoshiki or other unique applications. I love also to re-use old, redundant wooden block prints and give them a new lease of life by using them in unique layered prints. For 2024, I have made samples again for homeware use.
I teach art and design students too, training them in this old craft. I have developed my own style of printing and teaching over time - the people who come to my classes are not molded into printing in a traditional way, rather I try to find out how to incorporate the printing they are already doing and give it an individual interpretation in order to give the craft a more solid ground to survive in the future.
ECT: Talking of helping the craft survive, in 2016 you reproduced an ageing 18th century Tree of Life chintz
NC: Yes, a dear client of mine had a Tree of Life chintz, set in a quilt, dating from 1750 which was in bad shape, so I suggested reproducing it. The client agreed so the original piece was photographed, and then re-made, step by step, by specialist Renuka Reddy in India using an original chintz technique. It’s a very elaborate process, practiced by only a few people today, which entails painting and printing with mordants, bleaching, and resist dyeing with natural dyes. The process took around eight months and, when it was completed, both the original and reproduction were presented in the exhibition ‘Chintz, Cotton in Bloom' in 2016-2017 in the Frisian Museum in The Netherlands.
Image courtesy Visit Utrecht Region
ECT: Our guests will be coming to one of your block print workshops – what can they expect to learn and to make?
NC: They will make and print a design for a cotton travel pouch which they could use for carrying their needle work or other personal belongings or use as a gift wrap for someone else. As well as being initiated into the basics of wood block print printing, I will also encourage and challenge them to make their own design with the given shapes (I have a collection of around 1000 wooden block prints of which I put out a selection for them to choose from), and colours of textile paint. It’s always such a pleasure to see the participants’ faces after they have created their first prints – it’s usually a mix of wonder and being proud to succeed.
ECT: We will also be going to the Patchwork & Quiltdagen show - are you a fan?
NC: Yes, I love this show! It’s not too big so you can see the exhibitions and go to some workshops in one day without exhausting yourself and it has a nice selection of stands offering quilt cotton in different styles.
Come and meet Nathalie in person on our Quilt Show Holiday in the Netherlands in April 2024 - find out more and book your place here