Taking Amersfoort back to its cotton printing roots

Drawers full of printing blocks at the Katoendrukkerij © Bloom Inspiration

Amersfoort’s new block printing studio, the Katoendrukkerij, opened its doors in October 2020. Housed in the city’s historic Volmolen, the studio’s founder – printmaker, teacher and entrepreneur, Nathalie Cassée – jumped at the chance to use the space when she heard the local municipality were looking for a new tenant.

It was the perfect opportunity to bring fresh creative life to the building, which has been home to textile production during most of its 375 year existence.

I met with Nathalie online to hear all about her new venture, as well as her fascination (and dedication) to the centuries-old art of block printing.

How did you get into block printing? 

I was brought up in an artistic environment – my father is a graphic artist. He used to etch, among other things, so I was introduced to various printing techniques from a young age. Since 2007 I’ve been travelling to India where I first came across beautifully block-printed products. Each time I returned, I visited a block-printing artisan to learn about this technique myself. I learned about direct printing, discharge printing, printing and dyeing with natural dyes and resist printing, for example. There’s no formal block-printing education available, so I learnt thanks to a traditional master-apprentice relationship; through hands-on practice.

A block-printed rug printed with resist paste and dyed in indigo
© Nathalie Cassée

After that, I travelled around Europe – to France, Belgium and England – to learn about techniques like masking and repeat design from practising artisans. I never formally studied design or pattern design – I learnt myself. 

Some years after my first visit to India I felt ready to begin teaching. Since then I’ve taught a lot both in the Netherlands and abroad, especially at museums, textile festivals and also for the Crafts Council Nederland. In fact, I’m one of the few specialists in block printing here. I also do commissions, sell blocks and other supplies, as well a block-printed products via my business, Kashmir Heritage.

Tell us about the history of block printing in the Netherlands

Block printing came from India, along with cotton and knowledge about printing with natural dyes. I spent 2019 carrying out archival research during which I discovered that the Netherlands had the earliest documented block print workshop in Europe. It was opened in 1678 in Amersfoort, so it’s wonderful to be able to bring this technique back to life through the Katoendrukkerij in the city that’s the cradle of block printing in Europe.  

Block printing in action © Nathalie Cassée

What’s the biggest challenge for people new to block printing?

Technically it’s not that hard, but some students (particularly those who are perfectionists) do tend to struggle to let go and just start making prints. There’s a blank piece of fabric or paper involved, which can be overwhelming at first. But it’s a very meditative process, because you need to focus on what you’re doing. Saying that, you can decide at any moment to change course – there’s improvisation involved, and actually it’s the happy mistakes and irregularities that make it special. Partly it is learning by discovery.

What do you find most fascinating about block printing? 

The meditative part of it, and the surprise that comes with discovering new combinations and layering. The simplicity of the technique is also interesting – people think they need a lot of shapes, or lots of different coloured inks to get started, but exploring just one shape brings the practice back its essence. 

Nathalie making corrections to her block-printed cotton © Nathalie Cassée

It’s amazing to think that, in spite of teaching for nearly a decade, I’ve never seen two people come up with the same design. There’s so much space for originality in pattern, colour and form. Even though you’re using pre-designed shapes, personality always comes through. 

Tell us something we might not know about block printing

It’s very difficult to create a block. The artisan works with a 10cm-long chisel which is tapped  with a stick, so it’s an engraving, not a woodcut. They make incisions with a chisel to make a ‘v’ shape in the wood, and then remove it. The white paint on the surface of the block is functional – it’s there to help the artisan see where to cut. 

Intricately engraved printing blocks © Nathalie Cassée

What do you suggest to someone looking to get started with block printing?

Come and join in – it’s something you need to experience. If you’re based in the Netherlands, come and try it at the Katoendrukkerij. We’re the only specialised block printing workshop in the whole country, and we’re based in the city where it all began. On top of that, it’s a great way to lose yourself for an afternoon – creativity is good for you!

Things have been on and off due to Corona, but we’ve had some school groups who’ve been in to print their own t-shirts, as well as holding workshops, lectures and tours of the building to tell visitors about its heritage. You can find out more about our schedule of events and opportunities to attend workshops on our website. (We also have two double guest rooms, so you can make a visit into a complete creative holiday).

The Katoendrukkerij workshop at Amersfoort’s Volmolen © Bloom Inspiration

Finally, what are your hopes for the Katoendrukkerij in the year to come? 

I hope to be able to connect a lot of people with this beautiful craft. I don’t believe in online teaching in the long term. It’s the same difference between digital and handmade printing – you miss the contact. In-person workshops are much less flat, so we hope to see lots of people come to see what it’s all about. We’re also hoping to be able to show visitors and workshop participants how to make natural fabric dyes as one of our volunteers is growing various plants to make dyes from in the Volmolen’s garden. 

Find out about upcoming events and book a workshop on the Katoendrukkerij’s website, and follow along on Instagram.

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