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Transferware: A Timeless Decorative Art

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Transferware Process

Example of transferware process from the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Williamsburg, Va.

-Pamela Wiggins

Quick Facts About Transferware:

- Transfer printing as a decorative technique was developed in England in the mid-1750s, particularly in the Staffordshire region.

- The transferware process began when a flat copper plate was engraved with a desired pattern in much the same way that plates used to make paper engravings were produced.

- Most transferware patterns sought by collectors today are two-tone in color. Blue and white, red and white and brown and white are the most common colors.

- Valuable English pieces made in the 1700s through the late 1800s are rarely offered for sale in antique shops now. Available more readily are pieces made during the 20th century. While they’re not as valuable, they are just as attractive visually.

Learning About the Transferware Process

When I visited the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, the museum featured an interesting exhibit on ceramics offering a step-by-step history spanning the earliest Asian pieces to modern examples. I’ve always admired the delicate beauty of transferware and relished the opportunity to learn more about it.

The museum exhibit explained that transfer printing as a decorative technique was developed in England in the mid-1750s, particularly in the Staffordshire region. The process began when a flat copper plate was engraved with a desired pattern in much the same way as the plates used to make paper engravings were produced.

Once the plate was inked with a ceramic coloring, the design was impressed on a thin sheet of tissue paper. This inked impression was then transferred onto the surface of the ceramic object as shown in the accompanying photo taken at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

After it was inked, the object made its way into a low-temperature kiln to fix the pattern. The printing could be done either under or over the glaze on a ceramic piece, but since the ink tended to wear off on overprinted pieces, the underprinting method became more popular going forward.

When examining a transferware decorative object, you can distinguish it by the fine lines produced through the engraving process on the original plate. If you’ve ever seen an old book filled with engraved images, it’s much the same look only on a plate or tureen instead of a piece of paper.

A Little Transferware History

Transfer printing actually came about when English consumers called for an affordable alternative to the hand painted utilitarian wares formerly available only to the gentry. Before transfer printing was developed each piece in a set of dinnerware would be hand decorated, which was a laborious and costly process.

Some of the earliest transferware patterns were done in blue and white with an Asian influence. Chinese blue was popular at the time, as was the Blue Willow pattern. In fact, when visiting Mount Vernon, I viewed a piece of hand painted Blue Willow ceramic ware once used in George Washington’s home.

Once the mass production of transfer printing came about, middle class families could enjoy pretty dinnerware similar to that found in the homes of the aristocracy, but at a much more affordable price.

The firms manufacturing these wares included Ridgway, Johnson Brothers, Spode and Wedgwood along with many others. When Josiah Wedgwood began using the transferware process it was to decorate his familiar ivory Creamware.

Collecting Transferware Today

Most transferware patterns sought by collectors today are two-tone in color. Blue and white, red and white and brown and white are the most common colors. Sometimes transfer printed designs were enhanced with translucent hand-painted enamel over the printed patterns as well.

While we don’t find many of the valuable English pieces made in the 1700s through the late 1800s offered for sale in antique shops now, one will crop up occasionally. What we do find in most areas more readily are pieces made during the 20th century. While they’re not as valuable, they are just as pretty.

For instance, take the souvenir plates made with the transferware process. Widely sold in tourist areas, these plates can be found featuring everything from early-1900s views of Portland, Oregon to the Texas Centennial Celebration held in Dallas in the mid-1930s.

Of course, there are transferware dinnerware sets available from the same time period if you’d prefer to go the traditional route. Some companies, Johnson Brothers being a popular name, are still making dish sets in these styles available today in department stores and specialty shops.

All in all, the technique and the colors are truly timeless making transferware a classic that is appreciated today just as much as it was in the 18th century.

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