The supple, lightweight woolen fabric called Challis was first woven 170 years ago in the city of Norwich, northeast of London, and gained immediate popularity among Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Men used it for coat linings, neckties, and fancy waistcoats, and women wore dresses and shawls of challis because it so wonderfully combined the qualities of firmness and resilience with softness (the word challis is a corruption of the Anglo-Indian word “shalee”, meaning soft) and lightness.
Challis was easily cared for, draped well, and was comfortable for almost any climate. It was also very adaptable to a new printing-on-fabric technique devised in the Scottish town of Paisley, where the woolens mills came to specialize in the printing of multicolored, small oriental patterns that had first been seen on cashmere shawls imported to Europe from India.
Today authentic challis is still woven from 100% fine wool, and the printing of it is still considered a meticulous craft. Traditionally the fabric was “hand block printed”: a wooden block with a carved design on its surface was covered with dye, placed by hand on the cloth, and pounded with a mallet. It was a terribly laborious, precise, and time-consuming practice. The old blocks were only about ten inches square, so they had to be dyed, set, and pounded dozens and dozens of times to produce a single color on a single length of cloth. In a four-color paisley design, the process was repeated four times!
Today the “screen” method is used, and the process is still done by hand, but large screens are used instead of small blocks. And, funnily enough, this is one of those rare times when, not only is the newer technique more efficient, but none of the beauty is lost to progress either. There’s simply no discernible difference between block printing and screen printing, except that the screen technique is perhaps that bit more consistent in detail.
-G. Bruce Boyer