Chiné à la branche – an art in itself

“Chiné à la branche” is an historical textile printing technique which dates back to the 18th century, and reached its heights under the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, notably embraced by Marie-Antoinette for the fabrication of her court clothes and for the upholstery of luxury furniture.
A hand crafted process, essentially used for creating silk taffetas with floral motifs or blurred details, as though painted by hand, it creates a unique fabric which combines printing, weaving and dying techniques. This mix of craftsmanship multiplies the possible outcomes and lends each yard of fabric the uniqueness of a work of art.
The printing is generally done on a textile surface which has already been woven and consists of reproducing patterns with the aid of different techniques like frame printing or with a roller. However the printing can also be done before the weaving.
For chiné à la branche, only one part of the warp thread is dyed, in what is called “reserved” printing. The ensemble of warps, separated into various packets of threads called “branches” are stretched out along a frame or a loom. The threads are then partially bound so as to preserve, in places, certain surfaces of the dye, before they are dipped in a colour bath. The packets are juxtaposed to reconstruct the whole sequence and to bring the image to life. Lastly, the weaving is done with a weft thread of a single colour which, mostly covered with warps, will not be very visible. The contours of the pattern are blurred and irregular which gives this fabric its characteristic style.
We can, following the same principle, weave with raw warp and and temporary weft, and then apply the colour with a roller. Only the warp threads are then kept, the weft threads unwoven once the printing work is over. The prepared fabric is then rewoven with the definitive weft threads which results in patterns and effects which are blurred vertically. This technique allows for more precise images.
Although practised in Europe, the Chiné à la branche technique is derived from ikat, a term which describes both an Indonesian technique and the resulting fabric. This technique consists of painting the warp and/or weft threads before the weaving, by drowning them, this is where the term ikat comes from, which means, to drown, to attach in Indonesian. During the weaving the colours are mixed to create unique images. Using the same principle, we see in India the patolas, fabrics used in making the Gujarat saris in the north west of India ; and in Japan the kasuris, which are the weft thread ikats used for the dying of indigo.
After industrialisation, chiné à la branche, a hand worked process which is both slow and costly – finally disappeared, leaving in its wake its industrial version : printing onto warp, which is today done by the famous Lyonais silk makers. The contours of the patterns remain as precise as ever yet this technique simplifies the process thus making it more profitable. It is used mostly for clothes and luxury furniture: the company Bucol springs to mind, which specialises in warp dyed taffeta silks.
In the current context which advocated the rediscovery of ancient craftsmanship, the historical technique of chiné à la branche, amongst our contemporary textiles, seems to have found a new meaning, by its ability to offer almost unique products, coming from a mix of craftsmanship and industry. This is proven by the latest seasons and the number of patters which use over-printing – botanical drawings with blurred optical effects – inspired by this technique, which have appeared in a great deal of fashion and housing collections.
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