Colour Magic: The Liberty Printing Mill
Exploring the expertise and artisanship behind our iconic Liberty Fabrics printsRead more
Liberty has been a pioneer of fabric innovation since we first began experimenting with printing our own ground-breaking designs well over a century ago. Today Liberty has a family-run mill located near the banks of Lake Como, in the centre of the European textile industry, where cutting-edge technologies are used alongside age-old traditional techniques for the most striking, high-impact effects. We spoke to Production Manager Giovanni Marziano about the Liberty Printing Mill, and the intricate technical processes that allow each artwork to be brought to life on fabric.
The mill is where the Liberty magic happens – the air is filled with rhythmic clanging and whirring, plus a surprisingly sweet fragrance of steam and dye. Prior to arrival at the Liberty Printing Mill, plain white cotton bases are prepared for print by another historic local textile mill which was founded 150 years ago – the perfect blank canvas on which to display the intricacies of each hand-drawn Liberty design. The mill’s technicians print millions of metres of fabric every year, using both rotary screen and digital printing technologies. “The Liberty Printing Mill is not a common printing mill at all,” explains Marziano, who has been working in the textile industry for over 25 years. “What really struck me is the fact that the printing machines are ‘customised’ – developed to increase the potentialities of speed and printing precision. These patented technical improvements allow Liberty to have some of the finest and most detailed outlines I’ve ever seen.”
Printing is just one element within a complex process of testing, steaming, washing, softening and quality-checking that occurs at the Liberty Printing Mill, to ensure that each metre of fabric produced meets the exacting standards required for Liberty Fabrics. The first visiting point is the ‘Colour Kitchen’ – a rainbow of unlidded paint pots, where the initial print strike-offs are made. This is very technically difficult, as Marziano explains: “Since the cylinders for rotary printing are very costly, it is common before engraving to do a trial, to check the design and the final effects. Of course it is a very difficult task, since this kind of square printing is totally manual, and you have to simulate the effect of a printing machine running at 40 metres per minute speed, putting the colours wet on wet. That's where the experience and know-how of our technicians comes in.”
After strike-off testing, rotary screen printing can begin – this is done methodically by colour, using artisan-cut rollers to dye each section separately for a pristinely graphic effect. These rollers are engraved by hand by skilled local masters, who work painstakingly to make sure each line and shape is perfectly defined. This is Marziano’s favourite part of the process: “Without any doubt, I’ve always loved the printing phase the most. To see a white fabric becoming a marvellous design in a snap, at 40 metres per minute, is really almost a magical experience.” After printing, swathes of fabric roll smoothly from station to station to be steamed, washed and finished. They are checked by eagle-eyed specialists at various points within the production process, before each bolt of fabric is rolled up and shipped off to customers around the world.
The Liberty Printing Mill is proud to continue with tried-and-tested traditional techniques, but also sits at the frontline of digital fabric advancement – as Marziano explains, “Our mill has always represented innovation. It was a pioneer in digital print, creating samples back in 1993 with the first prototype machines.” The mill recently invested in a new printing machine that is one of only a few in the world. Described as “a digital machine with a rotary concept”, it sits in a sterile protected environment within the mill, printing on a colour-by-colour basis to guarantee the best levels of precision and detail. The continual honing of skills and technologies ensures Liberty prints are brought to life in the most vivid way possible – today, Liberty’s printing abilities are among the most technologically advanced in the world.
The Liberty Printing Mill reflects both sides of the Liberty spirit – pride in history and heritage, combined with a restlessly innovative and forward-looking approach. The mill is committed to constantly improving in areas such as sustainability and the reduction of waste. It doesn't use toxic dyes or heavy metals, and is certified with the highest Oeko-Tex® level of 'Standard 100', as well as by the BCI (Better Cotton Initiative).
Watching the printing process in action is a piece of real-life patterned magic. As Marziano says: “To see the birth of the fabric, and to help in bringing it to life, makes you a part of a complex but truly satisfying process.”