William Morris Strawberry Thief

26th February 2019

If you browse through our collections, you will see just how many beautiful William Morris designs we license and print for an array of products. Do you have a favourite? One of the things we love the most about Morris’ designs is that they often have a story behind them too. In this blog, we wanted to discuss our favourite stories behind the design.

Strawberry Thief has long been one of our favourite Morris designs. It’s extremely well known today so you might recognise it even if you’ve not looked into Morris designs too closely. First produced in 1883 at Merton Abbey, it was an absolute triumph for Morris. It marked the perfecting of the indigo- dye technique. During the industrial revolution, machines were increasing in popularity and Morris wanted a return to traditional craftsmanship.

Like many of Morris’ designs, Strawberry Thief was inspired by nature. The story goes that it’s inspired by when William Morris was watching the thrushes under the strawberry nets at Kelmscott Manor, stealing his strawberries. May Morris spoke of the design which sparks a wonderful illustration in the mind when you think of it, “You can imagine my Father going out in the early morning and watching the rascally thrushes at work on the fruit beds and telling the fanned who growls ‘I’d like to wring their necks!’ that no bird in the garden must be touched. There were certainly more birds than strawberries in spite of attempts at protection. And the walls of the little dining-room are hung with this note of the June garden and the little lords of it.” What a lovely insight into the Morris family life!

His method of printing in Merton Abbey was one way Morris kept true to his beliefs. Printing using traditional methods, the Indigo Dye method was a complex and laborious process. It took three days to prepare and due to the complex nature of the process, it needed to be really accurate. It was a time consuming way to print but it was a beautiful way to print and created the stunning colours. To begin, the cloth was dyed all over in an indigo vat – this created the uniform blue colour all over the fabric.

Then, it was treated with a bleaching reagent which reduced the blue to the degree wanted to achieve the desired base colour. Next, mordants were applied to the bleached part. The whole cloth was then immersed into a madder vat which gave the proper tint that was necessary for the particular design wanted at that print run.

Excess colour was cleaned off and then the fabric is run through soap at boiling point to set the fabric. Then, the cloth was laid outside in the sun with the white side face up so that the design is purified. It’s clear from this to see why the whole process took three days to complete and why the fabric was so expensive to purchase. Today, all our licensed William Morris designs and exclusive French Floral designs are printed in the United Kingdom using a modern, flat bed printing technique.

Our products are both printed and manufactured in the United Kingdom, and are licensed designs by William Morris, printed both size and colour-wise to our own specifications to best suit our products. We have William Morris Strawberry Thief in both a red and blue colourway.

Which is your favourite story behind a William Morris design?