The silk arrives at the mill as ‘grey goods’ - woven, but undyed and untreated. Before the printing begins in earnest, the grey goods must be piece-dyed. This is done using a specialised dying machine that runs the roll of silk back and forth through a dye bath. “We wash fabric with the full width outstretched for as long as we possibly can throughout the whole process. A necktie needs to be a pretty much perfect level of dying as any creases will be obvious in the final product.” Each dye bath has a specific amount of dyestuffs in it, relative to the amount of cloth being dyed. As the cloth winds back and forth through the bath, this dyestuff gets exhausted as the cloth absorbs the colour. When it’s all gone, the cloth will match the desired colour and shade. After drying, the cloth is run through a stenting machine, which corrects it’s warp and weft and ensures the cloth is perfectly straight. From there, it’s sent to the print room.
Before printing can begin, the printing screens must be prepared. Essentially large wooden frames stretched with mesh, the screens are sent through an engraving machine which applies a negative of the design to the mesh via wax jet. The amount of screens required for a single varies depending on how many colours are required. An intricate design might need to be hand-printed half a dozen times or more, using as many separate screens. “We start off usually with the black filetto, and then build the design up from the smallest print area up to the largest area of that particular design.”
The silks are laid out on enormous, twenty-two meter long tables. Working in pairs, the printers slowly move down the length of the silk, printing a screens worth of the cloth and then continuing down. “The screen is engraved with the negative omitted from the screen” says Steve, “so when the two guys push the colour from one side of the screen to the other, they push the colour through the negative area, thereby printing the positive area.” To avoid contaminating the design, the printers print every second space on the length of cloth, before coming through and doing the spaces between. “They’ll print spaces one, three, five, seven and so on down the table. When that’s dried slightly, as they’ve gotten to the other end of the table, they’ll come in and fill in the even numbers. So you’re not printing each screen right next to each other all in a row. You’re not getting the frame hitting wet areas of the design and leaving marks. So when they come through with the next colour, the areas either side won’t be affected. "