These three cats have travelled a long way! Their journey - in fact, their history, began in Central Europe. But today they live in South Africa, with a stop in Manchester along the way.
I’m talking, of course, about the distinctive, intricately patterned fabric that we know today as ‘Three Cats’. Over the years, it is probably the small, delicate patterning of the Three Cats that has inspired such a loyal band of fans and followers among the patchwork community. I’ve seen numerous examples of the Three Cats in action - in jackets, waistcoats and bags, as well as in wallhangings and quilts. On their own, or sometimes against a background of blue or white, these patterns really stand out. So, where did these loveable Three Cats come from?

Indigo Whirl by Audrey Cameron
Since the early 18th century a fabric called Blaudruck (blue print) has been produced in Central Europe. Dyed in indigo, the cloth was first printed with a starch based resist paste using wooden blocks. After it was dyed, the cloth was then washed and rinsed to remove the paste. The patterns varied greatly from geometric designs to sprigs of flowers, but were all were small delicate designs, creating shading and swirling patterns with the use of many tiny dots. This fabric became popular among the working people of countries such as Germany, Austria and Poland. Every town or village had a blue dyer, to whom the working women went to order their fabric. For many of these people this would have been their first opportunity to afford a printed fabric, because at the time this method of producing fabric was relatively cheap.

Revolutionary advances

Old and new trademarks of the indigo fabrics
As the Industrial Revolution thundered on, developments occurred to mechanise these processes. One change was the ’Perrotine’, which mechanised the printing on of the resist. The next step in this revolution was the invention of various discharge printing methods in the late nineteenth century. This method was used to imitate the patterns of the Blaudruck resist printed cloth much more cheaply as there weren’t so many individual processes involved. Quite simply, the cloth is dyed in indigo and then a discharge agent is used to remove certain areas of colour. This paste, which contains a variety of chemicals used to bleach out the indigo, is applied using copper rollers. Many of the patterns were direct copies of the resist patterns. The discovery and development of synthetic indigo also helped in the development of this particular cloth.

Japanese folded patchwork made by members of Dubai Quilters’ Guild, 2001. Hand pieced and sashiko quilting. Raffled in October to raise money for a mobile breast cancer unit in Al Ain, UAE and won by Barbara Alston. 36 x 40in
Ready markets for this discharge printed cloth were the German and Dutch settlers in South Africa who were familiar with the Blaudruck and were happy to have this reminder of their homeland. This cloth was soon hijacked by the prudish English missionaries that wanted to ‘cover up the natives’, mainly the Xhosa and Zulu. These women were taught how to sew their own European-style clothes in this fabric and it has now been absorbed into their culture. Today, aside from the yardage that is produced for this market, shaped panels are also printed. These are very popular in South Africa for making up into skirts and dresses. The panels will often be very detailed - even with drawings of wildlife or scenery included in them.
The production of this cloth came to the UK in the 1930s when a factory owner emigrated here, along with all his machinery. This machinery was bought and set up at Blue Printers Ltd in Wigan. Soon, this was not the only company that carried out blueprinting and at one time an Association of Blue Printers was formed later to be absorbed by the Calico Printers Association. The Three Cats name was first used in the 1940s by Mycocks of Manchester. Production continued until 1992 when Mycocks, the last company in England to manufacture this cloth, closed down. They sold their rollers and pattern books to Da Gama, a South African cloth manufacturer.

Homeward bound

Since 1984 Da Gama had already been producing their own blue print range called ‘Three Leopards’ - the African version of Three Cats, by arrangement with the company Tootal, who had bought into Da Gama, and were probably at the time also involved with Mycocks through the Calico Printers Association. Da Gama continue to manufacture this fabric for the local market in South Africa creating new designs under the Three Leopards name as well as continuing to produce the historic Three Cats designs. Both of these ranges bear the traditional trademark logo on the back of the cloth. The Three Cats range proudly stating ‘Designed in England’. Da Gama are the only company in South Africa manufacturing this cloth.
This particular fabric proved a hard one to research. I talked to a number of museums, I hunted the Internet and libraries for information and turned up with very little. The history of cloth manufacture in the north of England is like a jigsaw puzzle without the picture. During the decline of the industry, the take over and closure of companies was rapid and records are sparse. In some cases I am dealing with speculation rather than fact. For instance, I have no idea if this particular discharge cloth is produced anywhere else in the world. The resist version of this cloth is, as far as I’m aware, still being produced in small quantity by craftsmen dyers in areas of Central Europe.

Devils Claw by Audrey Cameron

Something old, something new

Today the manufacturing process has changed very little. Firstly, the cotton cloth is dyed in the indigo (nowadays, synthetic) and then it is discharge printed using copper rollers. In some cases these are probably the same rollers that were shipped from Manchester in 1992. Who knows how old some of those are? If you find yourself with a Three Cats fabric the copper roller used to print this could be over fifty years old! This is one of the reasons why the fabric is only 36in wide, as that was the normal width of cloth when manufacturing started.
Many people wonder why Three Cats fabric is so stiff when it is new. Fresh from the factory it is almost as stiff as card. The reason can be found in its history. Apparently in the early days, on the long, rough sea voyages from the UK to South Africa, the starch leached out of the fabric, leaving a characteristic stiffness.
Today, in its own market in South Africa, the so-called German Print or Shwe Shwe is still manufactured with this characteristic stiffness - which is considered locally as a mark of quality. According to Da Gama, its crisp handle makes it easier to stitch when using a hand-operated or treadle machine. Patchworkers will be pleased to know, however, that after only one wash, the stiffness disappears and a beautiful, soft cotton fabric emerges. Also, as with any indigo fabric, the more you wash it, the more faded it becomes - just like your favourite pair of jeans. In recent years, Da Gama has expanded the colour range to include a rich chocolate brown and a vibrant red to complement the traditional indigo.
So - is that the end of the Three Cat’s journey? Well, not for me. I still have to find out what they mean when they say “The fabric has a very distinctive smell and taste that is recognised and demanded by our regular users”. Hmmm . . . any ideas?