Leth transformed Danish textile production by introducing screen-printing through her Danish Calico Printing Works, a studio she set up in 1935. Before that she had travelled in Indonesia in her 20s and learned batik techniques, then experimented with block printing and set up a workshop producing block-printed textiles.
In 20th Century Pattern Design, Lesley Jackson writes that Denmark had no tradition of printed textiles until Leth established her screen-printing studio. Leth turned to screen-printing (which she learned in Germany) after finding block-printing to be too limiting in terms of production.
Her early work has many parallels with that of Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, two English textile designers who also set up their own studio in the 1920s. Barron and Larcher used labour-intensive hand-made production techniques for their block-printed textiles, including making their own natural vegetable dyes. Like Leth, Barron and Larcher used a limited colour palette and raw or unbleached linen for their block-printed textiles.
There the similarities seem to end, because Leth was interested in techniques that would allow for industrial production of printed textiles – hence her shift to screen-printing. Barron and Larcher continued with their hand methods until they closed their studio in 1939. (Interestingly, one of their apprentices in the 1920s had been Enid Marx, who went on to design for London Underground and the Utility Scheme, working closely with manufacturers on industrial production of her designs. I wrote about Marx in an earlier blog post – Walking the Block).
Learning about Leth has given me the opportunity to return to the theme of botanicals in textiles that I touched on when I wrote about Anna Maria Garthwaite. Many of Leth’s designs feature plants, both familiar ones like this cherry print (right) and more exotic types perhaps influenced by her time in Indonesia. They are highly stylised instead of naturalistic, and they have a folky feel rather than fussy. Jackson points out that even her screen-printed designs resembled block prints, with repeats of motifs set against a solid background – in keeping with Leth’s assertion that a printed fabric should not be a painting.