There is no substitute for handmade wallpaper. It has a body and depth of colour that machine-printed papers can never match, and the individuality that comes of the small imperfections and other characteristics that make handcrafted objects so special.

The earliest wallpapers date back to 1509, when the backs of old documents were printed up with decorative patterns and fixed onto walls. They were developed in the 17th century as a way of emulating wall hangings, and historically had close associations with textile design. Although machine-printed wallpapers have been available since the 1830s, when it became possible to manufacture paper in rolls and rotary printers were invented, there is still a demand for papers made by hand to individual specifications. This is mostly for replicating historic wallpapers from surviving samples, but also for printing new designs, or perhaps for recreating an 18th-century pattern in 21st-century colours.

One of only three factories in the world still hand block-printing wallpaper is Cole & Son, which was founded in north London in 1875. The company employs about 12 craftsmen on hand flock-, block- and screen-printing for the more exclusive end of the business, as well as designing and mass producing wallpapers using a variety of machine-based methods for the more commercial market.

Cole’s is the only company still hand-making flock, which was invented to simulate cut velvet and became very fashionable during the Baroque period. Block-printing dates back to the 1500s, and by 1800 had become so sophisticated that designs could be printed in as many as 60 colours. Screen-printing was invented in about 1920 as a highly advanced form of stencilling, and a large percentage of Cole’s contemporary handmade wall-papers are printed this way.

Block-printing is the most labour intensive, and therefore the most expensive. Jason Allen, who joined Cole’s as a machine operator’s assistant 21 years ago, is the company’s block-printer. ‘I began by printing borders,’ he says, ‘which was a good start, as they typically have about 18 colours, so small mistakes are less obvious. It also taught me about colour mixing, which we do by hand.’

The first stage involves grounding the paper with colour. Next, the individual colours are matched by eye, by ‘blowing out’ small dabs across the paper, and then doing a trial block-print. When a colour has been approved, it is brushed onto a felt blanket onto which the block is then pressed. Pins along the sides of the block enable it to be registered to the edge of the paper and the pattern repeat. Then a ‘bridge’ with a weight system is pulled across the block to press it down. The paper must dry before the process is repeated for the next colour, the design dictating the order in which colours are printed. It is then glazed, trimmed and ‘pieced out’ into 10m rolls. The minimum amount printed to special order is 10 rolls.

Cole’s is famed for its archive of more than 3,900 wooden printing blocks, which date back to 1760. They belonged to companies such as Crace, and include all the blocks made for Pugin’s designs. ‘We can make wallpaper from any in our archive, or we can replicate designs from original fragments by making new blocks or screens,’ says managing director Anthony Evans.

Cole’s does not sell directly to the private market, but works with architects and interior designers such as Bill Bennette, as well as the National Trust and the Landmark Trust, and it has a Royal Warrant. It supplies many significant public and private buildings, and is currently working on an important contract for a house near New Orleans, replicating several sumptuous 19th-century wallpapers with large repeats, for which 12 new blocks have had to be cut. The papers are being printed in seven colours, including gold.

OTHER EXPERTS

Hamilton Weston Wallpapers, Surrey – 020 8940 4850; www.hamiltonweston.com

Lewis & Wood Fabrics and Wallpapers, Gloucestershire – 01453 860080; www.lewisandwood.co.uk

For wallpaper conservation: Allyson McDermott, Gloucestershire – 01594 510003; www.allysonmcdermott.com

Cole & Son – 020 8442 8844; www.cole-and-son.com