The 200-Year-Old Story Behind Your Grandma's Blue & White China

Hint: The French have something to do with it, of course.

February 21, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham

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If you’ve ever coveted intricate, classically blue-and-white pottery, you’re not alone. There’s also a good chance the pieces you’ve been pining for are called transferware.

For some background: There was once a time where dishes with delicate, detailed graphics were reserved for only those who could afford hand-painted works of art. That all changed in 1750’s England with the popularization of a process called transfer printing.

Using an engraved copper plate, artisans would transfer a design onto monochrome paper, which was then used to transfer the design onto pottery. Thus, transfer printing allowed meticulous motifs of landscapes, nature, and animals to be reproduced endlessly. Just like the printing press made the written word available to the masses, transfer printing made gorgeous, elaborately decorated tableware (i.e. transferware) accessible to kitchens, and tables, around the world.

Gien: From English to French

One of the premier makers still employing this traditional method is Gien, a French faïencerie established in 1821. Taking its name from the Loire Valley city in which it settled, Gien was founded by Thomas Hall, an Englishman eager to expand the craft of faïence in France. Hall chose the location for his new company carefully: the Gien headquarters boasts all of the resources he required—from sand and water from a nearby river used to make clay paste, to wood from the neighboring forest to fuel the kilns. Since its inception, Gien has created its own mixtures using these same natural materials. The clay paste, plaster casts, and glazes developed and used at Gien are all secret recipes, but they will tell you it takes no fewer than 14 different types of earth to create a completed piece.

Methods of Decoration

Gien decorates its pottery in three different ways: hand painting, the aforementioned transfer printing (which is done by hand), and chromography, the application of decals onto white enameled pieces. Regardless of technique, Gien fires all of its pieces at low temperatures to enhance patterns and intensify colors.

Design Process

The designs themselves have evolved over the years to include playful cartoons and Eiffel Tower depictions alongside the classic birds and florals. However, one of the brand’s best selling patterns has been around since the beginning. Prior to arriving in Gien, founder Thomas Hall worked at a Parisian faïence manufacturer called “pont aux choux,” which was also the name of their most successful pattern—cream colored dishes with delicate hobnail-like texture. He brought this design with him to Gien and it has remained popular over the years. To create new patterns and revive archival looks, Gien has an in-house artistic director constantly perfecting the brand’s look. Gien also collaborates with modern artists and designers like Pierre Frey Studio.

In short, whether you lust after the iconic, historic look or prefer a contemporary take on the original, this style of contrasting tableware is made readily available to us thanks to the transfer printing process made popular by Gien and other heritage brands. So, next time you’re face to face with a complex and ornamental dish, you’ll know exactly what it took for it to get there.

Do you have blue and white china you adore? Tell us more in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • judy
  • vcragain
  • Mar
  • Rebekah Bakos-Kallgren
    Rebekah Bakos-Kallgren
  • So sett
    So sett


judy October 23, 2021
My Blue and White is Delft. Cups, bowls and even a elephant! Obtained on an early trip to Holland in th 70's. (Early in my life, but fulfilled a lifetime one of Blue and white....and still being enjoyed to this day.
vcragain June 22, 2020
I have adored blue&white for more than 60 years since I was a young woman...while I have not bought anything in years, I still have pieces bought in Wales in the early 1970's parked in various places in my house....most of them were inexpensive because they were 'seconds' with slight imperfections - they make me happy every time I look at them ! Somehow gorgeous pottery is an easily loved art form...such wonderful designs in a small thing, and useful too !!!
Mar February 25, 2020
I just bought a set of British made vintage Blue Willow that I did not need but could not resist.
I have always loved Blue Willow even though I don’t otherwise go for anything that is Asian-ish, as my style Has always been danish minimalist. But the Blue Willow just reminds me of colonial homes (and my Boston roots). Im so pleased with how fresh it looks looks with the white and birch of my apartment.
Rebekah B. February 21, 2020
Its more like a 1500+ year old story that begins in the middle east moves into China where it developed for almost a millennium then by the 17th century it becomes the hot item in Europe from direct exports...not really a french thing at all. Transferware certainly made patterns more attainable for many people but that doesn't mean it popularized a style
So S. February 21, 2020
My grandmother is Chinese so owns blue and white porcelain... china.
FrugalCat February 21, 2020
I also love that blue and white Mexican pottery called Talavera. I have a blouse and a dress with that type of print.
Arati M. February 21, 2020
Sounds truly lovely!