There is much debate as to where marbling started: contenders are Turkey, Japan, China and Persia – and there may be others. It seems likely that suminagashi was developed in Japan earlier on than traditional Western marbling, and that the Western version was developed in Turkey and or Persia around the 14th or 15th century.
Marbling is probably familiar to most people as a bookbinding craft, used on the inside covers of old books, such as this lovely 18th century example from the British Library.
This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.
Just like suminagashi, every marbled print is unique. The paints are applied to the thickened water (see below) and, after manipulation, the the paper or fabric is placed over the painted pattern and lifted off, taking the pattern with it. It’s therefore not possible to make two prints exactly the same. That’s why every marbled beauty silk scarf is a one-of-a-kind piece of wearable art.
The scarves above are all examples of unique wearable art made using the traditional Western marbling technique.
Unlike suminagashi, Western style marbling uses ‘thickened water’, and has used various substances as thickeners over the years. The most popular thickener today is carrageenan, which is a food additive made from red seaweed, and available in a powder form. Early marblers would have had to boil the seaweed for hours to extract the mucilagenous material – a smelly and time-consuming process that thankfully modern marbling artisans no longer have to go through.
The traditional thickener in Turkey is ‘kitre’ or gum tragacanth, another food additive, but many Turkish marblers (or Ebru artists) now use carrageenan.
Watercolour paints were used in European marbling. Turkish marbling uses specific ‘ebru’ paints, and I’m not sure what medium these are. For fabric marbling it is possible to use watercolour but these paints are not washable. They might survive one or two washes, but will soon fade. To marble fabric that will be used in clothing or accessories, it’s necessary to use acrylic paint.
Patterns are created using rakes and combs, which can be made to fit the width of the marbling bath. A huge variety of traditional patterns exists but one can also ‘freestyle’ and invent new ones.