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An Ancient Art

In a tiny Rockport shop, the traditions of block printing are a daily business.

"How many women are this lucky?" says Elizabeth "Libby" Holloran with a smile. "I'm 86 years old, and I get to go to work every day."

Her work is the ancient art of block printing, executed with a beautiful circa 1830 press that dominates her small shop, Sarah Elizabeth, in Rockport. It's a craft tradition she learned in 1942, when she joined the legendary Folly Cove Designers. The Cape Ann collaborative, spearheaded by children's author and artist Virginia Lee Burton, sold its block-printed fabrics in New York department stores and was profiled in Life magazine. Today, the collaborative's vintage place mats and yard goods are valued by collectors and fetch high prices at auction.

When Burton died in 1968 and the group disbanded the following year, Holloran, the youngest Folly Cove designer, wasn't ready to stop. In 1974, she opened Sarah Elizabeth and began a new series of designs. With Isabel Natti, she prints on paper and cloth, making greeting cards, napkins, place mats, and wall hangings as well as custom tablecloths and curtains.

The process is simplicity itself: A hand-drawn picture is traced onto linoleum, cut out with a sharp knife, inked, and printed. Even Holloran's antique press is added technology; early Folly Cove designers printed by stomping on the linoleum blocks with their feet, as have generations of schoolchildren. The artistry is in the design's creation and in the evidence of the human hand in the finished product.

Natti grew up amid Cape Ann's extraordinary art community. Her grandfather was Paul Manship, best known for his sculpture of Prometheus in New York's Rockefeller Center, and an uncle, Aino Natti, was among the founders of Folly Cove Designers.

"Growing up, I thought everyone cut lino," says Isabel Natti. "My father cut, like, 100 blocks in his life, and my Uncle Aino always told me to do this. But I didn't want to; there was no money in it."

It was Aino Natti who first owned the acorn-shaped Smith Hand Press the women now use. "It was obsolete when it was built," says Isabel Natti. "Steam- and belt-driven presses were coming in."

Drawn in despite her early resistance, Natti, now 57, works with Holloran every day, cutting, inking, and printing blocks.

"The luckiest day for me," says Holloran, "was when Isabel walked in the door."

Sarah Elizabeth is located next to the train station at 10 Whistlestop Mall in Rockport and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, telephone 978-546-6541.

Regina Cole is a freelance writer. She lives in Gloucester.

Isabel Natti rolls ink onto a linoleum block before pressing the design onto cotton in an 1830 acorn press; Natti's linoleum block "Cosmatesque." Isabel Natti rolls ink onto a linoleum block before pressing the design onto cotton in an 1830 acorn press; Natti's linoleum block "Cosmatesque." (Globe Staff Photos / Pam Berry)
Natti and shop owner Elizabeth Holloran. Natti and shop owner Elizabeth Holloran. (Globe Staff Photo / Pam Berry)
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