What is willow?
The willow pattern is an oriental pattern, most often seen in blue and white, that features common elements from manufacturer to manufacturer. These elements are a willow tree, an orange or apple tree, two birds, people on a bridge, a fence, a boat and a teahouse, which some collectors call a pagoda. The willow pattern has been made by hundreds of companies in dozens of countries, and in colors from the most-seen blue, to red, green, gold, yellow, purple, black, brown, multicolored and the list goes on with combinations.

Did you know the willow pattern has earned a rather unique distinction? Because it has been in existence for more than 200 years, it is the china pattern with the longest continual production in history.

Where did the willow pattern come from?
It finds its roots in China, where throughout the 15th through 18th centuries, the Chinese potters were exporting their porcelain wares decorated with hand-painted cobalt designs under glaze. In the 18th century, companies like the East India Company imported the blue and white Chinese porcelains into England. The porcelain tea services and dinnerware were
purchased at auction by Chinamen (dealers in china) in London and sold to their wealthy customers. It was so popular that Queen Mary II started her own collection and even had a special cabinet made to house her porcelains from China. This is where we got the name for a “china cabinet.”

By the mid-1700s the British potters were gaining the knowledge to produce wares in an effort to compete with the Chinese imports. In the late 1700s an Irishman named John Brooks invented “transfer printing” which allowed pieces to be mass-produced from patterns engraved on copper plates. This eliminated the need for the time-consuming hand painting of each piece.

In the 1790s, the East India Company ceased its importation of Chinese porcelains to London. The Chinamen in London needed stock to supply the ever-growing demand for blue and white Chinese landscape patterns. The Caughley factory provided transfer-printed porcelains as engravers Thomas Turner and Thomas Minton copied Chinese patterns onto copper plates. Two of the patterns were named Willow-Nankin and Broseley.

Josiah Spode developed an improved paper for transfer printing on pearlware and began a replacement service for Chinese porcelain patterns in addition to supplying complete dinner and tea services in many different Chinese landscape patterns. Spode wares could be sold much cheaper than the costly imported Chinese porcelains and Caughley porcelains, making the products available to the middle classes. It was in this climate that the standard willow pattern was first produced on pearlware at the Spode factory c.1790. It was produced on dinnerware and was marked with impressed and printed marks. The Broseley pattern teawares were produced on pearlware as well as bone china.

Most of the 19th century potteries in England produced a version of the willow pattern. The smaller factories purchased their copper plates from independent engravers. By 1830, there were about 200 makers of underglaze blue willow in England. Toward the end of the 19th century, other countries followed suit, and by 1905 the Buffalo Pottery in the USA began making standard willow pattern using the transfer printing method.

It kind of looks oriental...is it willow?
Not necessarily. There are a lot of oriental motifs on china. You see floral to landscapes to other Chinese elements. Sometimes people will call anything that is blue and white, willow...that includes popular patterns like Spode’s Tower, Delft, etc. Just because it’s blue and white does not mean it’s willow.

How do I know if my willow is old or new?
This is one of the most-asked questions. The easiest way to determine if a piece is old or new is to see if the piece is marked. If it has a manufacturer’s mark, that is very helpful. You can look up these marks in several different books that cover marks. And at least get a rough idea of the age. If the country of origin is named in the mark (England, for example) the piece is dated 1891 or later. You will also find willow pieces that are unmarked. Unmarked willow is not necessarily old. This is where it gets tricky. Beginner collectors will find it difficult to determine the age of pieces, simply because they have not had the chance to see a big variety of different pieces. You learn by looking, reading, touching and feeling the piece. After awhile you’ll be able to look at a piece and know it’s old or new.

Don’t take the word of anyone who is selling you the piece, unless they specialize in early blue and white or willow. Many dealers are misinformed, by no fault of their own. It is hard to know everything about everything.

Remember, the willow pattern has been made by hundreds of potters. There’s a lot of it out there. To date there have been more than 400 documented makers of the willow pattern in Great Britain alone, with more than 500 makers worldwide.

What if it is unmarked...does that make it old?
No. While it is true many early pieces are unmarked, there are modern pieces that are unmarked too. It comes down to having a feel for the older wares. You have to take into account the pottery, the glaze, the pattern and just the general feel of an unmarked piece to begin determining its age. And of course even then, and with the most knowledgeable collectors or dealers, it is still an estimated guess, because there is no mark. A piece that has a sales sticker that says “attributed to” is just a nice way of saying “I think maybe”.

What is the new willow on the market? Who’s making it now?
There are a lot of new pieces coming out of China. They are well made, with nice pattern transfers and colors. Most all are marked Made in China. They range from paper towel holders to egg cups to teapots, and just a variety of other small unique pieces. Some piece are exact copies in size and shape to the older Japan pieces made in the 1950s and 60s. You have to be careful. There are some new Chinese unmarked pieces that can look exactly like the older pieces. There are even small children’s tea sets being made now that are unmarked and are the exact size and shape as the old Japanese children’s tea set made during 40s and 50s.

Johnson Brothers of England still makes a dinnerware service, and it’s available in most department stores in the china department. You can also find some of the Johnson Brothers pieces at outlet malls.

Churchill of England also produces a nice line that most often is available in supermarkets as a special promotion. These pieces are inexpensive and made well.

In recent years we have seen willow made by Regal of England, as well as a new line of Spode items that range from miniature to actual size.

How can I get started collecting?
You have to shop to know what’s out there. Look in the malls, look in the books, look on the Internet. First get an idea of what’s out there and see if something grabs your attention. Second, start with what you can afford. With willow you can start at any price level. You can buy a new piece made in China for $5 or a nice, unusual early English tureen for $500. You can spend thousands or you can spend a few dollars. Some collectors specialize in one certain type of willow, say cups and saucers; some people collect the newer China pieces, some collect anything and everything. Some collectors even specialize in one particular manufacturer. Start small, like with plates or platters or cups. Buy here and there until you begin to feel more comfortable with what you’re collecting and spending. As your confidence grows, so will your collection.

What should I collect?
First collect what you like. Then collect what you can afford. And that’s easier said than done. For some collectors those two things don’t always go hand in hand! But collecting what you like and can afford is true with any collectible. There is some willow that is new and you’ll feel comfortable using it. There might be some willow that is older and rarer and maybe you want to just display it. But because there was so much willow made, there are still older pieces you can buy and use every day. Ask yourself if you are collecting for an investment...are you collecting to display and fill your kitchen with willow on the shelves...or do you maybe want pieces to serve with and use.

What willow will be worth more later? Should I buy willow as an investment?
It is always hard to determine future value and any dealer who tells you a certain piece will be worth twice as much in X number of years from now should be avoided. If the dealer knows that with such certainty, they will hold onto the piece instead of trying to sell it. While the willow pattern has steadily increased in value, it has in some ways become more affordable, due largely to the Internet.

Remember, just like any investment....there is never a promise of future gains. But again, if you buy what you like and enjoy seeing it or using it in your home, it’s always a great investment.

Should I buy pieces that have damage or repairs?
A lot depends on the piece...is it rare or common? A lot depends on the damage... is the whole handle missing or does it have a small nick? Whether or not to buy has to be a personal decision based on the rarity of the piece, the exact damage and the price. You have to view all these things together. The condition does affect the value, of course. But you have to think of a few things...what will the piece cost in very good, undamaged condition? Can I ever afford that or will I ever want to pay that price? If I find a nice English teapot with a chip for $50...is that okay with me when the same mint condition piece is $350? Is it worth saving $300? To some it is, to some the damaged teapot is not worth anything. If you’re going to display it on a shelf in the dining room and no one is ever going to see the chip, and it looks good, why not? As far as an investment, it may not be worth more than what you paid for it, but it’s serving your purpose...to be a display piece.

I think I have a box of willow, or at least a lot of blue and white. How can I find out what I have?
A lot of people come across a box of their mother’s or grandmother’s dishes and they think they might have some willow and they just don’t know. Take a glance in some of the willow books or get on the Internet and see if the patterns you have are willow. No one will be able to identify what you have, if you just say it’s blue and white in color, without seeing it in person. You have to do a little digging. You can also take a piece or a photo to an antique mall and ask for help.

How can I learn more about willow?
You’re in luck in that the willow pattern is well documented and researched and there are many ways to learn more. Attend an IWC convention and see a variety of willow. While there you’ll have the chance to talk with other collectors and dealers about collecting and buying. Many collectors also bring pieces of willow or photos to the conventions and ask about what they have in their collections. Look at the Reference section on this website for a list of books. Also, search the Internet. It’s a great place to see a lot of willow.

The book say it’s worth “this much”....is it?
Price guides....you either love them or you hate them. But they do serve a very valuable purpose, especially to new collectors who are just starting. That is also its downside, new collectors follow the prices because they have no other initial source. As beginner collectors start collecting they will rely less on the books because they will begin to use the “market” to determine value.

Many dealers will say, “well the book says it’s worth that”. Maybe true, but as we all know the market determines the value. For instance, one of the last willow books valued the toby pitcher with the willow jackets at around $1,000. Nice, but you can still find them in the $200-300 range, and some have even been found recently for $125. That’s a big difference. “But how do I know that” someone might ask? It all goes back to shopping and studying and seeing what’s out there. Getting on the computer and typing in “willow toby” into an auction site will tell you immediately that no one is paying $1,000 for one.

But now to be fair, there is a flipside...there are items that bring more than the value guides say they’re worth.

Too many people forget the word “guide” in price guide. Use the book’s prices as a rough estimate on what might be more collectible. For beginner collectors they can be a great source to start, but don’t take any book’s values as the actual value.

How do I know if it’s worth what the price sticker says?
Unless you have been collecting for awhile, you may not know. You’ll have to trust your instinct or the person selling it. We have all bought things that we later found out maybe weren’t worth what we paid. Collecting is a learning process. Learn from what you buy...whether a bargain or not. Don’t be upset if you later find out it’s nor worth what you paid. It’s happened to all of us. You’re not alone. Remember higher education can be expensive!

How do I know if I am addicted to willow collecting?
If you’ve read through all these questions and answers, you most likely are. There is no known cure. Attending the annual IWC conventions offer you the opportunity to be shown sympathy, support and understanding by others who share your addiction.


 
 
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