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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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