Early transferware designs including Blue Willow

Often, transferware is referred to as blue willow and sometimes, simply blue and white.   This is because the very first transfer ware designs were copied from hand painted blue and white Chinese export porcelains which depicted Oriental scenes and motifs.  Blue was the only color available as it was the only color that could withstand the high temperatures of the firing kiln.   Only the most affluent families could afford the imported hand painted wares which were mainly from China.   Hand painting was very time consuming and laborious.    The invention of the transferware process made it possible for the North Staffordshire potteries to be the first to offer full sets of matching dinnerware on a large scale.  For the first time ever, the emerging middle class families were able to purchase beautiful tableware at affordable prices.   It became immediately popular and transformed not only the daily lives of ordinary households in England, but throughout the world.    The popularity of transferware and of owning a complete set of matching dishes led to England’s world domination of the tableware industry.  

Most of us have, at some point or another, seen, held or owned a piece of blue willow transferware.   It is easily recognizable and is said to be the most collected china pattern ever produced.  There are many variations of the pattern attributing unique elements worked in with the garden fence, arbor, and borders.  Thomas Minton, original engraver of the pattern, and Thomas Turner produced the first transfer-printed Blue Willow at the Caughley Pottery Works in 1780.  Royal Worcester, Spode, Adams, Wedgwood, Davenport, Clews, Leeds and Swansea followed with their own versions of the pattern.

Early Blue Willow platter - maker unknown

Minton tea set for one  Circa 1880


 from thepotteries.org:

The Blue Willow Legend
There was once a Mandarin who had a beautiful daughter named Koong-se. He employed a secretary, Chang who, while he was attending to his master's accounts, fell in love with Koong-se, much to the anger of the Mandarin, who regarded the secretary as unworthy of his daughter.

The secretary was banished and a fence constructed around the gardens of the Mandarin's estate so that Chang could not see his daughter and Koong-se could only walk in the gardens and to the water's edge. One day a shell fitted with sails containing a poem, and a bead which Koong-se had given to Chang, floated to the water's edge. Koong-se knew that her lover was not far away.

She was soon dismayed to learn that she had been betrothed to Ta-jin, a noble warrior Duke. She was full of despair when it was announced that her future husband, the noble Duke, was arriving, bearing a gift of jewels to celebrate his betrothal.

However, after the banquet, borrowing the robes of a servant, Chang passed through the guests unseen and came to Koong-se's room. They embraced and vowed to run away together. The Mandarin, the Duke, the guests, and all the servants had drunk so much wine that the couple almost got away without detection, but Koong-se's father saw her at the last minute and gave chase across the bridge.

The couple escaped and stayed with the maid that Koong-se's father had dismissed for conspiring with the lovers. Koong-se had given the casket of jewels to Chang and the Mandarin, who was also a magistrate, swore that he would use the jewels as a pretext to execute Chang when he caught him.

One night the Mandarin's spies reported that a man was hiding in a house by the river and the Mandarin's guards raided the house. But Chang had jumped into the ragging torrent and Koong-se thought that he had drowned. Some days later the guards returned to search the house again. While Koong-se's maid talked to them, Chang came by boat to the window and took Koong-se away to safety.

They settled on a distant island, and over the years Chang became famous for his writings. This was to prove his undoing. The Mandarin heard about him and sent guards to destroy him. Chang was put to the sword and Koong-se set fire to the house while she was still inside.

Thus they both perished and the gods, touched by their love, immortalized them as two doves, eternally flying together in the sky.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson on Blue Willow...very interesting. I love Blue Willow and I have several pieces. Thanks for sharing!


  2. My mom has several pieces of this, and the color and design is so gorgeous.

  3. Love the story - didn't know about it!

  4. Nancy,
    This is another interesting and informative post! I’ve often admired the Blue Willow pattern, but never knew the legend behind it. Now when I spot two doves I will know they are the symbols of Koong-se and Chang’s love for each other. I always enjoy each visit to your exceptional blog!

  5. Hi Nancy,

    I am fond of antiques,I collect phonographs,porcelain houseware and i like to share comments about collections.
    Carlos Roberto de Castilho Rosa
    Santana do Livramento-RS,BRAZIL

  6. great stuff! i've just reignited my passion for blue willow and enjoyed reading your well-researched commentary. cheers!

  7. Thanks for your nice responses. I like the pictures of your blue willow pattern. I have always liked this pattern, but never collected any.

    Blue Willow China


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