Calico printing was introduced to Kilmarnock about 1770 by a Mr John MacFee of Greenholm. By 1792 the average annual value of "Printed Calicoes" was £650 and in 1824 Mr William Hall began the printing of worsted shawls at Greenholm. According to the Historian McKay, "this fabric had not been previously printed upon in Scotland, at least to any extent worthy of notice". The introduction of this trade gave employment to "a considerable number of handloom weavers" and at one time over three thousand looms "were employed in the weaving of it in Kilmarnock and the neighbouring villages".
Over one thousand people, not including the eight hundred
boys and girls, were at one stage employed in the print fields and
the total weekly wage was about £850. Indeed, the father
Alexander Smith, the poet and essayist - John Smith, was
a pattern designer in the print fields of Kilmarnock, though a
native of Old Rome and though he moved to Paisley in 1834 he
returned some years later and Alexander worked as a "putter-on" in
a print work of Geddes & Matheson - Alexander (1829-67) later
became Secretary of Edinburgh University.
McKay says that "about the year 1832 [the worsted material] began to give way to chemicals, and to a kind made of silk and cotton, called in the trade 'quaders'. Later other types were produced, including de-lines, silk stripes and checks, wool and cotton. In 1838 the printing of mouseline-de-laine dresses was introduced. By 1848 most of the work concerned this fabric, "plain or twilled" and others including balzareens, barges, organdies, etc. The cloth was mostly woven in the other places.
McKay also gives some technical details comparing the earlier methods, where a printers table was only six feet long and about twenty seven inches broad and the shawl had to be lifted from it every time a colour was put on. By 1848 the tables were "now of such a size as take on the largest shawls, which are fixed down and finished in printing before they are removed". Dresses were printed on tables twenty seven feet long and between twenty seven and forty inches broad and were "fixed when receiving the colour". New apparatus in 1848 included a "large copper vessel thickly perforated with small holes, called an extractor, into which the goods streaming with water are laid. When the machinery is set in motion, such is its rapidity that in five minutes every particle of water is thrown out".
That the industry was one of the main ones in the town during the 1830s is illustrated by the fact that between May 1830 and June 1831 1,128,814 shawls were produced - the value of these being about £200,000. However, by the 1840s it was in decline "being of a fancy nature" and subject to sudden alterations of "pattern, style and colour". In fact, in 1849, it was a disused printing works at the foot of Welbeck Street that was made into a temporary hospital "for the poorer patients" suffering from cholera and being treated by Dr John Borland.
From the late 1840s on the industry steadily declined until it petered out altogether about 1900 when the last firm of Peter Brown & Son of Welbeck Street closed. Most of the industry had indeed concentrated around the area where it had started - roughly south and east of Nethern Street and north of the River Irvine, though there were minor outposts at various times in the Townhead area and in King Street. Block-cutting locally does not appear to have commenced much before 1868, though it survived longer than calico and shawl printing.