A Look at Hand Block Printing

Fourth in a series about how our Indian fabrics are made.

While the clack of the looms echoing down the lanes provides the soundtrack in a weavers' village, it’s a quiet thump-thump which greets us as we climb the stairs to a block printing workshop. This time we're in a village surrounded by green fields somewhere in Rajasthan, a state in northwest India.

Tourists come to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan and the “crafts capital” of India, to visit traditional palaces and take in the local color. (The building that looks like a pink wedding cake that you’ve seen pictures of? That’s in Jaipur.) But hopefully they leave with a true appreciation of Indian craftsmanship. It’s on display everywhere in the city. As you walk down the street you might see a man sitting on a doorstep in the morning sun, hand-carving a new printing block.

My sister-in-law and I were lucky to visit Jaipur before the pandemic in order to learn about the art of traditional hand block printing. These fabrics have been made in the area for centuries. It was a thrill to see this technique in action; however, apparently my hand trembles when I’m excited (and of course I’m excited when I’m seeing fabric in the making), so most of the photos are a little blurry!

Printing workshops are airy spaces filled with long tables — long enough to work on an entire sari at once (six yards), or even a full length of printed fabric (ten yards). The tables are padded with layers of cloth to soften the blow when a block is struck to transfer dye to fabric. Hundreds of blocks are stashed on shelves around the room.

The blocks themselves are made of teak or other hardwood. When a new block is needed, a design is drawn onto the smooth wooden surface. Using only hand tools, a master carver then carefully removes the design’s negative space from the surface until only the lines which will be printed remain.

Some blocks are rustic, like the one above which was used to make one of our indigo print fabrics, while others are remarkable examples of the skill of the carver. Tiny, intricately carved blocks are even made as souvenirs (below).

In the printers' hands, the artistry with which the carver has embued his block comes to life. A printer must have a good eye and a steady hand to be able to place each impression in perfect alignment (or, sometimes, purposeful mis-alignment) with the rest of the design. When the block is in place, the printer thumps it to register the impression evenly on the cloth. The printer then “re-inks” the block, pressing it onto a dye-soaked pad in preparation for the next impression.

It’s always a pleasure to watch the confident movements of a master craftsperson at work. Several printers were making scarves the day we visited. They worked quickly but carefully, stamping the design down the length of each scarf (below)...

...scattering sawdust over it to prevent smudges...

...shaking off the excess...

...then taking it outside to dry in the sun. Scarves printed in the day’s designs were everywhere, laying on the roof or hanging on poles suspended over the courtyard.

There are different techniques for block printing fabric depending on the design and the dyes being used. The most straightforward method is simply to stamp dye pastes or pigments directly onto cloth. Some traditional dyes, however, require the use of a mordant, a substance that will react with the dye and cause it to adhere to the cloth. In this case, the mordant, not the dye itself, is printed onto the fabric before it’s put into the dyebath. The dye bonds to the fabric where the mordant was applied.

A block can also be used to print a resist, that is, something which the dye cannot penetrate. In Rajasthan the resist is often a mud-based mixture. To dye fabric blue with indigo, for example, the whole cloth must be immersed in the dye pot. Any part of the design that shouldn't become blue must be covered with a resist so the indigo will not be absorbed there. Washing out the resist after dyeing reveals the color of the cloth that had been protected by the resist, while everything else has become blue.

Although different dyes impose certain limitations, the possibilities are nearly endless. Together, skilled dyers and printers can create extremely complex textiles by combining techniques and layering pattern and color. Some traditional multi-colored designs are very labor intensive and require numerous blocks and a dyeing process of ten or more steps.

In the past, certain motifs and colors often had specific uses, and the fabric a person wore might indicate where they came from or their occupation. Nowadays, though, the craft of printing has been revitalized to suit current tastes. Block prints of all kinds are popular, whether naturally dyed or brightly colored, in designs that are modern or traditional or somewhere in between.

This is only the latest chapter in an old story. Indian block print fabrics have been exported to other parts of the world since the first millennium, if not earlier. And when colorful Indian prints (and the miraculously soft, washable cotton on which they were printed) became a major fashion craze in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, it was their very desirability which led in no small part to the Industrial Revolution.

In the 21st century we have the luxury of choice. Just as we can choose to wear the latest high-tech fabrics, we can also choose to wear fabrics that have a human story. Block printing is a process that requires the combined efforts of many different artisans practicing diverse crafts: carving, printing, dyeing. The fabrics they make together seem to have a soul of their own; we see the touch of these creators in every part of the cloth. Wearing it is a celebration of their artistry.

Read the previous article: A Look at Jamdani Weaving

Read the first article: A Visit to a Weavers' Village

Shop for block print fabric here.


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