What’s so special about the Hand Block Print ?
" There are two things that make a room timeless: A sense of history and a piece of the future. "
Some arts, artisans, and crafts manage to stand the test of time and transcend geographical and cultural boundaries to create a vibrant place in people's hearts. Here, we highlight one such craft and talk about how it has remained relevant and popular even in the 21 st century.
Let's dive right in..
What is Block Printing ?
In simple terms, block printing refers to printing designs on materials using wooden blocks. It was traditionally done on fabrics, but now paper is extensively used as well.
Where did Block Printing first originate?
Printing patterns on cloth can be traced back to China (around 4500 years ago). According to verifiable documents, block printing has been done since the 4th century BCE in India, but the craft reached its peak in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
While growing up in a remote, picturesque town in Rajasthan, I always adorned my home with beautiful textiles from famous Indian blockprint houses. Today, the city of Jaipur, and the towns of Bagru and Sanganer, are well-known as block print production hubs around the world.
What is the process to block print on fabric?
There are three central aspects of the printing process:-
- The Blocks
- The Fabric / Paper
- The Dyes
1. The Blocks
In India, blocks are usually carved from Teak or Sheesham wood ( Indian Rosewood). Both these are found in abundance in India and are deciduous, hardwood trees.
Sheesham wood is well seasoned and does not quickly break or warp. As a result, it is an excellent choice for making wooden blocks and home interiors. It is one of the timbers that is least vulnerable to wood termites. Teak wood, on the other hand, is rich in oil content and is resistant to water, rust, mildew, and fungi, making it suitable for indoor flooring, veneer, carving, and turnings. Read more about it here
2. The Fabric
Block printing is possible on all types of fabrics like cotton, silk, linen, rayon, chiffon, georgette, but cotton, silk, and linen are the most commonly used fabrics, as they can hold the dye better without bleeding.
3. The Dyes
The commonly used dyes are natural vegetable dyes or AZO-free dyes. The town of Bagru has been traditionally using natural dyes for block printing. Mud resist (Dabu) is a popular Bagru printing technique that uses natural colors and is heavily dependent on water. Today, the town is designated as a Geographical Indication (GI) – a new category of Intellectual Property that aims to address indigenous rights and cultural knowledge. More here
The base color of Bagru prints is off-white, and the patterns are dominated by Red, Black, Blue (indigo) & White.
- Sketching is the first step. Using a pencil, the carver first sketches a pattern onto the smooth underside of the block.
2. The second step involves carving the design on the block. The artisans work for days ( and occasionally weeks) to carve the motifs on the wooden block, using just a simple hammer and chisel . Each color requires its own block, and most designs have more than one color. Following this, the blocks are usually immersed in oil for several days to soften the wood.
3. Once the desired patterns are engraved, the third step is to dip the blocks in dyes and stamp them onto the fabric.
Printing can require many stages depending on the number of colors in the pattern. For more complex and multicolored designs, a new stamp is used for each layer of color. This method requires very stable hands and is repeated numerous times until the entire fabric is covered by the pattern.
A wooden table is typically used for printing. The most critical aspect of this method is applying equal pressure since unequal pressure can cause the color to be stronger in some print areas than others.
It takes years of practice to get the precision you see in the above images.
What can be made from the block print fabric?
Image credits : cottonwoodandco
What makes block printing so unique?
The skill of block printing has been passed down from generations. It is a highly laborious craft that requires meticulous attention, minute detailing and incredibly precise hand-eye coordination. It's fascinating to see how the block makers, launderers, dyers, printers and tailors, all come together as one team to create textiles of unparalleled beauty.
In a world of mass-produced, machine-made replicas and fast fashion, block printed textiles are grounded in thoughtfulness and connection. They tell unique stories about their origin and makers.
The meticulous work that goes into each level of the process is worthy of both honor and admiration. This traditional art form is extremely eco-friendly and sustainable, using natural (vegetable) or AZO-free dyes, consuming fewer resources, and ultimately creating a low carbon footprint.
Although the process has undergone slight modifications over the years, the original approach has remained unchanged, lending credibility to any hand block printed product. The human touch is undeniable, with its endearing flaws that machines can never replicate.
What is the future of hand block printing?
The future is promising. People are becoming increasingly cognizant of their environmental responsibilities. Slow and sustainable fashion is in high demand, as is the use of natural materials and textiles. Hand block printing is a synthesis of culture, tradition, and nature. It is here to stay and responsibly delivers on all three fronts.
"That's the thing with handmade items. They still have the person's mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone.” - Aimee Bender
When you purchase a block printed item, you are not only adding a one-of-a-kind piece to your home, but you are also helping to keep a traditional art alive. With your contributions, we can help enable more sustainable and dignified livelihoods for the artisans, their families, and communities.
Do you have a favourite block print fabric at home? What is it and where did you buy it? Let us know in the comments below:-