For around 500 years now, the beautiful craftsmanship of ‘Hand Block Printing’ has been practised in India, concentrated in the royal capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur, India. Indian artists have practised and mastered the art of block printing by utilising naturally sourced plant dyes, particularly with eco-friendly mordants, which aids in attaching a dye to a material.
Another art of printing that Jaipur lovingly practises is known as ‘Dabu’, which involves block printing that is mud resistant. Therefore, areas of a particular design are purposely omitted and reserved from the natural dyes like "kashish" for grey-brown, indigo, hues like yellow, red derived from natural sources like pomegranate creating beautiful stencil-like designs.
A unique blend of using mordants, resist stamping, printing and dyeing fabric led to Indian artists and artisans to fabricate distinctively and one of a kind designs inspired from Southeast Asia and the magnificent palace artwork of Mughal emperors.
However, for the past 200 years, this particular industry of printing has been declining, ever since the introduction and advancement of technology, corruption and significant rises in wages and opportunities, artists have begun to leave behind this beautiful artistry.
Types of Hand Block Printing:
The art of direct printing involves the cloth, be it silk or cotton, to be bleached first. Bleach acts as an effective colour remover. Subsequently, the cloth is printed using carved blocks of wood. The outline blocks are used to create the silhouette and are then filled in with vibrant colours using different colour blocks.
Similar to ‘dabu’ printing, in this type of hand block printing, designs that are envisioned are protected and covered using a combination of clay and resin, which partially resist the dye. After the process of dyeing the fabric, it is washed, where the dye automatically spreads into the previously preserved areas through small cracks and openings, creating a rippled effect. If needed, block prints are similarly used to create additional designs.
Much like resist printing, this process involves additionally implementing a chemical that removes the dye from the fabric. However, this is done carefully, only from portions that are envisioned to have designs in various colours. These segments are also treated, thus may require re-colouring.
Dating back to the ancient era of the 12th Century, Hand Block Printing has been practised and is considered the oldest and slowest form of textile printing. Using blocks made of wood, artists patiently carve in the detailed designs which are then soaked in oil for an approximate period of 15 days and left to soften. With the ever-changing environment and surroundings, along with development, the art of printing that was previously practised is now slowly being shifted into the practice of more popular eco-friendly Azo-free pigment instead of the natural vegetable dyes.
Pigment printing is a process that is used in hand block printing and is one of the most common processes. It is widely used because of its qualities. It can be performed on almost any kind of fabric, ranging from synthetic to natural. Not only this, but a myriad of hues are easily created and are long-lasting too, since the pigments used are synthetic and water-insoluble, preventing penetration into the fabric.
Additionally, to bind the pigment to the fabric, a special binding agent is used, a paste which works as an adhesive and sticks the pigments to the fabric. Along with this, pigment printing is highly eco-friendly in regards to the inks used. Thus, handwoven fabrics printed using this method are not only safe to wear, but are skin-friendly.
In Rajasthan, the Chhipa Community widely practices the art of carving blocks, even today each block maker practices traditional technique and the similar tools used back in history. Block carving is one of the primal and initial steps in the block printing process and has been passed down generations. To carve the teak blocks, artisans use tools such as hammers, chisels and drills to allow intricate and delicate designs to be carved in detail onto the wooden blocks. After the desired design is carved in, the block is dipped and soaked in mustard oil for around two weeks, which strengthens the wood. It verts the cracking of the block when exposed to dry conditions. Additionally, holes are also created into the wood to allow it to breathe, which is said to extend the life of the block by a few decades.
Types of Blocks
When single designs are block printed using a single colour as well, only one block is used. This is known as the ‘Rekh’, which means ‘line’, just like the ‘Jaal’, which is a kind of geometrical, floral, or lattice block. These are printed first, which give a guide as to where the other blocks should be printed.
In some cases, the ‘Rekh’ is split into two, so that two colours are printed. This technique is known as ‘Chirai’ (splitting) block. However, to use more colours, more blocks are required. The second colour blocks used are called ‘Datta’, or ‘Daatla’, and the third block is known as ‘Gad’, which are much thicker than the first outline block.
- Firstly, the handwoven fabric is washed to get rid of the starch.
- If the handwoven cotton fabric is dyed as well, it is washed with the purpose of removing excess colour and is later dried in the heat of the sun.
- To prep for the printing, the handwoven fabric is stretched over a printing table, ensuring no creases that can sabotage the printing hand block process and is secured with pins.
- Before this, the colour is mixed and kept ready, along with the hand-carved teak blocks which have previously been soaked in oil for approximately two weeks to soften the timber.
- Another liquid made of glue and eco-friendly pigment binder is kept ready, which allows the colour a soft base, enabling an even spread of colour on the block.
- The colour is evened out in a tray, where the block is dipped in the desired outline colour.
- The block is precisely placed and pressed down hard on the fabric, to create the desired impression.
- Other coloured blocks are used to fill in the outline.
- After that, the fabric is dried in the sun and rolled in newspapers to prevent the fabric from sticking and forming layers, spoiling the dye.
- After the handwoven fabric is dyed, it is steamed, washed in water and again, dried in the sun.
- To finish up, the handwoven fabric is ironed.
Weather plays a critical role in the craft of hand block printing. During seasons of white winter and pouring monsoon, the immense humidity and lack of sunlight slow down the process. As nights last longer, dyes take longer to dry as sunlight is limited, it comes slowly and leaves quicker still, leading to colour runs. Moreover, the moist and muggy air kindles the swelling of wood during monsoon. Because of this, additional care is required, as well as appropriate storage, which slows down the production pace in these seasons. However, all weather conditions including sunshine, rain and humidity, along with the water source, affects the resultant colour of any hand block printed or handwoven dyed fabric.
Locations where block printing is practised: India
In the state of Gujarat, the Paithapur families have been practising this form of hand printing for decades now. They create intricate designed and detailed blocks and use them in the mud resistant printing method for their textiles, known as ‘Sodagari’ prints, which translates to trader prints.
Moreover, the hand block printed fabric art known as ‘Ajrakh’ is specialised in the village of Dhamadka, Gujarat. These designs take a geometric style, with the use of eco-friendly natural colours from vegetables. Examples include the extraction of the colour red, from the madder root, or the colour black, from a rusty iron solution or the ever-famous blue, from indigo.
In the desert of Kutch, the environment and surroundings are reflected in popular patterns of birds, animals or the traditional dancing women. They are portrayed by the tones of red and black and are often seen printed in saris of Ahmedabad and Baroda, which also seem to have large mango prints, frequently against the red and blue backgrounds.
Originated in Rajasthan, the practice of printing colourful birds, animals, human figures, gods and goddesses is widely popular. The major centres where this art is practised today include Jaipur, Bagru, Sanganer, Pali and Barmer.
Sanganer, particularly, is known for its ‘Calico’ prints and ‘Doo Rookhi’ prints, that show up in products such as bed covers, quilts and saris. In this form of printing, bold patterns and colours are used commonly and printed repeatedly in diagonal rows. However, ‘Doo Rookhi’ printing differs as artists use this method which involves printing on both sides of the fabric.
The city of Bagru is famous for its ‘Syahi-Begar’ prints along with the ‘Dabu’ prints. The former is often used alongside a colour combination of black and yellow-ochre, or cream. The latter is a form of resist printing, where portions are protected using a resist paste.
On the other hand, Barmer is known for using prints of red chillies with blue-black outlines, along with the common motif of flower-laden trees. Other famous motifs also include horses, camels, peacocks and lions, which are named ‘Sikar’ and ‘Shekhawat’ prints.
Although hand block printing in Punjab is not as popular as the Rajasthani art, the group ‘Chhimba’ has gained wide applause. They work with both floral and geometrical designs, as opposed to the displaced traditional designs. Not only this, but vegetable dyes have also been replaced by chemical ones.
Around the 12th century, the art of hand block printing was initiated in Bengal. Since then, Bengal has built on traditional designs and carried out several original designs as well. West Bengal, Serampore particularly, is known for vibrant and bold patterns in their block prints.
The famed and celebrated Kalamkari Painting uses the method of hand block printing, in Andhra Pradesh. As the name suggests, the artwork (‘kari’) is created using a pen, (‘kalam’), which ensures a combination of hand printing and hand block printing.
The Masulipatnam designs of Andhra are deeply influenced by Iranian art, with popular Persian symbols of trees, creepers, flowers and leaf designs. In Masulipatnam, Kalamkari work is mainly done on bed covers, curtains and garments, using a combination of wooden block printing and hand painting. In Srikalahasti Kalamkari work, the Hindu religion and temples are a major source of inspiration. In mythological stories, the avid use of scrolls and wall hangings also inspired this art, with popular symbols of Hindu gods and goddesses. Surprisingly, this work is done entirely with a brush-like pen.
All over the globe, countries such as the UK, China, Japan, Peru etc are prime locations where printing technique is used. Hand block printing is majorly done on the handwoven cotton fabric which is friendly towards the body, especially in summers and is generally worn in warm weather conditions and countries like India, as such 100% pure cotton clothing is known to absorb sweat from the body. Besides, Eco-friendly clothing also protects the skin from harmful sun rays. As for the people, the vibrancy of the block printed craft, distinct imagery of the motifs, and the colourful finished fabricated look always make it one of the most desired travel clothing and nothing can beat the comfort and easement felt when wearing handwoven cotton.
How we use this beautiful craft in Crow:
We, at Crow, design our collection keeping in mind the traditional printing method in our own contemporary way. Traditionally, all three types of printing blocks are used to create a certain kind of design including the outline and fill-in blocks. Adapting our own vision and design at Crow while also attuning the traditional tools in our own way makes us explore and dive into each type of block- the ‘Datta’, ‘Rekh’ and ‘Gad’, that individually create our unique Crow prints. These exclusive prints are designed by the organic and abstract placements of our motifs, that break the typical repeat, creating original compositions. This way of production keeps human involvement as the major key to our creation.
We believe in creating subtle designs for the women of Crow. These printing clusters follow the highest level of sustainability in their hand processes - all the tools used are traditional, along with the materials used and store colours, that are reusable buckets. These small steps, alongside using resources mindfully, add up to greater steps towards effectuating sustainability.
We only work with fair-trade and socially conscious organisations who help us support out our ethical policy.
All our Collections are fairly made, we take pleasure in calling ourselves ethically responsible clothing brand.
Shop our block printed collection here