Welcome to the world of Indian Block Printing! Every Saffron Marigold block print comes to life thanks to this heritage craft. Our collections of fair trade block printed linens have stories to tell within their folds. Journey with us to the origins of block printing in India and see how we create a block print on fabric.
What is Block Printing?
Block printing refers to the printing technique of pressing and stamping fabric with carved wooden blocks filled with color. “Hand blocked” or “hand block printing” are other terms that refer to block printing.
We celebrate the art of Indian Block Printing on fabric. Our artisans take our original block print designs and print them onto cotton. However, the block printing process goes beyond pressing blocks onto fabric. There are so many steps involved, from carving each wooden block to preparing fabric, mixing dyes, and applying final touches. Each block printing technique requires artistry, skill, and patience. It is the sum of these tasks that produces our gorgeous block printed fabrics.
Woodblock carving for a block print
Hand-carved wooden blocks provide the cornerstone of the block printing process. Block carving is tedious, and it demands an exceptional degree of craftsmanship. Wood carvers practice and teach the block carving craft over generations. Carving the outline block is the most challenging step in the process of block printing. As the skeleton for the design, it’s the most expensive block. The most skilled artisan in a block making shop (often the owner) works on this piece. Work begins with a freehand paper drawing of the design’s outline. Using the drawing as a map, the artisan traces out the color fill blocks. Craftsmen trace the design onto a planed slice of shesham wood, which is the best wood for this kind of printmaking, and chisel it 1/3-inch deep. The precision that a master block maker achieves with simple tools is extraordinary. These block printing tools may be simple, but they create something extraordinary. The resulting woodblocks are works of art in themselves! How many blocks does it take to create a print? Well, that depends on the design. Each color and each design element requires its own separate block. That’s right: each tiny element comes to life one color and one block at a time! You can try to
estimate the number of blocks used by tallying the number of colors and design components. A simple design might require just three blocks, but a complex design might need up to 30 blocks!
Wood block preparation
Carved blocks absorb moisture during the printing process, and it’s critical that the wood doesn’t warp. To prevent warping, the blocks stand in trays of mustard oil for a few days. They drain over wads of fabric for several days more cure. Block carvers then drill tiny holes into areas intended for application of flat color. Stuffing cotton into these holes at the time of printing ensures even color application.
Today’s Indian block printing studios cater to niche markets and textile mavens worldwide. Thanks to the slow cloth movement and an interest in handcrafted goods, Indian wood block printing is still alive–but barely.
A brief history of block printing
No discussion on the history of block printing in India can take place without mentioning the Mughals. The ‘heyday’ of hand block printing came during the reign of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857). The Mughals enjoyed an immense consumption of textiles, which were status symbols at the time. Since coinage was in short supply, cloth exchanges served as barter, underpinning the economic structure of the Empire.
Indian block printing’s pattern repertoire stands as one of the Mughals’ legacies. Floral patterns featured prominently in Mughal textiles as metaphors for paradise and allusions to eternal gardens. Today’s block printed fabrics still feature this popular theme!
England’s demand for Indian textiles led to an enormous boom that coincided with the golden age of the Mughal Empire. (In fact, the Indian textile industry was at one point charged with draining the British treasury!)
However, Indian block Printing began to decline at the end of the Mughal Empire and the dawn of industrialization. Along with synthetic dyes came Britain’s sabotage of India’s handmade textile industry. The markets grew saturated with cheap mill-printed cotton. The skills knowledge passed down through generations of artisans was all but lost. The supremacy of the Indian block print ended.