A Step-by-Step Unveiling of the Heritage Craft of Block Printing
So much of what we buy is mass-produced and machine-made. It’s difficult to imagine the days when garments were sewn by hand and cloth was block printed. But in some small workshops and villages in India, there is a commitment to keeping the centuries-old tradition of block printing alive.
Block printing has been used in India since at least the 12th century, and the method is thought to be 2,000 years old.
Indian artisans borrowed a technique from China, one theory states, and turned it into a culturally distinct art form. Different types of dye and patterns became synonymous with different regions of the country. Over the centuries, some portions of the process have changed and improved. Sometimes it has been replaced by screen printing, but many small workshops hold true to traditional block printing.
Groups like Aravali have been passing the skill down through generations. Founded by Rahul Duggal in 1976, Aravali provides year-round employment and wages above the local market to more than 100 artisans.
What exactly is block printing, and why is it so special?
Washing and drying the fabric
Cotton fabric is purchased at the market and soaked in water for 24-48 hours. This removes some of the starchiness of the fibers.
The artisans beat the wet lengths of cotton on river stones worn down by years of use to make them softer and then lay them out to dry to be naturally bleached by the sun.
Carving the blocks
A traditional or modern design is drawn onto paper and then transferred to a perfectly smooth block of wood. The block can be sourced from many types of trees. Many of our artisan partners choose to use readily available, sustainable mango wood. It always needs to be 2-3 inches thick to prevent warping. A separate block must be made for each color incorporated into the design.
Only the most experienced carvers can work on the complex designs. And the most intricate details are always saved for last to avoid damaging the delicate lines in the process.
After the fabric is cut to size, the colors prepared, and the blocks are ready, the artisans can start printing. They lay the fabric across a long table and draw a chalk reference line.
They dip the block into the dye and press it firmly onto the fabric. This process is repeated over and over again, with only the steadiest hands, until the pattern has completely covered the length of the fabric. If there are multiple colors in the design, the artisan lets each color dry before applying the next, each with a new stamp. It is extremely time-consuming and requires precision, so the motif has no breaks.
Final wash and dry
Once the printing is complete and the color is set, the fabric is thoroughly washed and dried.
This is followed by a final check for any quality issues and any cutting or sewing needed.