Block Printing - Everything you ever wanted to know about Hand Block Prints

The Indian Legacy of Elegance

Diverse forms of art and crafts have created a visual identity in India and has been a significant source of revenue through centuries of international trade. The evolution of various textile prints has marched from regional wardrobes in the subcontinent to the global fashion ramp. Block prints are integral to both ethnic fashion and modern urban style and have become a perennial favorite with Indian designers and in the global fashion market.

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There are a number of methods of textile printing prevalent in Indian communities. They are mainly divided among four heads:

  1. Roller printing

This technique is used whenever long runs of fabric are to be printed with the same design. The modern machine, based on one originally devised in 1783, consists of a large central cast-iron cylinder over which passes a thick endless blanket providing a resilient support for the fabric.

  1. Heat Transfer Printing

In this style of printing, the pattern on paper is printed with carefully selected dyes. The paper is applied to the fabric by passing the two together through a type of hot calender, and the pattern is transferred from one to the other.

  1. Screen Printing

Screen Printing is done both manually and while using an automated machine. The cloth is first pinned to a back gray on a printing table, and then the design is applied through a screen made of silk or nylon gauze stretched over a wooden or metal frame, on which the design for one color has been reproduced. A screen is placed over the fabric on the table and the print paste is poured on to the screen edge, spread with a squeegee over the surface of the screen so that colour is pushed through the open parts. For application of other colours, the process is repeated with different screens.

With the growing importance of screen printing, the hand operation has been largely replaced by mechanical methods.

  1. Block Printing

It refers to the technique by which carved wooden or stone blocks covered with dye are repeatedly pressed along a length of cloth to create patterns.

 

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Hand Block Printing – A Legacy

Hand block printing is said to have originated in China around 4,500 years ago but it was on the Indian subcontinent where hand-blocked fabric reached its highest visual expression. Indians possessed unparalleled expertise in the secrets of natural plant dyes. In India, hand block printing has been an ancient textile craft which draws its roots from a cluster of age-old towns in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

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Fig. The carving of wooden block for hand block printing

Artisans carve intricate designs on the blocks, later used for printing fabrics. Two types of blocks are generally used for hand block printing –

  1. Wooden Blocks – Wood blocks used for hand block printing are generally made up of Shisham and Sagwan. These blocks may vary in size, but should be two or three inches thick for ease. They are in turn of two types, outlining block (rekh) and filling block (gadh)

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Fig. Filling block (gadh) and Outlining block (rekh) 

  1. Metallic Blocks – They are more expensive and time consuming to make but also last longer.

There are mainly three types of designs carved on blocks–

  1. Geometric Patterns – Lines and geometrical motifs
  2. Floral Design - Paisley, flowers and tree leaves
  3. Tribal Design – Motifs representing the daily life of tribal people

A typical Hand Block print fabric features earthy tones & motifs inspired by nature, village landscape & Indian Mythology. Certain basic components of Buti, Jhal, Bel and Buta constitute small patterns in a block print. 

The Process

Step 1: Block Carving

The Chhipa Community in Rajasthan possesses a majority of block carvers, dyers and printers in India. Block carving is the first step in the block printing process and like many other crafts in India, has been in existence since time immemorial.

Step 2: Application of Dye

After the carving process, dye is applied to the wooden block surface with the help of a ‘sieve’. The wooden block is gently pressed onto the palette of dye before being applied against the fabric.

Step 3: Treatment of Fabric

The chosen fabric for block printing is first washed to remove all the starch before the printing process begins. For hand block printing, the craftsman lays the fabric on a printing table, stretching it across the entire length and hold it in place with tiny pins.

Step 4: Printing

Printing always begins from left to right. The craftsman dips the block into a dark outline color and applies it to the fabric. This is done repeatedly along the length and breadth of the fabric.

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Fig.  Hand block printing process

Step 5: After Treatment

Once the hand block-printing process is complete, the craftsman scatters some fine saw dust onto the wet dye to prevent smudging of the design. The fabric is then left to dry out in the Sun.

Different dyes may be used for block printing on cotton and silk fabrics. The traditional colors used for block printing are red, black, brown, mustard and orange.

Techniques of Hand Block Printing in India

  • Direct Hand Block Printing

In this technique, the cloth is first bleached and dyed for a light background. The fabric is then printed using carved blocks – first the outlining blocks and then the filling blocks.

  • Resist Printing

In this technique, areas are protected from the dye by covering them with a mixture of clay and resin. Then, the fabric is dyed and washed. The dye spreads into the protected areas through the cracks.

  • Discharge Printing

In this technique, the fabric is dyed first and then chemical is applied to erode it from select areas. These portions are then treated and recolored.

Types of Hand Block Printing and their communities India

  • Kalamkari in Andhra Pradesh

One of the earliest and complex techniques of block printing, it was developed in Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. In this printing style, the fabric is printed by a ‘kalam’ or pen using vegetable dyes.

  • Sodagiri Prints of Gujarat

They use mud resist printing method to make black and red designs of dancing girls, birds and animals.

  • Dabu and Ajarakh of Rajasthan

Sanganer and Bagru are the places near Jaipur where most of the Block Printing is done in Rajasthan. The block print in Bagru is done mainly in black, red and beige. Shades of blue with more use of indigo blue dyeing processes are a characteristic of this center. Sanganer, near Jaipur, is famous for its fine hand block printing in subdued colors.

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Fig. Hand block prints of Sanganer 

In Rajasthan, there are sandy stretches of desert where a unique method of cloth-dyeing is prevalent. The method is called Ajrakh and the print is in dark shades of blue and red with geometrical. The traditional block-printing running in parallel lines technique of Ajrakh has attained a peak of excellence at Balotra. Barmer is well - known for its prints of red chillies with blue-black outlines, surrounded by flower-laden trees.

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Fig. Ajrakh Print

The Resist Process called Dabu is used involves using wax or gum. It requires very low temperatures and therefore, it can only be processed during the night or in winter.

  • Bagh Prints of Madhya Pradesh

Bagh, which lends its name to the Bagh prints, is a small tribal town in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh. Vegetable and Natural Dyes are used in bright shades of red, black and indigo. These prints have a tonal and a three dimensional effect which is impossible to replicate in the screen printing or machine printing process. It is a wax resist process where wax is applied using the blocks.

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Fig. Bagh Print

Apart from the above, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal are also important centers where hand block printing is done on a large scale.  In case these states seem too far to venture, here is an insight into the process for anyone who would like to start block printing at the comfort of their homes. For this, you would require

  • cotton fabric
  • Fabric printing ink (50% water)
  • Printing blocks. You can also carve stamps into halved potatoes or linoleum blocks, or you can buy traditional Indian printing blocks.
  • One small ink tray
  • Pins
  • A flat surface covered in cardboard or two layers of felt
  • An iron

The Procedure:

  • Sketch the designs that would fit into your fabric.
  • Pour diluted ink into the tray – one-part ink one-part water.
  • Practice hand-block printing on a piece of paper to get the feel of the motion and ink distribution.
  • If right handed, start printing from left to right or top to bottom.
  • Pin your fabric to the surface of the table or cardboard.
  • Make sure the block is lined up correctly before making contact with the fabric. Once the block is placed firmly on the fabric, press with force to ensure smooth distribution of ink over fabric. Repeat the pattern.
  • Dry from a clothesline until both ink and fabric are completely dry.
  • Iron the entire surface of the scarf to set the ink in the fibers for colorfastness.
  • Wash and dry again.

And there you have your own hand block printed fabric. It was easy, isn’t it?

 

Hand block printing designs are cherished since Mughal era. However, with changing fashion trends, many facets are added to it to update it. Today, block printing is used to add an edge to the overall look and make the garment a statement piece by printing components like pockets or collar only. Such prints are also used as patches on various products to make it look fascinating. Block printing is used in the apparel and textile industry on a variety of products ranging from beautiful ethnic dresses, sarees and suits to bedsheets, curtains and handbags.

Apart from giving employment to hundreds of rural artisans in India and being an epitome of Indian cultural heritage, it is one of the most eco-friendly printing techniques in existence. The base cloth is prepared with Fuller’s earth and turmeric and natural dyes like alum, pomegranate flowers and indigo are used in printing. It has a small carbon footprint since the printing and coloring process is labor intensive and uses no electricity. It is the celebration of ecological integrity; plants, nature and people are closely involved in each step which makes hand block printing a truly sustainable form of craft.

 

The traditional block printing craft has flourished over the past three decades,

with increasing demand from both export and domestic markets. In recent times the export of block printed garments have seen a steep increase as its demand has increased especially in western countries because of its durability and distinctive patterns and designs. Looking at the current situation of hand block print fabrics in the market, future of these fabrics seem to be quite impressive. Experimenting with block prints will never go out of trend. Also, such prints combined with chunky jewelry, gives a chic and modern look, which is not dying at least for years to come.

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