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Story of Hand Block Printing

Hand Block printing has been practised in India since the 12th century, although it is thought to be around 2,000 years old, originating in China. It is suggested that Indian artisans borrowed the technique from China and turned it into its own culturally distinct art form. Dyes and patterns specific to different regions of the country were used and over hundreds of years the process was changed and improved.

Why is block printing so special?

The process of Hand Block printing is slow and labour intensive. 13 different processes are involved and each one is carried out by hand. Today in a world where nearly everything we buy is mass produced and machine-made, it’s difficult to imagine a time when garments were only sewn and printed by hand.  But in the regions of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andra Pradesh, India, there is a commitment to keeping the centuries old tradition alive, with a deliberate focus on passing the skill down through the generations. It has become a cultural cornerstone and is an art form which involves whole communities and the skills of both men and women. There is an insistence on Fair Trade ethics and standards, ensuring good wages, better living conditions and consistent work to the villagers in remote locations. As with most ancient textile art forms, it is eco-friendly. Although the technique has evolved over centuries, the original methods remain intact and each piece of fabric has its own human touch and story. 

The Process

Step 1 – Washing and drying the fabric.

Cotton fabric is soaked in water for 24-48 hours. This removes some of the starchiness of the fibres.
The wet lengths of cotton are then beaten on stones in the river, these stones have been worn down by years of use to make them softer. The fabric is laid out to dry and to be naturally bleached by the sun.

 Step 2 - Carving the block

Creating the stamp can take 7 to 10 days, depending on the complexity of the design. This design, either traditional or modern, is drawn onto paper and then transferred to a smooth block of wood, (Bunta). The block can be sourced from rose, mango or teak wood, but it always needs to be 2-3 inches thick to prevent warping. A separate block must be made for each colour incorporated into the design. There can be up to 1000 impressions on a 3m piece of fabric.  Every print must be even in colour and follow a continuous design, this is how irregularities can occur.  These irregularities enhance the designs by creating individuality and character, making each print unique. 

Step 3 - Block Printing

After the fabric has been cut to size, the colours have been prepared, and the blocks are all ready, the artisans can start to print. They will lay the fabric out across a long table and draw a chalk reference line.

 

The block is put into the dye and pressed firmly onto the fabric.  It is then hit it with a mallet or the palm of the hand. This process is repeated over and over again, until the pattern has completely covered the length of fabric.  Each colour in the design must dry before applying the next, every colour has its own stamp. It is extremely time consuming and requires precision so that there are no breaks in the pattern.

 

Step 4 - Final wash and dry

Once the printing is complete and the colours have set, the fabric is thoroughly washed and dried.

Step 5 – Inspection, cutting and sewing

This is followed by a final check for any quality issues and any cutting or sewing that needs to take place.

 

“There is no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness”

Mahatma Ghandi