These days, nearly everything 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 is known to have been used in India since at least the 12th century, although this method is thought to be around 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 were changed or improved. Sometimes it is even eventually replaced by screen printing, but many small workshops hold true to traditional block printing.
Groups like Aravali have been passing the skill down through the generations. Aravali was founded by Rahul Duggal in 1976. Aravali provides year-round employment and wages above the local market to over 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 and be naturally bleached by the sun.
Carving the blocks
A design, either traditional or modern, 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 mango wood), but 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 has been cut to size, the colors 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.
They dip the block into the dye and press it firmly onto the fabric. This process is repeated over and over again, by only the steadiest hands, until the pattern has completely covered the length of 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 that there are no breaks in the motif.
Final wash and dry
Once the printing is complete and the color has set, the fabric is thoroughly washed and dried.
This is followed by a final check for any quality issues and any cutting or sewing that needs to take place.