Block printing is an ancient textile tradition that originated in the Rajasthan Desert region of India centuries ago. It involves stamping designs onto fabric by hand using intricately carved wooden blocks. Block printing is a labor-intensive, painstaking process which requires time, teamwork and a tremendous level of skill. For example, it can take five carvers up to three days to create a pattern in a printing block. And the printers may use as many as thirty blocks to complete one design!
Despite competition from faster and cheaper methods of textile design, block printing has resisted industrialization throughout the years and is still done without any mechanization. It has endured in popularity because of its natural feel and its ability to achieve a three-dimensional, artistic aura which is difficult to replicate in machine-made and mass-produced items.
The three main tools of block printing are the wooden blocks, the fabric and the dye:
- Raw fabric is first washed to remove starch and then bleached in a gentle solution.
- Once bleached, it is hung up on tall bamboo frames to dry in the hot desert sun.
- The blocks are made from teak wood by trained craftsmen. Designs are traced onto the surface and then carved with a hammer and chisel.
- Each block is made with a wooden handle and several small holes to release air and excess dye. It is soaked in oil for 10-15 days before use to soften the grains of the timber.
- Colors are mixed in a separate room from the printing. They are then kept on a tray which the printer drags along as he works.
- In preparation for printing, the cotton fabric is stretched tightly over the printing tables and fastened with pins to avoid wrinkles and movement.
- When printing begins, artisans first print the outline of the design. This is usually done by the most experienced printer, as the outline leads the whole process and must be very precise.
- The rest of the team then fills in the colors with the various "fill" blocks.
- Once printed, the swaths of fabric are hung to dry in the sun before a final wash.