Block Printing on Textiles
Hand Block Printing on textiles refers to the technique by which carved wooden blocks covered with dye are repeatedly pressed along a length of cloth to create patterns. Though block printing is said to be over 2000 years old, and was first developed in China, the earliest known example is the Diamond Sutra from 868 AD, currently in the British museum.
 Why should I be aware of this?
- Hand Block Printing is such an art which can be used for making every design, every piece of cloth unique and different from others, which could never be possible by using automated machinery wherein 100s of metres of fabric would come out in the same design and color.
- By promoting block printing on textiles we promote an art which might be taken over by less expensive machine made products.
- It provides sustainable livelihood to many local families.
- It is skill passed through many generations and should be preserved.
- What makes this technique unique is the fact that the design has to be first carved onto the wooden block by hand, and then executed on the fabric.
- It is the essence of India and the crafts that make India stand out in the world, one of the numerous arts and crafts that are slowly dyeing and so have to be renewed and brought back to life
 All about Block Printing on Textiles
In India, the art of Hand block printing has passed from generation to generation, and has traditionally been done using Natural Dyes. Various garments like saris, kurtas, shirts, salwar kameez, dupattas, skirts, etc are made using block printing. In recent times, the export of block printed garments have grown many times over as its demand has increased especially in the western countries because of its durability and distinctive patterns and designs.There is no doubt that factory-printed textiles are often cheaper, and perhaps more colour fast compared to block printed fabrics. However, block printing represents a craft that provides a sustainable livelihood to rural artisans in the third world. It reflects human labour and the sensibilities of the craftsman, which no machine made fabric can ever do.
 Techniques of Block Printing
- Direct Block Printing -- In this technique, the cotton or silk cloth is first bleached. Then the fabric is dyed, unless a light background is desired. Thereafter, the fabric is printed using carved blocks; first the outline blocks, then the ones to fill color. The famous prints of Bagh (from Madhya Pradesh) and Bagru (from Rajasthan) are made using this technique.
- Resist Printing -- In the resist technique, areas that are to be protected from the dye are covered with a mixture of clay and resin. The dyed fabric is then washed. The dye spreads into the protected areas through cracks, producing a rippled effect. Block prints are then used to create further designs. Ajrakh Printing of Kutch (India) and Sindh (Pakistan) and Kalamkari from South India use this technique.
- Discharge Printing -- In this technique, the fabric is dyed. Then, a chemical is used to remove the dye from the portions that are to have designs in different colour. These portions are then treated, so they may be re-colored.
 Hand Block Printing in India
Archeological remains from the Indus Valley civilisation in the 3rd millennium BC include cotton fragments dyed with madder, a dye commonly used for Block Printing even today. Dye vats, spindles and bronze needles found at sites like Mohenjedaro indicate highly developed fabric work.
Today, Block Printing is practiced in several Indian states. In Gujarat, hand printing has been practiced and perpetuated by the Paithapur families. They make intricate blocks, and print their textiles using the mud resist-Printing method. These prints are called Sodagiri (trader) prints. In Kutch, the popular patterns are black and red designs of birds, animals, and dancing girls. The saris of Ahmedabad and Baroda have large mango patterns against a red or blue background. The other well known centers for Block Printing in Gujarat are Bhavnagar, Vasna, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Jetpur and Porbandar.
In Rajasthan, colorful Block Prints of birds, animals, human figures, gods and goddesses are popular. The important centers for this form of Hand Printing are Jaipur, Bangru, Sanganer, Pali and Barmer. Barmer is known for its prints of red chillies with blue-black outlines, surrounded by flower-laden trees. The other famous prints are of horses, camels, peacocks and lions, called Sikar and Shekahawat prints.
In Madhya Pradesh, printed textiles are created by a community of printers called Chheepa (derived from the Hindi word chhapna meaning printing). The printers of Bagh use vegetable and Natural Dyes, in bright shades of red and black and also occasional indigo. The blocks are made of intricately stylized motifs, which have evolved over hundred of years. These prints have a tonal and a three dimensional effect which is impossible to replicate in the screen printing or machine printing process.
 Process of Block Printing
- First, the fabric to be printed is washed free of starch and soft bleached. If dyeing is required (as in the case of saris where borders or the body is tied and dyed) it is done before printing.
- The fabric is again washed to remove excess dye and dried thoroughly.
- The fabric is stretched over the printing table and fastened with small pins. This is an important stage as there should be a uniform tension in the fabric with no ripples.
- The colour pigments to be used are kept in a tray on a wheeled wooden trolley with racks which the printer drags along as he works. On the lower shelves printing blocks are kept ready.
- Under the pigment tray is another tray containing a thick viscous liquid made from pigment binder and glue. This gives the color tray a soft base which helps to spread color evenly on the wooden block.
- The printing starts from left to right. The color is evened out in the tray with a wedge of wood and the block dipped into the outline color (usually black or a dark color).
- When the block is applied to the fabric, it is slammed hard with the fist on the back of the handle so that a good impression may register. This job is usually done by an expert printer who ensures the effect is continuous and not disjoined.
- If it is a multiple color design, the second printer dips his block in color again and prints on top of the outline made by the first block. The third color if required follows likewise, precisely aligning the block each time. Skill is necessary for good printing since the colors need to dovetail into the design to make it a composite whole.
- The fabric is sun-dried, which is part of the colour-fixing process. It is rolled in wads of newspapers to prevent the dye from adhering to other layers and steamed in boilers constructed for the purpose. After steaming, the material is washed thoroughly in large quantities of water and dried in the sun, after which it is finished by ironing out single layers, which fix the color permanently.
 Printing Blocks
Some block-makers believe that many centuries ago, women got tired of their white, unembellished garmnts and began using their bangles dipped in colour to pattern their garments. The carpenters noticed and started making designs on wood to do the same. Thus began the tradition of making hand blocks for ptintig on textiles.
Blocks are made of seasoned teak wood by trained craftsmen. The underside of the block has the design hand carved on it by the block maker. Each block has a wooden handle and two to three cylindrical holes drilled into the block for free air passage and also to allow release of excess printing paste. The new blocks are soaked in oil for ten to fifteen days to soften the grains in the timber.
 Research on Bagru Printing
Kalakshetra’s Craft Education and Research Centre has a Hand Block Printing Unit which produces sarees, dress materials and house hold linen using both natural and chemical dyes. Research is being carried out here to revive traditional textile patterns and ancient prints and adapt them to modern usage.
 Block Printing on Textiles and the environment
- Block Printing on Textiles has a very small carbon footprint. The printing and colouring process is labour intensive and uses no electricity.
- The process uses vegetable dyes which are chemical free.
- The material used for block printing is useually handloom or khadi, using no power.
- Crafts and Artisans
- About Block Printing
- To buy Bagru-printed products, visit Tilonia
- Craft Revival Trust
 Additional information
- For details, contact
Kalakshetra Foundation Tiruvanmiyur Chennai - 600 041