Woodblock printing has a long and venerable history, dating back from ancient civilizations in Egypt, China and Assyria. It has kept its place in the limelight through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and early modern periods, all the way through today. The tradition of woodblock printing in India takes off during the medieval period, first used for the printing of interior fabrics for tents in the Maharaja's camps or at cultural events. As the popularity of block-printing spread, the state of Gujarat (which you will remember from our previous blog post) began to develop intricate block designs, characterized by red and black motifs of birds, animals and dancing women. Today, Indian block-printed textiles are primarily created in Rajasthan, considered to be the best place to find both antique and modern woodblock printing.
The process of block-printing is complex and intricate. Blocks can be made of a variety of woods, including sycamore, pear and teak wood, each hand-carved by up to five master craftsmen. For especially intricate designs, printers use up to thirty blocks. Each block has a wooden handle and holes drilled to allow air to flow through the wood, and release excess printing paste. After the carving, the blocks are soaked in oil for 10-15 days, to soften the grains of the timber and make a unique pattern.
To imprint the fabric with the block's pattern, the artisan hits the block with their fist or wooden hammer, so the impression on the fabric is clear and crisp. The process requires much skill and precision, which is why nearly every block-printing artisan is an expert in the tradition. Each color of a design is stamped using a different block-so a block print design with 5 different colors will require the use of five blocks, each intricately overlaid to create a seamless design.
Each region of India has its own distinctive style and motifs for wood block printing, and different fabrics and dyes are used in each region as well.
Artisan groups in Rajasthan and Gujarat produce our 100% cotton block-printed scarves and sarongs, and artisans in Andhra Pradesh produce our block-printed silk stoles, which are printed with pure herbal dyes.
Block printing is not only very fashionable- it's also a link to a rich tradition, and to the livelihoods of many artisans in villages throughout India.