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The subtle art of hand block printing

As kids, we all made stamps by carving erasers (I know I did) and creating lovely prints using ink pads. I also remember when our teachers had us doing activities like - cutting okra and printing patterns on fabric using colors. All these have been my introduction to the most basic version of block printing. Read on to see how block printing has evolved over the years.

Ever wondered how your favorite Kalamkari and Sanganeri designs were made on your ethnic-wear? Or how those beautiful paisley table runners came to life?

Though there is a huge variation in the designs, colors and materials used for printing in different parts of the world, it all comes under the mesmerizing art of block printing.

The origin of block printing is multi-ethnic, because studies suggest that the art of block printing has its roots in different civilizations. Some thousands of years ago, many believe that the evolved technique of block printing was found in China, where blocks were used not only to print on fabric but also for scripture purpose on paper scrolls, but the exact origin of block printing has not yet been established.

A few specimen of wood block printing, have been excavated from a 10th century Arabic Egypt. There are many examples of the art being popularized in east Asian countries of Korea and Japan.

And finally coming to India and creating a base across nation in states like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

But all this doesn’t matter much since every region has its own unique block printing style, specific set of colors and the kind of inspiration they take for making their region specific designs and motifs. Most famous designs have been taken from nature like stylized mango motifs, floral prints, elephants, leaves etc. where as some designs are intricately geometric.

Most of the colors that were used for block printing were locally produced and natural. Even the fabric that was printed upon was also 100% natural like cotton, khadi, linen or silk. Synthetic fabric was not suitable for this because natural fibers have the inherent quality of being rough, which catches hold of the dye firmly also because synthetic fibers are smooth and do not adhere to the colour molecules easily.

Traditionally, these prints were done using blocks made of wood. But then, slowly linoleum and rubber blocks started their own trend. Carving these blocks require highly skilled artisans who can carve complex, intricate and minute design details onto a block.

Block printing technique is labour intensive because it involves printing in multiple steps and also using multiple blocks or multiple colors to bring out amazing patterns over a piece of fabric. Like first creating a delicate outline and then filling the inner colors using another block. It requires a lot of focus and presence of mind since even a slight overlapping of the prints would mean a complete disposal of the fabric and starting all over again.

However, the final output is all worth it. These beautiful and charming prints can literally transform any piece of garment into a masterpiece. Further this technique is not limited to fabrics but can be applied in a similar fashion to accessories like bags, tote, purses and also home furnishings like bed sheets, curtains, blankets, pillow covers, aprons etc.

However, traditional block printing has been seriously affected by the advent of screen printing and modern digital printing methods which are less time consuming and less laborious. In fact, the difference between the final output of a screen print and a block print is nearly indistinguishable.

For me block printing however will always has its own charm and charisma, and to know that there is so much history that cannot be stolen by any other contemporary printing technique, makes it one of my favorite textile arts.

Join our workshop to try your hands on block colors using natural colors.

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