Tuesday, December 7, 2010

India: Wood Block Fabric Printing

So what was I doing in India? Well, the nominal excuse for travel was to see Indian fabric printing processes, thanks to two friends, one of whom who imports the wooden blocks and does custom block designs, and the other designs and imports block-printed quilts. (I am just amazed at the many cool things my friends do!)

You've had some glimpses of the workshops in the post on Bagru, but here's a more detailed look at the whole process.
First, you need to carve the block. This man is a master carver giving a demonstration at the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing in Amber, Rajasthan. The white coating on the block helps the carver see the design develop and is washed off before the block is used for printing. He holds a fairly heavy metal bar in one hand and his chisel in the other, striking the chisel precisely to make these incredibly fine incisions.
If you look carefully you can see how the design is penciled onto the whole block.
The small paisley design and the flower in the top photo are from the Anokhi Museum. (The largest block is an antique, and the other three are from The Indian Block Company.) All the workshops we visited had piles of fantastically textured blocks that were just begging to be photographed, so here are some unedifying but pretty pictures:
The next step is for the printers to prepare the fabric. Sometimes it is dyed beforehand, but usually it is prepared with a mordant, then the blocks are used to print the pattern for resist-dying. The fabric is prepared in vats like this:
Here is the entrance to one of the "factories," which are really extended family homes devoted to the fabric printing process:
(Tourists do not go here. We had a train of fascinated children following us the entire time.)
This gentleman is sitting in an alcove just inside the door. He has printed the fabric with a gluey mix that sticks to the fabric while it is dyed. The mixture is washed off afterward, and wherever you see a pattern now will be white in the end. In the photo he is dusting ground wheat (some sort of sandy-textured grain that has spoiled and is no longer good for food) over the freshly-printed resist. Here is the courtyard just past his alcove:
Notice the fabrics hung over the balcony to dry. Upstairs there is a room with long tables for more printing
and several women sitting in a sort of balcony-hall at low printing tables.

They align the blocks without hesitating, strike once with the heel of the hand to set and loosen it, sweep the block back to the dye tray, and smoothly align it again. Thunk, swish, dab, thunk. Smooth as dancers.
Next the fabric goes to the dye bath. In this case, an indigo bath.
 A white silk resist-printed sari.
 Into the indigo vat.
Laying out to dry after 3 dips in the dye bath. See how the parts that were printed are now white? (Well, whitish.)
When they want to get the white parts really white the cloth is soaked in tubs with (judging by the smell) some small amount of chlorine bleach. They also use lime for something, but I didn't understand that part. Sorry! A lot of cloth goes back to the printers at this point and gets a second or third color added, and another layer of detail goes into the design. You'll see what I mean when I show you the fabrics that I bought.

Now for the most part I am not a huge fan of "ethnic" prints. All I really knew of Indian fabric before this trip were the bedspreads everyone draped around their dorm rooms in college, and I thoroughly disliked those. The colors look murky to me, the fabrics are coarse, and I just never liked the patterns.  I liked the wooden blocks better than the fabric! The fabric I saw in India was nicer quality, softer cottons, but most of the colors were earthy browns, yellows, reds - not my cup of tea! I'm a blue and green girl. Well, de gustibus non est disputandum, as my mother used to say (no, seriously, she did. At the drop of a hat.) Lots of people like earth colors. I did eventually find fabric in colors and weights that I like. :

Then we took a shopping trip to Anokhi, a high-end store in Jaipur that specializes in modern block-printed fabric. They've been around for a couple of generations, working with the craftsmen to develop gorgeous contemporary patterns on lovely soft cotton and silk fabric. (In fact they financed the museum mentioned earlier.) Their clothing and housewares were spectacular. I could have cheerfully brought home most of their things! They have a US website but the prices are high even by American standards. I'm not saying the pieces aren't worth it, though! Unfortunately the website photos don't do justice to the fabric.
Here's what I bought at Anokhi:

A gorgeous robe and
a handkerchief and

 a tunic.
See how the tunic is finished with subtle gold decorations? The gold is applied in a thick paste and you can feel it as a raised pattern on the finished fabric. Here is a really really bad photo of the tools used to apply it:

So there you have it, the basic process by which block-printed fabric is produced. Whew! I still dislike those bedspreads, but I'm awed by the amount of work that goes into them


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi anonymous/Deloraine

    I don't make blocks, but there's a link in the first paragraph to a company that does.