Hand Block Printing

written by Julie Talbert

Block printing is an ancient Indian tradition that dates back to as early as the 12th Century. To this day this art form continues to be passed on from generation to generation.

The Design & Carving Process

A design is drawn on paper and transferred to a smooth piece of rosewood or teak wood. Blocks need to be 2 to 3 inches thick to prevent warping. The wood block is smeared in chalk paste, the block is cut to size and the pattern is drawn directly on the wood. The carver then uses an assortment of drills, chisels, hammers, nails, and files to recreate the intricate pattern on the block. Designs can include floral and fauna motifs, geometric symbols, animals and deities.

Designs can be simple or complex. Depending on the design, carving the pattern can take between 7 to 30 days to complete. Experienced carvers save the most intricate details for last. Once the wood block is finished, it’s onto the printing.

Printing Process

A choice of fabric is selected such as cotton, silk or linen. The fabric is cut to size and stretched on a table. The block is dipped into the dye and pressed firmly onto the fabric. The artisan uses a mallet or their fist to firmly hit the wood block against the fabric to create a beautiful impression. This process is repeated until the pattern has completely covered the length of the fabric. The printing process requires steady hands and precision.

First, a block is selected as the background, called gudh. The rekh or border block is selected to create an outline along the outside of the fabric. The rekh is typically the most detailed of all the blocks. Filler blocks called datta or patterns within the border complete the process. Each block acts as a guide for the next impression.

Traditional colors used in Indian Block printing are red, mustard, orange, black and brown. Each color incorporated into the design requires its own block. If multiple colors are required in the motif, each color is dried before applying the next block. Once the whole fabric is printed, it is air dried and made into bags, scarves, clothing, bedding and table linens.

Each hand block printed textile is unique and is a reflection of the artist. Nowadays while most fabrics are manufactured by machine, I can appreciate the hand crafted quality still used by some to make hand printed fabrics.