Ever wonder how printed clothing and textiles are made? Long before large industrial machines churned out fabric, the patterns on cloth had to be created by hand! One of the ways this was done was through a technique called block printing.
A Brief History
According to historical records, block printing has existed in India since the 12th century. Today it continues to be a signature handicraft, and the state of Rajasthan is particularly famous for its block print textiles. Scholars speculate that the technique probably seeped into the area from neighboring Gujarat. With royal patronage, the craft was able to grow and flourish in the towns of Jaipur, Sanganer, Barmer, and Pali.
How Is Block Printing Done?
Block printing is done with blocks of teak or sheesham wood. Using a pencil, the printer traces a design onto the smooth underside of the block. Then, he or she carves out the design with a simple hammer and chisel. Once the design is complete, the blocks are then dipped in dye and stamped onto fabric. To create a pattern on an entire swath of fabric, printers must stamp the same block over and over-an arduous, painstaking labor of love! Depending on the number of colors used, printing can involve multiple stages of work. For more intricate and multicolored patterns, the printer must use a different stamp for each layer of color.
Sometimes, a technique called resist dyeing is employed. Here, printers use the block to stamp the outlines of a pattern. Once the entire fabric is stamped, a paste is then applied over the pattern. This paste is a special clay mixture that is resistant to dye. The entire fabric is then dyed and the clay is eventually removed. What results is a colored piece of fabric with undyed patterns. Printers then go back and fill in the patterns with different colors.
Dyes and Colors
Traditionally, the dyes used for printing are obtained from natural sources like pomegranate, madder, indigo, and turmeric. The rich, glowing colors that are typical of Rajasthani block printing often have religious or seasonal significance. For example, indigo represents Lord Krishna, yellow is for spring, red is for love, and saffron is the sacred color of Hinduism.
Though Rajasthan is famous for its block prints, there is lots of diversity within the state itself. Different towns have adapted the art of block printing to create their own distinct style. In Bagru, for example, block textiles are often made using pale beige fabric. This distinct beige color comes from soaking the fabric in a solution of Fuller’s earth and turmeric. Bagru fabrics often feature black, red and maroon prints in geometric patterns, which create a striking contrast against the fabric’s earthy background. Iron filings from worn-out horse or camel shoes provide the black color, red comes from gum paste and alum, while maroon is a combination of the two.
Various other towns also have their own trademark aesthetic. The town of Sanganer, for example, specializes in prints inspired by Persian motifs. These usually have delicate floral or leaf sprays stamped on a white background. In Barmer, red chilies with deep blue outlines are typical. Meanwhile, Sikar and Shekhawat prints feature peacocks, lions, camels, and horses.