The Beauty Of Hand Block Printing
Have you ever noticed that most ancient textile art forms are eco-friendly? Many traditional methods of fabric weaving, dyeing and even printing are perfect examples of sustainable practices. Hand block printing is one such textile printing technique. Not only does this beautiful textile art respect the planet and nature, but it celebrates it as well.
Hand Block Printing—The Method
As the very name suggests, in this method the printed fabric is created using blocks. These blocks are made from wood, linoleum or rubber, although the traditional method always involved wood. Artisans hand-carve the designs to be printed into blocks of wood. Depending on the details in the design, each block could take several hours or even days to complete. Once the design is fully carved, the blocks are treated with oil and set aside to soften. This process makes it ready to hold colour.
When ready, the printer applies colour to the block, presses it on cloth and strikes it hard with a mallet to create the impression. This step is repeated to darken the impression. This printing is carried out throughout the length of the fabric, and the result is an amazing textile with a unique, rustic finish. I've elaborated a little more on the technical aspects of this fabric printing method in a previous article, which you can read here.
A factor that sets hand block printed fabrics apart are tiny imperfections that are inherent in this hand-crafted artisan product. I adore this about handmade fabrics - it's what makes every hand block print exotic and full of life, and distinguishes it from the masses of factory-produced prints.
The Rich History Of Hand Block Printing
Hand block printing has a rich history that can be traced back to the fifth century B.C, with its roots in India, China and Japan. Many artisan communities in these countries practice this art today, and each have their distinct features and characteristics that are unique.
As with most ancient practices, every process in hand block printing, including the preparation of cloth, is labour-intensive and time-consuming. In the traditional method, cotton is torn by hand and scoured with soda ash before being washed and thrashed repeatedly to remove natural oils and starch. It is then treated with a mixture of cow dung and castor oil to bleach it. Finally, a myrobalan nut bath introduces tannins that give the cloth a pale yellow shade. All these steps can take up to two weeks to complete. So, you can imagine the effort that goes into just preparing cloth for printing.
In India, there are communities in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh that follow the traditional hand block printing processes that are centuries old. Notable among these is the Chippa community in Rajasthan that are famous for their Bagru prints. In the Bagru printing method, the base cloth is prepared with Fuller's earth and turmeric. Then natural dyes like alum, indigo and pomegranate flowers are used in printing. Bagru is characterised by its distinctive off-white or beige base cloth colour, from the Fuller's earth that was smeared on it during the preparation.
The printing process is simple. A template is created, then the printer applies a measured quantity of dye on the block and stamps it into the fabric. Once printing is complete, the fabric is washed and dried and ready to be used. These prints usually feature geometric inlays and motifs, and this method is one of the most eco-friendly printing techniques in existence.
Sanganeri prints are another fine example, and they are normally done on a bright white background. These prints mostly include flowers and floral motifs inspired by the flora and fauna of Sanganer.
Kalamkari is a hand block printing method native to Andhra Pradesh and are characterised by floral forms with thin black outlines. They are influenced by Persian art.
What Makes Hand Block Printing Special?
In this age where machines churn out yards of fabric imitations, here is a product that is created by hand with skill and care. As with any artisan-produced textile, this factor alone makes it very attractive. However, hand block fabrics have another special quality that few other designs can replicate. The technique has evolved over centuries, but most of the original methods remain intact, and each hand block printed fabric has its own unique story.
Take a look at any authentic hand block printed fabric, and you will see how intricate the work is. The human touch is apparent, with fascinating little imperfections that cannot be replicated by a machine.
Finally, we must appreciate the painstaking effort that goes into every stage of creating a hand block printed fabric. It is a celebration of ecological integrity; plants, nature, and people are closely involved in each step. The prints are beautiful renditions of plants, animals and human culture. Thus, hand block printing is an environmentally friendly art that deserves appreciation and recognition, and one that showcases the beauty of nature at its best.
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