As an artistic individual and a free spirit, I have always been drawn to natural and imperfectly perfect works of art, where you can clearly see it was made by hand and mind. One of my favorite is the process of block printing. India has been renowned for its printed and dyed cotton cloth since the 12th century and the creative process flourished as it was favored by royalty. Though the earliest records indicate the printing started in the south, the craft of block printing seems to have been prevalent all over India.
It starts with the vision of a pattern design on the cloth. How will each pattern look once repeated with itself or another block design.
Thank you to Genevieve Hewson and Lauren Emerson, my favorite fabric designers from Australia for sharing the complete process of block printing and Indigo dying.
Wooden Block After each wood block is carved they are soaked in mustard oil for up to a week to ensure the wood doesn’t crack when exposed to the dry conditions of the printing process. Tiny holes are also drilled through each block to ensure that the wood breathes, allowing the blocks to last for decades.
Mud Paste Dabu is a smooth paste, which combines well sieved and soaked black earth, tree gum and a powder from wheat grains. The printer gently pats the wood block onto the dabu paste then quickly stamps it onto the fabric. This paste acts as a resist during the dyeing process.
Block Printing The surface used for printing is a saree length table (approx 6 meters) that is padded with many layers of cloth. The printer aligns the first block to the bottom left corner of the fabric and with incredibly precise hand eye coordination, gives a sharp tap the release the dabu paste onto the cloth. This same process is repeated along the length and width of the fabric.
Dusting A fine saw dust is scattered over the wet daub paste once it has been printed to prevent the design from smudging and seals the printed portion from the subsequent dyeing process.
Drying Once the sawdust has been scattered, the fabric is taken outside so the sun can dry it. This causes the sawdust and dabu paste to fuse together, creating a hard barrier that the dye can not penetrate.
Indigo dying The dabu printed cloth is next immersed in the deep vat of indigo dye. Natural indigo, from the indigo plant indigofera tinctoria, is not water soluble. It is purchased in blocks, ground into a powder and soaked before fermenting in an underground vat containing a strong alkaline lime powder and water. The strong alkaline reduces the indigo dye, removing oxygen from the liquid and so making the colour chemically available to bond to the cloth. When the cloth is removed from the vat it is green in colour, though as it comes into contact with the air (oxygen) the cloth develops into a rich blue tone. The cloth is dipped repeatedly into the indigo vat to achieve darker shades of blue, drying thoroughly between each successive immersion.
Wash baths Washing occurs at the start and end of the printing process. The fabric is first soaked in large outdoor water baths for up to a few days to remove any starch, oil, dust and any other impurities. Once all printing and dyeing procedures are completed, the cloth is once again subjected to washing and beating in the baths to remove all traces of the dabu mud, revealing the resist area to be the original white.
Indigo Fabrics Each piece of indigo fabric tells a story of where it comes from in that it’s end colour can be influenced from anything from the weather conditions of the time at dyeing to the pH levels in the dye vat to the minerals in the water or the consistency of the dabu paste. However it is in these uncontrollable elements that the beauty of indigo dyed fabrics lies.
Hope this helped in appreciating understand the process and what block printing is.