Wood block printing onto fabric has been a main staple of Indian culture and commerce for the last 2,000 years. Although today there are mechanical means, such as screen printing, which are able to mimic the appearance of traditional block printing—some not only echoing the motifs, but integrating minute mistakes that look as they were unintentionally left by the artisan while working by hand—the tradition has seen a revival among décor shops and those trying to revive the practice. The information that follows explores the history, motifs, and techniques that define the enduring legacy of wood block printing.
Block printing onto fabric is thought to have originated in China about 4,500 years ago. As trade and customs migrated out of eastern Asia, block and other ornamental fabric methods moved westward. The art became incorporated within local traditions, eventually settling in India by at least the 12th century, although the first known example of block-printing is a copy of the Diamond Sutra which dates to 868 AD. It is currently housed in the British Museum. As block printing grew in India, several towns in the south and along the western and eastern coasts of the subcontinent became hubs renowned for their abilities to print on cotton. Specialized techniques for printing and dyeing cotton were developed in Rajasthan while the use of wooden blocks for printing became common in Gujarat. In the 17th century, Surat became a prominent center for the export of painted and printed fabrics. These techniques are still utilized in these cities, although Jaipur has emerged as the largest producer.
Soon it became common for tents—particularly those for the military—to be made out of printed cotton. This lead block printing to become a necessary part of royal processions and coveted by India’s elite. By the 1700s, printed textiles from India had become fashionable in Britain, and their export boomed for several years. In the 19th century, the bold colors and natural motifs gave way to the popularity of Paisley in England. Unfortunately, the popularity in England died as mass production boomed, cutting the exporting of fabrics from India to Britain, and instead colonial legislation forced Indians to import mass produced goods. During this time the tradition of passing knowledge through generations halted.
One difference that sets Indian printing apart is artisan expertise involved in using natural plant dyes from local minerals and other naturally derived solutions. The use of mordants—metallic salts that create colors that easily adhere to fabric—was well-established, as well as a mud-resistant printing called dabu. These techniques allowed Indian printers to create complex designs.
Beginning with the advent of fabric printing, delicate natural motifs were—and continue to be—primarily used. Patterns integrated floral and leaf-like designs with curving lines and animals such as birds. When carving these designs, the most delicate lines are carved last, allowing incredibly intricate patterns. Because the motifs are so elaborate, the block is typically used across the entirety of the fabric to create repetitive patterns.
The technique of block printing is still passed down through generations today, although there are still concerns that the tradition will be lost to time and mechanical means of cotton production. Those who continue block printing by hand are part of a caste called Chippas. The word derives from the Nepal Bhasa chhi (to dye) and pa (to leave something to bask in the sun), and the Hindi term chappana (“stamping”). First, blocks of localized woods are sanded down to be perfectly flat. These blocks are often made out of box, lime, mango, sycamore, plane, or pear wood, and need to be at least two to three inches to avoid warping over time. A handle is adhered to the back to make the printing process easier. Once prepped, a design is drawn on the front of the block and painstakingly carved.
Much like lithography, each color used in the process must have their own separate block. In printing, different colors are layered on top of one another, allowing the previous dye to dry before adhering the next color and pattern. Meanwhile, cotton fabric is soaked for one to two days to remove starchiness, then beat on river stones to make them softer, and laid out to dry and be bleached by the sun. When the fabric and blocks are prepared and the dye is mixed, the fabric is laid out flat. The block is dipped into the dye and then pressed firmly onto the fabric. Once lifted, the block is dipped again and pressed onto the fabric again alongside the previous print in rows until the length of the fabric has been dyed. This creates the repetitive pattern that is characteristic of block printing. After the entire print is completed, the dyed fabric is left to set before being washed and dried again. Today, Indian hand printed fabrics are making a comeback as consumers and markets learn about the process and insist that the traditions aren’t lost. They can often be found in fair-trade markets and are utilized from scarves to upholstery.