Embellishing textiles, block by block

designers' canvas

Embellishing textiles, block by block

Woodblock printing is the earliest and simplest form of printing patterns on textile by hand. Yet, in its simplicity, a highly complex art form emerges.

Its versatility allows it to be used for embellishing all manner of cloth: from those that we wear to those that we use, such as quilt, bed and pillow covers, wall hangings and floor coverings. This art is believed to have originated in China towards the early 3rd century. Records of its presence in Egypt and some Asian countries were found around the 4th century, from where it spread to Europe. Apart from wood, blocks are also made of metals and porcelain. But wooden blocks, made of seasoned teak or sheesham wood, remain the most sought after.

In hand block printing, the design drawn on wood using a sharp needle is carved using a chisel, hammer, file, nails etc. The cloth is washed, bleached and dyed and then stretched over the surface where printing takes place.

In case of resist dyeing, impression of an impermeable material (clay, resin, wax) is made on the fabric, which is then dyed. The block image remains unprinted and appears in reverse. The once-used natural dyes are now replaced with synthetic dyes which are easily available. Different dyes are used for silk and cotton.

 The block-maker is no less a craftsman than the printer or skilled dyer. His workplace is like an atelier where artists chisel and carve on wood to perfect blocks with most delicate of designs. Most designs are traditional, such as flowers, vines, mangomotifs, but an artist could add to his repertoire by bringing in variations on familiar themes.

In Rajasthan, Sanganer and Bagru are well-known printing centres. The block print in Bagru is done mainly in beige, red and black. Shades of blue with much use of indigo blue dyeing process is a characteristic. Vegetable dye is used — green from banana leaves, orange from saffron, black from iron rust.

The highly skilled and patterned Ajrak block-printing came to Kutch from Sind 400 years ago when the Muslim Khatris (artisans who ‘apply colour to cloth’) settled in a village of this region. Bright indigo, green and mustard are dominant colours used. This art has been passed on from father to son.

The prints of Barmer in Rajasthan are inspired from the Sindh region. Printing in Barmer is done on turbans, sarees and traditionally worn lungis, head gear and shoulder cloth. The designs are bold, the popular one being the flaming red chilli with a blue-black outline surrounded by flower-laden trees.

Jaipur is famous for the jahota hand block printing. It is believed that Maharaja Jai Singh and his wife were patrons of this art.

Kalamkari of Andhra Pradesh is the earliest and more complex technique of block-printing on cloth using vegetable dyes, which flourished in Machilipatnam. 

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