Block printing, also known as hand block printing or woodblock printing, is a centuries-old craft. Similar to ikat fabric, block printing spent its early days in India and China, as well as other East Asian countries. Although the art form most likely originated in China around 220, “it was on the Indian subcontinent where hand-blocked fabric reached its highest visual expression,” according to The New York Times Style Magazine. After decades of exporting handmade goods around the world, Indian artisans were forced to “to buy cheap imitations of their own work” in the 1700s due to England’s interest in mass production (surprise, surprise). This moment in time was the beginning of a steep decline in preserved knowledge of the traditional craft and designs. This continued for years, putting block print artisans in India out of jobs and leaving unique patterns behind. However, in the 1970s, a design company based in the country tasked themselves with finding and revitalising the industry. Anokhi sought out traditional block printing patterns, as well as block print artisans and families of Jaipur, Rajasthan (the region where the craft is most concentrated.) Through partnerships (and even a museum) the company began aiding these cooperatives in bringing new life to the dying technique.
As the various names suggest, block printing is an art form consisting of turning wood into hand-carved stamps for textile designs. Much of India’s traditional block print artisans are concentrated within a city of Jaipur called Bagru. Within traditional clusters, each step of the process is completed by a different, highly skilled craftsman or woman. With block print artisans, families pass down the specific roles within the design and manufacturing process. The fabric used for block printing must first be washed, soaked for up to 48 hours, and dried out in the sun before the design process even begins. Then a block print artisan, also known as “chhipa,” meticulously carve handcrafted designs into teakwood. These designs often consist of motifs inspired by local flora and fauna, animals, or religion. Online boutique Common Texture found that some clusters possess vast collections of blocks used and passed down for years, some continuously in rotation for over 80 years. After a block is hand carved, it’s then handed off to “rangrez” who dip the wood stamps in dye– traditionally natural dye– and purposefully places the pattern onto woven fabric. Finally, the process is taken over by washers or “dhobi” who expertly wash the textile, ensuring that the colours have set and the fabric is ready for market, manufacturing, or purchase.
With an increased interest in slow fashion and traditional techniques, block print artisans and cooperatives have begun to benefit from bringing ancient crafts into the modern age. Block printing holds a special space within the textile industry because of its deep storytelling origins as well as the expertise required. Mainstream fashion brands can attempt to copy block printing all they want but nothing will ever come close to the textiles designed by families who have practiced the craft for generations. A story reported in The Hindu Business Line two years ago featured a cluster in Jhag Village in Jaipur organised by the chain store Fabindia with the aim of boosting incomes and empowering women. The piece explains that not only is there international interest in hand printed textiles, but within India there is growing domestic demand as well. According to Fabindia, this rise in popularity “led to a four-fold growth in its sourcing from Rajasthan” from around 2014 to 2018. This growth has allowed families which have been block printing for centuries to continue earning a living wage and still carry on the tradition.
The obvious snag in a plan to combine ancient traditions with a fast-paced world is the need to scale, and scale quickly. For some block print artisans, in order to meet demands, patterns must be simplified and natural dyes are sometimes substituted for synthetic ones. While these types of partnerships still provide beautifully printed fabric and thriving block print artisan communities, the role of small or artisan-led businesses remains vital to properly preserving the art form. When brands are willing and able to give their artisan partners time to create the generational designs, the finished products are truly breathtaking.
Audrey Stanton was born and raised in the Bay Area and currently based in Los Angeles. She works as a freelance content creator and manager. Audrey is incredibly passionate about conscious fashion and hopes to continue to spread awareness of ethical consumption.