Summertime is at its hottest as we speak! By now, we’re sure you have already worn several light cotton clothes with those delightful Indian patterns and colours; loose blouses, kaftans and sarongs, which are, by the way, the ideal cover-up over bikinis for evening cocktails at the beach or a day on a boat. Besides being made in very light and fresh fabrics, the colourful patterns have been a must for summer year in, year out.
Where does the printed cotton come from?
The ancient art of woodblock printing is a family tradition in India. The craft of textile hand-printing has been passed down from father to son for thousands of years in India. The chic printed cotton muslins were worn not only in India by Maharajahs and their numerous wives but also in England, where they became extremely fashionable around 1700. In fact, there was such a high demand in England that they started mass producing domestically a cheaper imitation of the Indian floral muslins and even selling it to the Indians, causing thus the almost extinction of the artisanal block printing craftsmanship. Luckily in the small town of Bagru, in Rajasthan, the craft survived for over 300 years thanks to the local rural market. But when this impoverished market could no longer afford the cotton and had to buy cheaper synthetic fabrics in the 70s, the art of block printing was almost lost.
Bocks chiseled by specialized carvers, in traditional patterns
The new era of block printing
But not all was lost yet. Anokhi, a design company based in Jaipur, decided to bring back to life this ancient tradition, so they looked for families who still knew the art of block printing. They used old patterns and new ones too to produce in Bagru the beautiful diaphanous muslins used for home decor and garments. Soon other artisan-dedicated design companies followed, such as the Californian Block Shop, launched by the sisters Hopie and Lily Stockman, whose geometric patterns are block printed by artisans from the village. The sisters not only brought work to the small town, but they also help the community with clean water, education and healthcare initiatives.
How is hand block printing done?
The traditional block printing technique consists of several steps, each made by a specialized group of craftsmen. The wood blocks used for printing are hand-carved on teak by master carvers. Then these blocks are dipped into colour by the printers to stamp the fabric with a strong pound, which is repeated to create the patterns. The printer uses a different block for each colour to achieve the intricate designs. Another specific group, the Dabu, prepares the dye used by mixing mud, fermented wheat, lime, indigo and minerals to obtain the typical Indian colours. After the printing, the cotton is washed by another group, the Dhobi, and is then hung from rooftops to dry.
It is a long process that takes several days. Because the cotton is hand-printed, you can see some imperfections here and there in the patterns, which is the beauty and poetry of all hand-made art, whether a jewellery piece, hand-made shoes or block printed muslins. The imperfection is like a label stating that there was a human being and not a machine, creating with traditional knowledge, craftsmanship and loving-care that object that tells us a story passed down from generation to generation over thousands of years.