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Block Printing in India

We produce all of our collections in India, a country with an incredibly rich textile history. We're lucky enough to work with some truly amazing artisans, and I'm committed to helping preserve some of the ancient techniques that are still being used today. One of my favorite such processes is block printing. From the carving of the blocks to the printing, block printing involves so much care and artistry.
I visited India last month, and had the unique opportunity to see the process up close at both the Anokhi Museum in Jaipur and at one of our small factories in Delhi. It was an amazing experience, and I wanted to share a bit about how this beautiful handicraft works.

The Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing is a "little gem of a museum" just outside the pink city of Jaipur. Housed in a beautifully renovated building in the traditional hue/style of old city, Anokhi works hard to preserve the tradition of block printing through education. The museum is meant to not only inform the general public and those involved in the fashion industry, but also serves as a place for artisans themselves to visit and become inspired.

We walked through rooms of step-by-step diagrams, antique block printed textiles and preserved blocks. Stepping out into the sunlight, we caught sight of one of Anokhi's artisans, working on a few different blocks in the shade. He explained that he had been doing block printing for more than 40 years, and demonstrated how he carves different types of blocks. He even gave me a tiny flower woodblock to take home.

So how exactly does block printing work?
While the art of block printing (especially the techniques used to carve intricate blocks) takes years to master, the process itself is relatively straightforward and simple:

  • 1. A block is prepared - A block of soft wood that is at least 2” thick is used. The maximum size for a block is usually around 8” x 8”, and the artisan draws or transfers the design onto the block. The designs are carved with knives and chisels, and for circular impressions a bow-type tool is uses to spin the tool, creating perfect spheres.

  • 2. Multiple blocks are created for each color - A separate block will need to be carved for each color used in a design. It is most common for designs to include 3-6 colors, but more complex artwork can sometimes use up to 12 colors!

  • 3. Prepping the space + blocks - Fabric is stretched onto long, padded tables (the length of the tables determine the yardage that can be printed at one time). The blocks are soaked in water to soften them, and inks are mixed and spread out onto leather trays in thin and even layers. Each tray sits on top of a cart on wheels that can be easily moved throughout the space as the printing progresses.

  • 4. Printing - The block is dipped lightly onto the ink tray (similar to patting a stamp on a stamp pad) and then carefully aligned above the fabric. Once the artist is confident the placement is correct, the block is gently set down onto the fabric and tapped to get a good ink impression. Then the block is pulled up off the fabric, carefully so as not to smudge the artwork. This is repeated again and again across the fabric, in either straight or half-drop patterns. Once all of one color layer is completed the fabric is allowed to dry. Then the process is repeated with the next color(s).

    A few days after visiting the Anokhi Museum in Jaipur, we visited a block printing studio at the end of a tiny street in Delhi. The artisans at this small factory created the Parlour Floral print (two of the blocks are featured in the first photo of this blog post) from our Fall collection, and are currently working on the stripe for our upcoming Resort 19 collection.

    It was amazing to get to see the blocks up close, and one of the artists agreed to print a bit of yardage for the stripe while we were there.

    As an avid textile collector, I've always gravitated towards block printed fabrics, with their intricate linework and imperfectly perfect color variation. I was familiar with the process before this trip, but having the opportunity to see artisans working up-close and to really get a better understanding about the potential of this amazing craft was eye-opening. It’s such a beautiful, hand done 
    art form!  I feel even more committed to bringing attention to this beautiful handicraft, by introducing it to lifestyle and women’s clothing stores in the US through my collections.

    What is your favorite aspect of the block printing process?

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