The Craftsmanship of Indian Block Printing

Saffron Marigold - Updated: August 8, 2020

Welcome to the world of Indian wood block printing! Every Saffron Marigold linen comes to life thanks to this heritage-rich craft. 

What is block printing?

Block printing refers to the printing technique of pressing and stamping fabric with carved wooden blocks filled with color. At Saffron Marigold, our artisans use our original block print designs and print them onto high quality cotton.

The block printing process goes beyond pressing the block to the fabric.  From carving each wooden block to preparing fabric, mixing dyes, and applying final touches, it is the sum of these tedious tasks that produces the gorgeous linens you bring into your home.

Woodblock carving

Hand-carved wooden blocks provide the cornerstone of the block printing process. Block carving is tedious and demands an exceptional degree of craftsmanship. Wood carvers practice and teach the craft over generations. In fact, carving the outline block is the most challenging step in the process: as the skeleton for the rest of the design, it’s the costliest block in a set.

The outline of a block print is essential to the wood carving and block printing process

A woodblock usually ranges between 5–8 square inches, but it can sometimes be as large as 14 inches if a design requires it. The size constraint of the blocks defines the parameters of viable design, which is why small, repeated motifs characterize Indian block prints.

The most skilled artisan in a block making shop (often the owner) works on this piece. Work begins with a freehand paper drawing of the design’s outline. Using the drawing as a map, the artisan traces out the color fill blocks.

Craftsmen trace the design onto a planed slice of shesham wood and chisel it 1/3-inch deep. The precision that a master block maker achieves with simply a hammer and chisel is truly extraordinary–the resulting woodblocks are works of art in themselves!

A set of carved wooden blocks used for block printing

Each color and each design component requires its own individual block. That’s right: each tiny element comes to life one color and one block at a time! You can try to estimate the number of blocks used by tallying the number of colors and design elements.  A simple design might require just three blocks, but a complex design might need up to 30 blocks!

Someone points out how each color and each element requires its own block in the block printing process

Wood block preparation

Carved blocks absorb moisture during the printing process, so the blocks stand in trays of mustard oil for a few days and drain over wads of fabric for several days more. This curing process helps to keep the wood from warping.

Block carvers then drill tiny holes into areas intended for application of flat color. Stuffing cotton into these holes at the time of printing ensures an even application of color.

Artisans filled wood blocks with cotton for even application

To block print a design, artisans fill each element one block and one color at a time. They also use separate sets of blocks to create the fabric borders. Just like the main design, a border design may consist of multiple sets of wood blocks.

Preparing fabric for block printing

To prepare the fabric for wood block printing, the cotton takes an immersive bath in a gentle bleaching solution. Next, it passes through a dye vat and rolls between two rollers that squeeze out excess dye to ensure an even application. 

Lastly, the fabric dries on tall bamboo frames in the hot Rajasthan sun before heading to the finishing units where hot roller presses smooth the fabric.

Red fabric dries in the sun before undergoing the block printing process

Craftsmen measure the fabric, then cut and pin it tautly onto well-padded tables that are each 5 meters long. Linens with borders on 3 or more sides make yardage printing impossible, so each individual product is measured, cut, and printed one at a time!

Creating colors for woodblock printing

Before printing, we must determine the best dyeing technique for the design at hand. Some warrant easy-to-mix pigment dyes, but others require the luminous colors achieved by vegetable dyes or the color fastness guaranteed by rapid indigo sol and discharge dyes.

Aided solely by intuition and experience, the color master mixes the assorted colors of the design. By simply looking at the requested Pantone shade, he can formulate his color recipe.

After mixing and testing the dyes, it’s time to prepare the dye pad. A dye pad consists of a rectangular wooden tray fitted with a metal frame wound with yards of nylon rope. (The taut rope mesh supplies a spring effect during printing.) The body of the pad consists of several layers of coarse sacking material piled on top of the rope mesh. The final layers, however, are pieces of finer fabric: silk, chiffon, or voile. The choice of the final layer fabric depends on the dye saturation required for printing.

Next, workers pour dye into the pads. They even out the surface of the dye pad with a wedge of wood and distribute the woodblocks color-wise among the carts and organize them in the order of printing on the racks below.

The block printing technique

Printing follows an outside-in orientation where the border is printed before the main design. Before using any of the color blocks, artisans print the outline of the design. The printer dips the outline block into the dye pad and moves down the length of the table, stamping the fabric by carefully placing the block on the fabric and striking it with the heel of his hand.

Block printing begins with the border of a block print fabric first.

The block carver chisels registration points on the outline block, which serve to  ensure the alignment and positioning of the remaining blocks. A close inspection of any authentic block printed textile will reveal these registration marks. Again, note that the printer’s hands and fingers are his only measuring aids—he doesn’t use any other rulers or measuring tools!

In fact, these registration marks on block printed textiles help distinguish them from mass-produced textiles that are often sold under the guise of hand block prints.

The most experienced printer prints the outline since it provides the framework for the rest of the design. Once he prints the outline, he fills in the remaining colors before repositioning the fabric.

Finishing Touches

Most printing houses have flat terraces atop their studios where finished pieces are left to sun for a couple of days so as to fix the pigments.

Block printed fabrics dry in the sun after a successful day of block printing.

Once the textiles are completely dry, they go to the local washing facility. Believe it or not, this is a significant stage in the block printing process since negligence in washing can ruin an otherwise impeccable piece! Cleaners must consider which block printing technique was used to create the linens in order to employ the proper washing technique.  

The washed fabrics return to the studio where they undergo the final finishing processes. They are ironed, stitched, checked for quality, and finally packed and labelled, ready to make their long journey around the world from Sanganer, Rajasthan to our warehouse in Petaluma, California!

We hope you enjoyed learning about the block printing process and have left this post with an even better appreciation for these gorgeous textiles. Shop our collections of Indian wood block prints here.

Textile patterns created through traditional woodblock printing are part of India’s vibrant visual and material culture.

Every time an artisan’s hand hovers over a textile, the fabric vibrates with life and consciousness as he ponders the placement of each wood block. A simple piece of cotton soon transforms into a living textile that encapsulates within its fibers generations of skill, tradition, craftsmanship, and a way of life.

India’s role in woodblock printing

Woodblock printing, one of India’s leading heritage crafts, enjoys a strong visual identity worldwide. While China gave birth to woodblock printing about 4,000 years ago, it was India who ultimately raised the art form. In India, hand block printed textiles reached their highest visual expression and commercial potential.

India developed an unrivaled mastery in the secrets of natural plant dyes and mordants. This expertise enabled Indian printers to create unique designs and a color palette that the world envied. India’s tropical climate helped: here, dyes could bloom to their deepest expression. Only in India could one find such intoxicating reds, rich blues, and saturated blacks–prized creations of the dyers’ art.

India’s unique history made a lasting imprint on woodblock printing. Its long history of invasions and immigration along with its diverse indigenous population led India to possess the most expansive and magnificent pattern vocabulary.

A brief history of block printing

The ‘heyday’ of hand block printing came during the reign of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857). The Mughals enjoyed an immense consumption of textiles: these were the status symbols of the era. Since coinage was in short supply, cloth exchanges became a form of barter, underpinning the economic structure of the Empire.

Block printing’s pattern repertoire and aesthetic stands as one of the Mughals’ most enduring contributions. Floral patterns displayed prominently in Mughal textiles, often as metaphors for paradise and allusions to an eternal garden. Present day block printed textiles still feature this popular theme!

England’s demand for Indian floral cottons led to an enormous boom that coincided with the golden age of the Mughal Empire. (In fact, the Indian textile industry was at one point charged with draining the British treasury!)

However, Indian hand block printing began to decline at the end of the Mughal Empire and the dawn of industrialization. Along with synthetic dyes came Britain’s sabotage of India’s handmade textile industry. This included saturating markets with cheap mill-printed cotton. The flow of refined skills and inherited knowledge passed down through generations of artisans was all but lost: the supremacy of the Indian block print was over.

Indian woodblock printing’s appeal to niche markets

The 1960s and 1970s marked a revival of sorts for the Indian block printing industry. The bohemian aesthetic and a fascination for India’s sense of spirituality resulted in a renewed interest in handcrafted Indian block prints. The interest continues now thanks in part to the slow cloth movement and the recent popularity of handmade crafts.

While India’s urban elite always favored hand printed textiles, a global niche market emerged in the flower-power days. Today’s block printing studios cater to the needs of niche markets and textile connoisseurs worldwide.

Rajasthan, India: The birthplace of Indian woodblock printing

At Saffron Marigold, we source our colorful, exquisitely patterned block printed textiles from the desert state of Rajasthan. Around the world, this state and its capital city, Jaipur, is considered by many to be the birthplace of Indian wood block printing.  Indian block prints effortlessly span the spectrum of traditional pattern to modern style.

The tradition of woodblock printing continues to exist in a parallel universe stubbornly resistant to industrialization. To this day, artisans practice block printing without the aid of machines or computers. This defiant indifference to mechanization gives block printed fabrics the aura of a pure craft form. Their handmade essence and bohemian appearance make them an enduring favorite with designers and connoisseurs worldwide.

Sanganer: a study in contrasts

We work with a family of artisans in Sanganer, a bustling township close to Jaipur. Sanganer is a rural town caught in a curious time warp where the ancient and modern coexist. On every narrow street, you’ll find denim-clad youth flaunting the latest Bollywood hairstyles. They text on smartphones and zip past Hindu temples, riding their motorcycles beside camel-drawn carts sashaying down the dusty roads. These carts are laden with shesham logs and bales of cloth that will soon become gorgeous block print fabrics.

In startling contrast to it lively textiles, Sanganer remains, ironically, an indistinct, colorless town. Here, you’ll see unfinished concrete buildings, motley transportation, and narrow streets littered with garbage–a feast for the local population of pigs and cows.

However, as you step away from the chaos of the main roads, tucked away in the dusty lanes there exists a thriving ecosystem. Here, fabric dyers, block makers, block printers, washers, tailors, fabric and dye suppliers work together to create the famous block printed textiles of Sanganer.

How Saffron Marigold helps keep Indian woodblock printing alive

Despite of its rich history and modern niche markets, hand block printing is still a dying craft. It teeters on the edge of extinction because of India’s rapidly changing economic and social conditions. Because global companies and advanced technology provide opportunities to make an easier living, a career in labor-intensive crafts seems tedious, dull, and old-fashioned.

At our Saffron Marigold studio, we encourage young men to apprentice with us. We pay above market rates to ensure the survival of this difficult craft for another generation. We believe this legacy keeps our world and our homes connected, beautiful, and soulful.  

See our collections of block prints