Click the image above to view the block printing process photo album,
or on the flower icon to view the photos in context.
Saffron Marigold's range of hand block printed home furnishings that include
duvet covers, bed spreads, drapes, cushion covers, curtains, pillow covers, table cloths,
valances and shower curtains are sourced from the desert
state of Rajasthan, where entire villages derive their livelihood from the
craft of hand block printing. One gets the sense of being caught in a time
warp as camel drawn carts, laden with logs of shesham and bales of fabric,
sashay their way down chaotic dusty streets, enabling with every step the
metamorphosis of their cargo into gorgeously hued hand block printed textiles.
The block-printed cottons of Jaipur have been renowned for their exquisite pattern,
and coloring for at least two hundred and fifty years. Traditional prints favored
greatly by the Mughal Emperors and their imperial courts, featured delicate floral
sprays, spaced evenly on a white, pastel blue or yellow ground of fine cotton.
While designing our collection of home furnishings it has been our endeavor to fuse
traditional flavor with a good dose of modern aesthetic sensibility.
The tradition of hand block printing has continued to exist on
a parallel universe, stubbornly resistant to industrialization, and is to
this day practiced without the aid of mechanization or computerization. It
is this defiant indifference to mechanization that gives block printing the
aura of a pure craft form and makes block printed textiles so
esteemed. Traditionally these textiles played an integral part of village
life. However, with the introduction of mill prints and easy to maintain
wash and wear synthetics, these textiles are gradually losing their appeal
to the village consumer. It is only a growing appreciation of this craft in
urban and export markets that is keeping this ebbing craft alive.
Block Making Process:
The cornerstone of the block printing process is the carving of the wood
blocks. The block carving process is tedious and demands an exceptional
degree of skilled craftsmanship. The process of block making is akin to
building a jigsaw puzzle. The most skilled part of the block making process
is the making of the outline block. The
outline block is often the costliest of all the blocks in a design set. It
is the skeleton around which the rest of the design is fleshed out. The
most skilled artisan in a block making shop, often the owner, will work on
this piece. Work on the block begins with an accurate freehand drawing of
the design's outline on tracing paper. Using the outline
drawing as a map, a drawing for each color in the design i.e. the color
fill blocks are traced out.
A block starts out as a planed slice of shesham wood. The design is
traced on to the wood's planed surface. The wood is
then chiseled to the depth of a third of an inch. Tiny holes are drilled
in areas intended for the application of flat color. These holes are
stuffed with cotton at the time of printing to ensure an even application
of color. The precision that a master block maker achieves with his meager
arsenal of hammer and chisel is truly extraordinary. Generally the
size of a block is between five to eight square inches. However in
instances where the design requires it, blocks of up to fourteen inches may
be carved. The size constraint of the blocks to a large extent defines the
parameters of viable design. Hence small motifs and repetition,
characterize block printed designs. The number of blocks required for a
design can range from 3 to 30 depending on the complexity of the design.
It is interesting to try to estimate the number of blocks used to print a
block printed textile. It is possible to do this by studying the design in
1. The number of colors used, since each color will have it own
2. The different components of the design, i.e. the presence of a border in
addition to the main design. Another characteristic of block printed
textiles are their magnificent borders. The borders will always consist of
a separate set of blocks (outline plus color fills), distinct from the
block set used for the main design. Depending on the complexity of the
border, its size and the sequence in which it is to be printed, the border
itself may consist of several sets (outline plus color fills) of
Once the blocks are carved they are left to stand in large trays of mustard
oil, for a couple of days. This is done to prevent warping, caused by
moisture absorption from liquid dyes during printing. Later, the excess oil is
drained from the blocks by leaving them to stand on wads of fabric
for a couple of days.
Preparation of fabric for printing:
The fabric (usually cotton) is first bleached by immersion in a gentle
bleaching solution. It is then passed through a dye vat, where it is
rolled between two rollers, positioned on either side of the dye vat. The rollers are
cranked by hand and help squeeze out excess dye to ensure it's even
fabric is left to dry in the hot Rajasthan sun, on tall bamboo frames.
After drying the fabric is taken to the finishing units where it is pressed
on hot roller presses.
The printing process commences with an assessment of the dyeing technique
best suited to the design at hand. While easy to mix Pigment dyes are
favored, the luminous colors achieved by Vegetable dyes and the color fastness
guaranteed by Rapid and Discharge dyes, makes them attractive choices too.
Aided solely by his intuition and experience,the color master mixes, with amazing
accuracy, the various colors required by the design.
After the dyes have been mixed and tested the dye pad is prepared.
The dye pad consists of a rectangular wooden tray into which a metal frame
is fitted. The frame has several yards of nylon rope tautly wound
around it. The taut rope mesh provides 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 layer however, is a piece of finer
fabric: like silk, chiffon or voile. The choice of the fabric depends on the
dye saturation required for printing. Once the trays are prepared an appropriate
quantity of dye is poured into them. The surface of the dye pad is evened out
with a wedge of wood after which it is placed on wheeled wooden carts with each color
on a different cart. The carved blocks are distributed color wise,
amongst the carts, and organized in the order of printing, on the racks
below. Prior to printing the tiny holes drilled into the blocks,are stuffed
The fabric is measured, cut and pinned tautly on to well padded 5 meter
long tables. Three and often four sided borders render yardage printing
impossible. Hence each piece be it a drape, duvet cover, cushion cover,
shower curtain, bed spread, valance, curtain or table cloth, is measured, cut and
printed individually. Incase the design has a textural element, the
fabric is first stamped all over with the texture block. Printing follows
an outside in orientation, where the border is printed first followed by the
main design. Before any of the color blocks are used the outline of the
design is first printed. 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.
The block carver chisels registration points on the outline block, which
serve as visual markers that ensure the alignment and positioning of all
the other blocks that follow. In fact, it is these registration marks on block
printed textiles that help distinguish them from mass produced screen- printed
textiles that are often sold under the guise of hand block prints. A close
inspection of any authentic block printed textile will reveal these
registration marks. Once again it worth noting, that no rulers or measuring
devices are used during printing. The printer's hands and fingers are
his only measuring aids. The most
experienced printer is assigned the task of printing the outline since it
provides the framework on the basis of which the rest of the design is
printed. Once the outline is printed the remaining colors are filled in,
printing is completed before the fabric is repositioned.
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
The fabric is then sent to washing houses where it is thoroughly
washed. The type of dye used dictates the manner in which the fabric is
washed. Pigments are washed thoroughly by multiple immersions followed by
vigorous hand beating to wash out all
traces of gum and fixing agents. Rapids follow the same process;however, the
fabric is first washed in a dilute sulfuric acid solution, to reveal its true colors.
The gradual transformation of the colors as the fabric is swirled around in the
acid solution, is fascinating to watch. Discharge dyed fabrics are steamed before
they are sent for washing. The entire washing process stays shy of mechanization and is
performed using manual labor. The fabric is then sun dried and sent to
ironing units where it is passed through hot roller presses.
Stitching and Finishing:
At the stitching unit the fabric is measured, cut and stitched according to
Embellishments like buttons and beading are added. Beading units are
generally separate from stitching units. Beading units employ large number
of artisans who bead each piece by hand. The finished pieces are once again
sent to the ironing unit where they are ironed, folded inspected and packed for their
journey across the globe.
Information on the various types of dyes
Block printing employed vegetable dyes exclusively till the advent of modern
chemical dyes. The process of printing cloth with vegetable dyes is exceedingly
complex. Vegetable dyes adhere permanently to cotton only in the presence of a
bonding agent or mordant; hence, the first step of the dyeing process
is mordanting. A mordant is a chemical salt, which when 'cooked' with the fiber,
attaches itself to the fiber molecules. The dye molecule, then, attaches itself
to the mordant. Different mordants result in different colors when combined with
the same dye. For example: the dye, cochineal when used with alum sulfate gives
a fuchsia color, when used with tin, results in a color that is more scarlet,
and when used with copper, results in a purplish hue. Moreover, different
concentrations of the same mordant yield varying tints in the same dye bath;
hence, their successful application is the cornerstone of the dyers' art.
Some of the common vegetable dyes are:
Indigo (deep blue), Madder (pink, orange or tan (depending on the mordant used),
Pomegranate rind (yellow hue), Kamala (orange yellow or golden yellow),
Mayrabolan (greenish yellow), Catechu (brown), Himalayan Rhubarb (yellow),
Henna (khaki brown), Turmeric (yellow), and Cochineal (fuchsia pink).
Common mordants used in block printing are:
Tin, Chrome, Iron, Copper, Alum, Cream of Tartar, Oxalic Acid, Soda Ash, Chalk,
and Tartaric Acid
These dyes are the 'what you see is what you get' of printing dyes, hence they are
relatively easy to mix. They are mixed like paints and are favored
by designers since subtle color calibrations are possible. Pigments consist of
tiny particles of highly saturated color and need to be mixed with a binder, to ensure
that these particles adhere to the fiber of the fabric. The binder softens
the color and lends the color a degree of opacity. Since most pigments
become pastels after they are mixed with binder, they can only be used to print
on white or lighter pastel grounds. Since pigments sit on the surface of
the fabric they render a slight stiffness to the fabric. They are therefore
used in scattered motif type designs and are usually avoided when the
design demands large areas of the fabric to be covered with print.
These dyes are used in negative space type designs, where by printing the
negative space the positive space gets defined. Hence they are suitable
when large areas of the ground needs to be colored. Since these dyes
penetrate the fabric they are colorfast. Rapid dyes are mixed with water
and boiled with caustic soda and a gum paste. Rapids are time consuming to
mix since the visual appearance of the color that is mixed, bears no
resemblance with the final color. True colors emerge only after the fabric
has been printed and washed in a mild sulfuric acid solution. Hence the
process of color matching is extremely tedious. Added to this is the
relatively short potency of these dyes, since many have to be used on the
same day. Also, certain rapid hues are extremely sensitive to the
weather. For instance pure blacks can only be printed in winter since
Rajasthan's scorching summers make it difficult to print rich blacks. On
the other hand rapid reds are vibrant in summer and mediocre in
These dyes are used when printing has to be done on a dark ground.
Discharge dyes when exposed to heat concurrently bleach the color from the
dyed ground of the fabric and print the desired color in its place. The
advantage of this technique is that a whole spectrum of colors from pastels
to brights can be printed on medium and dark grounds. It is often stated
that although the fabric may disintegrate with time, the vibrancy of
discharge dyes will never fade. Discharge dyes have the same problems with
visual mixing as rapids, and only reveal themselves when they are exposed
Unlike the various types of dyes listed above, Dabu is an age old technique
of resist printing, which usually employs the use of vegetable dyes. Hence,
unlike traditional block printing where the wood blocks are used to print dyes
onto the fabric, the Dabu technique uses blocks to apply the resist, usually a
paste of mud, gum and sawdust, to the fabric. The fabric is colored when
the sun dried 'mud' printed cloth is immersed in a cauldron of dye. This process
(the application of the mud resist followed by dyeing) is repeated for every color
in the design. The term 'double' or 'triple' dabu indicates the number of times
the fabric is thus processed. Finally, the mud resist is washed off to reveal
the design, which immerges when the non-dyed part of the fabric becomes visible.
Some color penetrates under the resist and results in the characteristic veining,
usually associated with resist printed Batiks.
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