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Block Printing Process...

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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 terms of:

1. The number of colors used, since each color will have it own block.
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 blocks.

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 application. The 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.

Block Printing:

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 with cotton.

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 pigments.


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 design specifications. 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

Vegetable 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

Pigment dyes:

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.

Rapid dyes:

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 winter.

Discharge dyes:

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 to steam.

Dabu Printing:

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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