Block Printing Technique



India has been renowned for its printed and dyed cotton cloth since the 12th century and the creative processes flourished as the fabric received royal patronage. Surat in Gujarat became a prominent center for trade of painted and printed textiles. The art of Hand block printing was passed from generation to generation and employed use of natural colors.

Today, this art has again received revival and has spread to the new centers like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore.

Block Printing in Olden Times

Records indicate that in the 12th century, numerous places in India, namely in the south, western and eastern coasts of India became renowned for their excellent printed cotton. The brush or kalam (pen) was used on the southeastern coast, and the resist applied by the same method. Rajasthan developed special technique of printing and dyeing of cottons. While, in Gujarat the use of wooden blocks for printing was more common.

From Buddha's time, Trade in cotton cloth is said to have existed between India and Babylon. Indian printed and

woven cloths cotton traveled to Indonesia, Malaya and the Far East. Surat emerged as a prominent center for export of painted and printed calicos while cheaper printed cloth came from Ahmedabad and other centers.

Prominent Centers of Hand Block Printing

Ahmedabad, Sanganer, Bagru, Farukhabad and Pethapur, are the main centers of hand block printing in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The Bagru and Sanganeri prints are not easily distinguishable but on a closer observation the difference between the two are revealed. The Sanganer prints are always on a white background, whereas the Bagru prints are essentially in red and black. Artistry and intricacy characterize the designs of Farukhabad. Other notable centers are Pethapur near Ahmedabad and Banaras. Banaras block prints which makers design their blocks to suit fine silk printing - sometimes each design has seven colors.

Block designs get bigger and bolder and the delicacy is lost as one moves towards the south or towards Calcutta. Today, Andhra Pradesh is a large center for hand block printing. Lepakshi prints of Hyderabad are very popular. Ajarakh prints, primarily intended for garments for men, originated in Gujarat is popular even today.

Block Printing Process

Block printing is popular because of the rich and vibrant colors. Originally natural dyes were used but today they have been replaced by chemical and artificial colors. The main colors used are red, yellow, blue, and saffron.

The main tools of the printer are wooden blocks in different shapes and sizes called bunta. The underside of the block has the design etched on it. Each block has a wooden handle and two to three cylindrical holes drilled into the block for free air passage and also to allow release of excess printing paste. The new blocks are soaked in oil for 10-15 days to soften the grains in the timber.

Wooden trolleys with racks have castor wheels fastened to their legs to facilitate free movement. The printer drags it along as he works. On the upper most shelf trays of dye are placed. On the lower shelves printing blocks are kept ready.

The fabric to be printed is washed free of starch and soft bleached if the natural grey of the fabric is not desired. If dyeing is required as in the case of saris, where borders, or the body is tied and dyed, it is done before printing. The fabric is stretched over the printing table and fastened with small pins (in the case of saris the pallu is printed first then the border).

The printing starts form left to right. The color is evened out in the tray with a wedge of wood and the block dipped into the outline color (usually black or a dark color). When the block is applied to the fabric, it is slammed hard with the fist on the back of the handle so that a good impression may register. A point on the block serves as a guide for the repeat impression, so that the whole effect is continuous and not disjoined. The outline printer is usually an expert because he is the one who leads the process. If it is a multiple color design the second printer dips his block in color again using the point or guide for a perfect registration to fill in the color. The third color if existent follows likewise. Skill is necessary for good printing since the colors need to dovetail into the design to make it a composite whole. A single color design can be executed faster, a double color takes more time and multiple color design would mean additional labor and more color consumption.

Different dyes are used for silk and cotton. Rapid fast dyes, indigo sol and pigment dyes are cotton dyes. Printing with rapid dyes is a little more complicated as the dyes once mixed for printing have to be used the same day. Standard colors are black, red, orange, brown and mustard. Color variation is little difficult and while printing it is not possible to gauge the quality or depth of color.

It is only after the fabric is processed with an acid wash that the final color is established. Beautiful greens and pinks are possible with indigo sol colors but pigment colors are widely popular today because the process is simple, the mixed colors can be stored for a period of time, subtle nuances of colors are possible, and new shades evolve with the mixing of two or three colors. Also the colors are visible as one prints and do not change after processing. Colors can be tested before printing by merely applying it onto the fabric. The pigment color is made up of tiny particles, which do not dissolve entirely and hence are deposited on the cloth surface while rapid dyes and indigo sols penetrate the cloth.

Pigment colors are mixed with kerosene and a binder. The consistency should be just right, for if it is too thick it gives a raised effect on the material, which spoils the design. Small plastic buckets with lids are ideal for storing the mixed colors over a few days.

Cotton saris after pigment printing are dried out in the sun. This is part of the fixing process. They are rolled in wads of newspapers to prevent the dye form adhering to other layers and steamed in boilers constructed for the purpose. Silks are also steamed this way after printing. After steaming, the material is washed thoroughly in large quantities of water and dried in the sun, after which it is finished by ironing out single layers, which fix the color permanently.