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Secrets to Creating the Perfect Block Print

The art of block printing begins with designs hand-carved into wooden blocks of various shapes and sizes called bunta, usually using teakwood. To soften the wood, blocks are soaked in oil for up to two weeks.

An artisan painstakingly carves designs into a wooden bunta blocks
An artisan painstakingly carves designs into a wooden bunta blocks

Wooden bunta blocks laid out in preparation for block printing
Wooden bunta blocks laid out in preparation for block printing

Each block is carved to be used in a single colour, allowing the motifs on the fabric to come together in a single intricate design. This production technique requires attentive teamwork as each design and colour is done by a separate printer. Natural vegetable dyes were traditionally used, but in the 21st century these have been replaced with eco-friendly artificial dyes.

An artisan mixes dye in present day Gujarat
An artisan mixes dye in present day Gujarat

The fabric is washed, dried and treated so that it is able to consistently absorb the dye before being laid out in preparation for printing and is always worked from left to right. The wooden block is dipped into dye before being printed onto the fabric with great force in order to make a perfect impression. This is a meticulous process with three variations:

a) Discharge printing consists of first dyeing the fabric. Dye is then removed from parts of the cloth to make way for the rich, vibrant designs made by the wooden blocks. This method facilitates the printing of light-coloured motifs against a dark background.

b) Direct block printing is a method of bleaching and dyeing the fabric. Colourful, vibrant designs are then printed onto the dyed fabric using carved wooden blocks. This method is practiced on silk and cotton fabrics, though block printing is mostly done on the latter.

Top L: Fabric is laid out to dry after initial wash. Top R: Fabric is treated to allow it to absorb the dye. Bottom L: An artisan patiently and carefully block prints the fabric. Bottom R: Excess dye is washed off the fabric after having been block printed and dyed several times.
Top L: Fabric is laid out to dry after initial wash. Top R: Fabric is treated to allow it to absorb the dye
Bottom L: An artisan patiently and carefully block prints the fabric. Bottom R: Excess dye is washed off the fabric after having been block printed and dyed several times

c) Mud-resist or dabu printing is commonly associated with block printing from Rajasthan and Paithapur families of Gujarat. This method makes use of wooden blocks to apply a resist made of resin and clay or wax. The fabric can be said to be dyed in reverse; when the entire fabric is dyed, motifs created by the wooden blocks do not take on dye due to the resist.

Top L: Mixture of dabu clay stored overnight for use the next morning. Top R: An artisan block prints a piece of fabric with dabu clay, Bottom L: The fabric is dyed and washed. Bottom R: The dabu printed fabric is dried in the sun.
Top L: Mixture of dabu clay stored overnight for use the next morning. Top R: An artisan block prints a piece of fabric with dabu clay
Bottom L: The fabric is dyed and washed. Bottom R: The dabu printed fabric is dried in the sun

Regardless of the printing technique the dyed fabric is treated again before being dried in the sun and later washed to remove excess dye. It is then wrapped in newspaper to protect the dye and steamed in special boilers before being dried in the sun again. Such production techniques ensure the pigments remain rich and colourful.

 

Images: Asian Art Newspaper, Taare, Stay Org