As ajrak printing is a form of block printing, the production technique is, to an extent, similar. Designs are first carved into wooden blocks before being dipped in dye and printed onto fabric. Usually wooden blocks, known as bunta, used in the first stage of printing are carved out of shisham, more commonly known as Indian rosewood, and wooden blocks used in the later stages of printing are carved out of teakwood. During the monsoon season the blocks are soaked in mustard oil to prevent expansion that affects the designs that were painstakingly carved by artisans.
An artisan painstakingly carves designs into wooden bunta blocks for ajrak printing
A wooden bunta block with carved floral motifs
Artisans diligently prepare the fabric before beginning the meticulous printing process. The fabric is first washed to rid it of starch and impurities. It is then soaked in a mixture of camel dung, seed oil and water, which not only softens the fabric but also acts as a bleaching agent.
L: A craftsman prepares the fabric by washing it of starch and impurities
R: A craftsman treats the fabric to allow it to better absorb and retain the dyes
The fabric is then tied together and stored for 5-10 days, depending on weather conditions. The quality of the fabric can be determined by the pungency of the smell that emanates from the stored fabric, which is comparable to the popular Indian condiment, mango pickle. This is a result of the fibres of the cloth reacting with the seed oil. The fabric is then laid out in the sun to dry before undergoing a second treatment of a mixture containing oil and sodium carbonate. The fabric is then stored overnight before being washed - traditionally, this took place in the Indus River - before being soaked in sakun, a mixture of dried lemon, castor oil, molasses, tamarisk gall and water. Multiple treatments ensure that the fabric is able to consistently absorb and retain dyes resulting in ajrak’s signature deep colours.
Unlike block printing, which sometimes uses wooden blocks to print dye onto fabric, the use of these blocks in ajrak printing is to apply a resist that outlines the design. The fabric is laid out on a flat surface for artisans to accurately align the wooden blocks before covering the entire piece of fabric with resist.
L: An artisan uses wooden bunta blocks to print the borders in ajrak print
R: A second artisan then meticulously prints designs onto the fabric using wooden blocks dipped in resist
After each application of the resist, artisans dye the fabric in a single colour before washing and drying it for the next dyeing stage using a different colour. Artisans repeat this elaborate process until the entire piece of fabric is complete with ajrak’s signature deep colours illuminating through the intricate patterns.
A craftsman washes the printed fabric in preparation for indigo dyeing
The fabric undergoes the indigo dyeing process
L: Fabric before and after indigo dyeing
R: The finished product, after having gone through several stages of dyeing
Images: Daniel Shah, D'Source, WGSN