Woodblock printing on textiles is the process of printing patterns on textiles by means of incised wooden blocks. It is the earliest, simplest and slowest of all methods of textile printing. Block printing by hand is a slow process. It is, however, capable of yielding highly artistic results, some of which are unobtainable by any other method.
The highly-skilled artisans who produce the block-printed textiles in the Kutch area of Gujarat, adjoining the border of Pakistan, originally came from Sind 400 years ago. They were Muslim Khatris (artisans who ‘apply colour to cloth’) and they were specialists in the Ajrak block-printing style. The Ajrak style uses bold abstract patterns based on Islamic aesthetic principles of symmetry. The designs feature rich blacks, crimson reds and indigo blues.
The block-printing process is the earliest, simplest and slowest of all printing methods. A design is drawn on, or transferred to, prepared wooden blocks. A separate block is required for each distinct colour in the design. A block cutter carves out the wood around the heavier masses first, leaving the finer and more delicate work until the last so as to avoid any risk of injuring it when the coarser parts are cut. When finished, the block has the appearance of a flat relief carving, with the design standing out. The printer then applies colour to the block and presses it firmly and steadily on the cloth.
The village printing community consists of different groups of specialists. The block carvers may not live and work in the same village as the other groups, but the remaining three groups work closely together. They are the chhippas (printers), rangrez (dyers) and dhobis (washers). The traditional block printing process is a slow one. The main steps include preparing the fabric for printing, which means a lot of washing to begin with, followed by the application of a base colour to the cloth that acts as a mordant, helping to fix the final colours when they are applied. Another preliminary stage involves applying a resist to the fabric. This defines the outline of the design. After that the printers apply the design, one colour at a time. The finishing process involves a series of steps to wash the cloth again while fixing and enhancing the colours and revealing the white resist.
The artisans use a whole range of natural plant and mineral products to prepare and dye the cloth.
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