In this blog post we’ll explain the various steps of the block-printing process as used by artisans in Kutch, Gujarat. It’s a long process with many steps of washing, drying, printing and dyeing.

Before we start going through all the different steps, there are two important terms that need explanation. The first is ‘mordant.’ A mordant is a substance which helps fix a natural dye onto cotton. If you have ever tried dyeing cotton with natural dyes without using a mordant you might have been happy with the initial result, but after washing it a couple of times you’ll have noticed that the natural dye washes out very quickly. By mordanting the cotton beforehand you can ensure that the natural dye remains in the cotton long-term, in other words making it lightfast and washfast. The other term is ‘resist’, as in ‘resist printing’. A resist is a substance which is block-printed on to the cotton to prevent dye from fixing onto the cotton. For example you resist print a design on to cotton and then you dip the cotton into a vat of indigo dye. The whole piece of cotton turns indigo except for the design you resist printed, which after washing appears in the original colour of the cotton.

Here’s a picture of a traditional Ajrak print. It consists of four colours, the most commonly used colours in Ajrak prints: white/natural, black, blue and red. The black dye is made from scrap iron, the blue is indigo and the red is made from madder root. Five carved woodblocks, approximately 15 by 15 centimetres in size, are required for this particular design - among them one to print the white outline, one for the black areas and one for the red areas. The blocks are typically made form seasoned shisham, Indian rosewood, or reclaimed teak. As the various steps are explained you can refer to this picture.

1st step: Washing - preparing the cotton

First of all the cotton needs to be washed. Cotton contains many impurities, some are naturally present, others are added, such as starch. Starch helps prevent the individual cotton threads from ripping during the spinning and weaving process. Starch also makes the woven cotton stiffer, which can be helpful for sewing purposes. For block-printing and dyeing, though, it’s a problem. Starch and the other impurities make the cotton less absorbent. To remove all impurities from the cotton, it’s soaked in water which contains a mixture of camel dung, soda ash and castor oil. It is then wrung out and dried in the sun. This is repeated up to 8 times until the cotton is completely free of any impurities.

Result: A piece of 100% pure, undyed cotton.

2nd step: Soaking - the 1st mordant

The first mordant used is myrobalan. Myrobalan is a tropical tree, sometimes also called cherry plum. The dried fruit of the myrobalan tree, which contains high levels of tannic acid, is ground into a powder and added to water. The cotton is soaked in it and then sun dried.

Result: A piece of 100% pure, undyed cotton ready to be dyed.

3rd step: Printing - resist printing the white outline

The first carved woodblock is used to apply a print of resist. There are two ways carved woodblocks are used; one to print colour, the other to print resist as in this step. The resist is a mixture of lime and gum arabic (babool tree resin). The print during this step shows up as the white outline in the final product.

Result: A piece of cotton with a resist print of an outline.

4th step: Printing - black dye

The second carved woodblock is used to apply a print of black dye onto the cotton. The black dye is made from iron, jaggery and tamarind seed.

Result: A piece of cotton with a resist print of an outline and a black printed design.

5th step: Printing - resist/mordant printing the red areas

The third and last carved woodblock is used to apply a combination of a resist and a mordant. The substance differs from the one used in step 3. It consists of alum, clay and gum arabic. Alum acts as a mordant during step 8 (see below). Before the resist is able to dry fine sawdust or cow dung powder is sprinkled over it.

Result: A piece of cotton with a resist print of an outline and a black printed design and a second resist printed design covered in sawdust.

6th step: Dyeing - indigo

Now is time for the first of two dyeing stages. A large vat of indigo dye is prepared and the cotton is soaked in it and then sun dried. Often the cotton will be soaked a second time in the indigo dye to ensure a uniform colour. All the areas which haven’t had any resist or black dye applied to them turn indigo. Indigo is the only natural dye which does not require a mordant.

Result: An indigo piece of cotton with a resist print of an outline and a black-printed design and a second resist printed design.

7th step: Washing - removing the resists

After it has completely dried in the sun, it is time to wash it. All the first (step 3) and second (step 5) resist prints and unfixed dye are washed off. Subsequently it’s left in the sun to dry.

Result: An indigo piece of cotton with a white outline, a now greyish black design and a slightly yellow design where the second resist was applied.

8th step: Dyeing - red

Now is time for the second stage of dyeing. The cotton is boiled in a vat of madder root dye. Madder root dye does not adhere to the areas printed with lime resist (step 3) nor the areas dyed indigo (step 6). It does, however, combine with the black dye (step 4) to create a darker black and it also adheres to areas which were mordant printed with alum (step 5) to turn a vibrant madder root red.

Result: The final product - An indigo piece of cotton with a white outline, a black design and a red design.

No doubt this post will raise more questions than it answers - please send them in and we’ll try our best to answer them.