What is Indian block printing?

In January 2024, our founder Joanna headed to Jaipur in India to visit traditional wood block printing workshops. This is where we met the artisans and saw how the blocks are carved by hand, the intricate details picked out with chisels. Browsing the archive of blocks was also incredible! 

The carving process starts with a paper design placed over the block which is then ‘punched’ through with metal chisels about 1cm deep. Shesham wood (Indian rosewood) is used because it is dense and durable. Each colour and each motif proposed in the design must be on a separate block because they are applied at different times. The blocks are soaked in mustard oil for a week to ensure they do not warp later.

block carving wood blocks India

The base fabric is pinned onto a long table to ensure no movement during the printing process. The dyes are prepared and added to a wooden tray with a pad. The outline of a design is usually the most complicated block and will be printed first, followed by the fill colours. The skilled workers can place the blocks in the correct place by eye, registering (lining up) the edges of the block onto the fabric where the previous block has already made a print.

wood block printing in India

In India, natural dyes were used for textiles for centuries, here are just some of them:

Indigo – a plant producing a deep blue

Indian madder – a plant producing reds, pinks and oranges

Gallnut – a nut producing ivories, pale yellows and greys

Lac – a resin from the kerria lacca beetle, this makes strong reds and violet

Acacia catechu – this is the heartwood of a tree which produces a brown colour

Mulberry – this plant produces a green

Pomegranate – the peel of the fruit produces a khaki or grey

These natural dyes are still used today but require a ‘mordant’, a special chemical which helps bind the dye to the fabric. The colours can also be modified by the use of other substances that can change their PH (acid or alkali). As these are all natural substances, the colour fastness will reduce over time, creating a more faded palette.

With modern chemical alternatives, the binding process is automatic and so mordants are not necessary. The colours tend to be brighter than natural dyes and remain so after washing. With modern dyes, it is important to use those which are ‘azo-free’, meaning they do not contain harmful chemicals to humans, nor do they pollute the environment.