Hand block printing is a centuries old art form popular in India, China, and many other East Asian countries. It is also referred to simply as “block printing” or “woodblock printing.”
In India, this ancient printing technique utilizes a hand-carved teak wood block that is dipped in dye and stamped by hand onto cotton or silk. The result is truly unique, hand block printed fabric that connects us to a rich tradition and history of handmade crafts.
There are two main types of block printing methods used for Passion Lilie's fabrics: pigment dyeing, primarily used on a white based fabric as the dye sits on top of the fabric, and reactitive dyeing- used with a dark base fabric as the dye reacts with the fabric and changes the base color of the fabric.
The Process: Pigment Dyeing
Carving The Block
A master block maker traces the chosen motif or design onto a wooden block, usually made of teak, a deciduous hardwood tree native to India. The wood block is oiled and sanded before the craftsman carefully chips away at the block, leaving behind the desired design for the stamp. In traditional block printing, the design itself is most often a traditional Indian motif, which is typically influenced by the nature, beliefs, and customs of the region. These motifs regularly take the form of geometric patterns, animals, or plants. At Passion Lilie, we use both traditional blocks as well as contemporary geometric and floral blocks.
The base fabric may be white or a color. At Passion Lilie, we often use fabrics with a base color other than white. The mill that produces the organic cotton fabric, dyes and prepares the base fabric so that it is ready to be block printed. Fabrics that have a colored base are more expensive,because of the extra dyeing steps and they are usually dyed through a reactive dye process. Read more about our reactive dye process below.
Mixing the Color
For every Passion Lilie collection and design, we create a color palette. We use the universal Pantone colors as a reference. The organic dyes come in a few different base colors and those colors are carefully mixed together to match the desired Pantone shade. Color matching is an art of its own.
Preparing the Fabric
The fabric is laid flat on a table, and fixed firmly to the table with pins. Although small variations in the printing are part of what make Indian block print fabrics so special, a single unwanted movement can result in smudges or uneven printing that mean starting over again.
A special wood table is used for block printing. The table is usually 6 meters in length, by 50 inches wide and has at least 10 layers of jute fabric, a blanket layer and a thick cotton sheet on the top that is tightly tucked in from all sides of the table. All of these layers help the block print to properly absorb and print onto the fabric.
Once the colors are mixed, the master block printer pours the dyes onto a rolling dye tray. The tray has several layers of gauze cloth. The type of block- delicate and light or heavy and full of color, determines the number of layers of gauze that are needed for the dye to properly spread across the block.
The block is then dipped in dye and stamped firmly by hand onto the fabric. This requires a certain amount of force, often achieved either by hitting the stamp by hand or with the aid of a hammer. If the design incorporates multiple colors, then each is applied separately with its own block, after the previous color has dried. The more colors in a garment, the more time consuming and hence costly the fabric.
Washing & Curing
Once the dye has dried, the completed block printed fabric is sent for washing and curing. The fabric is washed by hand using a sustainable water source and hung to dry in the sun. Just as the method of washing reduces water consumption, this sustainable method of drying the fabric minimizes energy consumption for a smaller environmental footprint than many manufactured processes. Once the fabric has dried, it sent for curing.
Good hand block printing requires skill and plenty of practice in order to create uniformity and clear block printing patterns. Many of the block printers Passion Lilie works with have at least 25 years of experience. Even for master block printers, tiny variations in the process are part of what gives Indian block print fabric such a unique charm. Sometimes these variations are the only way to tell the difference between screen printed and block printed fabrics.
Reactive dyeing is a process where the dyes absorb and change the base color of the fabric during the curing process. Because of the handmade nature of this method of dyeing, every piece of fabric is unique and variations in color are normal. All dyes used in this process are eco- friendly GOTS certified organic dyes.
This technique requires several additional steps to the block printing process. Before the fabric is printed, a binder is formed by soaking Gum Arabic resin crystals in water for a day. The fabric is then hand block printed as described above.
Once the fabric is printed, each fabric piece is wrapped in recycled newspaper and steamed for a whole day. The fabric is then washed and cured in the sun so the colors can develop. If a second or third color is used then each step has to be repeated. After printing, steaming, and washing the Gum Arabic residue is removed leaving behind a super soft fabric.
How to Care for Your Block Printed Fabrics
For best results, we recommend machine washing with mild detergent in cold water and line drying.
Wash colors separately. Do not soak block printed fabrics and do not dry them in direct sunlight.