Everything you ever wanted to know about hand block printing in India?
- From the makers of TOAI's hand block printed bedsheets
This article is your final and absolute guide to everything that you ever wanted to know about block printing. It also contains several fun facts to help you understand the specifics of professional block printing techniques. For instance, how many hours does it take to create a block-printed bedsheet? How many artisans does it typically take? Why are printing blocks still made of wood? What is 'Aachada'? and so much more. So, let's start without any further delays.
How does the block printing story start?
Block Printing story starts from the wooden printing blocks themselves. And the story of wooden printing blocks starts from the desktops of fabric designers. These days, designs are created using software applications such as Photoshop-illustrator and Coral by trained designers and sent to manufacturers. Manufacturers print the design out on paper and stick them onto smoothened wooden blocks. Artisans then chisel wood from the spaces between the lines of the design. It is a time-taking process, but at the end of the process, the only thing that remains is the carved-out design on the wooden block. The images below show how a wooden block is carved by hand. You can see ample sample of printing blocks by clicking here.
Fun facts about block making process:
1. What is the average size of a typical wooden block?
2. How much time does it take to create a typical wooden block?
3. Why have we not replaced wood with other, more commonly available materials such as plastic?
4. Where is the biggest hub, in India, for block creation?
Think, think, think …now here are the answers:
1. There is no average size of a wooden printing block. It can be as small as a few centimeters or as large as a few feet, but the usual maximum length and breadth are 25 to 30 centimeters or 12 inches. Blocks more giant than 12 inches become cumbersome to handle hence larger designs are divided into smaller sections, and separate blocks are created for each section.
2. Again, wood carving is an intricate process done by hand; hence the time required depends upon the design. A detailed design on a block as big as 12 inches on one side might take up to three weeks when carved by a single artisan. Smaller and simpler blocks might take four or five days.
3. Wooden blocks have several benefits over other more commonly available materials such as plastic or metals. Listed below are some of the essential attributes of wood that make it most suitable for block creation:
• The wooden surface can be chiseled and made perfectly smooth and delicate for block printing. This refinement cannot be easily achieved on other materials.
• There is slightly more scope for modification on wooden blocks when compared to other materials.
• Wooden blocks are as robust as their metal counterparts but as light to handle as their plastic competitors. Hence, even to this date, wooden blocks are more preferred than others.
4. No, Rajasthan is not the most popular hub for creating blocks. Contrary to what most people think, small cities such as Farrukhabad in western Utter-Pradesh, are the most popular destinations for block-making artisans.
How are blocks prepared for printing?
It is commonly assumed that the blocks are ready for printing as soon as they are carved. However, this is not so. A process called 'Block Oiling' is necessary before they get ready for printing.
Wooden blocks are submerged in oil buckets for four to five days. During this period, wooden blocks absorb oil in-between their fibers. This process provides a two-fold benefit:
1. The printed design, using the oiled wooden blocks, gets a consistent texture; otherwise, they look patchy.
2. Wooden blocks do not absorb color pigments while printing. Hence they can be cleaned easily and reused for another project.
Therefore, if you want a professional texture to your designs, don't forget to follow this one big secret.
Pigment preparation for printing:
Pigment preparation is an exciting process. Artisans can select from a wide variety of synthetic and natural pigments. Don't worry if you don't have all shades in your palette. Even professionals mix colors to create new shades and work with them. For instance, if the color maroon is required, then feel free to take red color initially and then slowly mix black in it till you create just the right shade for yourself. If you ever need to explain exact colour shades to artisans, you can refer to by Panteon SHADE-CARD.
From the different fabric pigments available, TOAI uses natural pigments. This has several benefits. For instance, it has health advantages specifically for people with allergies. It is sustainable and brings out vibrancy in colors.
Once you have selected your pigment type and shade, the next most important aspect is a binder. Binders play an essential part in making the colors durable. If we do not select a suitable binder, we will face a color leeching problem every time we wash our fabric.
So, once you have a binder in a bucket like container, you should start mixing the right amount of pigment to it.
Fun facts about pigment and printing:
1. How do professionals print ten, twenty fabric pieces, such as bedsheets, without running out of the pigments on their blocks?
2. How are the bedsheets kept free from pigment splashes and dabs?
Think, think, think, now here are the answers:
The answer to both questions is the stool-like structure you notice in our image below, with a pigment palette on top.
Once a block has been dipped in paint, it can be used to create two to three impressions; artisans must re-dip the block to make different prints. This process is cumbersome, and it is impossible for artisans to keep running for re-dipping their blocks. Thus, this stool structure with wheels at the bottom and color on top resolves this problem. Artisans can easily carry wheeled paint palettes, making the printing process much easier for them, especially when many fabric pieces have to be printed.
The printing block is not directly dipped into color, this is to prevent color splashes and spots on the fabric. It is instead pressed lightly on a thick piece of fabric, kept on top of the stool structure, and thoroughly soaked in pigment.
Wooden blocks are lightly pressed on this fabric, soaked in pigment, and then lightly placed on the bedsheet or the fabric to be printed. This way, wooden blocks pick just the right amount of paint for printing and there is no dripping.
This is again an important trick to keep your overall fabric clean during hand printing.
How do you prepare the printing table?
Trust me. This is the most crucial part of professional printing. Fabric to be printed on, such as bedsheets, table covers, etc., cannot be just placed loosely on a flat surface to be printed. They also cannot be simply pinned on a table because uneven surfaces will cause uneven printing; hence a unique printing table is created to resolve all problems.
This unique printing table is wrapped with multiple layers of fabric on it. These layers of fabric smoothen any irregularities on the table and guarantee a consistent printed, finished product. This method becomes especially important because there are limited resources available in villages, and often workers have to work on uneven table surfaces.
This unique technology solves two more important issues that come up in printing. Can you guess what they are?
One, the layers of fabric wrapped on the table absorb excess pigment and give a fine finish; otherwise, pigments look smeared on the cloth.
Second, it becomes easy for us to pin and firmly fix the bedsheets on the table. Else an elaborate mechanism would have been necessary.
Fun facts about printing table:
1. How many layers of cloth are typically wrapped around the printing table?
2. What is Aachada?
You will be surprised that almost forty layers of fabric are wrapped on printing tables. Sometimes, this number might go up to fifty or sixty.
When a fabric such as a bedsheet is block printed, the top-most wrapped fabric on the table also absorbs some pigment. After several bedsheets or table cloths have been printed, the top-most wrapped fabric becomes unusable. It is called Aachada fabric. It, however, contains a beautiful collage of designs created due to pigment absorption. Also, each Aachadas is unique as none are intentionally or thoughtfully created, via a defined process, hence making them valuable.
Once Aachada becomes unusable, it is removed from the table and sold in the market along with other handcrafted products. Sometimes, they are turned into aprons or cushion covers as well. This is an excellent example of recycling in block printing process.
A professional's guide, secret tips, and tricks for the most refined block-printing finish.
Secret Tip 1:
One of the most critical aspects that artisans ensure before starting the printing process is the quality of blocks. Even for a simple bedsheet design with borders, at least nine to ten different blocks are required. There is a different block for each color and design.
To get the best results, block printed patterns should not overlap. Each block should directly print the fabric rather than the previous layer of pigment. Suppose blocks have not been carefully crafted, and their designs overlap then in that case, actual printed colors will be lost, and we will get a different combination of the color layers.
The second problem will be the loss of finesse in the final product. Especially if the second pigment layer was coated over-and-above the first layer without allowing sufficient time to let the first layer dry.
Hence, if you need to use multiple blocks, make sure that their designs do not overlap. You can see a sample of fine block printed design by clicking here.
Secret Tip 2:
Just guess how many artisans and hours are required to create one complete hand-block printed bedsheet.
Almost four to five artisans must work on a bedsheet for almost four hours before completing it. Hence, an extensive infrastructure is required, with long rows of printing tables and sufficient space for bedsheet drying to make a block-printing unit economically viable. (In comparison, a machine-printed synthetic bedsheet takes just a few minutes to be produced.)
With this enormous requirement of manual time and effort, professional artisans work in well-coordinated manner with each other. One artisan works with only one block at-a-time. Once he completes printing, he moves on to the next bedsheet or table cover. His place is taken by another artisan, who prints with another block and moves on, providing space for the next person. This ensures the smooth processing of the most delicate bedsheets.
Secret Tip 3:
We have discussed a lot about printing tables and how bedsheets are pinned on tables for fine printing but have you thought about how large bedsheets, such as 108 inches x 108 inches in length and width, are printed on a rectangular table—having a maximum width of 50 inches?
Printing table length can be varied. It can be increased by attaching more tables or decreased by removing some but the width is fixed.
To overcome this problem, only one side or one-half of the bedsheet is printed at one time. Once, one half is printed, it is allowed to dry for some time. Then it is taken off and the other half is mounted and pinned on the printing table. This limitation increases the printing time of larger fabrics such as bedsheets.
Secret Tip 4:
Have you ever wondered why small places such as Jaipur, Sanganer, Badmeir in Rajasthan are essential destinations for hand-block printing artisans?
Block printed fabrics required warm weather to absorb pigment into the dried fabric quickly. Also, once bedsheets have been printed, they require sufficient space, warm air, and sunlight to dry for a couple of hours.
If these factors are not met, then there are chances of fabric pigment spreading out and giving the printed bedsheet a dirty look. Rajasthan's towns and villages meet all these conditions almost throughout the year and hence it's no wonder that they are the most favored destination for block-printing.
This is also the reason why hand-block printed bedsheets are often referred to as Jaipuri bedsheets, Sanganeri bedsheets, or Rajasthani bedsheets.
With this, we end our fantastic journey of how artisans struggle to make one fine piece of handcrafted bedsheet, the required infrastructure, different environmental conditions, and processes. You must have also noticed that block-printing techniques carries all the ethos, such as recycling and refurbishing, of TOAIArt. To know more about our ethos, please visit About Us. page. I am sure you are now well-equipped with complete knowledge of block printing.
I wish you happy shopping for beautiful and genuine handcrafted creations on TOAIArt.com.