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The History of Block Printing

Today's post is a history lesson of sorts. I love a good story so here’s one for you on the origins of block printing and why it is so important to the artisans of India.

Block printing on fabric is believed to have originated in China, about 4500 years ago. The art migrated to India, where printers would use natural plant dyes to color fabric. Indians had unparalleled expertise in the secrets of natural plant dyes and how to create color and have it adhere to cotton. Hand block printed fabrics reached new levels of visual expression in India.

Indians were exceptional at complex designs and to this day, India still has one of the most magnificent pattern vocabularies known. The patterns were coveted by Mughal emperors. The interest of the Mughals is what helped block printing flourish in India, and many of the floral motifs still used today are a result of the Mughals. In the 1700’s the English had a healthy obsession with block prints, which led to competition with the wool industry that dominated England at the time. So much so, that parliament passed an act that banned the import of cotton fabrics from India, Persia and China. This act of colonial legislation, coupled with physical abuse of Indian weavers by the British, caused the death of many small scale Indian textile industries. And in the aftermath, the British began selling their textiles in Indian markets, forcing Indians to buy cheap imitations of their own work. In that moment, the generational art of block printing and the artistic knowledge passed down for thousands of years from generation to generation, hovered on the brink of extinction.

While the industry did return, it was never quite as magnificent as it was during the era of the Mughals. Today, many of the patterns that resemble block printed fabrics used by designers are simply screen printed to mimic block printing. Some even contain imperfections to give the buyer the feel of hand printing.

Block printing is slow fashion. It is intentional and it is more important than ever to ensure this age old craft still has a place amongst the rapid production of clothing. Each block is intricately carved by hand, dipped in dye, and then stamped onto fabric. This is repeated until the fabric is fully printed. Each yard of fabric is hung in the sun to dry and set. The result is a work of art that has natural variations in color and depth, the kind that can only be created by human hands.