What is block print fabric? Everything we learned from observing the process in Jaipur
Meet Ghanshyam Ji.
He is the master printer at Mehera Shaw, the artisans behind the block printed fabric in our new Chrysanthemum Block Print Top. Ghanshyam Ji has been a block printer at Mehera Shaw for over a decade and grew up in a block printing family, making him a true expert.
In December we had the opportunity to visit Mehera Shaw in Sanganer, just outside of Jaipur, and see Ghanshyam Ji at work. We’d been in discussions with Vishal and the Mehera Shaw team about the design of our fabric for months, but nothing compares to seeing the process in person.
Before we arrived, the blocks for the traditional floral pattern we chose to use had already been made and were ready for us. The blocks used in block printing are hand carved out of sheesham wood.
Each block must be carefully engineered to ensure it fits perfectly with the design the other blocks will leave behind. A block print pattern can require anywhere from 1-30+ blocks. The more complex a pattern, the more blocks are needed as each color in the design requires its own block. We chose a dainty print with a small repeat in earthy tones to fit Swahlee’s simple, minimalist aesthetic.
This print required 2 blocks: one for the main color and another for the black outline of the flowers.
For the fabric block printing process, lengths of fabric are stretched over long padded tables and pinned into place. The cloth needs to remain taut throughout the process to avoid unnecessary blemishes or wrinkling.
We chose an organic cotton with a sateen weave for this top, which gives it a smooth and lustrous feel and is a bit dressier than a plain cotton weave. While the blouse can be worn casually, we think this gives it more range to be dressed up as well.
One reason for our visit was to choose the final shades for the design. Ghanshyam Ji mixes the dye by hand, his eye trained through years of practice. He mixed and adjusted several shades for us to test. These dyes are azo-free, which means they are better for both people and the planet than conventional dyes.
After the dye was poured into prepared trays, it was time to begin stamping. We watched as Ghanshyam Ji deftly placed and stamped the block over and over. Each placement of the block is followed by a thump as the master ensures the dye is transferred to the fabric. After stamping the first block in the background color, he changed to the next block with the accent color. Before our eyes, a blank piece of white fabric turned into a masterpiece under his skilled hand.
Once Ganshyam Ji finished with our sample prints, he hung them to dry in the bright Rajasthani sun. Placing freshly-printed fabrics in the sun allows them to dry and cure. Each piece will spend a couple of days in the sun so that the print can fully set. Next the fabric will be washed to remove excess dye.
We learned from our time with the master block printer how to tell the difference between a true hand block printed fabric and a machine printed fabric. Just like with handloom fabrics, on a true block print, if you look closely, you can find the imperfections: overlaps of the edge of the blocks, drips, smudges, or other slight inconsistencies.
These perfect imperfections are evidence of the skilled human hands behind it rather than a machine. We love the idea of being adorned by this beautifully human art.
History of block print fabric
India is the home of intricate, ancient textile traditions. Since Swahlee’s beginning we’ve incorporated handloom fabrics into our collection. This time we’re excited to introduce block print in the Capsule 2.0.
While no one seems to know for sure exactly when block printing reached India, it is thought to have been an integral part of culture since around the 12 century, A.D.
Hand block print fabric reached its peak during the Mughal period when the royals implemented it as part of their wardrobes and design. During the British occupation, block printing took a massive hit as British factories began mass-producing synthetic look-alikes. It is even said that, due to policies during British rule, locals in India found themselves all but forced to purchase the imitations of their own craft. While block printing may have come close to dying, it is now alive and well within the cultures of several Indian states, the most well-known of which is Rajasthan.
Family, tradition, & textiles
For many many families in Rajasthan, this traditional art form is more than a job; it is a way of life and culture. It is tradition. In a society where family means everything, block printing has become a legacy to be passed down through generations.
We found this to be especially true in Bagru, a village that lies about an hour outside the city of Jaipur. For hundreds of years, the people of Bagru have created beautifully patterned fabrics with a unique method of block printing that has come to be known as “Bagru” after the name of the village itself. The village of Bagru is famous for mud-resist, naturally-dyed textiles.
In Bagru, we visited Mahesh Patel’s family business. Everyone in his block printing business is a family member. Mahesh showed us each step of Bagru’s unique process, known as Dabu print.
First, as in direct block printing, mud-resist printing uses wooden blocks. However, instead of dye, the printing blocks are used to apply a patterned layer of mud.
This is no ordinary mud. It is a mixture of dirt, lime, tree gum, or other ingredients. Every artisan family has a slightly different recipe.
The mud is then allowed to dry on the fabric before the cloth is dipped into a vat of natural dye. When the fabric is pulled out, the mud remains, blocking the dye from adhering to the fabric in the shape of the printed design.
The fabric is laid out to dry and cure in the sun. Once this step is complete, the mud is removed, the cloth is washed, and the final processing is done.
In Bagru most printers use natural dyes sourced from vegetables, minerals, and other naturally occurring sources to create famous Bagru colors such as indigo blue, black, red, and maroon.
The importance of supporting block print fabric makers in India
During our time in Rajasthan, we learned how intricately connected family, tradition, and textiles are. Block printing is a skill passed down from generation to generation. By partnering with these artisans, we are a part of preserving this heritage of art on fabric.
At Swahlee, we are committed to ethical sustainability. That means using only natural fabrics made by fairly-paid, justly-treated people.
We love using block print fabric from India because we believe in empowering local artists and promoting traditional art forms.
True to our commitment, we sourced 100% sustainably made cotton block print fabric.
We are proud to introduce the Chrysanthemum Block Print Top as both our first block print piece and our first long-sleeve top.
Swahlee: keeping tradition alive while paving new paths forward
We believe in preserving beautiful traditions while ensuring that our company helps pave the way for everyone we interact with to live a better life.
Our workshop employs talented women who enjoy their work and the freedom it brings them. Our suppliers are known for treating their employees fairly and ensuring that justice and sustainability are pillars of their processes.
By shopping with Swahlee, you are directly and positively impacting multiple seamstresses and artisans. Every purchase matters to someone and, through your buying power, you can transform lives across the globe.
Thank you for being part of keeping the tradition of block printing alive.