The idea of using an object to impress repeated designs on cloth can be traced to prehistoric times. The first application of colour to cloth was probably by hand. This progressed to twigs and brushes, then stamps made from clay, metal, and wood. It evolved to the use of hand-carved wooden blocks to print cottons, silks, wools, and rayons. To ensure crisp carving and sharp detail, wood blocks are made by cutting into the end grain of dense woods.
The process of hand block printing is very intricate and interesting. The whole process starts with conception of a design. Once the design and colours have been finalised they are given to the block-maker. The number of blocks needed per design depends on the number of colours used. Colours are applied one at a time. To ensure that each subsequent colour registers properly, blocks are often cut to shape or have registration notches cut into them. The block-maker may take up to 80 hours to carve a single colour block.
Once the teak block has been carved, the cloth to be printed is stretched out and pinned at each end to fix it. A tray is filled with the pigment and the block is placed into it to collect the accurate amount of dye. The tray, which contains a metal grid with layers of fabric laid on top, is filled with dye. The dye soaks through the fabric, which then acts as an ink pad against which the block is to be pressed. The block is then placed carefully on the fabric and struck with the heel of the printer’s hand. The process is repeated until the entire cloth is covered. This means that the cloth can be stamped over a 1000 times for three metres. Each colour has its own block and each colour is lined up using tiny markers in the blocks. Natural dyes are affected more by the weather and printing has to stop completely over the Rainy season. The more colours used the greater is the time and labour required for cutting the blocks and printing the cloth.
Credit: Thanks to India Net for enlightening us on the process of Block Printing.