Block print: the art of sustainable fabric design

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There’s something truly special about a fabric that’s been carefully decorated with traditional block print. Unique through its beautiful imperfection, its exquisite patterns speak of the skill, patience and precision of the artisan’s hands in creating such authentic fabric art. Each piece of women’s fashion that is created from these stunning hand block printed materials is a joy to wear. 

What is block printing?

This is a centuries-old technique that originated in China for printing on textiles and paper. It is theorized that Indian artisans borrowed this technique from China, and developed it into a culturally distinct form of art. It is also referred to as woodblock printing or hand block printing.

Simply put, it is a process of printing patterns, by hand, on textiles such as cotton, linen and silk, using wooden blocks. It is a slow, tedious process, but yields artistic results.  

The block printing process

The process is long and tedious, but can be explained in a few simple steps:

1. Pre-washing the fabric
The fabric is first soaked in water for 24-48 hours to remove some of the starchiness of the fibres. Many Indian artisans wash the fabric in the local rivers, a practice that makes hand block printing highly sustainable through the reduced need for water consumption. The wet lengths of fabric are beaten against the smooth river stones to render them soft, and then laid out to dry in the sun, which also acts as a natural bleach.

2. Carving the blocks
The design to be printed is first drawn on paper and then transferred to a block of wood. The design itself is usually a traditional Indian motif that draws inspiration from nature, beliefs and mythology. Flowers, fruit, birds and animals are especially popular, as well as the ideas that they signify.

The wooden block needs to be perfectly smooth, and may be sourced from a variety of trees, such as mango wood, or teak. It is maintained 2-3 inches thick to prevent warping. It is oiled in order to soften and hold colour, and smoothed before the design is carved into it. Only the most experienced carvers can make complicated designs. Also, each colour that must be used for the final design uses a different block.

3. Dyeing the fabric
The fabric is dyed its base colour. Then it is spread flat on a surface and affixed firmly with pins to prevent any movement of the fabric that could result in smudges which would necessitate the entire printing to be started over.

4. Printing
The artisan mixes 4-5 basic, natural colours and creates many dyes. The carved block is then dipped into the dye and pressed firmly on the fabric. Since it requires a firm pressing, the stamp is either hit by hand or a hammer. This process requires the steadiest hands, and is repeated over and over until the design covers the fabric. If more than one colour has to be used, the artisan will allow each colour to dry before applying the next – each with a new stamp. This is an extremely labour-intensive procedure, requiring a lot of time and precision to ensure the pattern that emerges is uniform.

5. Final washing and drying of the fabric
Once the colour has set, the fabric is washed thoroughly in the river and sun-dried. Sun-drying again is sustainable, minimizing energy consumption, and thereby leaving a much smaller carbon footprint when compared to other manufacturing processes.

6. Quality check
A final quality check is carried out after which the fabric is cut and sewn into garments.

What makes block printing special?

For a long time, it has been all about speed and using machines to produce printed fabrics en masse. In the midst of this is a product created by hand, using a technique that focuses on precision, skill and time. The painstaking effort that goes into each stage of the block printing process is fully deserving of our recognition and appreciation. Also, the fact that it is eco-friendly, through its use of natural dyes and low consumption of resources, is another very important reason to support this traditional art form.

While the technique has evolved over the centuries, its original method remains intact, lending authenticity to every hand block printed product. The human touch is very apparent, with its fascinating imperfections that cannot be replicated by machines.

The future of hand block printing

 Most ancient textile art forms are eco-friendly. So it is with hand block printing. Every aspect of its process involves sustainable practices that not just respect the planet, but celebrate it too. Thus, each block printed fabric is nothing less than a piece of art that speaks of its uniqueness, and also carries a message of sustainable fashion.

Hand block printing requires skill and plenty of practice in order to create uniform and clear block printing patterns. The tiny variations in the block printing, its vibrant and meaningful motifs, and the handmade technique of Indian block print fabric are what give it such a unique charm.

Millennials today are increasingly aware of their responsibility towards the environment and society. Slow and sustainable fashion is on the rise, with an increasing demand for natural fabrics, traditional printing techniques using natural or vegetable dyes and timeless designs. Block print is a confluence of human culture, tradition and nature. It responsibly delivers environment-friendly textile art that answers the need of the hour for sustainable fashion.

In the words of British fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood:

“Buy less. Choose well. Make it last.” 

How to care for block printed fabrics

These fabrics are delicate and may be machine-washed with a mild detergent in cold water. It is preferable to wash colours separately. Avoid pre-soaking them, or drying them in direct sunlight. 

When you buy block printed clothes…

– You support the traditional artisan in a small workshop or village in India and contribute to his livelihood

– You play a significant part in helping to reduce the carbon footprint
– You make an ethical fashion choice

The world is evolving at a rapid pace. Yet, in some small villages in India, there is a commitment to keeping alive the centuries-old tradition of block printing and delivering beautifully printed fabrics with their unique, rustic finish.

At Capsule by Juliette, we are respectful of this traditional know-how, and ensure fair work and pay conditions for our producers while offering our customers the best value for money.
We believe in slow fashion; in limited collections of timeless pieces that transcend time and trend. We are delighted to bring you stylish block printed tops, skirts, shorts, dresses and fashion accessories. Browse through our collection of block printed women’s fashion wear and accessories.

What are your thoughts on block print and sustainable fashion? Do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

You can also visit our website to discover our timeless French fashions for women.



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