Learning about block printing in Jaipur, India

Block printing workshop, Jaipur, India

I’ve been back from India for two weeks — and granted it’s been a week of brain fog and a week of work mayhem — but I still have yet to figure out how to describe the trip to anyone. It was such a rich and immersive experience, it felt like we were there much longer than we were, and I really struggle to summarize it. I loved it so much. Even just trying to write about the workshop aspect for the sake of the blog, I feel like I can either write a postcard or a book; anything in between is impossible. So I’ve decided to write you a postcard (is how it feels, anyway) and say the same thing I’ve been saying to my husband and friends who want to hear about it: Ask me a question! And I will elaborate accordingly.

Wood block printing at the studio of Brigitte Singh

The core of the trip was an Ace Camps workshop on block printing in Jaipur, Rajasthan, led by my collaborator and friend Jen Hewett, and it was a better experience than I had even hoped. We actually had three teachers. First, Jen taught a version of the handprinting process that can be done at home using readily available art supplies, since carving a wood block is obviously a very specialized/localized skill. (The at-home method can also be learned from her book Print, Pattern, Sew.) She demonstrated how to create repeats and other techniques, and we practiced printing either on yardage or whatever finished goods we’d brought. My best result was a set of scarves I printed with a super-simple motif inspired by the giant paving stones at the Taj Mahal, which I had the honor of visiting beforehand. During the first phase of the workshop, we also took a field trip to the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing to learn about the history of block printing in the region, and got to see master printers at work there and in a visit to Brigitte Singh’s beautiful compound (above), where we also got to see the carving process. All of which was groundwork to be followed by two brilliant days printing with wood blocks in Bagru studios, learning from local experts.

Mud resist workshop, Ojjas, Bagru
Mud resist indigo dyeing, Bagru, India

Our second teacher, first day in Bagru, was Raj (above) whose company, Ojjas, is part of a collective of manufacturers committed to sustainable practices such as using natural dyes and recycling the water involved. With Raj and her team, we learned about mud resist (dabu), using their wood blocks to print with their specially-made mud on fabric, which we then sprinkled with sawdust and laid out in the sun to dry. We did two pieces — a practice print and a finished scarf — which were variously dipped into vats of kashish or indigo, then another round of mud resist and a dip in the same or opposite dye, depending, for a variety of final results. (Naturally, Jen’s was amazing.) It was a day with a lot of downtime, waiting as each step dried in the sun, and my favorite part was listening to Raj talk about the relationship between climate and textile traditions in different parts of India, as well as the current state of the business of block printing.

Wood block printing workshop, Jai Texart, Bagru, India
Wood block printing workshop, Jai Texart, Bagru, India

And then our second day in Bagru, the last official day and culmination of the workshop, our third teacher was Hemant of Jai Texart (in the blue apron, above) — an unforgettable experience that I wish I could repeat. We’d had the opportunity to submit artwork ahead of time for the carvers to convert to a wood block, which we received upon arrival in Jaipur. After giving a short talk about natural and synthetic dyes and then showing us the grounds and their various capabilities (during which we helped mordant fabric for the next group), Hemant taught us some best practices for block printing, set us up with a series of tasks to perform and get the hang of, and then we got to print a giant stole using our custom blocks and any of theirs they had laid out for us, and our choice of four natural dyes. Not having made anything I especially loved on dabu day (when I let perfectionism get the better of me), I was feeling extra pressure to leave with a treasure, and I’m exceptionally happy with how mine turned out.

One-of-a-kind block printed scarf by Karen Templer

But far more than what I made, what I truly treasure is what I got to see and learn and, most of all, the people we got to meet, who were so generous in showing us their craft. As exquisite as block-print textiles are, I feel like they are one of those things that are easy to overlook or take for granted in our age of mechanized and digitized everything. I mean, how many people even realize it’s a handcraft, or marvel at the fact that it persists to this day? It is incredible that there are still artisans who painstakingly carve designs into chunks of wood, dyers who extract inks to be used with them, printers (human beings, not machines) who stand at long tables — padded by layer upon layer of burlap — dipping those mostly 6″ or 8″ wood blocks into a little wooden tray of ink and stamping the design onto fine cotton muslin, repeating each stamp across the fabric (without any markings or guidelines), then going back over the same ground with the next color, one block at a time, until they’ve created yardage. And these are skills that have been passed down through generations across centuries. Experiencing it all first-hand has given me a whole different level of appreciation for it.

Wood block printed fabric, Jaipur, India

See? I barely told you anything at all and yet this is six paragraphs long, so please ask me anything you want to know more about, and I will happily oblige. It’s an experience I’m profoundly grateful for and eager to discuss.

.

23 thoughts on “Learning about block printing in Jaipur, India

  1. How marvelous for you to have a worthy trip to India to learn so much information to use in your sewing! Thank you for sharing.

    • I’m definitely more interested in finding ways to incorporate Indian hand block printed fabric in one way or another.

  2. Your stole is gorgeous! As are all the photos. I have taken some craft classes just to understand the complexities of making something, rather than the idea of taking up that craft. As you say, it gives you a whole other level of appreciation for handwork. Those wood blocks are small works of art in their own right.
    And a Q – when they go over the prints for a second or third time, is it always with a different block? Or do they use the same block to deepen or change the colors on the fabric? Or both?

    • Could be either or both. Mostly the next pass would be the next color — such as the side-by-side blocks above that form the little black and blue floral print, or the several different colors that make up that giant botanical motif in the Singh photos. But in a case where there is a large area of solid coverage (like the circles at the center of my scarf) it does require multiple hits with the same color.

  3. We avoided Jaipur because of the elephants being ridden at the fort there, but your photos are beautiful and illustrate so many lovely things about India that we also experienced. Can’t wait to hear more

    • That’s a shame because Jaipur is amazing. The fort is on the outskirts, technically in Amer — you can go to Jaipur and not go to the fort — but it’s also the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. We didn’t go up to it (and definitely did not ride an elephant), just drove past on our way into Jaipur and again when we went to Anokhi, and stopped to look from the road in awe.

  4. What an adventure, and block printing, too! I love block printing! An unforgettable experience, thanks so much for sharing! And the colors…

  5. Oh my gosh. Heaven and then some in my book. I not only love the aesthetic of block printing but also the amazing scent of the inks on the finished textile. What a remarkable experience and beautiful first telling. Bring on the postcards!

  6. What a marvelous experience. :) Can you please correct the spelling of “Anokhi” in your post? Anokhi = Unique, special (feminine form of the adjective). Looks like you had an anokhi time for sure.

    I’ve a bag full of block printed garments that I’ve worn to tatters but want to repurpose somehow. One of these days. I was also lucky to find worn wood blocks at a flea market in India, the intricate carving is so amazing. And as you saw, they put layer upon layer of prints with no guidelines and most of the time it is pretty perfect.

    I hope you’ll go again to India and visit another region to discover its unique textile traditions. The south is famous for handloomed silk saris, with real gold thread in the borders. The patolas of Patan are mind-boggling, the fabric woven with both warp and weft tie-dyed, and so absolute precision is a requirement.

    • Ack! Sorry about the typo and thanks for catching it. But it’s also fun to know the misspelling is another word, and its meaning.

      I would absolutely love to go back again and get to see the wovens in the south. They were scarce even in the fabric shops we were in, which were obviously much more heavily stocked with the local block prints, so that’s a dream trip now.

  7. Thanks for sharing about these amazing workshops! I bought so many clothes in India but wasn’t sewing yet, so my biggest regret now is not buying a zillion yards of fabric!

    • I bought surprisingly little fabric! Just a length of a b/w stripe from Jai Texart and a piece of khadi from Khadi Ghar. I found the block print selection at the shops completely overwhelming — there was so much of it and it was all so amazing. But I bought several little block-printed kerchiefs and a pair of block-printed pajamas, a total treasure souvenir.

  8. WOW!!! That is a fascinating, amazing, and beautiful post!!!
    And if that wasn’t enough, generously replete with links to boot!!
    Thank you for the wonderful visual and written essay!
    I’d love to try this at home- and I happen to do (art) printing already, so I’m going to attempt doing the blocks too!
    Thanks 🙏

  9. Thank you for sharing! It’s just amazing to see the printers working in the photo with no guidelines or anything. Just this brief postcard and photos has given me so much more appreciation for the artists and their textiles! I love how your stole piece turned out!

  10. Thanks for sharing Karen, yours photos and words take us there too! I loved your postcard. I’ve been to India twice, a family trip in the south with young children and in Gujarat to learn massage, but I dream of going back with a fiber focus, as a plant-dyer, your experience is a dream!
    Sophie

  11. Such a beautiful post, Karen. And your length of fabric is gorgeous! I would display it somewhere….in a manner in which you can pull it down and swath it around you when you please.

    I remember visiting Jaipur a couple of decades ago….The Pink City….and how gorgeous it was. There are some beautiful hotels there that were once palaces. We even met “Bubbles”, whom I believe was the last Maharaja of the area, before titles were done away with. There is so, so, so much to explore in India, and the way that you hunkered down and really immersed yourself in the art and craft particular to that region, is a great start. Sounds like you fell in love and my guess is, you will go back. We are about to make our 4th trip in December.

  12. I have some garments and tablecloths that were block printed in India. I got them from https://maiwa.com/ , a wonderful store for makers and people who love things made by hand, in Vancouver, BC.

    Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your visit!

  13. Oh my goodness. I loved reading your post so much, it took me back for just a little while. And I love seeing all the photos from your perspective!
    I know exactly what you mean about trying to tell people about the trip. There was SO MUCH – I’m still trying to digest and distill what I learned and decide what I want to do with my new knowledge – crafty knowledge as well as world knowledge and social activism goals. Whenever someone asks about my trip, it’s so hard to summarize it at the moment, but later in conversation something will trigger a particular memory and I’ll have plenty to share. Like you said – ask questions and I’ll answer!

    I’ve also been working to blog bits of the trip. There’s so much more that I want to show and tell than I can really do on Instagram. And even at one post per day I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface!

  14. Your trip looks so amazing. How much of your trip was with Ace Camps versus additional planning of your own. I guess I can only ask this after the fact, would you go on your own? Purely asking in regards to Ace Camps getting you to where you need be and doing all the wonderful things you experienced. I have done very little travel, but I would like to do some creative hands on things and it would be nice to join a group and feel comfortable that I don’t have to talk someone from home into going with me.

Leave a Reply