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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.