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Woodblock printing – a craft worth preserving

 

Ever since we started manufacturing in India in the early 1990s, I have been keen to have parts of any given collection produced at one of the many small block printing workshops there. It’s a constant concern to me that this age-old technique might vanish because of consumer preference for perfectly uniform garments at exceedingly low prices. But the year is 2020, and it feels like crafts and small-scale production are making a comeback. Authenticity and a personal touch have become more important than the lowest price. To an old textile lover such as myself, that’s a happy development.

 

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In preparation for writing this piece on BLOCK PRINTING, I dug through my picture archive and found a great many photos of workshops and places all around the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s an area that specialises in artisanal block printing, both on fabrics and on various types of paper. In fact, some of the labels for our homeware items are manufactured here, at a small printers that works with handmade paper. It’s a tiny little place, located in a narrow Jaipur alley.

 

Our archive is full of block-printed garments. I don’t always remember which year the garments or the collections were launched, nor at which workshop the printing was done, but it’s always a small workshop run by a family who pursue block printing as a side business to agriculture. During harvest season, the agricultural side of their business has to come first, and all other production grinds to a halt. The same is true during monsoon season in June/July, as the garments are air-dried outside.

 

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BLOCK-PRINTED ROSES ON A GREEN FABRIC

This garment is probably from a 2001 collection, or thereabouts. I remember the photograph being taken in Tanzania. We were on our way there when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened in New York. I recall how unsafe it felt to be travelling the day after this seismic event had sent shockwaves around the world. The tunic is a wonderfully comfortable piece that I still take with me when I travel to tropical regions.

 

 

 

 

 

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Björn, Mr. Bimal and I in Jodhpur 

This is a picture from one of my first trips to India. It was May, it was incredibly hot, and we were visiting various artisanal workshops in Rajasthan. These days, I avoid travelling to India during the hottest month of May. I have experienced 45°C, and it really is very hot! The hotels, workshops and cars had no air conditioning, which made the heat quite unbearable on some days. The Bimals are a large family, with their many sons, and their respective families, all living under the same roof (in the parents’ house). It was the father who started the business. I was fascinated to learn about all the complex relationships in this large family of at least 30. We mostly visited screen-printing workshops on this particular trip, to look at shawls the Bimal family were producing for us.

 

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A grey BLOCK-PRINT blouse

This grey blouse still hangs in my wardrobe to this day. I vividly remember our visit to the block-printing workshop where it was printed, though whether this was in Jaipur or Jodhpur escapes me. They had laid out the garments they were working on for our delivery so that we could have a look. Besides grey, this blouse was available in two more colourways. It came with a trimmed neckline, and the sleeves and body had individual patterns. This is about as complicated as it gets if it’s done by means of small-scale artisanal printing rather than industrial mass production. 

 

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Plant-based or hand-made dyes

Block-printed garments are often dyed with hand-made dyes in hues such as indigo, madder red, black, or various shades of yellow. All the dyes are made from natural ingredients. Indigo in particular is fascinating to us as the dying takes place inside deep pits with a dye bath that is used over and over. The black dye is derived from scrap iron, which is left to ferment in a bucket, while the red dye is often derived from madder roots or cochineals (small scale insects).

 

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About 100 km from Jodhpur, a town called Balotra 

This town is one of the centres of traditional block printing, and a hub of small workshops. Many of the craftspeople can be found sitting outside their workshops, carving wooden blocks with great skill and speed. I recall our supplier describing one of our designs as “the hardest thing we’ve ever done”. Because when you’re sat in Stockholm sketching a design with lots of intricate detailing, you’re quite unaware of the difficulty it will entail for the people who are to print, embroider and sew together the dress that you so effortlessly painted on a piece of watercolour paper.

 

 

 

 

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BLOCK PRINTS in our home assortment

Right now, we’re working on a home collection that will contain a whole host of different block-printed items: curtains, tablecloths, seat cushions, and more. In this instance, we’re not going to use the traditional plant-based dyes because they only come in a limited number of hues. We want a vibrant range of pinks, reds, greens, and blues, and so we will have to use “modern” dyes which incidentally also provide excellent colourfastness to washing and sunlight. 
 

As I am writing this, I am rummaging through my personal archive of block-printed fabric samples, awed by the beauty and perfect imperfection of genuine craftsmanship. At the same time, I am dreaming of being able to travel to India again, once this crisis has passed. Right now, many factories there are closed. Transport is halted. Planes are grounded. This global pandemic, unprecedented in its scale, is proving to be a hard test for all of us.

 

 

 

Read chapter 1 - "A family-run knitting factory in Dongguan" here »

Read chapter 2 - "Embroideries – the craft and the people behind it" here »

Read chapter 3 - "Our 25-year love affair with organic cotton" here »