Block-printed Textiles: Perfect Imperfections of the Human Hand

Block-printed textiles are popping up in everything from high end fashion and home decor to DIY projects on Pinterest; however, block printing is not a newfound trend. It is an age- old art with deep roots in ancient civilizations ranging from China and Egypt to Assyria. For centuries, block printing has been used to embellish religious cloths, billowing skirts, saris and robes for royalty. Block-printed fabrics showcase the perfect imperfections of the human hand— the sensibilities and skills of real craftsmanship. To put it simply, every bolt of fabric and scarf or sarong made using these types of textiles is unique.

The process of block printing takes time, teamwork and a high degree of skill—required for both the placement of motifs and the application of pressure. Depending on the amount of pressure that’s applied to the block stamp, each piece of fabric showcases varying levels of color depth and dye absorption—taking on the style of the artisan who created it. This unique and time-intensive process means no two pieces of fabric are the same.

Piece & Co. is dedicated to keeping the craft of block printing viable by providing a sustainable livelihood to villages and families. Currently, we work with co-ops in India, Indonesia and Vietnam who specialize in hand block printed textiles. Piece & Co. has partnered with Rachel Roy on a collection of block-printed tech and travel carrying cases, with Nordstrom on sarongs hand loomed by Indian artisans using traditional ikat and block-printing techniques and with FEED on bags and pouches that are perfect travel companions for summer adventures. The growing appreciation of this craft in urban and export markets continues to help keep it alive.

Step-by-Step Process:
STEP 1: A design is drawn or transferred on to a wooden block called a bunta.

STEP 2: The wood block is then hand carved, leaving the most delicate work until last to avoid the risk of damaging it. Trained craftsmen make the blocks out of seasoned teak wood. Various point marks are carved into the block which printers use as placement indicators. When finished, the block presents the appearance of a flat relief carving. Each block is soaked in oil for one and one half to two weeks to soften the wood before use.

STEP 3: The printer applies color to the block and presses it firmly on the cloth. He or she ensures a good impression by striking it on the back with a wooden mallet. The second impression is made in the same way, with the printer taking care to see that it fits exactly to the first. Each succeeding impression is made in the same manner until the length of cloth is fully printed. Printing is done from left to right. **If the pattern contains several colors, the cloth is usually printed first with one color, dried, then printed with the second color. (The same operations are then repeated until all of the colors are printed.)

The fact that block printing is still in vogue after centuries of use is a true testament to its distinct, unique beauty. Perfection has never been its goal—every time the fabric is hand stamped, it is unique. Perhaps it is this authentic, rustic feeling that consumers crave, a lean towards the past with a nod towards the traditions of our ancestors.