The History of Block Print & Hand Block Printing in India

The History of Block Print & Hand Block Printing in India

Jun 1, 2024

What is block printing?

Block printing is an ancient art form that uses hand-carved wooden blocks to imprint designs onto fabric or paper. 

The History of Block Printing

The history of block print is woven through the tapestry of many different cultures, from ancient Egypt to Rome, however, most historians point to China as the origin of this art. The first and oldest evidence of block printing dates back to May 11th of the year 868, when the “Diamond Sutra” was printed in Dunhuang, China. This sixteen foot long scroll is not only an important Buddhist text, but it also happens to be the oldest printed book in human existence. 

The art of block printing is thought to have spread from China to other parts of Asia, resulting in such international art forms as Tibetan prayer flags, Indonesian batik fabrics, and the world renowned Indian block print textiles that we carry at Mexicali Blues.

Jaipur, The Paris of India

The capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur is home to over 3 million people and some of the most beautiful block print textiles in the world. Otherwise known as the “Island of Glory” this walled city is full of extravagant architecture, surrounded by an expansive desert and famous for its handmade handicrafts. The art of block printing is passed down from generation to generation and, as such, has been preserved throughout the centuries. Block printing has become synonymous with the Indian state of Rajasthan and continues to support countless families and communities throughout the region while gaining international acclaim in the fashion world. 

Indian Block Print

Mexicali owners Pete and Kim are lucky enough to have visited the farms, fields, workshops, and communities where each of our block print fabrics are made. There, they met the artisans, farmers, designers, and community members who help keep this tradition alive. Whereas many manufacturers have mechanized this process, our Indian block print textiles are made by hand, in fact by many hands, from start to finish. From seed to tapestry, the Indian block print process, a true organic art form. 

Indian Cotton

First, cotton is grown, picked, and processed, then woven or loomed into long bolts of fabric. It is then soaked, boiled, beat with sticks, and hung to dry on large bamboo racks. This hands-on process naturally shrinks and purifies the cotton, not to mention employing countless farmers, pickers, loomers, weavers, and laborers. Imagine endless lengths of white cotton billowing in the wind, drying in the desert sunshine, surrounded by the cotton fields from which they came. 

White Indian cotton drying in the desert on large wooden stands
(cotton hanging to dry in the sun)

Wooden Blocks

Next, a piece of hardwood, usually teak, sheesham, or mango, is carved into a wooden block. Artisans dedicate their entire lives to this practice, and their art as well as the art of their ancestors surrounds them, immortalized in the wooden blocks and the fabrics that they dye.

Plant Based Dyes

The next step takes place in a studio where artists boil and mix plant-based dyes, with tree sap, and metallic salts called mordants that help the color adhere to the fabric. The wooden block is then dipped into this colorful concoction and hand stamped onto the fabric. Designs can be overlaid to create different patterns and color combinations, the possibilities are literally endless. The fabric is then hung to dry in the sun to set the colors into the cotton. Some colors change with sun exposure, for example the dye that makes our bright blue colors comes from a pink berry. After drying in the sun it changes to a blue hue, and the colors of the finished product vary depending on the weather. The result is a one of a kind textile that celebrates the tradition and culture of Rajasthan.

(powdered dyes used to make block print)

Next time you buy, ask yourself... how are your textiles are made?

We are proud to support this ancient textile art and to support the artisans and communities of Jaipur that keep this tradition alive.

Check out our Indian Block Print Textile collection here.


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