Block Printing: History, Techniques and Supplies

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Those of us who like crafts love learning about new techniques and putting them into practice. That’s how I got to know and learn about block printing.

This technique consists of printing patterns by means of engraved wooden blocks. It is one of the oldest and simplest techniques of textile printing, which although it is a bit slow to do, the results you get with it are wonderful.

In this article, I will share with you everything I have learned about block print (its history, the step by step and even the different ways to perform the technique) so that you too can get closer to this technique and be surprised by the results as much as I did.

Keep reading to know more!

Block printing

What is block printing? A bit of history

The block printing technique consists of printing patterns using engraved wooden blocks.

Its origin dates back to the primitive use of this process, whose blocks of stone or wood were cut and carved in such a way as to leave impressions on surfaces of any material. But at present, this technique is used in order to decorate different textile products, such as cushions, clothes, tablecloths, etc.

Block printing is believed to have its origins in China more than 4,000 years ago, before spreading across Asia and the world. However, it is only a theory, since there are also those who claim that it was the peoples of the East, especially India, around the 12th century who created this technique.

This technique is completely handmade and only natural materials are used for its execution, both in the fabric, the dyes and the carved wooden block. The fabrics that are normally used are wool, silk and cotton. Similarly, dyes are naturally extracted from plants, seeds, minerals or soil, an example is the yellow color that is extracted from saffron or turmeric.

Textiles printed with the block printing technique can be produced in three ways: direct, resist or discharge printing.

Carved Wood Block
  • Direct Printing:

    This is done by dipping the carved block into the dye and then pressing it into the fabric so that the print is printed.
  • Discharge Printing:

    Used to create a white pattern on a colorful background. In this case, a bleaching agent is placed on the wooden blocks and pressed into the fabric to bleach and print the pattern.
  • Resist Printing:

    Wooden blocks are dipped in a waxy paste and stamped to create the pattern before the fabric is dyed the final color. Once it dries, the paste is removed and the pattern remains intact.

As for the patterns, the ones that are most often repeated are those with designs inspired by nature: plants, flowers and animals, although cultural or religious symbolisms are also incorporated.

Block printing process

The block printing process is long and tedious. Each step is equally important and requires precision, detail and patience for the final result to be wonderful.

Printing supplies

 To perform this technique you will need:

  • Carved Wood Block (or Carved Rubber Block)
  • Cotton fabric
  • Color tints
  • Table
  • Brayer

It begins by carving the block of wood to give it the desired design, this can take between 10 to 15 days and only specialized carvers can work on complex designs. In turn, a different block must be made for each color incorporated in the design. To imitate the technique in your home, you can replace the wooden block with a rubber block that is easier to carve.

Cotton fabric that will be used for printing will need to be soaked for 24 to 48 hours to remove the starch from the fibers. If dyeing is necessary, it is done at this step, and if the fabric is already dyed, it is washed to remove excess color, then dried in the sun.

The next step is to cut the fabric to size and then pin it to the print table. To have greater precision in stamping, reference lines are drawn with chalk.

Meanwhile, the colors are prepared and kept on a tray. The block is dipped into the dye or you can also apply the dye with a brayer roller to get a thin, even layer of dye over the design. If your stamp has too much ink it could ruin the stamping or drip onto the fabric. In your home, if you don’t have natural dyes, you can choose to use fabric paint.

Then, it is pressed firmly onto the fabric. This process is repeated over and over until the pattern has completely covered the fabric. If there are multiple colors in the design, let each color dry before applying the next, each with a new stamp.

Once the print is complete and the color has set, the fabric is washed and dried completely. Finally, any quality problems and the cuts or seams that have to be made are verified.

Do it yourself!

This step by step is a bit different from the others. You learn about the original process, but I offer you some alternatives so that you can imitate the technique in your home in a simpler way.

I think it is an activity that you can work with children to paint their pajamas, for example, or to decorate your house with a unique style.

Finally, after knowing the history and the process of this ancient technique, we must know that the original work with this technique is art. These textiles should be considered a work of art, in each design is the heart of the artisan, his hands and his time.

I hope you are encouraged to imitate this technique to decorate your house or your clothes, as you will see the results are incredible. It can also be an excellent gift made with your own hands for your friends or family.

Enjoy the process and always do it with love. If the result is not what you expected, try again, crafts are a matter of practice and patience.

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