Clothing made using block printing — vibrant and bold prints most often found on light and airy fabrics — has a long and rich history. Did you know that buying block printed pieces can support small-scale, decentralized production, promote artisans’ access to global markets, reduce the carbon footprint and energy consumption in textile design, and celebrate a skilled craft with a long tradition? Beyond the beauty of the florals, nature-inspired, and geometric block-printed patterns, we think that’s pretty awesome.
A Brief and Vibrant History
Hand block printing originated in China some thousands of years ago, spread throughout Asia, and enjoyed its heyday in India during the reign of the Mughal Empire from 1526-1857. The Mughal Empire patronized the arts extensively, allowing this printing technique to flourish. As the British colonized the region, they purchased Indian block printed fabrics and imported them to Western Europe.
As industrial production took over across the world in the 1800s, hand block printing’s popularity faded. And with industrialization came the loss of generations of craftsmanship up until a resurgence of the block print textile aesthetic within the last century. The 1960s and 1970s brought the rise of a bohemian fashion aesthetic and renewed the global interest in Indian block printing.
These styles have staying power and Indian block printing in particular can be seen throughout contemporary fashion. The sustainable Willow Dress from Maelu honors the traditional and sustainable production techniques in a dress silhouette that’s perfect for wardrobes today.
One Block at a Time
There are several different techniques and materials used for block printing around the world. In India, block printing is primarily done with carved wooden blocks called bunta that usually range from 5 to 8 inches square in size.
Traditionally, the blocks are carved by hand using tools and generations of accumulated skill and craftsmanship. A design is drawn on paper and then traced onto the piece of wood. From there, the carver chisels with precision and patience before attaching a handle to the back.
The inks and dyes for sustainable block printed fabrics are often made using local plant-based pigments. These dyes are transferred to a dye pad - a rectangular wooden tray fitted with a metal frame wound with yards of nylon rope and wrapped with layers of gauzy fabric to absorb and hold the dye.
Each color is printed separately. A floral design might require green for the stems, blue for the petals, and yellow for the center of the flower; three distinct blocks must be carved with the corresponding design element. The artisan printer repeats one block at a time along a piece of fabric, adding each color within the design. Once the block is in the right spot, the printer gives it a few precise and firm strikes to set the ink in place.
A Sustainable Tradition, Then and Now
One of the many distinctive qualities of this technique are the small differences in the resulting fabric - the slight overlaps in the print and bits of stray ink here and there. These “imperfections” show the intimate and hands-on nature of the block printing process.
In addition to preserving a creative tradition, why should we consider block printing when making sustainable fashion choices for our wardrobe? Block printing requires little to no electricity to produce, so it’s a sustainable technique that consumes low amounts of energy. It can also operate on a small scale, depending on the size of the team and facility.
It requires extensive training to become a block carver, printer, or dye-mixer, but because of its low energy requirements, people and communities that are otherwise outside of the geographic hubs for textile and garment production learn this skill and find employment. Underrepresented artisans who learn block printing are able to produce and profit, especially when working alongside an ethical and sustainable brand. One of wearwell’s brand partners, Maelu, for example, focuses on employing women block print artisans to produce the wonderful, ethically-made Makeup Bag.
Don’t have any block printed fabrics in your wardrobe yet? Add some this summer with the Bela Crop Top. Want to dive in and go for a full block print look? Try the Artsy Traveler Midi Dress or check out what's in store to find more block print styles you can add to your wardrobe!