Hand Block printed fabrics are one’s of India’s most-loved, and most specialized art forms. Block printed fabrics were some of India’s earliest trade products, and they were prized by the cultures of Japan, Egypt and Indonesia as far back as the 4thc CE.
Today Block Print is one of Rajasthan’s main exports, and the craft has been practiced in the Jaipur region for over 200 years. Block Print artisans continue to practice their hereditary printing skills, adapting to market demands and adopting new materials and updated traditional designs. The Jaipur region attracts block print artisans from other parts of India as well.
Our family company Soma Blockprints began with the aim of producing high-quality hand printed made-ups. The best base fabrics, the most durable coloured inks, and the Soma brand is known for fresh contemporary designs born of classical Indian roots.
Block printing with wood blocks became my lifetime passion and career over 30 years ago. Now I’m an evangelist for the craft! I came to India from Canada at 22 with my mother Sarah, who was a fashion designer and importer.
When I discovered that in India I could transform my drawings into fabric, I was hooked. I began designing textile prints in India the old-fashioned way, by observation, and by trial and error. I did not study textile design. But my early graphic art training stood me in good stead. I was able to grasp the technical features of hand-block printing quickly and figure out possible design innovations and options. I have created many block-print designs, at least 500 or more and I continue to train interns and young designers at Soma Blockprints to share my knowledge and expertise.
Working with both customers and artisans taught me to create well-drawn, commercially attractive patterns. Often, I will take a traditional Indian design as my inspiration and then tweak, re-colour and re-work it. Sometimes, a product may require a more modern print and then I will reference fashion files and archival European, African and Far Asian designs. As a commercial print designer, I consider myself to be a visual editor. The historical patterns of the world are my references, re-imagined.
There is no straight translation of design into wood block: there are many technical considerations. For example, the wood block must be light enough to be managed in one hand. Therefore, it mustn’t be too big, and it requires a balanced print surface from side to side; thick elements cannot be carved on the same block with fine lines, and so on.
The defining beauty of block print is that the colours are pounded into the fabric by hand, creating a soft penetrating pattern that ages gracefully.
One of the delights of block printing is that we are able to carve separate borders of all widths to customize each product: a one-inch border for a napkin or garment; a five-inch wide composite block border for a tablecloth, saree or quilt border.
I insist that high-quality Soma prints be carefully hand-drawn to start. There is no substitute for hand drawing. We use computers at later stages to do the repeats and for recordkeeping. However, the sketches we start with are in old world pencil, to give movement and life to the design.
The designs are then drawn in indelible pen on tracing paper — one sheet for each colour — and given to the block carver’s workshop. Our master block-carver examines the sheets carefully. He picks apart any design mis-placements that must be corrected in order to make a smooth printable design. The multi-block registration must be absolutely precise. The wood carver then traces the design through the the paper on to the prepared block. Using tiny chisels, he meticulously chips the precise design from a hardwood endgrain block.