Block Printing: History and Artistry

The Art of Block Printing

LR Indigowares

For our latest collection, Indigowares is bringing you beautiful garments with a whole new sustainable story – the tradition of block printing.

Block printed textiles have such a rich history, and we’re so excited to showcase this with environmentally friendly, entirely unique garments. We’ve combined this stunning textile artistry with light, comfortable organic cottons and flowing silhouettes, so you’ll be sure to have a new go to favourite in your closet.

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Dabu printed then indigo dyed.
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Dabu mud pored into printing reservoir.

The block printing in this collection is specifically created using hand carved wood blocks and mud printing techniques. Once the mud has dried, the garments are dyed with natural indigo. Can’t wait to add these entirely unique patterns to your closet? Click here to shop the new collection, or keep scrolling for the full story of how these patterns are made.

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The Tradition of Block Printing

Examples of block printing are thought to stretch all the way back to ancient civilisations.

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The earliest examples originate from China in the 3rd century, going on to spread through Egypt, Asia, and eventually the rest of the world.

Here you can see one of the earliest examples of block printing: the “Diamond Sutra,” a Buddhist text block printed in China that dates back to 868 CE.

It isn’t difficult to find block printing scattered through history – the technique was used to create everything from religious texts, to calendars, to artwork. Sometimes, you may not even realise when this technique was used! A great example is the well-known Japanese print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai, which you can see below alongside a modern replication of the technique similar to the one that would have been used

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A work like this has been reused and reprinted so many times, you may be surprised to find that such an illustrative and intricate print was originally created with woodblock techniques – it just goes to show how versatile this art is!

While the origins are vast, some of the first surviving records of block printed textiles are from India, which is one of the reasons it is known as the epicentre of the technique. The story starts during the Mughal Dynasty, where block printing appeared everywhere from textiles to the Taj Mahal. This was a prosperous time for the textile industry, and the Mughal style and traditions are continued to this day. You might recognise the aesthetic in the repetition of curved shapes, florals, and naturally influenced details in many textile designs.

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The Technique

When the proper dyes and materials are used, block printing is one of the most sustainable patternmaking techniques, making it a great option for slow fashion.

In the modern day, blocks are most frequently created with wood, linoleum, or rubber. Depending on the intricacy, blocks can take days – even months – to carve. If a pattern with many different colours, elements, and dimensions is to be achieved, multiple blocks may have to be carved, then layered in different colours to create a single image. While this is one form of block printing, our process shows yet another side of the many possibilities!

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The blocks for our spring collection were hand carved with wood, then used with ancient Dabu mud printing techniques. It is supposed that this method of printmaking dates back to the 8th century in India, and carries forward to this day.

dabu mud

The word ‘Dabu’ comes from ‘Dabaana’ which translates to ‘press’. This is a resist dyeing technique, which means it relies on covering areas of the fabric that will not pick up dye in order to create the pattern. In Dabu, the material used to create the resist is a mud consisting mainly of gum, lime and white chaff. This mud is then pressed onto the fabric through the wooden block. The results of the block printing are then let to dry.

Moving forward, the fabric is dipped in an entirely natural indigo vat. At this point in the process, you really get to see how a resist dye technique works. Any place on the fabric that has been covered in the mud through block printing will not absorb the indigo dye. This creates a pattern with the natural fabric beneath.

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If you’re interested in seeing the indigo dyeing process from start to finish, follow this link to watch our DIY tutorials! And if you want to go back even further, click here to read about how indigo is grown and harvested – you may be surprised to find that these beautiful blues come from a green plant!

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After the fabric is dipped, the fabric is washed thoroughly in order to fully remove the mud, and the pattern appears, clean and complete! As you can see, block printing can achieve an amazing effect, all from one small pattern!

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