Fabric of India: Block Printing

One of the most popular Instagram posts I ever posted was a video of an artisan pressing a wooden block mould down on fabric to create a repeat print of a floral motif.  A slow press of the wooden block mould in one hand and then a swift slap down of the other to properly transfer the ink on to the fabric.  Basically a deft pair of hands perfecting a skill over and over again.  And that had people transfixed.  That was basically my faith in an audience re-affirmed.

My two day trip to India back in February concluded with a visit to Amer, just outside of Jaipur, where textiles designer Brigitte Singh has a wonderful haven of a studio and production facility.  The French-born Singh originally came to Jaipur as a fine art student, fascinated by the influence of Indian chintzes on 17th century French Provencal prints.  One of main aspects raised in tracking the history of Indian textiles in The Fabric of India exhibition at the V&A is about the bi-directional trade between Europe and India, whereby luxury mushiness and chintzes designed with tastes to suit Europeans, flooded the West in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Eventually, this trade flow reversed when the Industrial Revolution prompted manufacturers in Britain to start exporting their own imitation Indian-inspired textiles back to India.  And so the West-East flow of exposure of craft continues as Singh set up her studio in 1984 in a bid to create fabrics using traditional block printing and forgotten Indian motifs.

Everything slows right down in Singh’s haveli.  The pace is leisurely whether you’re seeing the methodical and assured printing itself,  the block carvers that etch out the tiny motifs as a relief on to wooden blocks or the mainly female finishers and seamstresses, who turn lengths of printed fabric into soft furnishings and lifestyle garments.  Singh’s ethos towards the well being of her craftsmen (and women) extends to the sustainability of her water supply as a water purification unit is set up in the gardens to recycle the water used in the washing/printing process feeds the lush gardens.

Singh’s choice of motifs are largely inspired by those favoured by Mughal courts in the 18th century, which can be seen in spectacular displays like a royal tent belonging to Tipu Sultan.  The red floral motifs on this tent correlate with Singh’s most popular designs as seen in a poppy design that we saw being printed on to cotton.  Her colour choices mark her designs out as unique, going beyond the natural inks that would have been used in block printing tradition and instead turning to specially composed synthetic colours to evolve the craft beyond its original context.

A rifle through her on-site store elicited squeals from our group of journalists and curators from the V&A.  It’s easy to see why Singh’s textiles have become renowned internationally and create misty-eyed enthusiasm amongst interior textiles nuts.  This final portion of the India trip incidentally completed my own experience of printing techniques – having seen silk screen printing with Hermès, hand screen printing in London and digital printing processes.  It’s the slowest process in terms of output of pattern and print but perhaps the most rewarding to see. That’s probably why those Insta likes racked up. 

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The Fabric of India, supported by Good Earth India, with thanks to Experion and Nirav Modi, is at the V&A until the 10th January 2016