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The art of block printing

Keeping craft alive

Block printing has been a part of India's craft heritage since the twelfth century. Textiles produced in this way are inherently beautiful; the tiny movement and irregularity in the pattern a reminder of the human touch behind their making - the soft thud of a weighted block falling rhythmically in the artisan's hand.

It can take up to five weeks to carve and sculpt the intricate wooden blocks that are coated with dye and used to stamp out the patterns along a length of cloth. However, current demand for fast, mechanised production methods means that this ancient skill is in danger of being wiped out and lost from recognition. We want to see it brought back to life and reimagined in contemporary designs and fabrics.

Autumn-Winter 20 Bumble Bee Block Print

This season, we are proud to have reaimagined our iconic bumble bee block print design on pieces made from 100% organic cotton. The hand-carved blocks we have used in previous collections were brought out of the archive, to revive the print this season on our organic cotton Bumble Pyjama, Hottie, Eye Mask and Face Mask.

We believe in supporting and championing the work of artisans and have come to rely on the expertise of the craft communities that we collaborate with to bring our clothing to life.

Our block print suppliers in India have been practicing this craft for decades and are as passionate about its survival into future generations as we are. We spoke to the expert makers who have produced pieces in our collection directly to learn more about the tradition and intricacies of block printing.

The process of block-printing starts with making the wooden blocks. Can you tell us a bit about how these are made?

The wooden block making process is done entirely by hand and it is a time-consuming process. We use teak-wood for the blocks. The wood first needs to be polished before any carving can actually start and before the design can be realised on the polished wood piece. Small holes are made first depending on the detailing required - these small holes are then made gradually bigger depending on the need of the design. The carving process requires a lot of accuracy, patience, consistency and dedication. The general time to make a single block is about a week to 10 days but it very much depends on the intricacy of the design – some blocks taking more than three weeks to complete.

Depending on the design, we decide whether we need to make a completely wooden block or a wood block with metal parts. If a design is very intricate, we sometimes need to use metal parts on the block to achieve such fine detailing. It is possible to realise fine designs on wood too, but for particularly small intricate patterns the wood becomes too fragile and then breaks away with only the slightest pressure.

The general time to make a single block is about a week to 10 days

Our SS20 block-print motif is a shell. Is this an intricate pattern to print with a block or do you consider it to be quite a simple print to execute?

The Shell design we printed for the Bamford spring-summer collection is not a particularly complicated design however, it is a pattern that requires meticulous care to print because of the very small shell designs at the end of the Twin shell block where a few dots sit closely together. This part of the print making process is complicated both for the block-maker and also at the time of printing as the space between each element is very small and due to this the print colour accumulates at these points on the block. So, after applying a few prints to the fabric the block-printer needs to pause to clean up the block and resume printing, making the process quite slow and requiring much patience.

The printing for the Bamford SS20 Shell pieces required printing almost three times on a single piece of cloth using three designs (Shell print, Twin shell & Random Dots) in a combination of colours. All three designs needed to be printed one at a time - the Dots would get printed first all over the fabric and then a design layout was prepared to mark the areas where the Shell print would get printed and similarly for the Twin Shell. In actuality the process is much longer than this, but this is just to give a quick understanding of what is involved.

Block-printing is an inherently sustainable method of producing. How important for you is the low environmental impact of block-printing and how much does this inspire and motivate you in your craft?

Block-printing gives you an advantage of being able to use different colours and different print designs on a single piece of cloth in the way you want. It gives you the flexibility to play with colours and do what you want with a piece of cloth – there are no limits.

Regarding the low environmental impact of block-printing, this is very important for us and therefore we always try and retain some element of block-printing in every collection to honour this slow method of producing. In addition to its low environmental impact, block-printing adds value to the product. One other advantage is that we need not necessarily use a pre-dyed fabric for printing. Even on an undyed white fabric, with a good volume of block-printing applied it completely changes the look of the fabric and the print colours clearly stand out making it not necessary to dye a fabric in advance of printing.

Block-printing has been a part of India’s craft heritage since the twelfth century. How important is it to you that this craft continues for future generations?

It is very important that this craft is kept alive. We try to support the future of this heritage craft by developing block-printed designs during the year and as I said above, try to include block printing in every collection. By doing so, there is always a continuity to the demand for block-printing and this actually helps provide the craftsmen with a source of work and income throughout the year.

We constantly try to educate and train a few people out of our workshops to learn the block printing craft under the supervision of our master craftsmen so that this craft heritage stays and is taken up by future generations – sadly not everyone is so interested in doing this printing work as it requires patience, accuracy and interest. The most important aspect we feel is to have a continued demand and desire for block-printed garments and products, which by itself gives everyone an opportunity to contribute to keeping the craft alive and to train people to take it forward to the future generations of makers.