Block Printing and Natural Dyeing Workshop in Bagru, India ∙ Part 1

I have purchased all materials, patterns, workshops, etc. myself. All opinions are my own.

I traveled to India for about three weeks with a good friend in December 2018 and January 2019. As part of the trip, we participated in a block printing and natural fabric dyeing workshop in Bagru. This village is near Jaipur in Rajasthan. It is quite famous for its hand block printing traditions and there are several companies still practicing these techniques and several also offer workshops in this domain.

We signed up for a two-day workshop covering fabric dyeing with indigo, mud-resist printing and block-printing using natural dyes at Jai Texart.

Mud-Resist Block Printing

On the first day, we learned about mud-resist printing, a technique where fabric is printed with a paste, which impregnates the cloth and prevents dyes from working, and then dyed as a whole. After dyeing, the paste is scrubbed off and the printed pattern becomes visible.

Preparations

Dry river mud used to make the block printing mud resist paste
Dry river mud used to make the paste.

The dyers in Bagru make the paste from local river mud, lime (to counteract the slight staining caused by the mud), spoiled wheat (to bulk out the paste and the gluten acts as a binding agent), and tree gum (to make the consistency of the paste more favorable for printing). They make the paste made in-house every day in a long process where they first have to soak the ingredients, then combine and agitate them for several hours to form a smooth paste. Finally, they strain the paste through a cloth to filter out all but the finest particles.

Nowadays, a specialized machine performs the agitation, but up until a few years ago, there were professional “stampers” who would stamp the paste for 4-5 hours. This type of work is extremely physically demanding and at one point, the factory was not able to find anyone willing to do it anymore, so they had to invent the machine they now use.

A worker empties the finished mud resist paste into a container and strains it.
A worker empties the finished mud paste into a container. Then we took turns filtering the paste.

Once the paste has been produced, it’s added to small wooden trays loaded with some springy fabric and a tight mesh that allows the wood block to bounce back a bit and pick up the right amount of paste.

Preparing the Fabric

At the same time, the fabric has to be prepared for printing and dyeing. First, it is scrubbed to get any sizing agents and other impurities out. Then it is mordanted. This step ensures that the natural fabrics can permanently accept the natural dyes. Otherwise, the dye would come out again in the next wash. Different substances can be used for this purpose. The factory in Bagru uses Harda powder, which contains tannic acid. After mordanting, the fabric is dried and aged in the sun, then washed again to remove excess mordant.

The Block Printing Process

After we selected the blocks we wanted to use (which was more difficult than anticipated, because printing with the paste is quite imprecise so blocks with lots of fine details are not suitable), we practiced printing on smaller pieces of fabric. Lining up the block with the already printed pattern is pretty tricky! Our instructor did give us some tips on achieving good positioning, but even at the end of the second day, I wasn’t always able to do a good job.

Our workshop took place in a working factory and we were able to observe the professional block printers around us. Their accuracy and speed was really impressive.

A worker applies the mud resist paste using a printing block along a pattern that was previously printed using a black dye.
A worker applying the mud paste using a printing block along a pattern that was previously printed using a black dye.
My finish mud resist printed fabric laying in the sun to dry before dyeing.
My finished mud-resist printed fabric before dyeing.

After printing the resist paste onto the fabric, the printer must sprinkle sawdust over the printed areas to quickly dry out the paste and prevent smudging the pattern as she continues working in other sections. Generally, you want to work from left to right (if right-handed) and from the outside in. However, depending on the type of pattern or layout you want to achieve, a different order can be easier.

Finally, the resist-printed fabric is laid out to dry in the sun, in preparation for dyeing. At the facility in Bagru, resist-printed fabric is either dyed with indigo or with black kashish (zinc oxide).

Yardage of commercial printed mud resist printed fabric laying out to dry.
Fabric laying out to dry.

Indigo Dyeing

Indigo bushes growing on the property
Indigo plants growing on the property.

Dyeing with indigo is a complicated, lengthy process (just like everything in Bagru, it seems). Indigo plants actually naturally grow in the area, but the crop that is used in industrial dyeing is grown in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. During the workshop, we watched a short documentary about the production of indigo.

Jai Texart maintains several vats of indigo, the oldest one being over a decade old. As indigo matures, the color becomes more vibrant and intense, but it takes a lot of maintenance (feeding and cleaning).

Indigo vats are several feet deep and have a bell shape.
Indigo vats. They are several feet deep and have a bell shape.

When dyeing fabric with indigo, it is quickly dipped inside five times and then laid out to dry. Once dry, it goes through the dipping process once more to ensure that the color takes evenly.

Immediately after coming out of the indigo bath, the fabric is a deep green, but it quickly turns blue as it is exposed to oxygen.

An employee dips fabric into the indigo bath. It is green initially, but turns blue once exposed to oxygen.
An employee dips fabric into the indigo bath. Notice the green color immediately after it comes out of the bath.
Pieces of block printed fabric afte the first (left) and second (right) indigo dip to overdye.
Pieces of fabric after the first (left) and second (right) indigo dip.

Read part 2 about the second day, where we block printed.

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