Natural Fabric Dyeing and Block Printing in India ∙ Part 2

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 near Jaipur in Rajasthan is quite famous for its hand block printing traditions. There are several companies still practicing these techniques and many also offer workshops in this domain.

Read Part 1 about mud-resist printing and indigo dyeing.

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.

Printing with Natural Fabric Dyes

On the second day, we learned about various natural dyes that are used in Bagru for block printing. In fact, many of these techniques have been practiced in India since before 5000 BCE. During the first part of the day, we had a lesson on the theoretical aspects and history of dyeing fabrics.

Synthetic Dyes

The first synthetic dye was discovered in 1856 and first used in manufacturing in 1891. As you probably know, synthetic dyes are used widely today, but have a serious negative impact on the environment through contamination of ground water. In fact, factories in Bagru’s neighboring town of Sanganeer have chosen to use synthetic dyes to manufacture fabric, while Bagru stayed with traditional natural dyes. As a result, the ground water in Sanganeer is highly polluted. The Government of India has since enacted waste water treatment regulations. Still, it will take 10-15 years for the water to recover.

Aside from Bagru, the region of Kutch in Gujarat and the city of Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh are also clusters of natural dyeing expertise and industry in India.

Natural Dyes

Natural dyes exist in two broad categories based on the origin of the pigments:

  • dyes from animals (e.g. purple dye from shellfish, a maroon dye from lac bugs, and carmine red from Cochineal bugs)
  • dyes from plants (over 300 kinds of plants are used in India to manufacture dyes)

To extract dyes from animals, large quantities of them have to be killed and processed further. This goes against Hindu philosophy (and is generally awful). Therefore, plant-based dyes are much more common.

I have hinted at this before: plant-based dyes can’t dye plant-based fibers (such as cotton, linen, and hemp) unless the fabric is mordanted first. The mordant helps the dye to permanently bind to the fibers. In Bagru, harda plant powder is used for this purpose. In the West, potassium alum, chrome alum and certain salts of metals are typically used.

Mordanted fabric is hanging to drye before dyeing. This step ensures the natural fabric dyes can properly bond to the fabric.
Mordanted fabric hanging to dry.

Sources of Natural Dyes in India

Natural fabric dyeing has a long history in India. The first dyes to be used in India, around 2500 BCE, created red or pink hues. For example, a dye can be extracted from the leaves, bark, and roots of the madder plant. The extract (alizarin) must then be mixed with Aluminium Sulfate to create the dye.

Black dye can be sourced from iron. For example, rusty horseshoes can be soaked in water and molasses for about one month. Many different sources for yellow color exist:

  • pomegranate rind
  • turmeric
  • marigolds
  • jackfruit bark
  • mango bark
Some of the natural dyes, mordants and binders used by Jai Texart.
Some of the dyes, mordants and binders used by Jai Texart.

Natural dyes can’t be mixed to create blends willy-nilly, as they can be chemically incompatible. Unless the specific dyes you want to blend are already documented as being compatible (or not), trial and error is required. If there is a reaction, the dyes are not compatible.

Additionally, the binding agent used to turn the dye into a paste for printing, needs to be compatible with the dye. Fortunately, there are several options for binding agents. The factories in Bagru us gum arabic, tamarind seed, guar gum, and sea weed amond others.

Printing Blocks

The printing blocks used in Bagru are still carved by hand out of wood. After drawing the design on paper, an artist transfers it to a wood block by placing the paper on it. She then uses a needle or other sharp obejct to transfer the pattern. Then, she carves the unwanted areas away until only the pattern remains. For fine details, the artist uses pieces of metal to achieve small dots etc.

Finally, the artist drills holes into the block vertically and horizontally to reduce the weight and to allow air to pass through. This aids in achieving a clear impression in two ways. First, the color doesn’t spread as much once applied on the fabric. Second, the color doesn’t seep into the relieved areas as much and delays the need to clean the block.

The amount of detail in the pattern determines the type of wood. Outline blocks with rough patterns which are used often are made out of teak. It is hard-wearing but heavy. Blocks with finer patterns are carved out of softer, lighter woods, because they are easier to handle.

Printing Process

Once the dye is made, the fabric is prepared, and the blocks have been selected, the actual printing can start. For best results, the fabric needs to be on a sturdy yet springy surface, so we stretched it out over several layers of thick cloth on a long table.

Then the printer prepares the block by dipping it into the dye and rubbing it on scrap fabric a few times. This moistens the dry wood evenly. Finally, he taps the block lightly into the dye to pick up just the right amount of paste and then places it on the fabric. He must then smack or tap it a couple of times, before carefully lifting it off to avoid smudging the color. Then he repeats the process of dipping and placing the block on the fabric until he completes the desired pattern.

Practicing block printing on some test pieces.
Practicing printing with the blocks, a practice piece of fabric, and the process of preparing a fresh pattern block for printing by rubbing it on the underlayment.

During the workshop, we got to practice on smaller pieces of fabric before sketching out our own designs, selecting our blocks and then printing with up to four different colors (black, red, yellow, and brown). Lining up the blocks in nice even rows is very difficult. It’s really easy to get off by just a few degrees and end up with a slanted line.

Finishing the Natural Fabric Dyeing Process

Some fabric I printed with yellow and brown natural dyes.
Some fabric I printed with yellow and brown color, to be used as yardage for making a shirt in the future.

After printing, we let the fabric sit to dry. Usually, it’s aged in the sun for three or four days to the color can really penetrate the fibers, but since we wanted to take our fabrics home with us, we only let them dry and then started the process of fixing the color and washing.

To fix the color, the dried fabric is placed in hot water together with another mordant and stirred for up to a day. Finally, the fabric is washed and beaten over a stone slab to remove any excess dye, then hung to dry.

Plain water bath and mordant bath being prepared for fixing the printed natural dyes.
Plain water bath and mordant bath being prepared for fixing the printed colors.

Conclusion

During the two-day workshop I was able to mud-resist print two pieces of fabric and had one dyed with indigo and one with black kashish. I also printed two pieces of fabric with natural dyes. In addition to all this hands-on practice, I learned a lot about the theory and practice of natural fabric dyeing. I’m looking forward to exploring this area in the future and designing my own fabric.

Finished pieces laying in the sun to dry after block printing with natural fabric dyeing techniques.
Some of the fabrics printed by the workshop participants.

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