Updated on January 5, 2023 by Sarina Tariq
Block printing on fabric
Woodblock printing of textiles refers to the textile printing technique of printing patterns on fabric with carved wooden blocks. It is the oldest textile printing technique and the easiest. As early as the 14th century, Indians have been block printing, and in China, even earlier. Block printing is supposed to have originated in China.
Most of the motifs used in Indian block printing for centuries are still popular today, like the beetle leaf prints. But what I absolutely adore are some really cool prints which look traditional and at the same time modern – but looking at the prints it is not so inconceivable. Cycles, telephones, cars, elephants- you name it they have made a print out of it. And all look absolutely stunning.
How to block print on fabric at home
The process followed by professional artisans who practice block printing in Indian villages is long and complex. It involves high skill and hard labor and gives perfect intricate designs.
The skilled artisans who practice block printing are in a class of their own. They use specially made intricately designed Sheesham wood ( Indian Teak) blocks for printing. Long tables are laid out and covered with cloth and the fabric is stretched on it. Vegetable dyes and chemical dyes were used to make the designs.
In this post, I will outline a process that gives you simple block printing using ingredients you have at home.
Materials needed for hand block printing at home
- Wooden block or stamp or DIY homemade block
- Check out this post on DIY Fabric stamps for some ideas to make one of your own other than the ideas given in this post.
- Acrylic paint, or Fabric paint, or dye ( fiber reactive dyes)
- A fabric medium if you want to dilute acrylic paint
- Small bowl for the paint
- Paper towels/ sponge
- A large pinnable surface/ a large piece of cardboard
Earlier Block printing used to be done only in colors like indigo, green, and mustard yellow but nowadays, it is done in all colors; You will need to buy fabric paint in the desired colors and ensure it is high quality and sets with heat and is washable after it is set.
The picture below shows wooden blocks used in block printing- there are such wooden blocks with intricate designs as well as simple designs.
How to make the block for printing on fabric
Traditionally the wooden block is made by drawing the design on paper. This design is placed on a hardwood piece, and using nails; the design is marked on the surface.
After removing the paper the unwanted areas are removed from the wooden surface leaving the design projecting out. Handblock printing is done by applying dye on the surface of the relief made so. You will need to make multiple blocks for printing in different colors.
You can make the blocks with anything. Just look around and use things around you. A pair of dice, cardboard pieces cut into shapes, felt stencil pieces all lend itself to printing.
Hot glue the objects to a piece of cardboard so that you have a grasp to print. An acrylic sheet also makes a good backing board for the stamps.
You can use vegetables and fruits. A potato can be carved into any design to use for block printing.
How to carve potato for block printing
Mark the design on the cut surface of the potato.
Use a sharp tool to carve out the unwanted area out of the surface some 1/2 inch in height
Print with it.
Softwood can be easily carved out.
You can cut out foam pieces in the designs and attach it to the backing cardboard/acrylic piece for an instant easy block printing stamp. The advantage of using foam is that you can make patterns (relief) on the design itself with a sharp tool.
A chisel/blade is used to carve out the areas which you do not want on the block. You can use sandpaper as well to remove unwanted areas.
When carving keep in mind that a mirror image will appear on the surface so the placement of the design should be that way especially for letters.
BLOCK PRINTING AT HOME – Step by step process
Step 1 Prepare the fabric
Dye the fabric if you are planning; Prewash the fabric to remove all the finish in the fabric; If the finishes remain the paint will not properly fix to the fabric.
Iron out all the wrinkles.
Step 2 Stretch the fabric
Keep the fabric on a surface which you do not mind staining; Your precious wooden table would not do. You will need to keep the fabric stretched nicely. if you have a foam board or cardboard big enough, staple the fabric on to it nicely stretched; Ensure that there are no ripples in the fabric.
Step 3 Blocks
You can use wooden blocks available in really pretty designs (they are costly but really intricate and well made) or make your own blocks using things at home. I have made the block by adhering felt pieces (2 layers) to emulate the design I had in mind – a lime piece that I had seen somewhere.
Step 4 Use paint / dye
Use any kind of dyes on natural fabric but for synthetic fabrics, you had better use synthetic dyes; you can use fabric paints as well.
Pour the paint on to a bowl.
Step 5 Saturate sponge in paint
Dip a piece of sponge on to the dye/ paint ; dab the block you are using with the sponge making sure that the whole block is covered. Rock the block / stamp many times so that every detail gets the paint.
Here I am using a piece of textured fabric to make the prints..
Step 6 Block print the fabric
Keep the block on the fabric precisely and press evenly and uniformly. The way it is done in India is to slam it onto the fabric hard with the palm behind the block. Some people step on, some give whacks with hammers. You do not have to go to those limits. One expert recommends running rollers over the thin blocks/stamp so that the image is evenly printed.
Keep it there for 2-3 seconds and abruptly remove the block, making sure there is no drag or jerking motion. Make repeating motifs; reapply paint if you need to for other pressings.
You need to have symmetrical patterns all over, not disjointed ones, so aligning the patterns is important. The professionals use markers to align the designs. You can identify specific details and use this as markers to properly place your designs; for egs the left root of the tree.
If you are overlapping designs, do wait for the first layer to dry completely before starting the next layer; Use different blocks for different colours in the same design.
In between printing blot excess paint from clumping on the design with paper towels.
Step 7 Final result
The traditional way is to steam the fabric and then wash; You can simply Wait for one whole day while the fabric dries in the sun;
If it is fabric paint which is heat setting, iron on the reverse side of the fabric; wash with hand and then use
If you are using a dye wash the fabric first in clear water; then soak it in a solution of 2 cups of vinegar diluted in some water for 20 minutes. This will set the dye; wash again and hang to dry.The dye may still run for some 2-3 washes so be careful not to mix it with white clothes when washing.
Do not forget to clean the block after the use thoroughly and store it after it is completely dry for reuse again
Many things you read out and understand can go wrong in many ways when you ultimately do it ; Practice is the best way to perfect an idea. So go about making small blocks or use things lying around your home to make prints on scraps on fabric before trying it on something big and long which you intend to sew something with
Checkout this Pinterest board for inspirations for making different designs for making your own blocks for block printing
Block printing dye recipe
You get to buy the block printing dyes at craft stores but if you would like to make them yourself cheaply and at a large scale here is a simple recipe. Keep a palette-knife ready and your arm muscles flexed. A lot of mixing is involved in making this dye.
Mix some dishwashing liquid, Vinegar and turpentine in 1:1:2 proportions. Mix oil paint pigments with this solution thoroughly with a palette-knife. This may not be suitable for fabrics you will wear.
Interesting reading on block printing : http://travelsintextiles.com/craft-series-the-ajrakh-block-printing-of-kachchh-india/