Block printing is an ancient printing technique used on cloth and textiles to make beautiful patterns. The origins of hand block printing are believed to lie in China, where the technique was first used around the 3rd century. However, with time, as travelers from China travelled to India and other parts of Asia, the technique was picked up artisans in these parts as well.
According to written records, the technique has been practiced in India since the 12th century. Hand block printing is a technique where blocks of wood are used for making intricate patterns on cloth. Patterns are etched onto wood with the help of needle. These wooden blocks are then dipped in a dye and pressed onto the cloth to imprint the pattern on them.
Traditionally, the dyes used for this purpose were natural vegetable dyes. However, with the advent of synthetic dyes, the use of natural dyes has been limited to very few regions in India. Like every other traditional art form, hand block printing too was on the verge of extinction not long ago.
However, with efforts from various organizations and larger exposure of this art form to the outside world, this technique of cloth printing is slowly seeing a revival of sorts. One of the regions in India which is pioneering the revival of hand block printing is Rajasthan.
There are various regions in Rajasthan where this traditional technique is alive and well. Each of these regions have a different flavor of their own, although they use basically the same hand block printing technique.
Some notable regions in Rajasthan which are well known for producing some really fine pieces of hand block printed sarees and other garments are Sanganeri, Bagru and Dabu. In fact, it is in Bagru, Rajasthan that artisans still use natural vegetable dyes in their printing technique.
Apart from that vital difference, there is another difference which you are likely to find between the three regions- while Bagru artisans use neutral tones such as brown, beige etc. for hand block printing, those in Sanganeri use much brighter colors as their base.
As for Dabu, the artisans here use a slightly different technique than the other two regions. Here, a design is sketched on a cloth which is used as a background. Clay and saw dust is sprinkled on the design which then dries and sticks to the cloth. Thereafter, the entire cloth is dipped in different colored dyes. The part where the clay was sprinkled does not get dyes while the rest of the fabric does. To finish the process, the cloth is washed to get rid of the clay and saw dust.
With this traditional technique seeing a revival today, Indian designers are already experimenting with it to create interesting patterns and designs. A whole range of block printed sarees were on display as the recently concluded Lakme Fashion Week 2012. In fact, it was not just sarees on display. There were hand block printed skirts and tops as well, with an interesting mix of fabrics.
Try a hand block printed skirt with vibrant patterns for a bohemian look. For something more subdued, try a pleated skirt in off-white with hand block prints in a similar tone.