Carving a Printing Block - John Robshaw Textiles
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Carving a Printing Block

Some scholars believe block printing originated in India as early as 3000 BC. It is believed it was in India where the practice of printing fabrics was perfected, as early as the twelfth century, and it was Indian craftsmen who elevated it to the world-renowned art form it became. We often celebrate the block printer, but just as talented are the artisans who carve the prints into the blocks.

Block carving is its own art, and the craftspeople who make block carvings are very specialized. The best blocks come from knotless, smooth cross sections of teak tree trunks. The wood is soaked in oil sometimes for up to two weeks, sanded smooth, and then whitened with chalk. The carvers trace designs onto the surface and then, using only hammer and chisel and a delicate touch, whittle patterns into the wood. A well-made block can last through printing anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 meters of fabric before its fine edges wear down.

For especially fine designs, some blocks are made of brass or copper, with crisp-edged strips that are bent on a tree trunk and affixed to a base. A new design is first traced onto the wood with black pencil. Then it’s “punched” into the wood so a carver can refine it with a chisel. Detailed carving of a new block can take many hours or a couple of days to complete.