I do most of my block printing in the town of Sanganer (a suburb of Jaipur) which has been home to a community of printers for centuries.
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.
Several layers of base fabric are pinned to the printing table, which creates a cushion effect so dyes can be absorbed better and more evenly. These printing layers are washed thoroughly between printings, but they become so stained that their history in the workshop comes through.
A dye mixer pours color into a tray, into the mesh screen and linen layers that will keep the color from forming lumps while stamps are repeatedly dipped into it.
A fine-lined block print requires some exacting skills; to apply the dye evenly, the printer lines up the block with his fingers, then gives it a “one-two” punch with the heel of each hand. The printer drags a small spatula-like tool through a tray to maintain an even layer of dye and to ensure the blocks will be properly inked for each repetition on the cloth.
A printed piece is hung carefully and left to dry for several hours. Discharging is a process used to set the dye into the fabric after a print has dried completely. A dry, newly printed cloth is rolled up in padded cloths and placed into a large steamer before it is hung up to dry in the sun. After steaming, there is more soaking, washing, and scrubbing to remove excess dye before hanging final prints to dry. Thicker fabrics especially need to be scrubbed so excess dye won’t bleed.