What Is the Ancient Technique of Block Printing?

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What Is the Ancient Technique of Block Printing?


Block printing is a relief printing technique that uses a carved material (typically wood, linoleum, or rubber) to transfer ink onto fabric or paper. The block serves as a stamp, with the final product resulting in a mirror image of the carving.

Woodblock prints can range from small images intended to be repeated in a pattern to large works of art that require a large printing press to print. In the past, these were also used to print entire books.

Depending on the size of the knife and the quality of the material, it’s possible to capture a fine degree of detail in each print. However, since the process is generally done by hand, no two prints are ever the same.

Ophelia & Indigo

Ancient works show that the earliest block printing practices originated in China during the third century AD. Initially, these age-old blocks were applied solely on fabric — paper is known to have been used for block printing for the first time during the 7th century.

That means that block printing probably predates paper. There are no known examples of printmaking on papyrus.

Block printing was later picked up in the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe centuries later. It served as both an art form and a way to print text before the invention of moveable type.

However, due to the complexity of written Chinese with 40,000+ unique characters, block printing remained a convenient way to print books for centuries.

Ophelia & Indigo

When it comes to block printing on fabric, India is one of the most famous sources of fine artisan patterns. The technique is largely the same, but due to a long history and specialization in different types of dyes and fabrics, the Indian subcontinent is where the craft truly shines.

One of the most famous areas for this is around Jaipur, where there are countless communities dedicated to this ancient art. Nowadays many are being driven out of business by screen printers and digital methods, but the technique still survives today. 

Patterns are first drawn on wood, then carved and mounted on handles. The blocks are dipped in non-toxic ink and then stamped by hand on a large piece of fabric.

There are typically several pattern blocks used, and since it’s done by hand the images never line up perfectly. This is one of the main ways to distinguish hand-block printed fabric from screen/digitally printed alternatives. (source: https://tinyworkshops.com/block-printing/)

Ophelia & Indigo

Ophelia & Indigo are producing small-runs of each collection to minimize wastage and designing made-to-last pieces with a timeless quality that can be worn year after year. They work with a trusted manufacturing partner in India, with whom they have a long working relationship. This helps to keep the ancient art of block printing alive and supports local artisans. The factory is a long-established business, ethically audited and actively engaged in continuously improving conditions for workers.

by - Mary Vukovic

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