The Block Print Community in Bhuj, Rajasthan
In the desert of Northern India lives a small community of block printers - they are some of the last keepers of the recipes used to print fabric using natural dye pigments extracted from plants. As other block printing communities have transitioned to synthetic dyes, these specific artists have maintained traditional practices.
The multi-step process of block printing includes washing, printing, finishing, washing, and sun-drying
Nishanth - the founder of our partner company Oshadi Collective - spent months traveling to block printing communities around Northern India, searching for ones that hold the indigenous practices of creating textiles. During his exploration, he journeyed to small block printing villages all around the country, but none of them felt right - they all used a mix of limited natural and mostly synthetic dyes.
Finally, he connected with a small community in Bhuj. For seven generations, this community has used hand-made teak blocks and plant extracts to print fabric - they maintained these indigenous practices even as the communities around them transitioned to chemical dyes. Through the years, Oshadi and this community have worked to sustain these ancient recipes, bringing diverse, natural colors to block printed cloth.
For seven generations, this community has used hand-made teak blocks and plant extracts to print fabric - they maintained these indigenous practices even as the communities around them transitioned to chemical dyes.
A Brief History of Natural Dyes in India
The diverse geography and ecosystems of India allow for a plethora of flora to grow there, including the most potent natural dyes.
India’s ability to produce a multitude of shades and colors with plants was unrivaled, making it the biggest exporter of naturally colored textiles.
In fact, its Western name is a result of Europeans associating India with the rich blue of indigo leaves.
At the turn of the 20th century, the advent of synthetic dyes made natural dyes obsolete in mere decades.
Few natural dye gurus remain in India - their alchemy infuses cloth with Mother Earth’s abundance.
Natural v. Conventional Dyes
Natural dyers use indigenous techniques to transform flora into a beautifully dyed fiber
Natural dyes are extracted from plant roots, leaves, and bark. What we love about naturally-dyed dresses is that they show signs of wear and love throughout their lifetime. We think of it this way:
The longer dye sticks to fabric, the longer the runoff from the dye house or laundry will stick to the ecosystem.
A majority of chemical dyes (except those certified organic) are toxic to Mother Earth as the dye factory wastewater is introduced to the soil. Many dyes are persistent pollutants - they’re extremely hard to remove from ecosystems, and they specifically impair the plant’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and photosynthesize. Essentially, the textile industry is not only one of the biggest polluters to the planet, but its harmful side effects also decrease Mother Earth’s ability to remediate the problems it causes herself.
How to Block Print the Daisy Field in Indigo
- Indigo: Leaves from the Indigo plant
- Buffalo Milk
- Raw sugar
- Plantain leaf ash
- Vegetable oil
- Harvest and dry indigo leaves and soapnuts
- Ferment indigo for over six months until it turns into a solid pigment
- Soak fabric in the hot solution of rainwater and buffalo milk
- Dissolve indigo pigment into a dye bath
- Submerge fabric into the indigo solution, then set it out in the sun for 30 mins. Repeat 4 times
- Lay fabric on a large table
- Dip handmade teak blocks into a soapnut concentrate and print flowers onto the fabric. The soapnut will wash away the indigo dye to create a white design
- Lay printed fabric out in the sun for 48 hours for the dyes to set
- Wash fabric with water and dry in the sun