How a 4,000 Year Old Textile Became a Ubiquitous Design Accessory

The block print is a common sight in home design, whether swathing throw pillows, upholstery

The block print is a common sight in home design, whether swathing throw pillows, upholstery fabric, or gracing napkins on a tabletop. For all its beauty and popularity, this textile tells a complicated history that spans ages and shows the power of craftsmanship in the face of colonization.

Block printing is thought to have its origins in China over 4,000 years ago, before disseminating throughout Asia and the world. The earliest record of block printing, though, isn’t on fabric but on a book known as the Diamond Sutra, which was printed 300 years before the Gutenberg Bible. The story of India’s journey to becoming the epicenter of block printing, though, is complicated.

the worlds earliest surviving printed book a wood block printed version of the diamond sutra

The worlds earliest surviving printed book: a wood block printed version of the Diamond Sutra, circa 868 AD.

Getty Images

“The history is patchy,” says Preeti Gopinath, director of the MFA textile program at The New School, because “history for Indians comes from what the invaders wrote.” But as best historians can piece together, the story starts in modern-day Uzbekistan with Bābur, a descendent of Ghengis Khan. He invaded India in the early 16th century, securing power for the burgeoning Mughal Dynasty, whose rule lasted over 200 years and its influence even longer.

Mughal rulers patronized the arts extensively throughout their dynasty and the Mughal style came to define huge parts of Indian artistry as we know it today, touching everything from block printing to the Taj Mahal. “There is a very distinct flavor to Mughal art and design,” says Gopinath. Block printing was a particular favorite of the Mughal emperors. Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Mahal, was known for his expensive taste in textiles. The entire textile industry flourished under the Mughal patronage, and many craftspeople are still working in the same historical centers of Gujrat and Rajasthan that supported the Mughals during their reign.

Block printing techniques remain largely unchanged since the time of the Mughals—at least where printing continues to happen by hand. Most block-printed textiles come about in one of three ways: direct, resist, or discharge printing. All print runs begin with a wooden block, which is hand-carved by artisans who typically learn the trade from their families. The work requires a delicate but deft hand. Carvers create a block for each element of the pattern, which means that within one pattern there are blocks for every border, leaf grouping, or flower style.

block print process

Marigold Living

block print

Marigold Living

The dye is then applied using one of three methods. The direct method is the simplest: Dip a block into a dye, and then stamp it onto the fabric. Discharge printing is used to create a white pattern on a colorful background. Printers place a simple bleaching agent on the wooden blocks and stamp them to achieve this. Resist printing happens in reverse. The wooden blocks are dipped in a waxy paste and stamped to create a pattern before the entire piece is dyed the final color. Once it is dried, the paste is removed, and the untouched pattern remains.

The post-Mughal era saw increasing consolidation of power amongst Europeans in India, culminating in the British Raj, which ruled until 1947. The rise of European industrialization meant that Britain began exporting their textiles to India, forcing domestic weavers and printers to shut down and people to buy cheap imitations of their once iconic textiles. British desire for complete control often turned violent: “They literally cut off the fingers of many weavers in India,” says Gopinath. It also threatened to crush the once flourishing industry.

A 2015 exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, entitled “The Fabric of India: Textiles in a Changing World,” chronicled the state of Indian textiles during the British Raj. The craft became akin to a political statement, according to the museum. Mohandas Gandhi even encouraged people to weave their textiles and don a khadi, a traditional garment that soon became the symbol of Indian nationalists.

block print napkin from proper topper

A simple block printed napkin.

Getty Images

After the Raj ended, the textile industry took on a new life. Writer and activist Pupul Jayakar traveled to New York to attend an exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art on Indian textiles in 1955, where she met Charles Eames. The two struck up a friendship. Shortly thereafter, Eames and his wife Ray toured India and presented the newly formed government with a document called The India Report, which examined the ways in which India could sustain and improve their traditional craft industries. The resulting National Institute of Design was founded in 1961 and today is considered the preeminent authority on Indian crafts, working tirelessly to protect and proliferate the art form.

maxweel ryan block print sofa

Maxwell Ryan’s Hamptons home features a block-printed sofa.

Bjorn Wallander

In the 60 years since the formation of the NID, design lovers have fostered renewed interests in block-printed textiles. While their global popularity was cemented during the Mughal period, Indian textiles have experienced something of a rebirth abroad, with reverberations felt in India. “So many younger men are getting into the printing business,” says Shreya Shah, the founder of Indian textile company Marigold Living.

block printing

John Robshaw

This celebration of handicrafts and exuberant patterns fit right in with the maximalism that has come and gone (and come again) over the last 60 years. Chintz and block print is a classic combination. As the National Institute of Design rose to prowess, more Westerns found their way to the printers of Jaipur or Ahmedabad. John Robshaw, noted textile designer and block print lover, was among them as he spent time at the NID. “These textiles are the same as art to me,” says Robshaw. “It’s art that you are living with and using.”

Art is what these textiles should be considered, says Gopinath. “When I think of block print, a few things come to my mind: the exquisite design, color, composition, and the hand and heart of a craftsperson.” For Shah, it’s much the same. “As Indians, we know how much beauty we live around,” she says, “and I want the world to know it too.”


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