The Wonderful Art of Batik Block Printing

By: Shanthi Kumar

The art of Indian block printing is a labor-intensive, painstaking process that has survived the test of time because of the beauty of the handmade fabrics. The art flourished in the 12th century under the patronage of the Rajas (Kings) and today it continues to be practiced by artisans all over India, each of whom brings to it a distinctive identity, depending on the region he or she comes from.  Some block printers use a resist such as wax to get a different effect.  The following outlines batik block printing.


Above are the Bunta, the wooden blocks that are used for printing.  These teak wood blocks are hand carved by skilled artisans with a variety of designs and motifs and range in size from around one inch square to five or six inches per side.       On the back of each block there is a wooden handle for the artisan to hold while pressing the block onto the cloth.  There are also 2-3 holes that are made for air circulation during the printing.  Before they are used, the blocks are kept in oil for 10-15 days to protect the wood from warping.


The printing table is prepared with approximately 3” of wet sand, evenly leveled.  This provides a soft bed for the fabric that allows an even impression when the fabric is stamped with the blocks.  This is done 2-3 times a day.


The fabric to be printed is washed to remove any starch and then bleached and dried. Once completely dry, the fabric is stretched onto a printing table and secured to it with pins. There should be no ripples in the fabric.


For Batik block printing, Wax is melted on a stove and the blocks are dipped in the wax.


And then stamped on the fabric.  The artisans are so skilled that it is difficult to tell where the block starts and ends.


Wax-stamped fabric


The fabric stamped with the wax is dyed.  The wax acts as a resist and the dye does not penetrate the waxed areas.  The dye bath is usually hot and care has to be taken when dyeing  that the wax does not melt.


The wax is removed by dipping the fabric in very hot water to melt the wax.  Afterwards, the fabric is dried.


The wax is removed by dipping the fabric in very hot water to melt the wax.  Afterwards, the fabric is dried.


This is an example of a single printing which was dyed twice.  The rosewood areas were printed with wax and the fabric was dyed in black.  After the wax was removed the fabric was dyed in rosewood.


Some designs require the fabric to be stamped with wax twice.  After the first dyeing and removal of wax, the fabric is stamped with wax a second time.


Sometimes the fabric is hand painted with wax rather than block printed


Here the white stripes between the yellow lines were printed with wax and the fabric was dyed yellow.  Then the fabric was again printed to cover the yellow lines as well as the white around the maroon and it was dyed maroon.  Finally all the wax was removed.  This is called double batik process.


This is double batik.  In this technique, the fabric is printed with wax, dyed, and the wax is removed.  It is then printed a second time and dyed a second time before the wax of the second printing is removed.

After the printing is complete, the fabric is dried in the sun to fix the colors. The fabric is then rolled in newspapers to prevent the fabric layers from adhering to each other and the bundles are steamed in boilers constructed for this purpose. After steaming the material is washed thoroughly in water and dried in the sun. Finally the material is ironed in single layers, which helps to fix the color permanently.

From the hand carving of the blocks through all the steps involved in hand block batik, this clearly is a technique that depends upon the skill and knowledge of all the artisans involved.  When it is done well, the result is a fabric that is uniquely beautiful.

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Kalamkari: A Tradition Continued and Renewed

Kalamkari.  Even the word, a mixture of Persian and Indian, reflects the storied past of this textile art. Kalamkari is an ancient Indian form of hand printing on cloth and kalamkari textiles were a prized trading commodity throughout Asia and Europe for hundreds of years. This traditional art has survived among dedicated artisans in southern India who follow the age-old techniques and natural dye recipes of this painstaking process.

MarketPlace is proud of its collection of beautiful and authentic Kalamkari fabrics.  We work with the producers to create new and unique designs that still draw inspiration from the ornamental motifs developed through the centuries of trade. When you wear these remarkable garments, you are wearing a little piece of history!

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Some of the natural dyes take days or weeks to prepare and are derived from a number of sources. Black dye is a fermented solution of rusted iron pieces and raw palm sugar. Red shades come from a long process involving pretreating with alum and boiling the cloth in a copper vat with roots and barks. Lime juice is used for pink.


In the first phase, several days are spent preparing the unbleached cotton with repeated washings, beatings and bleachings.


Several more days are spent preparing the surface with myrobalam fruit  and buffalo milk.  Myrobalam seeds contain tannic acid, which acts as a mordant to set the dye, and the milk fat keeps dyes from spreading.


Subsequently mordants and dyestuffs are applied in specific sequences to produce the different colors, with more washings and bleachings in between.


After the fabric is treated, it is spread on a table that is slightly cushioned so that when the hand-carved wood block is pressed down, it makes an impression.


The wood blocks are a maximum of 6” squares and the precision of placing the block is extremely important so that the design does not look broken.


With Kalamkari, unlike batik, the fabric is never overdyed. All parts of the pattern come from block printing with mordant.  The background block is printed first and it is then filled in with different  mordants and the color emerges when boiled. Because every color in a design is printed on, the precision is again of utmost importance. Notice the fine lines of the flower is printed after the larger outline and background has been printed.


Border blocks are narrower. Sometimes, depending on the design and width of the border, the artisan will use  3-5 different blocks  to compose a border.


The precision of borders is another challenge for the artisans. They are very skillful at mitering the corners.


An Alizerine solution is added to water in a copper pot and heated on a brick fireplace.  Sometimes bark, leaves and dried flowers are added depending on the color needed.  The mordant-printed fabric is then completely submerged, the cloth is swirled and boiled for over an hour. The length of boiling determines the intensity of the color needed.  It is then dried again.


A lot of knowledge, skill, space, sunshine and water go into the production of beautiful Kalamkari fabrics.

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Our Chindi Collection: Learning by turning trash into treasure

MarketPlace is known for its creative use of design and our chindi collection is a good example.  Chindi means “scraps” and we use the scraps from our production to fulfill a variety of purposes.  First, we reduce waste.  Second, this project is a means to train new artisans and get them comfortable using the sewing machine.  Third, it is also an introductory way for new groups to gain confidence in production, keeping to timelines and quality.  Last but not least, the beautiful hand-dyed fabric scraps inspire unique and creative designs.

The managing of the chindi project is no easy task.


After production, the scraps are collected and organized. Tons and tons of chindis arrive after each shipment.  They are separated by size and color, including background color.  If one chindi is a blue pattern on a white background and the other is blue on a dark blue background, they might not look good together.


The sorted chindi are ironed and then cut according to the size specification.  Above are shown 6” square chindis but other designs call for 2” squares or triangles.  Many of the scraps can only be made into long, narrow strips, so we design products just for them. This is how the Kareli Jacket is made.


The trainees are then given a stack of the cut chindis which they keep by the machine for easy access.  They take one from each stack and attach them together to make a long strip and then attach the strips.  By doing this they learn how to start and stop the machine, how much they need to press on the pedal, that the corners have to match, etc.  Depending on the end use, the chindi creations are made into a variety of shapes and sizes.


It is difficult to predict how many chindis will be generated and if the final use of the chindi pieces is color-specific, we could run out of some colors.  To solve this, we use techniques of printing and dyeing the chindis after they have been sewn together.  In this case, the patchwork fabric for the Kareli jacket is hand block printed with melted wax.  It is then all dyed in one color.


The wax print acts as a resist and does not absorbs the dye, retaining the original color of the patched fabric in the places covered with wax.



After it is dyed in a coordinating overall color, the chindi piece still retains some of the characteristics of the original fabrics.


And here you have the fabric ready to cut sew and embroider.


Imagine the number of hands that have used their fantastic skills to bring this jacket to you.

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Exquisite Ties: By Shanthi Kumar

It is ubiquitous in today’s textile industry. Trendy and classic, colorful and elegant, simple but exquisite, ikat is here to stay. The fact that this age-old tradition (dating back to the 5th and 6th century in India and even earlier in South East Asia) has withstood the passage of time is a testament to its versatility and beauty.  One has to just take a peek at the process behind the making of ikat to understand without any doubt that its beauty emanates from a painstaking process of love, time and finesse. The word “Ikat” comes from the Malay-Indonesian word for “tie”.


Ikat is a resist dye technique used to pattern textiles.  It is a process where prior to weaving, warp (lengthwise yarn) or weft (crosswise thread) or sometimes both are tied to resist absorbing color and are then dyed.

  The yarn is received in bundles, boiled and hung loosely to dry.


The yarn is then transferred from hanks to bobbins.

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The Yarn is prepped

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And stretched on a horizontal frame

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The warp (horizontal) threads are set up on a horizontal creel and the design is marked.


Rubber tires are used to bind the yarn in places that should resist the dye when dyed.


If there are multiple colors, this step is repeated for each color.


The yarn is then aligned and prepared to be put on the loom


The weft yarn is then spun into bobbins that are

used in weaving


And the weaving begins.


Nineteenth and twentieth century historical evidence show that at least during the last 200 years, Asia produced the most varied and highest quality ikat textiles. Although ikat occurs worldwide, India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Japan have been the leading producers of fine ikat material.

India and Southeast Asia are the regions with the greatest diversity of ikat weaving, with all three technical versions present and developed to an unrivalled variety of designs.

The Basics

There are three main types of ikat:

  • Warp ikat, the easiest of the three, is created when the pattern is dyed onto the longitudinal—or warp— threads prior to being woven.
  • Weft ikat is significantly more difficult than its warp counterpart because the pattern is dyed onto the lateral—or weft—threads. These dyed weft threads add a level of complexity for the weaver who has to keep them aligned so the pattern comes together correctly.
  • Perhaps the most difficult type to master is the double ikat technique. As you can imagine, this process includes both dyed weft and warp threads. Note: This method is only practiced by a small handful of weavers in Japan, Indonesia, and India.

Even as a khadi loving college student, I loved ikat for not only its beautiful color combinations but also for the comfort and softness of cotton ikat. Ever time I wore a salwar khameez made from ikat fabric, it made me look and feel so good. A particularly favorite piece of mine was a red and green ikkat  chudidar/khameez, stitched from fabric that I had bought on a trip to Secunderabad. Almost 25/30 years later, I can still recollect the vibrant vermillion red and bottle green colors of that outfit. It also brings back memories of my carefree college days in Benguluru(or Bangalore as it was known then). Ah! The magic of ikat!

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Artisans’ Kids Bust Stereotypes

We asked the artisans’ kids what they felt about some common social stereotypes. We then asked them to write down one social “rule” that they have proven wrong. Here are some of the answers we got.

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What did the kids feel about this exercise? The kids were intrigued and excited to put their thoughts down on paper. This is what they had to say:

“I worked very hard at overcoming my physical condition. And I’m happy that my efforts can inspire someone else. People usually pity kids like me but I had confidence in myself.”

“These are the things that parents, teachers, neighbors keep saying. And we put exactly those words on the cards. I think this is the best answer we can give them.”

“How can anyone else know what I am capable of? No one has the right to tell me what I can or cannot do. And no one can really tell what my capabilities are.”

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Celebrating Independence

August 15th is Independence Day in India, commemorating the day in 1947 when India became free from British rule. As the country celebrates with speeches and concerts and kite-flying, the artisans reflect on what independence and freedom mean on a more personal level.  In these photos, some of the women share their views of freedom.  Economic empowerment has led to many more changes in their lives as they have become more self-confident, decisive, informed, and – independent! They have become leaders and role models for their families and their communities.  Join us in honoring all those who have fought and continue to fight for their right to determine their own future.

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Authentic Kalamkari Worth the Work

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Sometimes it isn’t about efficiency. Sometimes it’s about taking the time and trouble to create something truly special. The ancient Kalamkari process is very complex and time-consuming, involving up to 17 steps of hand block printing and dyeing with colors and mordants derived from local plants and minerals. Once prized by sultans and Europeans alike, Kalamkari fabrics suffered from the introduction of machine-printed textiles in the 1700’s.  But the secrets of the technique and the dye recipes were retained by the families in South India for whom this was their traditional livelihood.  Today there is a new appreciation for things that are natural and hand-crafted. Our authentic Kalamkari fabrics have a mellow and enduring beauty that can come only from taking the time to do it the right way.

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