Chips of the Old Block

Calico is a plain weave cotton fabric in one or more colors. Named after Calicut in India, Calico fabrics originated in the Malabar region of Kerala. The fabric is mentioned by historians before the Christian era and praised by early travellers for its fine texture and beautiful color. Block printed cotton fabric from Calicut imported into England into England in 1630 CE was called Calicuts. The name Calico what soon apply to all Indian cottons having an equal number of warp and weft threat. Indian textiles inspired many around the world and William Morris (1834 – 1896) was among the few who became internationally famous during that era.

Morris, a poet, artist, philosopher and political theorist, started a home décor business in 1861, offering finally designed handcrafted textiles, which included block printed wallpapers, textiles, embroideries, stained glasses and other hand-crafted articles that had disappeared during the period of frenetic industrialisation in England.  From 1862, Morris focused only on block printed wallpapers. In 1868, William Morris experimented with natural dyes on textiles to reproduce the old 1830s chintzes (the Hindi word Chint for similar looking fabrics still in practice in India). In 1870, his first designs- ‘Jasmine Trail’ and ‘Tulip and Willow’- were internationally famous then, and even now. Later, block printed velveteen became popular in the second half of the 19th-century for upholstery fabric. 

As part of the centenary celebrations of the life and works of William Morris in 1996, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London invited me to conduct a workshop to demonstrate the richness of Indian textiles, especially Block printing and the William Morris connection. The report published by Victoria and Albert museum records. The natural die workshop was part of the South Asian Arts program for both South Asian communities and general public. The workshop was an attempt to provide a cross cultural experience for both the audiences. It was run by Vikram Joshi, an expert from India who let the participants in exploration of natural dyes and wood Block printing and explained the reference between Morris textiles and the museums Indian collection. The tutor brought most of his equipments and materials from India which give the workshop a high level of authenticity while improving participants understanding of the material in the raw state. This added greatly to the educational experience and enjoyment.

Edo Sarasa

Indian printed textiles went around the world through Persia, China and reached Japan through the Silk Route of the ocean. In Japan, Indian-inspired printed textiles date back to the Edo era, also known as the ‘Tokugawa’ period (1603-1868) when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreing policies, a stable population, popular enjoyment of art and culture, recycling of material and sustainable forest management characterised the period. It was a sustainable and self-sufficient society, which was based on the principles of complete utilisation of finite resources. 

Indian-inspired textiles were called ‘Kemishimo,’ a formal wear for Samurai families, and each family would have a unique design on the kimono that distinguished them. Among the different designs, the Edo Sarasa was the most popular and originated from India. Initially, this textile was imported to Japan through Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders. This fabric was highly priced and not meant for the commoners; only Samurai families were allowed to wear it at tea ceremonies and other social occasions. Later, Japanese craftsmen started reproducing Indian hand block-printed textiles. Interestingly, the colours and patterns were still kept as original as possible. 

At a trade show in Paris in 2010, a fourth generation printer from the Edo era, Motofumi Kobayahi very polite and soft-spoken, very Japanese, mentioned he had been admiring the textiles on our stall and would stop by every day to have a closer look. Later, I visited his stall only to realize how similar both our fabrics were. The intrigued me and we exchanged contact details. 

A few years later he visited India to work with me on traditional Indian design on a special Japanese hand-woven fabric. A year later, I was fortunate enough to travel to Japan and took this opportunity to visit Motofumi and his workshop in Tokyo to see his beautiful and vast collection of Indian-inspired prints. He later introduced me to the original Sarasa designs, which were probably printed in Gujrat and named ‘Sarasa’ or ‘Saras’, which means beautiful in the local Gujarati dialect. 

A Chip and the Old Block

Can digital tools like 3D printing be sensitively and skilfully wielded within traditional craft contexts in order to extend aesthetic languages and provide greater economic and environmental sustainability? In this concluding article on using wood blocks in printing, the writer suggests that there are exciting exploration and economic benefit in this area. This way traditional skills and expertise will not be supplanted by digital technologies, but possibly augment and extend existing toolsets and methods. In fact, combining tradition with contemporary processes can be a strategy for a sustainable path into the future for the dying art of carving wood blocks. 

It is getting difficult to find fine block makers and the right quality of wood. The numbers of the most important aspect of the printing craft—the block makers—are dwindling. For example, the traditional block makers of Jaipur have changed with the times as well, and turned to seesham wood instead of gurjari wood. The compressed wood block (thassa) style of block making has become history. There is a mix of block makers from Farrukhabad, Bijnor and Agra, who have workshops close to printers’ colonies in Jaipur and Sanganer. Nowadays, cheaper wood handles have replaced the old style where the handle of the block was carved out of the same wood. 

Jaipur’s block makers who make blocks for the Sanganer and Bagru printing community cliam to have come from Sindh, now in Pakistan. There was a particular style of block making called thassa (pressed) that required a different set of tools, since no carving was involved. In the late seventies, when the prints became popular in the export market, many printers started making bigger blocks for faster production and that’s where the block makers from Farrukhabad, who were expert in making bigger blocks on seesham wood, made their mark in the Jaipur market. 

Not in Vogue

Similarly, the embroidery craft of Kashmir once used blocks for printing the pattern on woollen shawls and phirans and kaftans, so that the embroiderer could follow the motif, which is no longer in vogue. Today, tracing paper or vinyl transparent sheet is used by making fine perforations to transfer the design on the fabric.

So what does the future hold for India’s block printing craft? Old school printers had their favourite block makers who kept a record of all the possible blocks carved for that particular family. These records were in the form of a paper impression or parat of newly carved blocks, and taken just before handing over the block to the printer. Sometimes, block printers would patronise two or more block makers, and in order to identify the block makers who would have the original record, the block maker would make a special sign or symbol on the block’s handle that could be identified later. This helped the printer’s family to get the blocks re-carved without losing their originality. There were little chance that printers would borrow blocks from each other, so that the original designs remained with only one family. 

But all that is changing. India’s block carving community, which comprised largely of Muslim carvers, passed on the skills to their children and very often carving tools were self-designed and self-made. Alas, as more and more children of block carvers opt out of the traditional family business and take up better, well-paying jobs in other sectors, the block carving business is facing an existential crisis. Today, only around 10 to 15 families of block printers from Uttar Pradesh, who migrated to Jaipur in the seventies and eighties, remain in the trade. As many children of traditional block makers are gravitating to the IT sector, it is just possible they can be roped in to reinvent the labour intensive craft in the digital age. 

Digital Block Carving

As part of the Unbox Festival held in Delhi in 2014 (, I worked with UK’s Falmouth University To see if digital technology could help in carving blocks. Associate Professor of Digital Craft from Falmouth University in the UK, Justin Marshall, collaborated with Rangotri to investigate the opportunities that digital design and production technologies provided for traditional block printing of textiles. Here’s the report on that project by Dr. Justin Marshall ( 

This short project was Instigated by the challenge of reproducing some highly complex wooden blocks from Rangotri’s extensive archive of historical designs using new technologies. These designs are considered either too complex or uneconomic to reproduce using the carving techniques currently in use. Therefore, this is not intended as a replacement activity in which traditional skills and expertise are supplanted by digital technologies, but as an investigation into the possible augmentation an extension of existing toolsets and methods. As a digital craftsperson, I am particularly interested in how digital tools can be sensitively and skilfully (craftily) wielded within traditional craft context in order to extend aesthetic languages and provide greater economic and environmental sustainability.

In this project, we briefly tested to digital design and production strategies: one using 2D Image-based data to laser engrave blocks and the other generating full 3D CAD models of blocks to be produced using 3D printing technologies.

Laser engraving is a reductive process burning into material as a way of cutting or engraving designs. The materials we tested included plywood, teak and acetyl, all of which produced reasonable block prints, but with the limited depth of cuts. Traditional and complex designs could also be created using this process. However, a relatively powerful (60W) and expensive laser cutter is needed to be used to achieve more than 1-2mm depth of cut. 

Constructive Process

3D printing is a constructive rather than a reductive process and requires more computer-processing to create a full 3Dd model of a prospective block design. In addition, the production times can be lengthy and if small desktop 3D printers are used, then there is a limitation to the scale of the block that can be printed (more than 200x200mm would be rare). However, there are some distinct advantages. The ABS plastic and PLA materials commonly used in 3D printing are robust. The depth of the blocks can vary easily and be made as deep as required, and the cost of the hardware and health and safety provision, in contrast to laser cutter, is small.

Both the print workers at Rangotri and I tested a range of blocks produced using both techniques. Although a way of effectively capturing the subtleties and details of the blocks that we had originally aims to reproduce was not achieved, results from simpler designs were promising. I believe there is much more to be achieved in this area. On visiting Rangotri and seeing a small selection of the historic block from Vikram’s extensive collection, it is clear that the complexities not only of pattern design, but also a block structure is rich and provides both challenges and inspiration for further research.

Preserve Traditions

The challenges in future projects would not only be technical and creative, but also social and cultural, with the aim of finding ways that preserve traditions and skills while extending capability and opportunity. If the archive of block designs at Rangotri could be effectively ‘digitized’ and made available for current production, it could be the foundation for new production runs new design work. In addition, there are some characteristics that digital production of blocks allows that would be a challenge to the traditional wood carvers, and this provides the opportunity to develop a new design language that previously would’ve been impossible to reproduce using block printing.

In conclusion, I believe there are exciting opportunities for effective archiving, creative exploration and economic benefit in this area, and that combining tradition with contemporary processes is one strategy for a sustainable path into the future.