M+A Inspiration: Block Print

Photo of artisan working on a wood block used for block printing

These days, nearly everything we buy is mass produced and machine-made. It’s difficult to imagine the days when garments were sewn by hand and cloth was block printed. But in some small workshops and villages in Jaipur, India and elsewhere, there is a commitment to keeping the centuries old tradition of block printing alive.

Block printing is known to have been used in India since at least the 12th century, although this method is thought to be around 2,000 years old.
Photo of wooden blocks used for block printing
First the artwork/design is drawn onto a translucent butter paper which acts like a guide for the block maker to carve from. The papers then transferred to a perfectly smooth block of wood. The block can be sourced from many types of trees but most often the plentiful and sustainable mango wood is used, but it always needs to be 2-3 inches thick to prevent warping. Then the block is carved by hand out of wood. Each block could take 7-10 days to carve depending on the intricacy of design. Most houses collect and archive their blocks.  Some are decades old.  They can span in size from 8-10 inches or as small as a half an inch.  A separate block must be made for each color incorporated into the design.
Only the most experienced carvers can work on the complex designs. And the most intricate details are always saved for last to avoid damaging the delicate lines in the process.
We are often inspired by the components of this process as well as how simple and graphic they can be.
Artwork by Robert Mangold entitled "A Square with Four Square Cut Away, from Rubber Stamp Portfolio, 1976
Robert Mangold, A Square with Four Square Cut Away from Rubber Stamp Portfolio 1976, published 1977
Artists such as Robert Mangold used stamps and stamp-printing as their means of making art.
Block print pillow, cotton canvas, 24" square, Mangold Line, M+A NYC
Our Mangold Lines Block Print Pillow on washed mid weight cotton canvas.
grid like wood block used in block printing
Sometimes, the repeated print has a direct correlation that inspires artists and print makers alike.
Artwork by Agnes Martin, Little Sister, 1958
Agnes Martin, Little Sister, 1958
Agnes Martin abandoned her biomorphic abstraction in favor of all-over geometric template with grids. 
Banded stripe block print kerchief - M+A NYC
archive of wood blocks used for block printing
Even the block printing houses themselves are places where you can divine inspiration.  When we entered the room where the textiles were hand printed, we spied the block print archive at the top of the shelves.
artisan working on a blockprint
The room was open sides and awash in natural sunlight.  The long tables spread with swathes of cotton fabric.
close up of artisan working on a block print
They dip the block into the dye or ink, press it firmly onto the fabric where one hand anchors the repeat edge of the block and the fabric, and then hit it with a mallet or the palm of their hand.  
silhouette of artisan working on a block print
This process is repeated over and over again, by only the steadiest hands, until the pattern has completely covered the length of fabric. If there are multiple colors in the design, the artisan lets each color dry before applying the next, each with a new stamp. It is extremely time consuming and requires precision so that there are no breaks in the motif.
block print tea towel, dish towel,  M+A NYC
M+ A NYC's Angled Corner Stripe Block Print Tea Towel on mid-weight cotton canvas.
Block print pillow, cotton canvas, 24" square, Breton Stripe, M+A NYC
M+ A NYC's Breton Stripe Block Print Pillow (with pom-poms- natch).
Horizontal bands block print pillow, large lumbar - M+A NYC
M+ A's Horizontal Bands Block Print lumbar pillow.

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