Do you recognize these patterns? If you are thinking, “Woah…..those look like the patterns on my scarf….” then you are correct. For centuries, any printing of fabric would be done by block printing, transferring an image from block to fabric with pressure, like a stamp. As the industrial revolution did for many industries, it transformed textile printing to almost a completely automated industry. While most textile printing today is done by processes like wet printing, pigment printing, burnouts, flat-bed, rotary, and strike-offs, there are still some people that do it by hand.
These blocks from India are carved from a single piece of wood, pressed into a bed of ink, and printed with a dramatic karate chop of the hand on to a piece of fabric. The white areas are the parts that would press the ink onto the fabric while the parts between would remain inkless. The result is a mirror image of the block, transferred to the fabric. The folks at West Elm went to Rajasthan and made a beautiful video illustrating the textile printing process from the creation of pattern, the carving of the block, to the master printer demonstrating the craft.
If you are interested in trying to print yourself, I would suggest starting with a simple linoleum cut rather than jumping right into wood. Linoleum is a softer material than wood, which means you will spend less time carving and more time printing. It’s also more forgiving of mistakes so when your hand slips and takes a nick out of your perfect pattern or image, you won’t see it as much. Mary McDermott from Studio71.org does a great job of demonstrating a DIY linoleum cut printing process that you could do at home.