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The Ancient History of Block Printing

In local workshops in rural India, among women in bright saris, colorful elephants and the sweet smell of masala tea, you can still hear the rhythmic “thrump! thrump!” from hands hitting woodblocks. Here the ancient art of block printing have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years.

Originated in China, perfected in India
Block printing most likely originated in China for about 2 500 – 4 000 years ago, yet it was perfected in Medieval India. Indian artisans possessed unparalleled skills in the secret alchemy of applying plant dyes. Using metallic salt fixtures, they created vibrant, colorfast patterns on cotton - a difficult fabric to dye. The first Indian workshops were in Gujarat, from there the craft spread to Rajasthan and other parts of India. It is known that Indian textiles were traded in ancient times with China, Indonesia and Babylon as well as with the Roman world.

Brought to Europe in the 17th century
Textile printing came to Europe in the 12th century, via trade with the Islamic world. However, the European dyes tended to liquify in water, so printing was not much used on textiles for clothes or anything that needed to be washed. In the 17th century trading companies like The British East India Company brought Indian textiles to Europe. The vibrant and colorfast prints became highly fashionable and led to a European "craze" for imported floral chintz and a production boom in India. The original chintz textile was made of glazed calico, a plain woven and unbleached cotton fabric, with multicolored floral prints set on a plain, light background. The first chintz designs were hand-painted and resist-dyed. Block printed designs were incorporated later.

Threatened by the mass production
The high demand for Indian textiles fueled technological advances in the European textile production. Colorfastness was improved by bleaching the cotton prior to printing. By the mid 18th century Britain and France produced their own block printed fabrics at a high standard. In Scotland Thomas Bell patented the first textile roller printing machine in 1783. By 1790 printing machines were mass producing textiles in the north of England. The first roller printing machines could only print one color, so block printing was often used to add more colors to the designs. However, by the mid 19th century manufacturers were using machinery and newly developed synthetic dyes to mass produce affordable multi colored ‘Indian’ textiles for the expanding middle class. Taking over their home markets.

Block printing kept alive by artisan driven companies
Today most textiles are machine-made and mass produced, due to the demand for cheap consumer products and high profits. In India artisans can earn more money at office jobs in big cities. This combined have resulted in printing skills and expertise past down from generation to generation risk being lost. Today the ancient art of block printing is kept alive by artisan driven companies and their customers who appreciate traditional handicraft and value the unique quality, feel and beauty of hand made products.

At Chamois we are proud to be one of the companies still using traditional block printing. Thank you for your interest in this ancient art.


The history of block printing in pictures:

The Diamond Sutra

Above: Picture of The Diamond Sūtra. The worlds earliest dated book. Block printed in China and dated 868 A.D. Currently at display in The British Museum.

Above: Two of the earliest known examples of block print on textile. Spun, woven and block printed by hand. Made in the 13th–14th century in Gujarat workshops in India. Found in Fustat (Old Cairo) in Egypt, they speak of early trade between India and ancient Babylon. Currently displayed at The Met.

Chintz Dress and Jacket from ca 1750-1800

Above: European chintz garments made from Indian block printed fabrics. Dress (left) from 1770-1790 and jacket from 1750-1800. Currently at display at MoMu - Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp. 

Indian block printed and painted cotton textile

Above: Chintz from the 1700s, block printed and hand painted in India. Currently at display at The V&A in London. 

Above: Artwork showing a French block printer in action. Dated 1805. Currently at display at The New York Public Library.

Blockprinted fabric from 18th century France. Red print of natural base.

Above: French block printed fabric on plain weave cotton dated 18th century. Part of the textile department at Cooper Hewitt, NY.

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