After two days of carving our own rubber blocks, it was time to graduate to real woodblocks, Jaipur-style. We piled into our Innova caravan and headed out to Bagru for our first workshop: Indigo dye with Dabu mud resist.
Before we even began printing, I was blown away by the woodblocks. They are works of art in their own right, and it’s amazing to know that each line, each swirl, is painstakingly carved by hand. Each block is designed with cues to ensure proper alignment with the repeat patterns, and it was so interesting to start to understand how it all works.
We had a huge array of blocks to choose from – it was very hard to narrow down my selections! We started with one practice piece, about 1 meter of muslin, so I took the opportunity to play with a few patterns and see which I liked best.
Printing with the mud was challenging but fun. The mud used in dabu is a special blend of natural materials that includes some portion of clay as well as a natural gum (think xantham gum, or other natural coagulants used to keep sauces shelf-stable and consistent). This blend keeps the mud from washing away when the fabric is dipped in the indigo bath.
The mud was smooth, but drippy and unpredictable. The slightest variation in printing pressure made a big change in the amount of mud left behind by the block. But we would be dipping the scarves in dye, so this was already such an organic process that perfection would be impossible – even, undesirable. With that in mind, I was able to lean in and just print freely, having fun with it. Because, oh my goodness, was it fun.
After printing with the mud, we sprinkled sawdust over all the mudded areas. This helped the mud dry more quickly, and I think it may also give the mud a little more stability – something else to hold onto while it’s submerged in the indigo.
We laid our scarves to dry in the sun, then ate lunch while we waited. They gave us the most adorable box lunches. I don’t know what it is, but there is something so comforting and caring to me about getting a lunch that comes in a cardboard box. I even love those sandwich box lunches you get on planes. Is that weird? This was like that but twice as special because it was obviously packed by hand AND there was paneer.
This was my first time working with indigo dye, and learning about its cultivation and care was fascinating. This indigo vat was a cistern in the ground, 10 feet deep. The indigo dye is a fermented substance, and since this cistern is relatively new (less than 10 years), they bought a culture from a much more established indigo vat – one that was hundreds of years old. It reminded me of sourdough, or beer – a good starter is what makes the magic happen.
They rolled away a giant concrete slab to expose the dye bath, which was covered in a layer of foamy bubbles (above, top left). The dye-er carefully scooped the bubbles out of the bath and into a bucket, then set the bucket aside. After our dyeing was complete, he poured the bubbles back on top of the dye bath. This is important because the bubbles form a protective layer, sealing the dye bath away from oxygen in the air. The indigo color only appears after oxidation – the liquid itself was actually green, as you can see in the photo of the freshly emerging scarf.
After the first dip, we let our scarves dry, and then printed with mud a second time in preparation for a second dip. The scarves were already very blue at this point, so the resist effect from the second application has far less contrast. There was also an option to do the first dip in a gray dye, and then the second dip in indigo, which gave really beautiful results. But I was all in on the indigo, no regrets.
After the dye dried for the second time, the scarves were soaked in water to loosen up the mud. Then, amazingly, one of the workers pulled out each piece of fabric, held it over his shoulder and then SMACKED it on a concrete slab. One by one, our fabrics received a good thrashing, and that seemed to be enough to break up the clay. Then they passed from one rinse bucket to the next, leaving behind less and less blue in the water with each rinse.
Of course, it’s indigo, so it will probably always leave a little bit of blue on anything it rubs against. But I washed my pieces three times (on cold) when I got home, and now at least my scarf doesn’t turn my arms blue when I wear it!
It’s been exactly a month since the day of these photos, and I still can’t believe how wonderful it was. I’m working to incorporate the spirit of that trip into my normal life, and keep making things just for the fun of it. I just started a fantastic new project and I can’t wait to share.