This was the final workshop of our Jaipur trip, and it was a true culmination of everything we’d learned. We drove out to Bagru again, this time to Jaitex Art, for a session on true woodblock printing (as opposed to the mud printing for indigo resist).
When we first signed up for the trip, many moons before departure, we were given the opportunity to each design our own woodblock. Our designs were sent to India, and our blocks were carved by master artisans in preparation for our arrival.
When we all met at the hotel for dinner on the first night, our blocks greeted us by candlelight. It was the cutest gesture and a very warm welcome to a new place with a new group of people.
The center photo shows the block I designed, with the two nested triangles. I wanted something that could make some fun repeats and tesselations. To augment our designs, the workshop included a huge table covered in woodblocks that we could use, and that felt like Christmas. It was so hard to choose between the hundreds of blocks, but I grabbed an armful of various triangles and tried my best to just go for it.
The pigments used for these prints were natural dyes. We had access to four colors: black, yellow, red, and brown. I chose to limit my design to just black and yellow because those are my favorites, and I wanted to maintain a very graphic, modern look.
I played with different repeats of my block, and added other triangle blocks where appropriate. I didn’t plan the design out in advance, which was very contrary to my usual style, but my biggest takeaway from the week was to let myself play and be creative. So I just started. I worked my way around the edges, and filled my scarf: triangle by triangle.
I’ve probably said this about every day, but it was so fun to see what everyone else was working on. This project was especially interesting, because we were all working with blocks that we had designed months ago, often with certain intentions in mind. We had all learned so much over the course of the week that many of us ended up making entirely different creations than we anticipated when we first designed that block. And that was pretty awesome.
Every scarf was so beautiful, special, and unique.
This picture makes it look like everyone went with yellow, but the red dye actually looked yellow until it was set with a mordant that set the dye permanently and turned it red.
It’s been fun to go back through these pictures a full three months after the trip. This blog post reminds me that there are so many more things I want to print, and I’d love to try different colors and different variations of my little triangle woodblock. That block and my handprinted scarves are some of the best souvenirs I’ve ever brought home from a trip, and I will cherish them and their memories for a long, long time.
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.
When I signed up for the trip to Jaipur, I knew I’d love every part of it. It was a whole week that revolved around fabric – what could be better?! But there were two things that were a million times better than I had imagined. First: I was absolutely enthralled with block printing and, more than anything, loved that this class gave me some much-needed creative space to play. And second: everyone on the trip was wonderful, kind, supportive, talented, and FUN.
The combination of these two factors made every single day a treat. On the first few days of the trip, when we were designing our own blocks and printing with Jen, there were great ideas being manifested everywhere. Everyone was working on something unique, and it was pure joy to take a break from carving my own blocks, walk around, and look at the eye candy that everyone else was making.
With block printing, it’s impossible to be perfect (unless you’re Brigitte Singh…) and Jen’s attitude, which I worked to emulate, is to: accept that the imperfections will happen, plan for them in your work, and embrace them as part of what makes a handprinted textile so special.
This attitude, the acknowledgement that imperfection is part of the charm of the craft, was so freeing! And as we all began printing gorgeous pieces of textile art, I was constantly inspired. There are infinite options for beautiful blocks and then, once you start playing with repeats, the variety of interesting work you can create is simply boundless.
All that is to say that after I had made my peacock block, I wanted to try something entirely different.
I wanted to make a fabric I’d be likely to sew with and wear, so that pushed me in a more graphic direction. I was also armed with the knowledge that my prints would be imperfect, and those imperfections would make the fabric interesting and beautiful. So I got the basic idea in my head but then I just winged it.
I started by carving a bunch of stripes into one rectangular block. I varied the stripes slightly on purpose (especially since they were bound to vary slightly by accident). I then cut the block into two separate blocks, but I cut it jagged so that each stripe would be a different height.
Then I printed rows. First in a hot pink, because I loved how my test print came out when I borrowed a friend’s pink-inked roller. Then orange, and finally a deep but bright navy.
I had packed a few scrap fabrics for the trip without knowing what I’d be printing. I threw this gray crosshatch print in my suitcase on a whim, and I love the way the overprint plays with the existing pattern.
I had also packed a big cut of this blue chambray, so once I had the striping down, I printed a solid navy variation. It’s so much fun how the same blocks, printed in all one color, can create a fabric with such a different feel than the bright, varied stripes. I’m hoping to make a top or a shirtdress out of this fabric eventually. I didn’t finish printing the full yardage, but lovely Jaime let me take the rest of her blue ink home with me so I can carry on!
Of course, then I couldn’t stop. I printed a border on the pants I was wearing – I had made them for the trip out of the same blue chambray. And then I stamped my arm for a temporary tattoo. Yes, I felt like a rebel.
I posted this photo to Instagram and we all joked that my mom and/or my fiancé would panic and think I had gotten a tattoo. But alas, they were both entirely unfazed.
After those 2.5 days I was thoroughly convinced that I need to spend more time with ink, fabric, and of course my beloved carving tools. I love making things, and block printing has all the best parts. It’s pretty, it’s colorful, it’s nearly limitless, it’s really hard to fail, it has lots of zen/”flow” steps, and after the initial effort to carve the block, the printing is nearly mindless (in a great way). Needless to say, I’m hooked.
At the beginning of October, I went on the trip of a lifetime: Ace Camps Block Printing in Jaipur, India. Day 1 in India marked our first day of class with Jen Hewett (author of Print, Pattern, Sew), who had flown in from San Francisco to teach us block printing and, of course, enjoy the beauty that is Jaipur. Spoiler alert: she’s awesome and teaches a fantastic class.
Our lodgings were a palace-turned-hotel, and my favorite feature of the venue (besides the adorable doors/doorways/alcoves) was the space allocated for our workshop. On a secluded corner of the property, we gathered two to a table and worked beneath the shade of a giant tree. It was bliss.
When I signed up for the class, I had every intention of preparing diligently for my block printing projects. I am nothing if not a planner. But despite the months of time between booking the trip and boarding the plane, I managed to arrive in India with no more preparation than a Pinterest board.
And you know what? I’m thrilled. I didn’t go to India to make things based on my normal – I went to India to see new and different things, to find new and different inspiration.
The night I checked in, I noticed this peacock window grate in the hallway leading to my room. “That would make a neat block,” I thought. Done.
I drew multiple iterations of that peacock, and each time it got simpler and more stylized. I wanted to keep the interesting outer curves of the shape so I could play with repeat patterns. In the end, my design was more modern and less intricate than my inspiration, and I am really happy with this distillation.
Once I had my final sketch, it was time for my favorite part: carving. Carving the blocks is so meditative. The active thinking part is over – once you’ve transferred the sketch, you just have to carve away what doesn’t belong. My hands found their zen and just went for it.
My hands would have been happy to carve all day. So it was for the best when, after probably multiple hours (again, zen, I have no idea), Jen nudged me and said, “I think it’s time for a test print.” She knew I would have kept carving until every line was way more precise than necessary.
I didn’t think my block was done – but it was! And I loved it. That test print was like magic. Once the block was inked, it was real.
The following day, we got to start playing with repeat patterns. I mixed up some peacock teal ink and began printing.
I played with repeat patterns, finding different tessellations where the peacocks naturally aligned with each other. I think this would make such a fun border print for a skirt or dress, and I’m really happy with the way it becomes more of a “pattern” than a “thing” when printed large scale. Like, you can tell they’re peacocks, but they’re also just an interesting visual repeat.
To finish my design, I carved one tiny teardrop to serve as a feather accent block. I used this micro-block to add gold feathers, randomly placed on each peacock, and it felt like just the right touch.
The rest of the trip, I was seeing peacocks everywhere. I think they were our unofficial tour mascot. Can you spot the peacock in the photo above?? That was one of the two who frequented our hotel trees and lawn. They’re gorgeous and they’re also LOUD! There were many other stylized drawings of peacocks in windows and on shop logos… all of them would have made fantastic blocks.
At night, the lights in the foyer cast perfect peacock shadows on the wall. Our trip mascot, shining through the night.