The art of printing on textiles has been around for centuries and most probably originated in the Asiatic region. The oldest record of printing on fabric dates back to before 220 AD in China. In 327 B.C. when Alexander the Great invaded India, colourful, printed textiles were found. These textiles were printed using a carved structure such as a wood block or rubber stamp. By the 12th and 13th centuries printing of textiles through various techniques had spread throughout the world, methods having been exchanged through trade. In India, the majority of printing was done using natural indigo dyes and the resulting fabric was washable unlike their western counterparts. In the 17th century, the French transported back the knowledge of these methods to Europe and consequently printing was taken up largely in Britain.

Block-printingTraditional printing is done using three main techniques: direct printing, resist dyeing and discharge printing. Each style of printing leaves its distinguishing mark on the fabric making the print merge or stand out from the cloth.

In direct printing the print is applied directly to the cloth using colourant or dye. The dyes are usually thickened in order to stop it spreading through the capillary action of the fibre. There are many methods used in direct printing like block printing, stencil printing, screen-printing, roller printing etc.

Roller printing is frequently used in mass production where the fabric passes through an engraved roller in the printing machine. In screen-printing, screens or meshes are used to transfer patterns onto fabric. A stencil of the design is made out of porous nylon fabric and then with the help of a wooden squeegee colour is transferred from the screen to the fabric while the other areas of the fabric remain covered. Kalamkari is a kind of bock printing that originates from the state of Andhra Pradesh. Wax is used while dyeing the garment and the remaining areas are hand painted.

In resist dyeing, a paste is imprinted on the fabric and then it is dyed.The dye colours the areas not covered with the print. When the paste is removed, the print shows up against the darker dye of the garment. Batik, an Indonesian word, is now a generic term for a process of dyeing a fabric via a resist technique. Over 2000 years old, this printing method useswax as a dye-resistant substance that blocks colour absorptions. The method allows designers the artistic freedom to draw patterns before immersing the fabric in dye.

Shibori, a Japanese technique from the 8th century too is a form of resist dyeing. 

Shibori Tunic

Shiboru means “to wring, squeeze, and press” – the process involves folding and stiching or knotting cloth before dyeing it. The resulting print has blurry edges and is often called tie-and-dye though a better term would be shaped resist dyeing. Bandhani is a tie-and-dye technique that was started by the Khatri community of Gujarat in India. This ancient technique even finds mention in historical texts like Harshacharita.

Discharge printing, simply put, is the process of bleaching a garment in the desired pattern and then refilling it with water-based dyes or leaving it as is. This method is used to printed lighter patterns on darker fabrics. The bleach deactivates the existing dye of the cloth and then a new dye in filled in the space. As a result, the print is within the fabric and does not sit atop the material, leading it to feel “soft” to touch. Since the colour is embedded in the fabric, these colours do not rub off with washing or with friction and are very durable. Discharge ink only works with fabric that is made of natural fibers like 100% cotton or silk fabric. Discharge printing is an old technique that has now once again gained much popularity and it produces a uniquely soft finish on the cloth.

The beauty of discharge printing is that the process reveals the natural beauty of the original fibre when the bleach deactivates the dye in the garment. A discharge printed top highlights the original colour of the fabric and places other motifs around it in embellishment. The process of discharge printing takes a lot of patience and a high level of skill and precision.

The various prints showcase the talent and skill of artisans all over India. Today much of textile printing has become digital and we are fast losing the rich heritage of hand worked fabric.

So which do you think is the prettiest of them all?