What is Block Printing in Textiles?

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  • 0:03 Textiles & Design
  • 0:52 Block Printing
  • 2:05 Process
  • 4:07 Benefits
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Textile designs can get pretty complicated, and many require specific techniques to complete. In this lesson, we'll examine the process of block printing and see how it's used in textile design.

Textiles & Design

Have you ever been in someone's home and found yourself admiring his or her curtains, towels, or bed sheets? There's no shame in that - we all do it. Many textiles, or human-made cloths or fabrics, contain some pretty cool designs. But how did they get there?

Many textiles get their designs from dyed yarns or threads that are woven together in distinct patterns. However, this can be very time consuming and is not very effective for some of the more complex patterns.

Picture a paisley-printed necktie. Weaving or even sewing that design would be a pain. To create patterns like this, we can instead try printing them - or applying ink to the finished fabric.

Block Printing

Today, commercial printing is a common way to transfer ink onto textiles. Rather than dying the individual threads, it's often easier to just transfer the entire design at once. However, the machines for doing this were not always available. Before the advent of modern technology, people relied on a method called block printing.

Block printing involves carving the desired pattern onto a large block, covering that design in ink or dye, and stamping it onto the fabric. While blocks could be made from stone, they were most commonly made of wood.

The process is actually very similar to the way that the first printed books were created. This may sound simple, but keep in mind that each block can only be covered in a single color of ink or dye and only to the block containing the part of the overall design utilizing that color. This is an ancient technique, dating back at least to the ancient civilizations of India, Egypt, China, and Assyria, but used widely throughout history around the world.

Process

Let's follow the block printing process from beginning to end. The first step is to produce the fabric. Tightly woven fabrics tend to work better for printing, and materials like cotton, silk, or linen are often used because they hold dye better, meaning the pattern won't bleed once applied.

If the designer wants to stamp colored dyes onto a white fabric, either the yarn may be bleached prior to weaving or the entire fabric may be bleached. If the designer wants a colored background, the yarns or fabric will be dyed.

The next step is to sketch the design onto the surface of the block and make a relief carving that protrudes from the surface. The intricate carving required here is why wood is almost always used instead of stone.

If the entire design is to be completed in one color, it may fit on a single block. However, if the design features multiple colors, then a block has to be made for each color. To avoid warping the wood, multiples are made of every single block. One design can require 2-3 dozen blocks, depending on the complexity.

Prior to printing, the artist has to stretch and pin the fabric to prevent wrinkling and outline the design on the fabric. This is very important, as most printed designs are pretty precise and repetitive. A single off-center stamp would drastically clash with the others.

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