Indian people were among the pioneers in the arts of natural dyeing and printing. In the interior of the desert state of Rajasthan, about 30 kilometers from Jaipur, there lies a small village called Bagru. About 22,000 people live in this village, and they are famous for keeping the three-centuries-old tradition of block printing alive. Master artisans in Bagru are responsible for the traditional style of printing with wood blocks, using natural colors and a mud resist technique called “Dabu.”
The Bagru Bhabhis, Jaipur, India 2018 Travel Diaries
Bagru, India. 2018 Travel Diaries
The art of hand block printing has been recognized as a traditional craft for generations in different clusters throughout India. Each community follows its own distinctive style and methods, using locally available natural materials, motifs, and intricate workmanship. Each fabric tells a story of its own.
It’s estimated that the block printing was introduced to Bagru 450 years ago, when a community of Chhipas (this was their Caste and their last name, literally meaning people who stamp or print) came to settle in the area from Sawai Madhopur. Today, the community works in a place by the Sanjaria riverside called Chhipa Mohalla, the Printer’s Quarters. It is perhaps the river that lends itself to the Sanganeri printing art form, as the presence of abundant water flowing in the Sanjaria and it’s clean, sunny riverbed may have once enticed the Chhipas to settle there.
These indigenous crafts have been passed down through generations, but the traditional dyeing and washing processes are a rare sight as the Sanjaria riverside runs dry and the pressure of global markets have led many Chhipa printers to cross over to chemical dyes. Harmful synthetic pigment dyes absorbed by the soil are a great threat to the health, wellbeing and livelihoods of the people in these communities.
Bagru, India 2018 Travel Diaries
Organic paste is made from clay, limestone, wheat powder and acacia gum. Anup Chhipa's Dabu printing. Bagru, India 2018 Travel diaries
Natural dyes produce an extraordinary diversity of rich and complex colors, often with unexpectedly wonderful results. Most natural dyes are sourced from plants and foods, like pomegranate rinds, offering a vast diversity of shades and colors.
The coded line print in Pomegranate rind yellow. Wabi Sabi Studio, Bagru, India. 2020 Travel Diaries
We couldn’t go without black, so we reached out to Kriti and Avinash at Wabi Sabi Studio to formulate a deep black sourced from iron.
Iron, like most natural dyes, matures and changes over time as the fabric is used and washed. They may shift or fade into different shades, but most naturally dyed fabrics will never get dingy the way synthetically dyed fabrics do. The secret to long-lasting natural color is good preparation and technique. Each Blinded By Color Project caftan takes 12 days for the printing and dyeing process.
Polka dot pint. Created by Shivraj Ji. Wabi Sabi Studio, Bagru, India. 2020 Travel Diaries
An important part of the process is mordanting. There are only a few dyes, like indigo, that will effectively attach to fiber without mordanting. Mordants facilitate the bonding of dye materials to the fiber, and each technique can result in a different shade.
Indigo batch. Bagru, India 2018 Travel Diaries
Mordants can be added through block printing, silk screening, or resist techniques. Some mordants can also be used to create the colors themselves. For example, we use myrobalan as a mordant and a dye. Myrobalan comes from the ground nuts of the Terminalia chebula tree, which grows throughout Southeast Asia. When applied to our recycled cotton fabric, myrobalan lends a lovely, light buttery yellow. It can also be applied as a tannic mordant before the fabric is then dyed with an additional natural dye. Myrobalan also happens to be the perfect mordant to prepare for a single indigo dip, resulting in a vibrant teal color.
Color testing for teal, indigo, yellow, and black at Wabi Sabi Studio. 2020 Travel Diaries
Some mordants like chrome, copper, and tin are sourced from heavy metals. While these can provide beautiful color palettes, they are a health hazard and produce toxic waste that requires special disposal. We do not use any of these heavy mordants in our designs.
Alum, iron, and botanical tannins are much safer mordants to use and can be responsibly disposed of at the workshop. These are commonly used by natural dyers and have the potential to produce a rainbow of beautiful colors when used by the hands of a master.
Shivraj Ji. Wabi Sabi Studio. Bagru, India 2020 Travel Diaries
The Blinded By Color Project firmly believes that natural dyes are a sustainable and economically viable option for textile design. However, these processes must remain local and connected to the farmers or artisans. Some natural dyes are harvested from fragile environments, meaning that scaling up to big, industrial quantities of dye material would require harmful extraction from natural places.