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 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. 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 dyes absorbed by skin or 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
The secret to long-lasting natural color is good preparation and technique. Each BBCP garment can take approximately 12 days for the printing and dyeing to be complete depending of the color and 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 tanning mordant and a dye. Myrobalan comes from the ground nuts of the Terminalia chebula tree, which grows throughout Southeast Asia. When applied to our cotton fabric, myrobalan lends a lovely, light buttery yellow. It can also be applied as a tanning to fix the color before the fabric is 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 with Pomenagrade skin 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 reuse and responsibly disposed of at the workshop when they are exhausted. 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
Natural dyes are a healthier more sustainable 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.