Block Printing and its various interpretations
Part 1: On the 35th anniversary of Soma, we speak to Andree’ Pouliot, Co-founder and Head of Design
Beginning of a Design Journey
My first trip to India was in the ‘70s — I came to Delhi and Jaipur as my designer mother’s production assistant. I was 21 and I could hardly breathe for excitement. It was like moving through a dream or an illustration from the Victorian Age.
In those days, the men in Rajasthan wore enormous, colourful turbans and Arabian Nights slippers. The women billowed through the bazaar in hand block printed, flowing skirts and pink and yellow-coloured veils and were covered in heavy silver ornaments.
The variety, the exquisite design quality and the technique of the traditional, hand-crafted fabrics was so inspiring. And so, very early on in my travels in India, I became determined to learn about and to document as many handmade crafts as I could.
Since then, the close study of the textile and craft treasures of India has served as a touchstone throughout my working career and in my art practice. I have no choice but to be a passionate champion of these artisans. I am always learning about Indian artisanship and hand craft and, in that, I join many contemporary artists and designers in India who are experimenting and creating wonderful, new handmade articles using traditional craft techniques. Certainly, creatively speaking, India is the liveliest, most stimulating and energetic place to live that there is — anywhere.
Large amounts of skill and patience
Certainly technology and computers have helped the design process but, at Soma, there is no substitute for the skill of hand drawing for our unique print designs. So, ultimately, we combine some tech with age-old techniques. We hand draw the design on paper and transfer it accurately totracing paper — one for every colour separation. The block carvers then must transfer the design to wood and create a detailed, multi-block design — one block for each colour. Then they carve out the wood blocks using small chisels and large amounts of skill and patience.
A skilled colour master is responsible for mixing up the specific inks for each day’s printing and approving the colour swatches (by eye) before production can begin. The colour master must maintain a cupboard full of recipe books as the inks come in powdered form.
The design-room computer helps us to make the layouts for each specific product to be printed, and is invaluable for tracking and archiving the hundreds of prints we create and produce annually.
Authentic wood block prints have become scarce and more expensive than in the past. Sanganer, the town near Jaipur where hand block printing has been the main industry since the mid-1700’s, was overburdened once the printing and rag paper industries expanded rapidly in the 1980’s. Now the town is beset by significant water shortages and printing waste water disposal problems. Still, printing goes on, much of it by hand, and much of it by screen process, which is faster and cheaper.
It takes great skill, patience and effort to produce block print. For this reason authentic hand block print will be a little more costly than screen or machine print by the time it reaches the retail market. The lifelong master printers and block-carvers are now retiring age, and the young printers of today demand and deserve recognition, respect and upgraded pay for their fine craft work. Many Jaipur block print companies are meeting the challenge, (if I may speak for others) we feel we are all in this together to support the good health of this unique fine art.Please support the craft artisan, seek out authentic block print. The support of India’s fine craft artisans is, as I see it, vital.
India needs continued growth and innovation in the hand craft sector.You do not want your Living Treasures, India’s master craftspersons, to disappear for good. The market decides, by demand and sales, whether the next generation will continue in the family craft footsteps, or not. Cultural exchange is very exciting now, cross pollination of design, materials and techniques is enriching all global art communities.The Indian design bank has always been enormously rich, with it’s deep heritage, inter-cultural influences and continuous developments.Today India’s wealth of talented and sophisticated designers and craft innovators are moving ahead, and I can hardly wait to see what’s next.
Andrée Pouliot is an artist, a principal at Soma Blockprints and the creative force behind the new fashion brand Andrée Jaipur.
Dealing with people continues to be a challenge. Going back to the meaning of Design, now people title them as designers. But design is putting things together when you have a thought with a meaning and in context. You aim at something, a projection or a vision is important as a designer. You have to learn to watch and observe and give it back with an interpretation. I feel the quality of design has not improved. People google and copy but are not responding to their surroundings. People are thieves but the difference is that you digest something and you bring out a little bit of yourself in that. I have worked with ancient designs but I have made them mine by re interpreting them with techniques. Even today I like my old designs the most, and they are being made since 35 years and they are classics. I did not bother about copyright ad people in trade can be dishonest but I have lived with it. What saved me was that I am small and I am involved in every step and look into the detail.
I am open to what my eyes can read. I am taking in from all forms of art. I am my own master, I run a small corporation and boutique business. I print only 30 meters a day, so I am like the chef in a kitchen, who does her own thing, and there are no rules to follow and I only follow my instinct. I have travelled to some places in India and Hyderabad Madhya pradesh and Kashmir inspired me the most.
Travel and Textiles
Everything is for sale, so is travel. Upper Class with a culture varnish, who want to visit my workshop come to learn. I don’t mind it as it does take the craft forward.
I am taking it by the day and In the next few years, when I stop being the chef and maybe I want to do something else, I will stop. I have come to an age where I want more space for my garden, my family and my brushes.
At our workshop, we have a water recycling unit as block printing needs a lot of water. We provide a clean and well ventilated and lit environment for the artisans.
We have started to wholesale and sell directly to customers through our studio. We work with people in Australia like imprinted stories, who works with a group of women in our farm to design develop. We are organising design workshops with these women so they can gain their lost design rights. Tours and workshops have become a big part of what we do to connect people to this crafts. We are changing the sourcing model too now. We do work on design education and we encourage our partners to the technical sheet and know their product and the limitations of techniques.
Evolving into he contemporary spaces, more experience interacting with international designers has led to improvisation and development of our artisans. They are now more open to experimentation and open their minds. This has led to design awareness. I want studio Bagru to be the facilitator and educational and also document the design and culture development that is happening now. People are using our traditional designs and calling them their own, so i feel these big brands need to be responsible. Fashion revolution is encouraging consumer to think about their purchasing habits.
I see studio Bagru playing the role of a Business catalyst, encouraging entrepreneurial growth, helping artisans become better business owners. Fair trade is a focus too. Earlier artisans were paid Rs, 7-10 per meter and now it’s 100 +. Artisans have also realised the value as they are more digital savvy. People were focussing on high volume, but now it's more about quality. Most of the artisan community is made of Chipa people, these are traditional printers, but there are also people outside of the community that printing. The younger generation is more excited now as there is more employment for sure. Makers are happy to interact and welcome people and interact to sustain in this day and age.
When I discovered that I could transform my drawings on paper to wood blocks and then to printed fabrics, my life took a sharp turn towards India — and to Jaipur specifically, which has been the hub for the art of hand block printing for over 300 years.
We started Soma Blockprints in 1984. In the early days we began experimenting with new techniques, cajoling the printers to use larger blocks and to layer colours.
We were learning in the field, traveling to villages to find out about natural dye practices and picking up local knowledge, such as: the dry climate and desert sun of Rajasthan is essential to achieving good, clear block prints and speeds the process as the fabrics must be dried between each colour change. Back then I designed the first few hundred block prints we produced for export; I learned by observing the printers at work day after day and eventually
I also learned Hindi.
In time, as we opened Soma stores, we needed more designs so we took on local print design trainees and foreign interns. I taught them what I had learned and so guided the development of the Soma “look.” SomaBlockprints is one of a handful of established Jaipur block print companies, and our cohort of producers have always created our own prints with our own in-house designers.
From the beginning, we have seen it as our mandate to always use the best quality, indelible printing inks, and to always print on high-quality base fabrics. Today we print over 5000 meters daily and we have our base fabrics custom woven in order to maintain quality.
We faced many obstacles over the years: shoestring budgets, local opposition, riots, curfews, political unrest that cut off supply chains and caused some of our home-based artisans to lose their homes. And, like all businesses, we have faced our share of unhelpful bank managers, unscrupulous suppliers, staff and transport shortages: the works. Things are so much more stable now in Jaipur than they were in the 80s. However, on the down side, the master hand block printers are aging, and their skills are rarely being passed on to the younger generation
— although, fortunately, we do attract skilled printers who migrate to Jaipur from different states in India.
Part 2: Indo- French Connection, Speaking to Brigitte Singh, Author and Master of Block Printing
I am not a thinker, I am a doer.
So when I first came to India, I came to study miniature painting which was a scholarship by the Indian and French government. I was sensitive to things around me and because I come from a family of women who love their textiles, I was immediately drawn towards them. India is a bottomless treasure of textiles, I thought india was inspiring for any creative person. It was all very exciting.
I think india is country of many millions of artisans who are highly skilled, I would imagine half of these work in textiles i.e spinning, weaving or surface decoration. Some of these artisans come to crafts by traditional and necessity as mostly it’s in the family. In Europe people take up crafts as vocation not necessity, and here we have them in abundance. So here was a challenge as I wanted to do fine work, and firstly it was a cultural challenge. I did not have many keys to understand how people function at the bottom. For me it was an exciting discovery of this culture and the language. I am now in tune with the design vocabulary, because I fell in love with it and I was amazed when I discovered printing in jaipur, Sanganer and Bagru. I soon learnt about the trade journey between Indian and Europe and made connections that everything in Europe pretty much came from India. For me this was a start to something new, a design and culture process.
I started with what was available locally. My husband and Father in law are collectors of paintings and textiles, so I got inspiration from that. The market wanted to pay less so there was only cheap product available, as if you want a quick job then you can’t get a great product, but most times you have to pay for something that is crafted with time with better colours, cloth and better design and better tools. So when I wanted to create that, Initially the printer thought I was foolish as I wanted to pay him more. I will quote judy frater “To be a good calligraph, doesn't make you a writer” . I knew I wanted to make the finest but that meant more money.Today too, It makes me happy to do beautiful things.
Art and Design in Crafts
Art is mastery over technique and skill and design is using it in a creative vision. I don’t believe there is bad art. Some people have talent for design and some don’t. When I was 20 I asked myself, if I am an artist or not. I am grateful to life, that I have found the tools to be good at something and that adds value to my life.
Part3: From New York to Jaipur, We speak to Jeremy of Studio Bagru
“ In 2009, Union College in New York offered me a 21 day term abroad to India, when I visited Bagru with an anthropologist. Artisans gave us a tour of printing in Namdev Krishan Farm. I was amazed to see these handmade textiles that were selling for 100s and 1000s of dollars being made by people who did not even have appropriate living conditions. I thought I wanted to build a network and create a digital presence for this community to cut middlemen and open doors for them to a market that would be of fair trade.” - Jeremy - Co founder, Studio Bagru
On a recent trip to jaipur, we met with Jeremy at his studio to understand his motivations to run an enterprise that marries textiles and travel and has managed to truly revive and flourish block printing.
Start of Journey
Through a grant, I started this social entrepreneurial venture . i wanted to start an entity that would allow more direct commerce for these artisans.Even though there was global trade of this product, the artisans were made labourers as they didn’t have any ownership of design. The demand from larger enterprises that are mediating the exchange of goods lead to loss of art.
I moved to Bagru in 2010 June and made a company with Vijendra Chipa of Bagru Textiles. Bagru started as tumbler page and we started to sell on Etsy. We were overwhelmed by the response we got and we knew we had to restructure to meet this demand. Another grant recipient came to help and we registered as a private limited company and got an export license. We began working with big USA retailers like ABC home, Cisco brothers, Anthropologie soon to create products that involved better wages and design involvement. We were published in my university magazine and one thing led to another and we got another grant to take things forward. Block Shop and Seek collective are brands that are conscious of socially responsible sourcing.
In 2012, I moved back to the USA for my MBA and then I did get to work with a large USA based sourcing company who placed me in hong kong to source Victoria Secret bras. I wanted to see the other side of things after working on the grass root. I did a stint in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to do factory audits and product development for large retailers and soon i found myself again in india in 2015. Davis cutter, now 6th generation grant receipt, scaled the vision of Bagru textiles.
We use pigment printing for innovation and natural printing is possible in black and red. But it’s limited. With natural printing we need more water and that’s not possible in our village. We save water, and use the waste is disposed in an eco way. We are trying to develop a renewable water recycling plant as well. We do up-cycle the waste fabric into products.