The block story goes overseas

Don’t be surprised to spot Ajrakh, one of the oldest block printing techniques in the world, on your next shopping jaunt in the US or the UK. Thanks to a number of independent ethical brands, the printed red-blue-black fabrics from Gujarat, handloom weaves from Varanasi, and Goan natural dyes are finding a place in global fashion. Rachel Bracken Singh, Design Director - Anokhi, who also co-founded the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing in Jaipur, believes that nowhere else in the world does a block printing industry exist as it does in India. “The use of block-printed fabrics in natural dyes is a ‘growing trend’ — especially among small independent stores and online businesses — but I think of it as a permanent movement towards a more sensitive and viable way of creating (printed) textiles,” she says.

The block story goes overseas

To see skills like block carving and printing still being practised in India feels like a gift in an increasingly homogenised world. “One sees how quickly things can change and how suddenly heritage is being lost. The last, specialist block printing ‘factory’ in the UK closed down in the late 70s, and even Indian villages that, until very recently, had a tradition of block printing, are now disappearing,” adds Singh. Now, with people becoming mindful of the impact their purchases have on the environment, there is a greater desire globally to support work from craft-rich countries. Our pick of four international labels that are showcasing India’s unique hand-craft skills.

Block Shop, USA: hand-stitched quilts

Hand block printing and vegetable dyes are signature features of the four-year-old label, and arguing about their designs over their morning chai continues to be a tradition for sisters Hopie and Lily Stockman. “It’s where the design magic happens,” says Lily, a visual artist in Los Angeles who fell in love with hand block printing while studying Indian miniature painting in Jaipur seven years ago. They now closely work with a family of printers and dyers in Bagru, Rajasthan and create baby quilts, scarves, table linen, pillows, and rugs. Making two trips a year, Hopie speaks of how they bring their design ideas and spend days working with their team of master printers, carvers and dyers to get the dye, pigment and block combinations just right. “They are like family now,” she says.

The block story goes overseas

Their latest summer collection includes quilts and and block printed linen pillows. Hand-stitched over the course of two months, the quilts are inspired by the landscapes the sisters love most – the misty Rhode Island coast, the ochre rock formations in the Baja Peninsula, the secret swimming holes in Maine’s Acadia National Park, and the otherworldly light in Marfa, Texas. The labour is intensive – it takes 2-3 full days to make a scarf and at least six people involved in the process — the dhobi wallah (washer-man), block carver, 1-2 master printers per pattern, a woman to sew the cloth pouches they package in, and other family members who are involved in quality control, folding and packaging. “All our textiles are then sent to us in Los Angeles by air. We then quality check, package and ship.”

They also donate 5% of their profits towards community healthcare initiatives. And have also set up a mobile healthcare clinic and eye care clinic, water tanks and filters in the homes of all 18 members of their printing co-op. Their third and ongoing initiative is monthly health education, and/or skill improvement and empowerment programs for women and children in Bagru.

₹800 and up, at

The block story goes overseas

Funky Kalakar, UK: Ajrakh shoes

Artefacts using Ajrakh and Madhubani, an art form that uses natural dyes and pigments to create beautiful geometrical patterns, are what this London brand is best known for. Marrying traditional art forms with modern styles, Funky Kalakar is the result of Amey Alshi and business partner Amit Jain’s love for all things handmade. Their search for artisans and ingenious art forms took them on journeys through India’s rural heartlands across Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat — with whom they have now collaborated to create a range of bags, accessories, and shoes. Funky Kalakar shoes feature Ajrakh, while the soles are made from scrap tyres (their Mumbai unit has employed four roadside cobblers).

The block story goes overseas

Leather products are hand-painted by Madhubani artists in Delhi, UP and Bihar, and they also collaborate with Srujna, a charitable trust in Mumbai, for the production of cotton tote bags which are shipped with every purchase, for free. They also design classic board games like chess and snake and ladders from surplus/leftover fabric, with another outfit, Kala Raksha, in Gujarat (preserves traditional arts by employing underprivileged women). They recently concluded a concept pop-up at Notting Hill, London, and a month-long pop up at Soho, London, is on the cards. “Our primary motivation has been to serve as a conduit to showcase art forms that would have otherwise been a forgotten legacy,” says Alshi. The duo is also working with Danish designer Csabi Töviskes for their upcoming clothing line for women that will feature Indian textiles such as organic cotton, banana, linen, silk and khadi. “The designs will showcase 1000-year-old embroideries from Gujarat in a very minimalistic Danish design,” says Alshi. Funky Kalakar works with a self-help group of 12 women from Naggar village in Himachal Pradesh for the production of woollen accessories for which they derive colours from medicinally rich herbs, flowers, stems and roots. These, they say, help cure allergies and have antimicrobial, anti inflammatory properties.

In the ₹3,000 to ₹20,000 upwards range, their products are available at Peshwai Kala Kendra, Ram Maruti Road, Maharashtra and on

Nomads, UK: Wood block tunics

The block story goes overseas

Designing with traditional textile techniques, Duncan Harvey and Vicky Jackson at Nomads incorporate wood block printing by artisans in Rajasthan, traditional embroidery, and textured handlooms. They work with pattern cutters and tailors in New Delhi and Jaipur. Tie dye, one of the oldest methods of hand printing textiles, is widely seen in their latest clothing range, which features summer coats, shirts, jackets, bags and scarves. Sian Clarke, Design Assistant, explains how their current collection is made up of three colour groups: Mysore — organic cotton knitwear in shades of navy, tomato, mustard and ivory, that are inspired by the city’s magnificent architecture; Anjuna — summery dresses in warm raspberry tones with highlights of lime and sapphire, all colours from Goan flea markets; and Jodhpur – highlighting desert sands on coverups and floaty tunics in tie-dye and woodblock print. Members of the Ethical Fashion Forum, the duo travels to India several times a year to develop collections, and also work with a designer in the UK. At their exclusive Nomads boutique in Launceston, a wall of soft, bright scarves welcomes you, and their ‘fair trade collection’ is joined by other brands such as Capri, Braintree, Heart and Robell trousers.

From ₹900 onwards, at

Seek Collective, USA: Dindori weaves

The block story goes overseas

It was founder Carol Miltimore’s love for artisan handiwork that saw her travelling to Morocco, Tibet and India, before founding Seek Collective in 2013. On a one way ticket for an artist residency in Gujarat in 2012, she met up with various artisan groups and now, Miltimore works with block print artisans in Rajasthan, sources silk from a family-owned mill in Mysore, and uses Goan natural dyes.

Seek’s latest Spring/ Summer 2017 collection is “a subtle nod to my first time arriving in India,” she says, adding how she has always loved the mudra sculptures located above the customs counter at the Delhi airport and wished to work on a print inspired by them. So Miltimore drew the print and got it carved into a wooden block used for printing. “The silvergrey, black and pink shades are all achieved using 100% natural dyes. The Dindori weave is handloom, woven using a special technique by a tribal weaving community in Madhya Pradesh,” she explains.

From ₹1,900 to ₹26,000 at

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Printable version | Oct 7, 2021 6:52:52 PM |

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