My incredible Jaipur experience last year with Ritchie Ace Camps is still fresh in my memory and months later I’m still feeling the inspiration. Ritchie Ace Camps are off to Jaipur again later this year. If you’re keen to join in the fun, here’s a visual teaser of the Natural Dyes & Block Printing workshop we took part in the little, but industrious, town of Bagru.
Natural vegetable dyes were initially discovered by accident. You can imagine, a crushed berry staining your woven skirt or splashes of spice paste on your shirt. Natural dyes are more expensive and difficult to work with than the more commercially used chemical dyes. Few areas in India still use natural dyes. Bagru in Jaipur is one of them.
Natural dyes are more environmentally friendly and skin friendly that the harsh chemical dyes. They’re non-allergic, soft and have low toxicity. Roots, bark, flowers, leaves and berries are used to create beautiful natural colours that do not fade. The fabric is dried in the sun for 2 or 3 hours to cure the colour. A natural fixative from the Dahura flowers is also sometimes added to keep the colour fast.
The process we followed had a few steps. Firstly the fabric has to be rinsed in clean water, spun out, then soaked in a Hardar mordant. This mordant solution is made from Hardar powder and acts as a ‘broker’ between the fabric and the dyes, allowing the fibre to increase its capacity to absorb colour.
After drying in the sun, the yellowish fabric is given a healthy shake to remove the extra mordant powder. Then we chose our own blocks from an extensive collection. We were making scarves so we needed a border block for the outside and a fuller design for the centre.
I chose a geometric triangular border and a traditional floral motif for the centre. Such a difficult choice, as there were so many options!
The fabric needed to be pinned tautly on the printing tables to ensure a nicely stretched surface to print on. Starting with the border, I used black and worked my way around the fabric. Then the central floral design is filled in. It’s a lot harder that it looks. The block has to be placed carefully, mostly using your eye for registration, to get an even pattern and then given a whack with the heel of your hand for an even transfer of colour. Ouch. That got sore quite quickly!
The finished piece is dried outside in the hot Indian sun before the final dyeing step and colour transformation.
The fabric is washed again in fresh water and then added to a giant boiling pot that contains dhaura powder and madder/alizarin. The reaction is awesome. A rich red and black pattern emerges from the bubbling brew.
all photography by Megan Smith (except for the one of me, taken by Amy Hwang.)