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The Art of Block Printing

“Block printing is the essence of slow fashion, with each part of the process done by hand,” Jeremy Fritzhand says. “I love that each part of the community specializes in a different part of the process, and everyone works together to create truly unique textile products.”

Fritzhand is the co-founder and CEO of Studio Bagru, a textile company based out of a small Indian town located 30 kilometers outside Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital. He founded the company alongside Varun Sharma. The town, Bagru, has a rich history in block printing—artisans in the area have been practicing the art for 350 years.

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To honor the traditions of their ancestors, Studio Bagru’s artisans have resisted the conversion to screen printing—a more commercially-efficient method of printing adopted by many of the surrounding towns—and are relying on traditional processes brought to Bagru in the 17th century. “I started Studio Bagru to continue to spread awareness about block printing and socially responsible textiles and sourcing,” he said, “as well as encourage entrepreneurial development within the block-printing community.”

Fritzhand, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, became interested in block printing as a study abroad student in India. His class visited the village of Bargru, and he became “immediately inspired.” Afterwards, he applied and was awarded an entrepreneurial fellowship by his school, Union College. He moved to Bagru after graduation to start a grassroots block printing cooperative, which eventually became Bagru Textiles. Bagru Studios was then born as a scaled company under the Bagru Textiles umbrella, creating block printed collections of apparel, home textiles and accessories.

Block printing, essentially, is done in the same way as rubber stamp printing. Members of the community are all responsible for handcrafting the blocks by carving into pieces of wood using a chisel and hammer, printing and dyeing the fabric, and washing it. Artisans then apply ink to the block, and press it, by hand, onto a textile. Everything is done directly from the homes of Bagru artisans, and each step of the process is equally important. The result is an impeccably detailed piece of fabric, woven together by several people. The fabrics are made by a team of men and women, whose faces and handiwork are featured on Studio Bagru’s Instagram page. Textiles, adorned with patterns that are centuries old, can be sold to international companies to create clothing, home textiles, headbands and more, though Studio Bagru also creates them in-house. By using their own ethical values, Studio Bagru ensures that this level of garment production is sustainable and ethical, helping consumers to understand where their garments come from, and the environmental and social impact that their textiles carry.

The idea of community stuck with Fritzhand, and he expanded Studio Bagru to include block printing workshops across the globe. “Block printing is a very community oriented activity. From the actual printing to the designing of the fabric,” he said. “This is what has captivated my attention to the craft over the last eight years, and part of the process that I enjoy the most. Holding the workshops allows for innovation in design and a sense of comradery amongst participants. It can also be very therapeutic and meditative.”

The Frontlash’s founder, our own Laura Jones, attended a block printing workshop in New York. “I’d never done anything like block printing before,” she said. “The attendees were a mix of ages and vocation and all strangers. Everyone was shy at first, but quickly started to comment on each other’s designs, laugh, and relax. It was a lovely evening.”

The practice of block printing has drawn international interest, with Milan-based fashion designer Chris Cerf and Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri both visiting Jaipur to take in the cultural experience. Cerf attended a Studio Bagru workshop, while Chiuri was in Jaipur for the Textile Fablab Launch by the French Embassy in India. With many brands seeking out more sustainable, socially conscious options, Studio Bagru is a model of the textile business working for the world. An entire community is involved in the development of a single textile, and each Studio Bagru manufacturer is chosen deliberately, assessed for wages, fair treatment, professionalism and more. The company invites clients into their studio, allowing for individual consulting time with artisans, brainstorming, and getting to know both the people who will be creating the textiles and the centuries-old practices they employ. Transparency is important, and Studio Bagru proudly uses locally available wood to make the stamps, does everything by hand, and can trace the origins of each textile down to the person who made them. They often use natural, local materials, and the entire process is technology-free. They, in turn, show all of this to their clients. Essentially, Studio Bagru then acts as the safeguard, ensuring that the artisans are not exploited by international manufacturers.

The notion of community, it seems, was lost in favor of quick turnover in the retail industry, with giants like H&M and Zara frequently releasing new, factory-produced collections closely resembling garments produced by big fashion houses. Fast fashion eliminated, in many cases, the need for craftsmanship and community involvement, for detail and for human interaction. It increased waste in the fashion industry and eliminated the mindset of mindful consumption, pushing out artisan work in favor of a fast profit. But, Studio Bagru makes a strong case against the big box stores.

Studio Bagru isn’t planning on stopping to enjoy the colors of the world any time soon, Fritzhand says. In addition to launching a Block Print Club, so that enthusiasts around the world can practice their craftsmanship at home, they have aspirations to expand Studio Bagru’s global impact, including “more workshops around the world, launching of a new in-house clothing and accessories label, collaborations with global designers, and of course sharing and promoting this incredible craft.”

Workshops in India can be a one day or a two day experience, and include a farm tour, printing personal items and creating a new printed item, a traditional lunch, and visits to workshops and washing studios. They run from August to May, and dates can be selected by participants for convenience. But, Studio Bagru also runs pop-up workshops in international cities like Manila, New York and Tokyo.

Words: Erica Commisso

Photographer: Laura Jones

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