My introduction to block printing happened a few years ago when I mentioned to a fellow designer that I wanted to continue my work in surface design, but needed to learn how to do it from home. My kids were two and five at the time, so I was hoping for something I could easily do while being a stay at home parent. Up to that point, I had been mostly doing silk screening, which is a wonderfully versatile process, but requires some specialized equipment that you’re unlikely to have lying around in the basement: a dark room and light table to burn images on your screen, a washout sink and pressure washer, not to mention the super long padded tables you need to print yardages of fabric.
Block printing can be a much simpler method of transferring designs onto fabric (or it can be fantastically complicated, but more on that later). At its simplest, all you need is some rubber and a carving tool to create a block. It can be done in a small space with just your hands and is suitable to all levels of expertise. When I described it to a friend recently, she said, “like potato printing that we did as kids?” Yes, totally!
The earliest known examples of block printing date all the way back to 220 AD. The Japanese ukiyo-e artists’ incredibly refined woodblock prints were popular during the 16th-17th centuries and heavily influenced impressionists like Degas and Monet, who carved into linoleum to create their images. Traditional woodblock printing is still being done all over India. Techniques and materials have evolved over the years and now artists use many different materials, including rubber, wood, linoleum, foam and yes…potatoes.
It was suggested that I look into the work of Jen Hewett, a San Francisco-based printmaker. I took an online course Jen was offering and I was hooked. There’s something very meditative about carving into the soft grey rubber while the carving tool blades clink in the handle. You can’t rush block printing; it’s a slow and meticulous process.
I can still make repeat patterns with my blocks, similar to silk screening, just on a much smaller scale. Block printing is also different than silk screening because you are using your hands to make the print and the pressure you exert will change the look of the print, making a perfectly imperfect image. In a world where digital printing can quickly produce perfect textiles, there is a joy and satisfaction that comes from watching your pattern slowly emerge as you print each motif. You get a one-of-a-kind print every time that clearly shows the hand of the maker.
Join me this month to learn how to block print. I promise we won’t use potatoes!