The exhibition ‘Patterns of Culture – Techniques of Decoration and Coloration’ focuses on a particular aspect of decorated textiles: techniques of coloration and patterning, particularly resist dyeing (including tie-and- dye, ikat and batik) as well as printing with the assistance of blocks and stencils. The monograph is published to accompany the exhibition with the same title; the latter includes textiles from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and West Africa.
The concern of this monograph is with certain types of decoration on textiles, produced by the application of dyes in association with other materials. This includes direct printing, using blocks or stencils, and the various resist-dyeing techniques. Direct printing involves the application of colour directly on to the fabric surface, in one process, and does not involve secondary or intermediate processes before the development of the coloured design. The term resist dyeing refers to a wide range of techniques used to decorate textiles by selectively dyeing areas on a yarn or fabric’s surface. This selective dyeing is facilitated by folding or knotting, the use of stencils or shields, wrapping thread (or similar material) round folded fabric or hanks of yarn, stitching thread into fabric and drawing it tight, or applying resist materials such as wax or paste to the fabric’s surface. Three general categories can be identified: batik, ikat and tie-and-dye. Variants are found worldwide and have been used to decorate fabrics throughout much of recorded textile history. The objectives of this monograph are to identify and explain various hand- printing and resist-dyeing techniques and their variations.
Printing on cloth involves the use of carved wooden blocks or cut-paper stencils to impart a pattern or other design to the cloth’s surface. The number of blocks or stencils used in a design depends generally on the number of intended colours; it is the norm to use one block or stencil per colour for each repeating unit of the design. For example a four-colour all-over repeating field pattern with an associated four-colour border pattern would require four blocks or four stencils for the field design and four blocks or stencils for the associated border design. Differentiation can be made between direct printing, resist printing, mordant printing and discharge printing. With direct printing, thickened dyestuff is applied directly to the cloth’s surface by an engraved wooden block or cut stencil. Resist printing involves the application of a material such as hot wax, some form of clay-based resin mixture or rice paste to the fabric surface, with the intention of subsequently preventing the dye of the dye bath from reaching the surface where the resisting material has been applied. Mordant printing is also used in association with a dye bath and involves printing first with a mordant (a substance which assists dye uptake). On submersion in the dye bath, the dye will attach to those areas where the mordant has been printed. With discharge printing, colour is removed from the cloth through the action of a discharge agent. Each of the four techniques is described below.
1. Drect Prinitng
Today, hand-block printing directly on to cloth is still practised in India, Pakistan and several other parts of Asia. Blocks are generally of wood (with teak a preference) and are of a size to allow easy manipulation by hand, with a maximum length or breadth dimension of around 30 centimetres and a depth of around 10 centimetres, although blocks are often much smaller. The process of producing a single block involves carving and drilling and may take between three days and ten days depending on the intricacy of the design and its dimensions [Sreenivasam, 1989, p. 30]. The block is finished by attaching a handle to its back and is ready for printing after several weeks of soaking in oil (apparently this ensures that the block will not absorb water during the printing process) [Sreenivasam, 1989, p. 30].
Stencils (known in Japan as katagami) were traditionally cut from mulberry paper and consisted of several layers between each of which was inserted a fine net of human hairs which gave stability during use; this arrangement of paper and hair was the precursor to silk-screen printing with the hair replaced initially by silk and the whole arrangement being attached to a frame.
Prior to printing, the cloth (often referred to as the print base) undergoes various preparatory washing and bleaching processes to ensure absorbency during printing or dyeing. Typically, in a small-scale domestic set-up, printing is done on a long, low table. The surface is covered with thick layers of woollen blankets and heavy cotton cloth. Over this, a damp cloth may be spread to ensure that the cloth being printed does not slip [Sreenivasam, 1989, p. 30]. Dyes, thickened with gum-arabic, are poured into deep trays which contain some form of sponge-type pad to ensure that only a limited amount of dye is taken up by the block. The border of the textile is generally printed first and then the central field. Generally, a single-colour design is printed using one block for the border and one for the central field. Occasionally, a connecting corner block, which will have a ninety-degree turn, may be used. In multi-coloured designs, an outline block is used first and other blocks, one for each colour, are used to build up the details of the design.
2. Resist Printing
Resist printing involves placing a barrier (the so-called resist) on areas of the cloth to prevent dye penetration. The resist is printed by block or stencil on the surface of the cloth, in certain predetermined areas. On being immersed in a dye bath, the cloth will take up dye in those areas not covered by the resist material. The background or original colour of the cloth is thus preserved. Typical resists include bees wax, clay, mud, or rice paste. Wax resists are associated with producers in many parts of Asia, especially Indonesia. Rice-paste resists are typical of Japan and parts of South China, and are used in association with a stencil; a spatula is employed to rub resist paste into those parts of the fabric not covered by the stencil. Subsequently, the fabric is dyed, the dye taking to the areas not covered by the resisting paste. After drying, the paste is washed out to expose the undyed areas. Mud or clay resists are associated with India, especially Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The technique is reputed to have origins in the subcontinent dating back around two thousand years [Streenivasam, 1989, p. 31].
3. Mordant Printing
In most cases, the use of a fixative, generally known as a mordant, is necessary to ensure that the dye adheres to the constituent fibres of the cloth and remains fast in everyday use. The use of mordants is regarded as a positive process, because the dye adheres only to the areas treated. Generally, mordants are metallic oxides which combine with the dye and allow it to bind with the fibre. An example of a traditional mordant used in India and elsewhere is alum, which when used with madder produces a range of reds [Guy, 1998, p. 22]. A particularly comprehensive review of alum and its use historically was provided by Singer .
When a mordant is applied to specific areas of the cloth, by either wooden block or stencil, those areas will take up the dye. Decoration on a cloth may be facilitated totally through the use of mordants. Often, however, the application of mordants is combined with other printing techniques, such as resist methods and direct-dye application. The so-called ajrak textiles are an important example. These textiles are associated with Sindh province in Pakistan and with the Kutch region in Gujarat (India). The process of their production involves a combination of mud or clay resist and mordant printing, together with dye baths of indigo1 for blue and madder for red [Sreenivasam, 1989, p. 19]. The mud or clay resists the dyestuffs and the mordant allows the dyestuff to attach to the cloth. The process is described further in subsection 3.3 below. A reasonably detailed description of mordanting is given by Gittinger [1982, pp. 19-21].
4. Dscharge Printing
With discharge printing, a discharge agent may be stencilled or block- printed on to a dyed fabric; this agent detaches the colour from the printed areas and can be washed out with the colour. Discharge printing thus relies on completely dyeing a piece of fabric and, after drying, printing it with a paste which will have the effect of removing the dye from the printed areas. The technique is thus of relatively recent origin and was developed as a viable industrial process through the endeavours of scientists such as Camille Koechlin, John Mercer and Jean-François Persoz during the nineteenth century [Haller, 1951].
Discharge printing is also used by craft printers today, and is occasionally combined with other techniques. The technique has an effect similar to that of certain types of resist printing. It is worth noting that various craftworkers consulted by the author confirmed that the use of discharge techniques will generally give a strictly defined “hard edge” whereas dyeing with wax resist will give a much “softer edge”. Also, resists (such as wax) can protect dyed areas whereas the use of discharge agents will not protect a base colour but instead will remove it. Different concentrations of discharge paste can remove proportionately equivalent amounts of dye and can be used therefore to introduce various shading effects.