November, 2016 / Words by Katie, Photos by Kevin
Jaipur is a popular destination in India, largely because it’s included in “The Golden Triangle” — a navigable route in Northern India that includes highlights like the Taj Mahal and Delhi, India’s capital city. Jaipur, the third stop in said ‘triangle’, is known as the “Pink City,” because well, there are a lot of pink buildings. But Jaipur’s other claim to fame is the abundance of textiles that you can find here — specifically, hand-block printed textiles.
The latter made me really giddy because I had come to Jaipur with a mission. Our apartment in San Francisco is a small loft with drool-worthy floor-to-ceiling industrial windows, and I have been daydreaming about the window treatment for awhile. (Note: my mother is an interior designer and I have been designing fake houses since I was a little girl, hence this very niche excitement.) I knew India was the place to find large amounts of quality fabric for cheap, and specifically reserved an entire week in Jaipur to find the perfect fabric for the dramatically large curtains I envisioned.
But knowing jack-shit about textiles before I got there, the seemingly simple shopping endeavor turned into amazing week as we learned every part of the artistic, manufacturing, and distribution process of block-printed textiles. Our singular task became a little adventure, and we left with not only an appreciation for the tedious and beautiful artistry of block-printing, but also with some pretty great tips should you find yourself in Jaipur with textile needs, or just a burning curiosity.
First things first: WTF is hand-block printing?
It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, but let’s break it down.
You get wooden blocks (rosewood is the best for durability, apparently). You carve patterns into the blocks, so that it looks like a stamp (a big, hard stamp). You prepare your fabric on long tables. You set up a tray for your ink. You dip the block into the ink-tray. You stamp. You repeat those last two steps A LOT, until you’ve covered the fabric.
Seems simple, right?
Often, it’s not just one block repeated. It’s a series of blocks that fit into each other so that you can create patterns with various colors. So one block might be the outline of an elephant, and the next block “colors in” the elephant, and the next colors the sky around the elephant. You get my point.
All of this means that with each block comes a requirement for intense precision. After all, this is INK we’re talking about. Shout-wipes ain’t gonna erase your mistakes. But the AMAZING thing is — these artisans don’t really make mistakes. At least not big ones. And the (very subtle) “mistakes” they make are a barely noticeable, and actually, a BEAUTIFUL reminder of the skilled labor and artistry that went into each piece of fabric. In fact, hand-block printing is a very skilled profession that is often passed on through generations, and when you get up close and personal with these artisans, your mind is TRULY blown.
And so it was through a lengthy, humbling, and utterly fascinating series of events that I was able to find fabric that I’m super thrilled about. Fabric that is not only beautiful, but beautifully made with natural materials by real artisans. Basically, what I’m getting at…is that my curtains will be motherfucking ARTISANAL, which is simultaneously the most pretentious AND amazing thing I’ve ever claimed.
Okay, okay, enough about me.
Here’s how YOU’RE going to find your favorite textiles in Jaipur:
1. Stay here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6651885
You may think that your accommodation would have nothing to do with textiles, but you’d be wrong. We chose (and splurged a bit on) this airbnb because we thought it looked fucking cool, and wanted a nice space to spend a whole week, but it turned out that every single member of the family that runs their tiny “inn” is an artist and a designer — from sculpture to jewelry to… yes, textiles. They didn’t make any direct connections for purchasing, but were able to give advice as to where to go, how to approach our goal, etc. Also, being surrounded by their beautiful art, was the perfect inspiration to keep us focused on the task. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.
2. Stop by Heritage Textiles to get a sense of the block-printing process.
This shop has become a bit of a tourist destination, and I didn’t actually like any of their prints, but they will teach you how block-printing works, show you the manufacturing space in the basement, and even let you try a sample before trying to entice you with their wares. Like, I said, I didn’t see anything spectacular there, but it’s a fun and easy way to start.
3. Visit some home good and fashion stores.
If you haven’t seen many block-printed textiles before coming to Jaipur, make sure you check out some of the shops that sell most of India’s block-printed fabrics. Anokhi (complete with western cafe that sells safe and DELICIOUS salads) is a good place to start, and FabIndias can be found everywhere. There are a couple of other boutiques that are worth visiting, and I’d recommend the expensive, but pretty shops around the Hotel Narain Niwas Palace.
3. Keep track of the patterns and colors you like.
Certain colors require specific processes — and this could become a part of your decision making process. For example, I initially really loved the indigo prints (dark blue, ink), but found out that using this particular natural dye comes with a fair amount of uncertainty as weather can change the quality and tone of fabrics depending on when it’s made. For example, I picked a piece with ink that was made during a heavy monsoon season, which created a subdued, watered-down gray-blue color, that was impossible to replicate for my needs. Fascinating! Also, a bummer.
4. Take a class!
We took our block-printing class with Jai Texart after we had chosen our fabric, but I think this would be a great way to learn even more before you pick out your favorite textiles, as you’ll get to witness the whole dying process. Watching the artisans perfect row after row of colorful and intricate patterns is mesmerizing and humbling as you attempt your own printed scarf. Spoiler alert: you’ll make lots of little mistakes, and your hand will hurt like hell by the time you’re done. But you’ll have a cool scarf at the end, so worth it on all fronts.
For what it’s worth, Jai Texart also makes custom large-scale orders, so shopping for fabric through them directly is an option, but they seemed more expensive than the company I ultimately went though.
5. Go to Sanganer
Sanganer — about 30 minutes from downtown Jaipur — is where most of the block-printers wholesale shops are, and a great place to buy both small home goods and large scale custom orders. You’ll find places all around New Sanganer Road that sell both hand-block printed AND machine printed fabrics, so be clear about what you want. I found them to be pretty honest with me about which were machine-printed and which were hand-block printed, but just to be sure, hand-block printed stuff will show small imperfections and the ink will bleed through the back, making it easy to spot the difference.
6. BUY BUY BUY!
We brought from a company called Shilpi after spending about 4 hours experimenting with their samples — hanging the large pieces from the balcony, carefully considering every option, and asking lots of questions about price, size, quality, etc. We ended up with a simple, but timeless zig-zagged pattern on a natural flow-y cotton that we felt was contemporary enough for our style, and bold enough to be appreciated at a distance. Also, one more reason why I liked Shilpi — one of their associates named Soumya. She’s a young designer who speaks perfect English, and was the only person we met along the way that actually understood what we were trying to accomplish, even offering her design sense to help us make a decision. If you end up in their office, ask for her.
Unless they have what you need in stock (which is possible!) you’re actually going to have to wait for them to make it. In my case — 100 meters of one block — I was quoted a month. Which….is kinda incredible if you think about how much has to be done. If you end up choosing a machine printed pattern, it could take a lot less time.
8. PROJECT COMPLETE.
(This is an addition to our original post, because they came, and they are amaaaazing!)
As an addendum to the post, I want to share the unbelievably stunning work that Shilpi did, and the way they transformed our apartment. Here are a few of my favorite photos of the curtains:
after a week of flashing the neighbors, we decided it was finally time to hang the draperies. katie was the hero of this job… over an hour 16ft up on a rickety ladder, zen-like concentration snapping these beautiful panels into place. the fabric is a hand-block printed chevron pattern in sierra red. we spent a week in Jaipur, India last year visiting countless suppliers to find the right fabric. they are stunning, and the scale in our space is just so cool
Going to Jaipur on a similar mission? Feel free to ask me a question.
ALSO, this blog deserves two shout-outs:
1. A HUGE thank you to my friend Katharine Watson. She’s an American designer who uses old-fashioned block printing techniques to create the most gorgeous paper products (greeting cards, wedding invitations, etc.) and textiles. She was a bit of a mentor during the process, emailing me while in Jaipur to give lots of great advice. Her work is amazing, so I’ll gladly and shamelessly promote it HERE.
2. Dinesh — we got hooked up with a rickshaw driver through a contact we had met in San Francisco (the owner of Thread Lounge — a totally unique Anthropology-esque boutique in the Mission) — and he was fantastic. He is ridiculously affordable, and will drive you wherever you want, including places only he knows. His clients are typically fashion designers who are looking for wholesale wares, which meant we ended up in the craziest and coolest of warehouses. There’s no denying his expertise, his patience, and his driving skill (he doesn’t honk, which is a rare and beautiful thing). If you want to contact him, his number is +91 93-09-269889.