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An Introduction to Period Indian Fabric Printing Techniques


Ld Bruno Bruni

mka Michael J. Bruno


Dragonsspine Baronial Arts and Science, A.S. XXXIV

This particular project arose as the result of a discussion on the Outlands mailing list as to the use of cotton in period. My replies on the subject of Indian cotton cloth, led to the subject of how the cloth was printed and thus this paper. I became interested in India within the context of the SCA as I feel it is an area whose contact and influence on Western Europe has been overlooked. I have been researching India, as time has allowed, for over nine years.

I have drawn this information from several sources, both period and modern. Due to the rigid caste system in India, many techniques and skills have been preserved for centuries, passed from one generation to the next. It can be seen in Indian paintings that clothing styles remained virtually unchanged from the 16th to the 19th centuries. I feel it is safe to conclude that the skills to produce the clothing remained virtually unchanged as well.


An Introduction to Period Indian Fabric Printing Techniques

Indian printed fabrics have been known from the time of ancient Greece, through Egypt and Arabia and into the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. Extant examples of Indian printed fabric have been found in Fustat, Lower Egypt, and radio-carbon dated as old as 895 AD + 75 years (fig 1). Their popularity as trade cloths, particularly in exchange for spices, served to spread them throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. In Egypt and Arabia, Indian cloth was predominantly used for domestic purposes, as hangings, pillows and coverings. In Southeast Asia, they were held in high regard as clothing, both ceremonial and everyday.

The Indian people employed a combination of several techniques to achieve printed fabrics; block printing (fig 2, 3), resist-dyeing, tie dyeing, mordant dyeing, and painting. Indian printed or painted cloths consisted of a foundation of a plain-woven cotton cloth with S-twist fibers. The most common colors seen in Indian cloth were red, blue, black, violet, green and yellow. These colors could all be produced from dyes available in the subcontinent, including, Madder, Indigo, Chay, and Sappanwood, to name a few. "Additional dyes from a variety of plant, animal and insect sources ensured that Indian cottons were patterned with the most varied and rich colourings of any dyed textile tradition." [Guy, 20] Many of these natural dues would not adhere to the cotton cloth without the use of a mordant [a fixative required to insure that a dye will adhere to cloth.] I have seen references to alum and iron being used as mordants. It was the inherent nature of the dyes to not adhere to the cotton cloth and it was the creative use of mordants that provided the ability to create the patterns seen in Indian cloths. "The complex methods of preparing the cloth ensured a degree of colour intensity and fastness unrivalled anywhere in the world." [Guy, 20]

A simple cloth consisting of a white pattern on a colored background (fig 1, 4, 5) could have been created by using a wooden block to print a resist of either wax or mud [resist-dyeing] to create the repeating pattern. All-over repeating patterns are most often seen in early Indian cloths. The cloth would then be dyed. Once dyed, the resist would be removed from the cloth leaving the white pattern. The cloth could then be bleached to provide a crisp white pattern on a colored background. Alternatively, a block could be used to print a mordant [mordant-dyeing] (fig 3) which covered the background as well as produced the pattern. The dye would only adhere to the parts of the cloth where the mordant had been printed.

Bleaching was achieved by laying the finished cloth out on the ground. The cloth would then be covered in goat or sheep dung and left to dry in the sun. Occasionally, it would be sprinkled with water. Once the dung was removed and the cloth washed again, the white of the cloth would be crisp and the colors bright.

Patterns of white spots on a colored background [known at chitta or "spotted cloth"] (fig 6), either all-over or in patterns, would have been produced by folding a length of cloth to a workable size then using a needle or nail tip to "push up" points on the cloth which are then bound off with string [tie dying]. Once the pattern has been bound off, the cloth is then dyed. A modern method is to lay the folded cloth on a "bed-of-nails" which make up the pattern, then bind off the points.

Conversely, a single color, repeating pattern on a white background (fig 2, 7, 8) could have been produced by using a block to print the mordant onto the cloth. Once done, the cloth would then be dyed. The dye would only adhere to the cloth where the mordant had been printed. The cloth would then be bleached to produce a colored pattern on a crisp white background.

Block printing served as a method to quickly produce cloth for trade. Higher quality cloth was hand painted (fig 9). This method was most often employed to produce cloth with non-repeating designs (fig 10), most commonly scenes from Hindu mythology. Hand painted cloth required much more time to produce; however, it resulted in a finished product of much higher quality. The cloth was painted using a qalam, a brush consisting of a bamboo shaft with a hair or fiber tip, which served as a reservoir for the dye, mordant or resist. (fig 11)

The most complex cloths consisting of intricate patterns and several colors in one cloth, were produced using a combination of both mordant and resist dyeing, building up the patterns in layers, utilizing several dye baths. (fig 12, 13, 14) Red could be dyed over black to produce violet, and yellow over blue to produce green. These cloths became known as chintz, or "painted cottons."




List of Figures