Cotton - dyeing

Complex decorative patterns are seen on many South Asian textiles. Block printing and pattern dyeing are the two traditional dyeing and colouring practices. Some involve dyeing fabrics once they have been woven, while others used part-dyed threads to create patterns. Skilled master dyers might use a combination of techniques on one piece of fabric.

Pattern dyeing and pen work

A watercolour painting of a man block printing chintz.
Image: Block printing is a significant South Asian decorative technique for cotton textiles.

Resist and mordant dyeing are both types of pattern dyeing. Batik is a resist technique where molten wax is painted onto the fabric to block areas from dyeing. Tie-dye is also a resist technique where fabric is knotted with thread before dyeing. It creates circular patterns, known in South Asia by the Sanskrit name bandhani. It is used in Gujarat to make the spotted garchola sari worn at Hindu and Jain weddings.

The eastern coast of India was historically the source of beautiful and delicately worked cotton fabrics, known as kalamkari. The name means pen-work, and ink is painted onto fabrics with between layers of mordants and resists. These exquisite fabrics have floral or religious designs are used for saris, table cloths and bed covers. A few families still practise kalamkari in the traditional way, but often using synthetic rather than natural dyes.

In Orissa, mythological Sanskrit pictures are painted onto cotton cloth. These patachitras are used as wall hangings, manuscript covers or to go on earthen pots. The artists who carry out this work are called chitrakaras. Traditional depictions have not varied much throughout time as original images are replicated by subsequent artists.

Block printing and ikat

Block printing is a technique practised all over Pakistan. Chunks of wood are carved to leave a raised design which is then dipped into dye and pressed onto fabric. A new block with a different design is used for each colour.

Rather than simply dyeing or printing a finished fabric, it is possible to weave a pattern into it. One South Asian technique is called ikat. Warp or weft threads are dyed prior to weaving, but selected areas are blocked from the dye by wrapping with cotton thread. The pattern emerges as the fabric is woven. Ikat has been used in many parts of the world with no clear place of origin, but is the craft has thrived in Gujarat where it is used to create geometrically-patterned patola fabric.

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