Hand-block Printing and Women’s Co-operatives in Rajasthan

Vickie el Rayyes, founder of Dilli Grey, speaks to Lydia Mansi about the history of hand-block printing; the heritage textile industry in Jaipur, and the women empowerment co-operative creating her designs ethically in Rajasthan. 

“Hand-block printing is the heartbeat of our design aesthetic at Dilli Grey; I love nothing more than watching customers’ reactions when they see, touch and understand hand-block printing for the first time. Once they get their head around what’s involved – the intricacy, the skill, the handiwork of each design – they see our designs anew,” Vickie explains of Dilli Grey’s signature process – used across her independent womenswear and lifestyle brand she launched in 2016, focusing on creating handmade, ethical designs with Indian artisans. 

In a world of digital printing, it’s all too easy to overlook a print as ‘just a print’ – to take for granted the process behind how the pattern was laid on the fabric – yet when we stop and celebrate both the human process and the skills behind it – it brings to them another dimension, a rich story set both in textile history and modern-day slow fashion…

Beauty in the irregular

Hand-block printing techniques have changed little over the millennia – traded across India, Arabia and the Far East – traditionally natural dyes were used to imprint wood carved patterns onto natural fabrics – madder root for red, rusty iron solution for black and indigo for blue – a process that is still followed today in traditional hand-block printing studios. 

Firstly, teak or fruit wood is used by specialist hand-block carvers, traditionally from the Farrukhabad region, who spend up to a month carving the intricate pattern into the surface of the wood. 

Styles and designs vary from region to region and Jaipur has become world renowned for using heritage floral designs known as bootis, as well as geometric designs influenced by Islamic art. Once the blocks are carved they are kept in a studio’s archive, some lasting 50 years or more and simply reimagined in a range of colourways.  

Eco ink pigments are mixed by hand, swatched on scraps of fabric and matched expertly by eye. Bolts of raw fabric, usually cotton, are then tacked to long printing tables and only then can the printing process begin. Once loaded with colour, the block must be laid with precision and a steady hand, matching up the repeat design by eye – up to 300 impressions can be made over one metre of fabric, with as many as 5 colours layered up to create a design. It is a slow, methodical process that is done purely by eye and hand. 

“After working for 20 years with fashion suppliers in Europe, India and the Far East I have the breadth of experience to have worked with huge mass-market fashion producers and small, family-run artisan workshops – the difference is light and shade. One is about precision and volume, whilst the other is about quality and respect for the rich heritage of textile design and print-making – time is taken to pass on skills across the generations; preserve heritage techniques rather than a drive to automate or increase efficiency – the value isn’t placed in how cheaply or quickly a garment can be made, but placed in creating something beautiful because it’s designed to last – so why rush it?” says Vickie.

The variables involved in working with an artisan studio are both complex and part of the slow production process Vickie goes on to explain – “whilst we celebrate the organic beauty in the grain of a piece of wood, or the deliciously irregular rise in a hand-shaped sourdough loaf – why do we often overlook the beauty in the handmade aesthetic when it comes to fashion? We prize face-less precision over the visible marks and irregularities of the human touch – the humidity in the air as the ink touches the cloth, the heat of the desert sun as they dry on the line, the eye of the printer as they lays down the block with the skill and experience to eschew any machine or measuring aid… all these factors play their part in building up the DNA of our designs, I celebrate their individuality and what they represent. Look closely at our designs and you will see in each the life behind the process… something I want all customers to consider when they are buying our designs.”

The Jaipuri women hand-block printers

Working with a select number of ethical artisan printers in Rajasthan to create Dilli Grey designs, in the last six months Vickie has formed a new supplier partnership with a women’s empowerment programme, Anoothi, outside Jaipur. Run by husband and wife team Jaimala and Hitesh Gupta, as part of Vatsalya, a wider social initative project, Anoothi provides a textile training programme for commercial sex workers.

Within the residential village, set in the plains at the foothills of the Aravelli Mountain range, the Anoothi project runs a training academy where women come to learn and then work as hand-block printers, seamstresses and quilters. The range of textiles they produce are then sold through local markets and retail outlets to fund more women’s places on the training programme. Often just one woman coming to the project will be enough to encourage her friends and co-workers to see another path and so the impact of this small rural project ripples across the region.

“This year I wanted to combine my passion for hand-block printing with a long-felt need to work meaningfully with a women empowerment project in India. Whilst we already work with a number of hand-embroidery and kantha quilting women’s co-operatives in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, hand-block printing is often a male-dominated industry, so it has been a dream come true to build a relationship with Anoothi and to be able to help fund the incredible work they are doing. Whilst on a research trip this spring I met with co-founder Jaimala and she explained some of the difficulties the project faces. It’s not a linear process and some women simply find the shift too hard to make. They don’t see the value in themselves and the meaningful work they can do. A lot of them fight back initially, they need patience and kindness and to see the goodness and trust in life. They are hardened, no doubt. To find their inner creativity and find beauty in life again takes time. 

“Of all the women artisans I met at Anoothi, all showed a quiet pride in their work and a humble surprise in the interest and praise for what they were doing. This default ‘what do I have to offer?’ is heart-breaking and some of the comments the women shared powerfully demonstrate the difference this project is making – “Working as a prostitute is the most humiliating and exploitative profession in the world. I died every day when I had to sustain that way. Now, I feel a new respect for myself.”

“After years of searching for a meaningful way to use my business for good I feel like I’ve found it. I wanted to empower women to gain back their self-respect on their own terms and through their own abilities. Not as a charitable ‘hand out’ but as a business model that supports their creative growth,” says Vickie. 

You can shop the Anoothi Collection and read more about the co-operatives that Dilli Grey works with at dilligrey.com