Block printing in the subcontinent originally has its roots in the Indus Valley civilisation, where the famous Sindhi ajrak was also handcrafted and dyed. While the essence of this technique is over 4000 years old, with time the process has evolved and has been brought into commercial production. The dyes, variety of fabrics, the patterns and the designs have all progressed according to current fashion trends, but the elements of wooden block carvings, which are delicately and carefully hand-stamped by local artisans, more or less remain in practice even today.
Block prints are a timeless trend and favour the ethos of what we call slow and sustainable fashion. A block printed tunic you buy one year is unlikely to go out of fashion the next year, or the next. Moreover, handicrafts like block prints fall well in line with responsible fashion; communities of artisans in rural areas do benefit from the business that comes in and that’s just the core of its strength.
When it comes to fashion and style, handmade block prints are a wardrobe staple, especially in summer. As the mercury rises and organic cottons and lawns or even lightweight silks become essentials, we look past prints and indulge in brands that are heralding this ancient craft.
Spearheaded by Noorjehan Bilgrami, Koel is considered pivotal in the preservation of Pakistani traditional craftsmanship. Bilgrami’s atelier is over four decades old and is a vital channel for skilled artisans to continue their traditional profession of dyeing, weaving, block printing and thread spinning by hand.
Koel quintessentially has a soft, radiant yet earthy signature; the brand plays within a unique colour palette and their dyes are extracted from plants, minerals, and other natural sources. From a wide range of cotton fabrics to formal wear in chiffons and silk, Koel’s choice in block-printed fabrics is symbolic of nature with an overall simple and classically rustic style.
This year Koel brings out scintillating block prints on natural dyed handloom fabrics, including choices ranging from chundari, ajrak, casual wear to formal wear. Options are available exclusively for women and men both; it’s possible to select from the brand’s ready to wear line as well as loose fabric. Koel block prints also extend to household linen, including table cloths, towels, dullai (quilts) bathmats, loungewear and bathrobes.
Blocked by Afsheen Numair is a success story that began with the textile graduate’s love for craft and continues with her sense of responsibility towards the community she works with.
Maintaining an almost decade-long collaboration with rural and semi-rural skilled artisans, Blocked engages in a significant amount of recycling fabric. Every last scrap of fabric that gets leftover is repurposed to create fresh, new designs by using intricate patchwork and hand appliqué techniques, a small yet noteworthy contribution to make fashion sustainable.
Numair has trained skilled village women in the Sanghar District of Interior Sindh, with the goal to teach them how to utilize their special knowledge of embroidery and rare handmade traditional crafts by infusing contemporary design aesthetics. All this makes Blocked appeal to women of all age groups.
This summer season, keep a special eye out for their Pink Lotus collection, an elegant choice for the hot summer months. A kurta featuring block printed polka dots lining a lotus motif on pale salmon pink lawn certainly does make an easy day wear option to dress up or down, according to your needs. The White Kinari Gala is a cotton shirt that has been rendered a signature Blocked Textiles look, where the front is hand printed with the Mughal floral motif in hints of silver and gold hand-made gota kinari. It makes this shirt a good option for understated and elegant summer festive wear.
As someone very rooted to her traditions, heritage, culture and craft, Wardha Saleem began her career with fabric block printing and now designs casual and formal wear in block prints under an exclusive brand, Jhirki, which means sparrow in Sindhi.
Saleem has mastered the art of mixing myriad colours and delicately stitched embroideries with diverse silhouettes. The brand particularly focuses on youngsters so their pieces are often radiant and replete with fluorescent overtones and a relatively bright and electric colour palette categorized as a sub-brand within her extensive designer clothing label.
“I wanted a line that benefits the artisans, crafts-persons and karigars of Sindh. The concept behind Jhirki is sort of a giving back to the community initiative for us. To keep up with the latest fashion trends we have added a new age feel and modern aesthetics to this ancient craft. We tend to experiment a lot with motifs and colours and add quintessential Wardha Saleem quirks while staying true to the traditional essence of the process intact,” said Saleem when explaining the ethos behind Jhirki.
While Jhirki’s colour palette varies from season to season, this summer the hues are mostly centered around bright shades like yellows and magenta, which are then juxtaposed with earthy tones to counterbalance the brighter shades.
Saleem’s design house, which also designs bridalwear during wedding seasons and formals along with myriad seasonal collections, curated a separate brand for casual and semi-formal block prints because Saleem wanted to have an on-going year-round product which offered casual wear for her clients to buy block prints at any given time of the year. Jhirki, which has now been around for over three years, offers comfortable, breezy, casualwear which is also borderline fancy in nature. What adds to the elegance of the collection is the selection of fabrics, for instance khaddi cotton net and tasser cotton silk, which has an alluring sheen to it. The motifs that set the brand apart are unconventional, such as whirling dervishes, cyprus trees, and animals like horses and elephants along with birds.
Saleem tends to juxtapose traditional block printing techniques contemporary styles, which cater to different individuals and lets them play around with classics.
While Sonya Battla is a brand name synonymous with high end luxury wear, one branch of her design house - created under the umbrella of her label - just as elegantly weaves fabric with storytelling. These collections derive and depend on craft, specifically the craft of block printing, and pay tribute to traditional floral patterns. Merged with hand-embroidered borders, her handmade block prints are made with natural batik bleed in both cotton and silk fabric and are a favourite every summer.
This year’s cotton block print collection has eight Chaukhandi prints inspired from the exotic Chaukhandi tombs nestled on the outskirts of Karachi; pieces like ‘saffron symmetry’ and ‘ocean wave’ reflect upon the designer’s passion for art and style. Her silk block prints are inspired from light and music and include pieces like anthem, chorus, symphony, melody, shine, lustre, radiance, and luminosity. Inspired by nature and traditional handicrafts and with almost two decades of experience in the fashion industry under her belt, Battla has continued to keep her silhouettes contemporary and cutting edge.
The Silk Sherezad collection 2021 consists of kaftans and tunics hand block printed by artisans who are masters of the ancient trade. While describing the collection, Battla said “Sherezad is a mythical queen spotted walking around the beaches in Kafkaesque deep hued styles. The colour palette is reflective of our signature blood base and undefined inner motifs and the colours used to bind the collection together are inspired by Zanzibar.”
It wouldn’t be possible to complete a story on the art of block printing in Pakistan without a mention of Bombaywala. Set up immediately after partition by the grandfather of Shahzad Bombay Wala, under the household name, Bombaywala considers itself to be a pioneer of block printing and dyeing in Pakistan. An interesting amalgamation of bright colours, breathable summer fabrics and traditional motifs (which are often inspired from Shahzad’s visits to India, Bangkok and Malaysia) Bombaywala has a rich variety of casual block prints, formal wear in silk and chiffon, ethnic sarees, partywear, informal shirts and a separate linen collection that you can choose from round the year.
These are just five standout brands associated strongly with block printing, but of course it is a craft that is adapted by almost every design house in Pakistan, every now and then. It’s a craft that is quintessential to the core identity of the country’s fashion identity. It’s survived for centuries and it’s just as important that it be kept alive in the future too.
– Afreen is a creative writer and a digital media professional with special interests in film, TV and pop culture. She can be reached at [email protected]