What's Behind Our Clothing? Artisans, Handweaves, Block Prints & Natural Dyes — Great Tradition is Always in Fashion

by - Thursday, August 03, 2023



What's behind our clothing: from the kalamkari block printers of South India, to the handweavers of Bengal, to the dabu mud-resist printers of Rajasthan. 

Great tradition is always in fashion.



Kalamkaris are mordant dyed cotton plainweaves. Centuries ago, the dyes, mordants, or resists were applied through the time-consuming use of a pen. The term "kalam" means "pen" and "kalamkari" means "penwork."

The mordant-dye technique resulted in brilliant, fast colours that could withstand washing. These were exported from the port of Marsulipatnam (on the east coast of India) where, between 1600 and 1800 they formed the basis for one of the largest international trades in textiles ever known.  To increase production, carved wooden blocks replaced pens. In the European markets both printed and painted cottons became known as Chintz." Today the term refers to almost any textile with floral patterning, but at the time "chintz" denoted a cotton cloth, usually with a white ground, printed or painted with natural dyes.

The European market was not the first, however, the port of Marsulipatnam previously exported kalamkaris to the markets of Safavid Persia. The Persian influence has remained in the floral borders, motifs, and geometric design of the patterning.

Today Marsilaputnam is still a centre of kalamkari block print production. The original natural dye knowledge is still applied and the results are just as beautiful as they were centuries ago. First the cloth is bleached by "dunging" a treatment with buffalo or goat dung after which the cloth is dried in the sun for a few days. The cloth is mordanted with myrobalan, a tannin bearing nut which grows nearby. Black outlines are printed with an iron solution and areas that will be red are printed with an alum mordant. The various colours are achieved through printing resists, mordants, and then immersion dyeing with different dyes. When using wooden blocks to print, gum is mixed with whatever substance is to be delivered onto the cloth. 

Maiwa is dedicated to keeping the art of kalamkari alive. We carry kalamkari bedding, pillows, cushion covers, and we use kalamkari in our clothing designs.



The art of handweaving in Bengal is ancient. In the past cotton fabrics were exported to Roman and Chinese empires and Ptolemy mentions the region in his writings. The hot, humid climate of the Ganges delta inspired artisans to produce the most diaphanous fabrics possible. These would be worn in layers and were capable of catching even the slightest breeze.

Poets of the Mughal court likened muslins to baft hawa (woven air), abe rawan (running water) and shabnam (morning dew). There is a story that Emperor Aurangzeb flew into a rage when he saw his daughter, princess Zeb-un-Nissa, almost naked. On being severely scolded, the princess explained that she had not one but seven jamahs (dresses) on her body. Such was the fineness of the handwoven fabric. It was long a custom that a dowry sari be fine enough to be pulled (all seven yards) through the wedding ring.

Weaving is still alive in Bengal and it is possible to walk the length of a village road and hear the flying shuttles of handlooms as you pass each and every dwelling. But without a market that can appreciate the skill and genius of it’s cloth these communities will quickly disappear as India modernizes and weaver’s seek work in construction, or migrate to the cities.

Maiwa is deeply involved in working with village artisans and often commissions unusual fabrics which can be made in no other way. These handspun, loomed cloths are incorporated into our clothing and bedding. We also collaborate with artisans to design shawls and scarves. These are a welcome challenge to the weavers and provide some of our most spectacular pieces.



The fabled pink city of Jaipur sits at the centre of a cluster of traditional blockprint communities. By taking advantage of the fine desert sand of Rajasthan, artisans are able to create a mud-resist known as “Dabu.” A cold-water resist, dabu is particularly effective for blocking out areas during an indigo bath. The character of dabu and the wooden blocks used to apply it, go together to create the distinctive patterns known as “dabu” prints.

Until recently dabu prints enjoyed a close relationship with local weaving communities. In line with tradition, certain patterns were printed only on certain weaves (either coarse or fine) of a set width and length depending on the communities that they were destined to serve. It was this close connection to ethnic niche markets that kept traditional printers in business. A craftsperson could always count on the people of a community needing the buy their traditional cloth.

In nearby Bagru, prints were mostly sold to the local kisan (cultivator) community. The chalanki fadat was given by the father-in-law to a new bride who would wear the cloth as her first garment after marriage. A type of man’s dhoti known as a koyel ki dhabli was made for marwadi cultivators. By contrast, prints produced in Jaipur had larger, more elaborate motifs and were destined for the aristocratic and merchant classes.

To our U.S. customers – don't forget that the exchange rate works in your favour, it's like an extra discount.

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