Kalamkari: India's Ancient Fabric Artistry

Kalamkari is a method of printing and decorating fabric that is at least 3,000 years old. This ancient craft has been passed down within families in India from generation to generation. Kalamkari is produced using vegetable dyes, block printing, and a pen; the printing is typically done on plain-woven, pure cotton cloth. Because they are entirely made by hand, each kalamkari garment is utterly unique.

The word kalamkari comes from the Hindi: kalam, meaning pen, and kari, work or art; people who do this fine penwork are known as kalamkars. The elegant tracings and delicate designs require that kalamkars attain a high level of skill before they can make an entire piece of kalamkari fabric by themselves; families typically work together, with the experienced elders training the younger members. The pen that is used for this process is made from a bamboo or date palm branch, pointed at one end with a bundle of fine hairs or cotton to brush on the colour. Most kalamkari cloth is made with a combination of block printing, using hand-carved wooden pattern blocks and freehand brushwork.

The beautiful colours traditionally associated with kalamkari cloth are the result of natural dyes. Each kalamkar concocts their own vegetable dyes from tree bark, flowers, fruit, and roots. Yellow, for example, is made with a paste of pomegranate seeds. The fabric used for kalamkari undergoes a laborious process of resist dyeing. The cloth is block printed, then painted by hand, and must be treated again after the painting is complete. There are many steps involved in developingthe richness of the natural dyes; typically a kalamkar will wash and dry the cloth three to five times to achieve the desired result. They also use a mordant solution of natural minerals – such as iron or alum – to fix the dye onto the material.

Traditional kalamkari designs have many influences – trees, flowers, and leaf designs originally came from Persia. Hindu mythology also influenced the designs, as temples commissioned cloths with religious themes and depictions of stories from sacred texts to be used as wall hangings. Demand for these handmade fabrics grew with the arrival of Dutch traders, who exported the cloth for bed covers and draperies. During British rule, kalamkari was even used to make portraits of English military and government figures.

View all of the Kalamkari Collection for Women

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