Crafts

Why We Should All Be Block Printing

Printmaker Molly Mahon on embracing imperfections in art—and life (plus, how to print your own napkins!).

August 21, 2020
Photo by Pavilion New York

House of Print, by British Printmaker Molly Mahon, is just as much a love letter to block printing as it is to India. Throughout her documentation of the craft’s history—its ancient origins in China, adoption in India, and the modern-day pressures that threaten its survival—radiates her love for Rajasthan, the home of Indian block printing to which she owes her passion for, and education in, the art.

Mahon’s storytelling is sensorial, drawing us into the rhythmic ‘thud-thud’ of the wooden block, the exuberance of color palettes, the excitement that comes with lifting the block and seeing what gets left behind—and the “magical touch” of the human hand.

From her home and studio in East Sussex, Mahon designs an array of block-printed home goods from fabrics to wallpapers and cushions. That environment, she says, contributes a great deal to her work, too: in her walks through the English countryside, she finds inspiration for patterns and texture.

Photo by Pavilion New York

House of Print is a delight for someone interested in printmaking, yes, but also really anyone who takes joy in handmade objects. Not just a pretty book to leave on the coffee table, it’s immensely practical—with smaller projects for beginners that are broken down into very doable tutorials. All that can be done standing at the kitchen table, some with just a potato in hand (more on that later). If for nothing else, she says, than to re-awaken the artist that many of us leave behind in our childhoods.

After all, pattern is play, and play is joyful. And who can deny that it’s a wonderful time to bring a little joy into our homes?

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Arati Menon: What about printmaking gives you so much joy?
Molly Mahon: The beauty of it lies in the simplicity of the process, which in India has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. I love the instant gratification of lifting the block, and seeing a repeat pattern growing along the print table. I also love the versatility of where the designs can be used—from cushions to lampshades.

AM:You talk of the perfect imperfections of block printing and how important it is to embrace that. That seems applicable to our lives right now…
MM: Absolutely. Life is a little wonky for many of us right now and this is gently echoed in block printing. Each time the block is lifted and placed, the mark is ever so slightly different, or—as I see it—unique. Life is never going to be absolutely perfect. Once we accept that, we see the beauty in the whole cloth (or life).

AM: What can printing do for us right now?
MM: Printing a repeat pattern is very methodical and can take your mind away from your daily anxieties. I also think it is so important to find a space within your home that you can escape to and get creative in—and the rewards are endless.

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Back in my studio!!

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AM: What practical tips do you have for someone interested in printmaking?
MM: Block printing is very accessible—you can do it at your kitchen table or even on the floor. Choosing a design can be overwhelming, so my advice is not to be too ambitious at the start. I’d say just ease into the process and rhythm first, and then start to think about the pattern. I looked to simple leaves for my very first prints, so don’t feel like you have to be arty.

AM: What are the easiest tools to start with?
MM: I carve my own blocks, but you can find some lovely wooden blocks online. Alternatively, there is the good old potato that most of us have lurking around. Search your cupboard under the stairs for a tester pot of paint or some children’s poster paint, which works fine if you are printing on paper. Printing on paper is a great way to get started, understand how patterns repeat and how mystical ‘negative’ space contributes to the overall finished look.

AM: How is the community of block printers in Bagru coping with the pandemic?
MM: It's a very tricky time for them: Not only have they got the pandemic to cope with but they are also seeing unprecedented rainfall which creates greater strain on production. They're taking precautions where they can in order to keep production going—in some cases this means a smaller workforce. What they really need is for us to keep the work coming but also be sensitive to these pressures.


How to Print Napkins

What you'll need:

  • Table padding
  • An old sheet
  • Plain, hemmed napkins
  • Masking tape
  • Wool felt, to create a printing pad
  • Plastic container with lid
  • Fabric paint
  • Plastic sauce bottle
  • Paintbrushes
  • Wooden block
  1. Lay your padding down over the table, then smooth an old sheet over the top. Place your hemmed napkin flat over the prepared printing table and secure. With a small piece of fabric, I often use masking tape to keep it in place as I print, but pins in the corners work just as well. However you choose to secure your fabric, make sure you smooth out any creases as you work.
  2. Create a paint tray using a plastic container and wool felt for the printing pad. (Using a container with a lid means you can keep your printing pad sealed in between printings, which will stop the paint drying out.)
  3. Pour the paint into the bottle and dilute with water until you achieve a creamy consistency. Shake the bottle well, but remember to keep your finger over the top.
  4. Gently squeeze the paint onto the pad and use a paintbrush to create an area slightly larger than your block. Once the paint has soaked into the felt, place the block onto your printing pad, then lift it off the paint.
  5. Carefully position the block over the centre of your napkin, using the centre point of your creases as a guide, then confidently place it onto the fabric. Give it a good push down. Take a breath and lift the block—do not hesitate! Repeat the process, moving towards the top edge, and loading your block with paint before every print.
  6. If you’re right-handed, complete the print within the top left corner of the napkin, then complete the print in the top right corner. Repeat with the bottom corners. (Work in the opposite direction from top to bottom if you are left-handed.)

©House of Print: A Modern Block Printer’s Take on Design, Colour and Pattern by Molly Mahon, Pavilion New York, 2020

Have you ever tried block printing at home? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.

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