A Time-Old Technique Redefined with Modern Value: Block Printing in Bagru, Rajasthan

Raised on a childhood of travels throughout South America, Asia and Africa, Jeremy Fritzhand was particularly taken by his first trip to India at 13-years-old. “My parents both came for their first time in the early 70s, so they knew how to get around and knew people,” says Fritzhand on his immersive trip, which gave way to his sudden attraction to the country.

This experience stayed with Fritzhand until his senior year of college when he discovered a way to spend more time in the alluring land. Fritzhand joined the India Union, where he received a $10,000 grant to move abroad and do social, entrepreneurial work. As part of immersing in the local culture, the program led him to Bagru–a block-printing city in the Jaipur district of Rajasthan–where Fritzhand remembers, “that day in 2009 was the first time I had seen textiles like that.”

From this one-off visit, Fritzhand began researching and asking questions about the textile industry, looking into international markets such as Paris, Milan and New York, where he discovered these patterns sold for copious amounts of money. “I pitched the idea to my professor of moving to Bagru to develop a direct-to-consumer business. I wrote the proposal, received the grant, and moved to Bagru with a backpack and this idea.”

Fritzhand spent the first few months of his new life visiting the different printers, learning the printing process, what dyes and inks to purchase, how block carving works, how to make repeat patterns, how to make resist-print patterns and, most importantly, evaluating how he could make the biggest impact on the community. It’s now 2018, and Fritzhand calls Bagru home, overseeing the block-printing efforts of his own company–Studio Bagru.

Working with fourth and fifth generation artisans, Fritzhand was able to foster community and environmental impact of this craft process, while also transitioning the product to target a high-end, younger and international market. “There’s been a resurgence of eco, ethical fashion, that has really pushed the craft of block printing up,” he shares. “When you ask someone in Bagru what they want to be when they grow up, most of them don’t say a block printer, but now, the increase in demand for block printing has been realized into a career, into a livelihood, my hope is that it encourages more of the younger [Indian] generation to get into block printing.”

We connected with Fritzhand to learn more about developing Studio Bagru, the motivation behind his efforts, and what we can understand as consumers about the emerging block-print industry.

At Bagru, you discuss re-entering the “global textile marketplace without using middlemen or wholesalers.” How were you able to disrupt this space?

Disruption happens both at the source and with the consumer. I was acting as a business and entrepreneurial catalyst to encourage the artisans that they could interact with international designers and creators. Secondly, it was important to educate the designers and creators that it is possible to come to Bagru and work directly with the artisans. India can be a very intimidating country for first time sourcing, so I wanted to make it easier to navigate this space.

What motivated you to approach the company in this way?

I was motivated to approach in this method because of my passion of working with the artisans. I knew they were capable of working directly, yet, not many people experimented working this way. All it took was a few early adapters and the rest followed.

On your site, it says, “it requires many hands and hearts to create a single textile” — how would you describe the people you work with on these textiles?

Most of the artisans we work with are fourth to fifth generation. Each part of the block printing process is specialized, from block carving, washing fabric, printing fabric, dyeing fabric, etc. I met these people while I was living in Bagru. Over the years I’ve been deep and meaningful relationships with them and their families.

As someone who has yet to visit India, yet alone the vibrant Rajasthan, how would you describe the Rajasthani textile culture? What does this mean to you?

Rajasthani textile culture is one of the most vibrant and historical in all of India. There are so many types of weaving, printing, and embroidery techniques that originate in Rajasthan. From city to city, different colors and styles are used to differentiate the cultures. This means I am always learning new technique and discovering new patterns and ways of making textiles.

Who would you describe as your largest consumer?

Our largest consumer is artists and designers from the US, UK, and Australia. These are brands that are using block print as a medium for their collections of either clothing, home textiles, or accessories.

What do you think is one of the most important things for outsiders to understand about this industry?

The most important thing for outsiders to understand is that the block printing process is long. Sampling takes anywhere from four to six weeks from finalized design brief to finished product. It’s also important to note that block printing comes with many imperfections. The blocks don’t always match up and colors can vary from batch to batch. Although we work to achieve the top quality possible there can still be slight variation from piece to piece. This is something that should be celebrated and makes this craft unique.

Do you have a favorite project you have worked on thus far?

My favorite project that I’ve worked on thus far is a design collaboration between NY-based designer Petra Valentova and the women block printing artisans of Bagru. Petra spent two months working in Bagru and teaching the women how to create new and exciting designs using local plants. Over the course of the project, dozens of new designs were created, which were shortlisted, and then blocks were created using the new motif. We are planning on launching a collection of fabrics and products using the designs of the women, and have created a royalty program for any design used.

What is next for Bagru?

We hope to expand the Studio Bagru model to other cities and countries over the next few years. We want to continue to promote the art of block printing and get people excited about this technique. I hope that in five years there will be at least three Studio Bagru block printing studios across the globe, promoting this age-old craft, and encouraging slow and sustainable fashion.

Photos by Lucy Laucht

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