Traditional Ajrak Printing Process

Ajrak printing is a long process involving many stages of printing and washing the fabric over and over again with various natural dyes and mordants (dye fixative) such as harda, lime, alizarin, indigo and even camel dung. The technique of resist printing allows exclusive absorption of a dye in the desired areas only and prevents absorption on the areas intended to be left uncoloured.

The raw fabric in full length is pulled exhaustively through the river many times, scoured, beaten, steamed, mordanted, printed with resist mud pastes from the banks of the river, covered with powdered camel dung and ground rice husks; dyed in deep madder and indigo.

Unlike other processes of printing on cloth, where the colour is applied directly to the cloth, in Ajrak block printing, the fabric is first printed with a resist paste and then dyed. The process is repeated again and again with different kinds of dyes, to eventually achieve the final pattern in the deep red and blue hues. This gradual process is also very time consuming, as the longer an artisan waits before beginning the next step, the more vivid the final print becomes. Thus, the entire process can take up to two weeks resulting in the creation of the beautiful eye-catching patterns of the Ajrak.

Here’s a simplified version of how Ajrak is printed traditionally, explained by Indus Crafts:

  • Cloth is torn into sheets and taken to the river to be washed.
  • The damp cloth is then coiled and placed on top of a copper vat and the bundle covered with a quilt to prevent the steam from escaping.
  • This vat is heated by a log fire, through the night and the next day. The steam opens the pores of the cloth and makes it soft so that the impurities can be easily cleansed. This process is called Khumbh.
  • In the next stage, called the Saaj, the fabric is soaked in a mixture of camel dung,  seed oil and water. The dung enables the cloth to become softer and acts as a bleaching agent. This stage is very crucial in determining the quality of an ajrak. The wet cloth is then tied into an airtight bundle and kept for 5 -10 days, depending upon the weather. A distinct smell of mango pickle emanating from the bundle confirms that the fibres have been well soaked with oil.
  • The cloth is then dried in the sun and it goes through another oil treatment. The oil is curdled with  Carbonate of  Soda solution and the cloth is soaked in this mixture to ensure that the filers receive maximum oil. After a thorough wash in the river the next day, they are soaked in a mixture of Sakun made with Galls of Tamarisk, dried lemons, molasses, castor oil and water. The women usually prepare this mixture at home. Till now the cloth was only given a base preparation. The wet cloth after drying is then brought to the workshop for printing.
  • Cloth is stretched and pinned onto a table, where the printers smother wooden blocks with resist and hover them over the cloth to ensure a symmetrical application. Once they are aligned, the block is pounded on the cloth with a heavy-forced whack. This same motion is performed hundreds of times until the cloth is completely covered with the block’s outline in three different resist bases.
  • The cloth goes through the first indigo dye. Usually the master-dyer, known as the Usto himself does the dyeing in the vat. The specially designed blocks are used to print the fabric in gum using an outline block. The dyed cloth is then taken to the river the next morning before sunrise. 
  • All the sheets are submerged in the water for at least an hour. To a rhythmic count, the craftsmen swish and thrash the ajraks in the water for an hour or more until the gum and the excess dye have been washed off and the white areas become clear. 
  • In a large copper vat, the ajraks are dyed with alizarine (or madder – Rubia Cordifolia). Heated by log fire the craftsman diligently lifts and immerses the cloth repeatedly for a couple of hours, till the desired red colour is reached.
  • On the banks of the river, for tapai, the red ajraks are spread out to partially dry in the sun, the artisan scoops the water to sprinkle on the cloth. The alternate drying and drenching of the cloth bleaches the white areas as well as deepens and matures the other colours. This continues for a couple of hours before they are washed, dried and then taken to the workshop.
  • The mud resist mixture is again printed to cover the red areas and immediately sprinkled with the sifted, dried, cow dung to dry the wet areas, called meena.
  • The thick, mud-encrusted cloth is folded and slowly lowered in the indigo vat for the second time. The ajraks are dried, rolled into a bundle and then taken to the river for the final wash.
  • The craftsmen fold the ajraks while still damp and the weight presses them as they become dry.

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