When dreaming of India, one can’t escape vivid visions of vibrant hues and infectiously deep rhythms. Textile company Block Shop is sparking stable employment and available healthcare in rural India, creating beautiful, wearable fabrics that engage the rich tradition of hand block printing.
We fashioned a chat with Block Shop founders (and sisters) Hope and Lily Stockman to learn more about their work in rural Bagru, India, as well as here in Los Angeles:
Darling Magazine: What inspired you and Lily to create Block Shop?
Hopie: What began as an India-based art project in 2010 quickly evolved into a project of passion the moment our very first prototypes came out of the washing vats. It all started when Lily was living in Jaipur on a painting apprenticeship, where she began experimenting with hand block printing. She found her way to an exceptionally talented hand block printer, and they started collaborating on designs. Hopie visited the same printing community six months later to talk shop. A wild hare business plan was then hatched, and a basic website was built. That was two years ago. Block Shop now employs over 20 printers in the village of Bagru.
Everything we do at Block Shop stems from our love of hand block printing and the people who bring our designs to life, one piece at a time.
DM: What’s most beautiful to you about Bagru? What does Block Shop seek to propel and preserve there?
Lily: At a first glance, Bagru isn’t a beautiful place. We think it’s important not to exotify or romanticise the idea of the Indian village. It’s a small, low-income village on the outskirts of a dusty industrial district on the Ajmer Highway (outside Jaipur). Open sewers, limited access to healthcare, and limited drinking water are plainly visible issues here.
What is beautiful: the tradition of hand block printing being preserved by leaders in the chhipa community. There are vignettes that take our breath away – hundreds of meters of indigo-dyed silk rippling in the wind as they hang from the roof of a turquoise house; kids playing cricket at sunset while herds of goats parade through the village square.
DM: Both Los Angeles and Bagru have such vibrant ways of life. What inspires you the most about mixing them together?
Hopie: Hustle! Family! Haggling over pricing! Drinking (well, chai)! Screaming in Hindi! At Block Shop, we’re a family business, and our printing operation in Bagru is as family as it gets. It’s a vibe that flows through everything we do.
We do all our designing and prototyping in person with our team in Bagru. This means we are involved – in person – in every decision. For instance, when we finish a design in our print shop we hop on Viju’s motorcycle and wind through the village’s back alleys and deliver it to Rajendra, our block carver, who invariably gives us ‘tude and then suggests the perfect design tweak. THAT IS WHAT WE LIVE FOR. That’s collaboration.
At Block Shop, we’re a family business, and our printing operation in Bagru is as family as it gets.
In many ways, it’s no different in downtown LA: all our textiles are laundered by a Korean-owned and operated organic drycleaner who have been in biz here for decades. We have them on speed-dial and they’ve met our parents. Same with our FedEx guy, Speedy, who bends over backwards, literally, under the weight of hundreds of pounds of scarves, to get our orders to our customers on time. We’re a family business in every way, both in Bagru and LA. And we love the sense of hustle that pervades both places.
DM: What’s Block Shop’s favorite way to incorporate Indian culture into each piece?
Lily: Rajasthani architecture is our point of departure. We take our cues from the most opulent buildings to the grittiest: the Mughal marble latticework in the magnificent Amber Fort informed our Clover scarf, while our Stepwell scarf was inspired by the window grates at the local barber stall in Bagru. While our designs are modern, our production technique is still very 19th century; every piece is an homage to the history of Indian hand block printing. Companies like Anokhi and Dosa are our inspiration. Be a scholar of your process.
DM: The colors used in Block Shop are vivid and rich. What’s the process of choosing a palette like?
Hopie: Our strict use of non-toxic dye is what informs our palette. We use natural dyes as much as possible, which jives with our desert-inspired aesthetic. (You’ll never see BLOCK SHOP: THE NEON COLLECTION). We spend a lot of time in Joshua Tree, so Block Shop’s colors are as much reflective of the palette of the Mojave Desert as they are the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. In a way, color is what ties our two worlds together: soft peach, red rock, yellow ochre, coffee brown, slate grey, midnight indigo — all these colors can be achieved with natural dyestuffs.
DM: Tell us about hand block printing. What’s most unique about it? Does rhythm play a role in the creative process?
Lily: Hand block printing is done with a carved wooden block no larger than 8 x 10 inches. Traditional block prints feature paisley motifs and intricate patterns that repeat like wallpaper to create an allover design. Each color requires a different block. You can hear the printing process before you see it; the steady beat of fists double-pounding the blocks –ba-BOOM, ba-BOOM, ba-BOOM– it’s mesmerizing. Printers work so swiftly and perfectly they don’t use any measuring devices and just eyeball the registration of the block. It always blows us away.
Printers work so swiftly and perfectly they don’t use any measuring devices and just eyeball the registration of the block.
DM: What role does apprenticeship play in hand block printing?
Hopie: Hand block printing is a small industry rooted in apprenticeship; our textiles are the result of craftsmanship passed down over many generations within a few families. All our printers and carvers learned the craft firsthand from their fathers. We are especially proud of a few women who print for Block Shop (a craft almost entirely dominated by men).
But the next generation of block printers is a big question mark– printers face myriad health issues, and the work is physically strenuous. Instead of bringing their kids into their workshops from a young age, printers are sending their children to school to become doctors and engineers. Which is vital to the future of a healthier, wealthier rural India. And so how does the culture of block printing persist as the next generation of Bagru leaves the village in pursuit of a different life?
There is no simple answer. But we’re starting with the healthcare issue. We’re about to launch our second annual mobile healthcare clinic for over 200 people, and are working on installing water filters in all the households of co-op members. We’re in it for the long haul.
Images in Block Shop’s Los Angeles Studio by Laure Joliet
Images in Bagru, India by Lily Stockman