Woodblock printing is a technique for printing text, images or patterns widely used in Eastern Asia. Originating in China in antiquity, this is a method of printing on textiles and later paper. The woodblock printing remained the most common East Asian method of printing books and other texts, as well as images, until the 19th century.
Prior to the invention of woodblock printing, seals and stamps were used for making impressions.
In India, the printing of cloth certainly preceded the printing of paper or papyrus; this was also the case in China and probably in Europe.
The wood block is carefully prepared as a relief pattern, which means the areas to show ‘white’ are cut away with a knife, chisel, or sandpaper leaving the characters or image to show in ‘black’ at the original surface level. The block was cut along the grain of the wood. It is necessary only to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print. The content would of course print “in reverse” or mirror-image, a further complication when text was involved. The art of carving the woodcut is technically known as xylography, though the term is rarely used in English.
There are three methods of printing to consider:
- Used for many fabrics. These items were printed by putting paper or fabric on a table or a flat surface with the block on top, and pressing, or hammering, the back of the block.
- Apparently the most common for Far Eastern printing and very widely used for cloth. The block is placed face side up on a table, with the paper or fabric on top. The back of the paper or fabric is rubbed with a “hard pad, a flat piece of wood, a burnisher, or a leather frotton”.
- Printing in a press
- “Presses” only seem to have been used in Asia in relatively recent times. Simple weighted presses may have been used in Europe, but firm evidence is lacking.
In India the main importance of the technique has always been as a method of printing textiles, which has been a large industry since at least the 10th century. Large quantities of printed Indian silk and cotton were exported to Europe throughout the Modern Period.
Check the video of the amazing woodblock printing here.