Kalamkari: A Tradition Continued and Renewed

March 23, 2021
Kalamkari: A Tradition Continued and Renewed

Kalamkari. Even the word, a mixture of Persian and Indian, reflects the storied past of this textile art. Kalamkari is an ancient Indian form of hand printing on cloth and kalamkari textiles were a prized trading commodity throughout Asia and Europe for hundreds of years. This traditional art has survived among dedicated artisans in southern India who follow the age-old techniques and natural dye recipes of this painstaking process.

MarketPlace is proud of its collection of beautiful and authentic Kalamkari fabrics. We work with the producers to create new and unique designs that still draw inspiration from the ornamental motifs developed through the centuries of trade. When you wear these remarkable garments, you are wearing a little piece of history!

Fabric Images

Some of the natural dyes take days or weeks to prepare and are derived from a number of sources. Black dye is a fermented solution of rusted iron pieces and raw palm sugar. Red shades come from a long process involving pretreating with alum and boiling the cloth in a copper vat with roots and barks. Lime juice is used for pink.

Kalamkari fabric washed in the river

In the first phase, several days are spent preparing the unbleached cotton with repeated washings, beatings and beachings.

Kalamkari fabric drying outside

Several more days are spent preparing the surface with myrobalam fruit and buffalo milk. Myrobalam seeds contain tannic acid, which acts as a mordant to set the dye, and the milk fat keeps dyes from spreading.

Printed Kalamkari fabric being washed in the river

Subsequently mordants and dyestuffs are applied in specific sequences to produce the different colors, with more washings and bleachings in between.

Kalamkari fabric being prepped for printing

After the fabric is treated, it is spread on a table that is slightly cushioned so that when the hand-carved wood block is pressed down, it makes an impression.

Kalamkari fabric being printed

The wood blocks are a maximum of 6" squares and the precision of placing the block is extremely important so that the design does not look broken.

With Kalamkari, unlike batik, the fabric is never over-dyed. All parts of the pattern come from block printing with mordant. The background block is printed first and it is then filled in with different mordants and the color emerges when boiled. Because every color in a design is printed on, the precision is again of utmost importance. Notice the fine lines of the flower is printed after the larger outline and background has been printed.

Kalamkari fabric being printed

Border blocks are narrower. Sometimes, depending on the design and width of the border, the artisan will use 3-5 different blocks to compose a border. The precision of borders is another challenge for the artisans. They are very skillful at mitering the corners.

Kalamkari fabric being dyed

An Alizerine solution is added to water in a copper pot and heated on a brick fireplace. Sometimes bark, leaves and dried flowers are added depending on the color needed. The mordant-printed fabric is then completely submerged, the cloth is swirled and boiled for over an hour. The length of boiling determines the intensity of the color needed. It is then dried again.

Finished Kalamkari printed fabric layout to dry

A lot of knowledge, skill, space, sunshine and water go into the production of beautiful Kalamkari fabrics.


Tags:   Handcrafted Design  
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These fabrics are lovely and the clothing details exquisite
Jul 20, 2021
By Lucy Baker
I have purchased a number of shirts and pants from the MarketPlace women's collectives, some with kalamkari and all with handwork embellishments. They are the most prized pieces I own, beautiful in themselves, and paired with my black jeans, linen crops, and sweaters make my outfits standout. Paired with a latte at a sidewalk cafe: true happiness. They are a pleasure to wear.

Amazing beauty and amazing skill
Mar 30, 2024
By Susan D
I've been buying Marketplace jackets for many years. I never knew about this process, just the beautiful results. I love Marketplace because of both its mission to support and empower women and because of its gorgeous clothing. Thanks so much for both!!

Your clothes are so lovely !
Apr 6, 2024
By KateM
Everything I've ever bought from marketplace India has been beautiful, well-made to every detail. There is so much work that goes into these garments and I absolutely love the fabric!! It's beautiful and soft and easy to wear.