I don’t normally enjoy the sight of Rollo crying (honestly!). But when we went to Delhi in January to see our new printing studio, Rollo’s tears - of joy, I should add - somehow crystallised how passionately we both feel about being able to give our cherished team of craftspeople in India the best possible working conditions. We’d gone to visit our beautiful new workshop, where abundant natural light streams in through large windows, where the air is clean and pure, and where our block-printers can work happily in healthy surroundings. (We’re also delighted with our six new, six-metre-long printing tables, by the way, meaning that we can produce longer bolts of uninterrupted hand block print, and that we can produce even more fabric even more regularly, meaning shorter waiting times for you.)
You'll no doubt have read that conditions for textile workers often leave a lot to be desired. Although we only use water-based paints (meaning our production methods don’t expose our artisans to toxic chemicals), previously our fabrics have been made alongside other companies’ orders, usually made with oil-based paints. Oil-based paint is an obvious choice, because it’s cheap and colourfast, but we don’t think it’s the right choice - Rollo and I were left feeling really uncomfortable about our block printers’ proximity to these dangerous chemicals. So we sat down with our team in India, and said, “We really want to work with you, but we’re not happy about these conditions.” Happily, everyone listened and quickly realised that this is not how things should be done anymore. And so, the whole set-up was moved to this amazing new, light-filled studio, where they have complete control over the air quality and the products used there. Rollo and I are both so proud to have pushed for that - seeing our block printers (whom we very much see as key members of the Molly Mahon team) being able to work in optimal conditions was incredibly moving.
Protecting our workers is so important to us because it’s really in India where most of the Molly Mahon magic happens. Once I’ve handed over my pencil-drawing design to the carver, he recreates it in wood, always adding his own artistry and making his own mark on the block. (I’d so love to say, by the way, that we push for more female recruits, but we also have to respect the Indian culture and that both men and women largely seem to prefer that block printing remains a man’s world.) Meanwhile, the cloth-weavers in the south of India create the base cloth, which is then taken by the delivery guys to Delhi, where the amazing colour technician mixes the paint colour by eye (after I’ve given them a snippet of cloth featuring my dream colour). The cloth is then painstakingly hand-block-printed with these gorgeous colours, then dried in the sun, washed, ironed and shipped. There’s so much more to the end result than just my input - it's why we really see it as a Molly Mahon team effort, and why it’s so important to us that the wellbeing of every person on our team is respected.
Sustainability in textiles is an incredibly complex concept - there isn’t always a perfect solution, making changes is slow and hard, and talking about it is even more thorny. We’ve always wanted to do the right thing by people and planet, and always wanted to learn how we can improve. It means I am always questioning our processes - for example, should we be producing in India, where wages are lower and working conditions less regulated, and where our products need to be shipped back to the UK? Or would it be better to machine block print in Britain - but where Indian artisans would miss out on work? Why do I even use traditional block printing when it’s so slow and tedious, so difficult and complicated? I am always tying myself up in knots going over the ins and out of what we do, and the pros and cons of how we do it.
Whenever I find myself mulling over these big questions, I always find myself returning to the emotional quality of block printing - put simply, it lifts my spirits. I love that block printing has been around for thousands of years, and that all that has really changed are the colours and designs, so that it works for today's tastes. I love that each piece of cloth that passes through our block printers’ hands has been made with the same tools and techniques as those of thousands of years ago - we’re just on a continuing trail, and the feeling of that is incredibly grounding.
The end result is a cloth with the most extraordinary character, with a whole story woven into it by all the personalities involved. That, to me, is what gives hand block printing such longevity, and makes it so special and interesting, and, in the end, all so worthwhile.