Moravian family workshop keeping blueprint tradition alive for future generations

One of the Czech items on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List is the craft of indigo dyeing with block printing, known as modrotisk. The tradition dates back to the 18th century, but today there are only two workshops in the entire country that produce the iconic blue and white folk pattern.

Blueprint or indigo dying is an ancient printing technique used for decorating fabric. It originated in Asia in the 17th century and, via the Silk Road, it gradually spread first to Egypt and then to Europe.

The Czech tradition of indigo dyeing with block printing, called modrotisk in Czech, dates back to the 18th century. It enjoyed its heyday during the 19th century, when almost every small town would have a blueprint workshop of its own. But by the 20th century, their numbers started to dwindle due to the introduction of printing machines in factories.

History of blueprint workshop in Strážnice

Today there are only two family-run workshops in the Czech Republic that still practice the UNESCO-listed technique, both of them in South Moravia. One of them is in Strážnice, a small village near the town of Hodonín. It belongs to the Joch family, who have been maintaining the technology used by their ancestors since 1906.

František Joch has learned the craft from his father and passed it on to younger members of the family, making sure they will keep the tradition alive:

“It started with my grandfather, Cyril Joch, who came from a different village. At that time, blueprints in Strážnice were made by Mr Rybář and my grandfather became his apprentice.

“That’s how he met my grandmother. They fell in love and got married and started a blueprint shop in the house where our grandmother lived. That was in 1906.

“My grandfather died very early, I didn't get to know him, but he taught my father the craft. It was after the First World War and the fabrics were sold all over the area, as far away as Slovakia.

“They would get a coachman with horses, load up the goods and go all the way to Malacky to sell them at the fair. It was much more difficult than now.”

In 1953 the Czechoslovak communist government nationalized all private-owned businesses, including the workshop of František Joch’s father, forcing him to find a job.

“My father found a job in a laundry in the nearby town of Hodonín. At that time, the National Centre of Folk Art Production was established, which united small folk art producers.

“One of the people behind the project approached my dad and asked him to come back to Strážnice. So the blueprint technology has been maintained under the umbrella of that organization.”

Science behind blueprint production

Gabriela Bartošková | Photo: Markéta Ševčíková,  Czech Radio

Modrotisk refers both to the fabric printing technique as well as the name of the dark blue fabric with white patterns produced by this technique.

During the production, a dye-resistant paste is applied on the fabric where it is not supposed to be dyed, using wooden or metal forms. The printed fabric is then submerged in a cold indigo bath.

This technique is used across the whole of Central Europe but the patterns differ in individual regions or even workshops.

František Joch, who was awarded the title Bearer of the Tradition of Folk Crafts, still uses many of the hand-crafted blocks left by his grandfather, some of which are over a hundred years old.

“We have about ten blocks left from my grandfather. Some of them are wooden, with the design carved into the wood. The more delicate patterns were made using brass nails, which have corroded over time and fell out, so they had to be repaired.”

Nowadays, the blueprinting tradition in Strážnice has been taken over by the fifth generation of the Joch family. František Joch’s great-niece, Gabriela Bartošková, is now in charge of the printing process.  Although she resisted at first, she says she eventually fell in love with the craft:

“I told my mom I would never do this outdated thing and she said: whatever you want, but first print a meter or two of fabric, so you know what you are missing.

“So I did, and it was love at first print. I immediately knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

“I think it wasn’t the pattern that got me, it was the ritual process of printing, which is sort of like meditation and it calms you down. That really struck me. Since then, I have been fascinated by blueprint and I still continue to discover its secrets.”

The Joch studio in Strážnice is filled with dark blue fabrics, which have been hand-printed with delicate patterns and are now waiting to dry out. When the prints are completely dry, the fabrics can be submerged into the indigo bath, explains Ms Bartošková:

“We have a two-metre-deep tub, which is filled with the dye. In addition to the indigo, there are other chemicals that create a chemical oxidation process which colours the substance. The exact composition of the ingredients used in the process is a secret of every workshop.

“Our composition allows us to submerge the dye for five minutes, but the process has to be repeated five to six times. At the moment we are printing 13 metres of fabric and after we apply the coating it has to dry for five to ten days before it can be dipped in the indigo bath.”

While the traditional patterns produced in the Moravian region were white and blue, today the Joch workshop also produces other colour combinations:

“A typical blue and white blueprint was printed on white linen, while in Slovakia, it was traditionally done on yellow linen. If we print on red linen, there will be a red pattern.”

Revival of blueprint technique

With the rise of the fast fashion industry, the ancient blueprint technology has almost disappeared. In recent years, however, it has seen something of a revival, with many fashion designers re-discovering the age-old technique, says Ms Bartošková:

Photo: Jitka Mládková,  Radio Prague International

“I would say that our society has become more interested in traditions, crafts, but also in ecological production. The blueprint is supported by the interest in slow fashion and the interest in local products. The collaboration with designers developed so naturally.

“I think it’s thanks to the diversity of the technique. It can be limited to some extent by patterns, but you can create your own patterns and you can also have backgrounds of different colours. Moreover, blueprints are suitable for all natural materials, including cotton, linen silk and hemp.”

Besides producing a wide range of traditional blue-dyeing products such as fabrics, tablecloths, potholders, aprons or pillows, the Joch workshop also produces less traditional accessories:

“We have manufactured fabrics for car seats, lampshades and shoes and we have also provided material for several weddings. Blueprint is a truly modern fabric that can be used in endless ways.”

In recent years, the Joch workshop in Strážnice has engaged many contemporary fashion designers in the art of the blue-dyeing technique, including the renowned Czech designer Klára Nademlýnská. The iconic fabrics from Strážnice were also used by Zuzana Osaka for the outfits of the Czech national team at the Tokyo Olympics.

Authors: Ruth Fraňková , Markéta Ševčíková
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