The ethos behind traditional block printing runs counter to the very nature of big business: Designs are stamped into textiles by hand, leaving each product infinitesimally different from the next. Production cannot be scaled, and artistry cannot be automated. That's why sisters Hopie and Lily Stockman, founders of block-printed textile company Block Shop, want to keep their small business...small.
In 2011, after traveling to Jaipur, India, Hopie and Lily were as awed by the tradition of block printing as they were by the small, thriving, family-business ecosystem. Together, they worked to build relationships with several of the local, long-standing artisan families, collaborating to curate a small collection of block-printed scarves, which they went on to sell in the U.S.
Now, nearly a decade later, the Block Shop catalog offers everything from framed prints and pillows to throw blankets and robes — and each product, still produced in small batches, is crafted at the hands of the very same artisan families in their own home workshops. Even as the brand develops greater name-recognition, the ethos hasn't wavered: The Stockman sisters still champion small-scale production, fair wages, and a decentralized supply chain designed to support the small family business tradition (plus, 5% of Block Shop's annual profits go to local community health and empowerment programs in Jaipur).
For a more granular look at how the company has grown organically, without departing from its preliminary mission, we sat down to chat with Hopie about sustainable artistry, business drudgery, and why Block Shop isn't looking to expand anytime soon.
Where did the idea for Block Shop originate?
"In 2010, my sister Lily was starting to take off as an artist, and her husband earned a grant to study water distribution in rural India. She was accepted to study at a miniature painting program in Jaipur, as well, so together, they moved East for a year. When she was out there, she started researching textile techniques — she was interested in designing textiles as unstructured paintings. She kept urging me to come down and learn about this apprenticeship method of printing — the way people were passing down the trade over generations. Once I saw the work, we both knew we needed to give this a try, so we started to design scarves."
How did you actually go about turning Block Shop into a fully functional business?
"In 2011, we solidified our relationships with a whole number of artisans in Jaipur, and so we flew back and forth, working with this one family on a set of scarves. We didn’t end up launching them to the public until 2013. When we did, we took out a $5,000 loan from our mom — which we were fortunate enough to be able to pay back within our first month. Immediately, the scarves were a hit. We ran out right away."
Why were you so taken with block printing to begin with?
"I think what struck me most was how the hand is involved in every single step of the process. As consumers, we’re so disconnected from the actual processes responsible for making so many of the things we surround ourselves with. To me, what was so beautiful and remarkable about the block-printed pieces was how imperfect they each were.
"Each time we’re in Jaipur, we get to see our drawings being carved into wooden blocks — each the size of printer paper. Each color requires a different block. So much of the actual placement is eyeballed — there's so much skill and design sense required to make each layout work. By looking at the finished piece, you can tell how much moisture was in the air when it was made because of the way the colors look or how runny the prints appear. Maybe the runnier prints were made during monsoon season. These are all left out to dry in fields, and occasionally there’s a stray hoof print. The uniqueness of each individual piece is so exciting to me. It’s representative of the whole ecosystem and the whole artisan tradition."
How did the business grow from solely scarves to blankets, pillows, prints, and so many other things?
"We were lucky to be featured on a couple of different design blogs when our scarves first came out. I think in addition to the beautiful textiles themselves, people were excited to see products they really liked, designed and created with an emphasis on sustainable, ethical business practices. So once we had the money and the audience, we could just kind of run with our new ideas. Every new product category has just been an organic reflection of our own lives and our own expanding interests.
"Each year, we go to India twice for a few weeks, and we work with our artisans to figure out how to make our ideas into a reality. Outside of those two months, we all talk on WhatsApp pretty much all day, all the time. We’re constantly in conversation about everything from raw materials, and linen or hemp selection, to color-matching. We send tons of photos back and forth, because sometimes it’s easier than trying to verbally communicate. It’s a wonderful process, because each time we have a new idea, the process feels very collaborative. We get lots of feedback from our printers about color decisions, the arrangement of shapes, or the symmetry of the design, and in the end, it feels like we all played this huge part in masterminding it together."
What’s it like working so closely with your sister?
"It’s honestly a lot of fun. Sure, we fight, but we have a defacto radical honesty policy — we say exactly what we feel to one another and it saves a lot of time. That’s not totally a luxury you have if you work with someone who isn’t your blood relative. We share endless bad jokes and we have our own strange shorthand or ‘sister speak.’ We can pick up each other’s slack without batting an eye. I don’t know what it’s like to run a business alone, but I think when you’re running a small business with someone you’re super close to, the highs and the lows are reverberated. Your closeness can sort of magnify the experience. Yes, we get grumpy and we get low blood sugar and we revert to our teenage selves. We’ve gone to therapy to work on our relationship. It takes a lot of time and effort, but we are willing to put in the work to keep our relationship strong."
What’s the most rewarding part of running Block Shop for you?
"First of all, I love that it doesn’t scale well. We’ll never grow into a huge operation or move our processes into a factory. We’ve been working with people in their home workshops since the conception of the project, and the art form has been passed down through so many generations of people in those same workshops. We have no interest in disrupting that train at all or instilling a more regimented way of working. We love being able to witness it.
"We’re proud to be a small business. But in business, there’s often this obsession with growth, this fixation on scaling quickly — and those are just not our goals. We’re not looking to add to a supply chain horizontally. What’s important to us is bringing beautiful and meaningful products from an ecosystem we want to bolster, not rearrange. We’ll always be a small business, and we’re okay with that."
What’s your day-to-day like as a business owner?
"Throughout any given day, there are so many moments of profound joy, but also, moments of intense anxiety and pressure. There’s a lot of drudgery: email-sending and project management and all that. It’s not as glamorous as it probably seems. The glam part is probably 5% of the job — the part that's comprised of designing and traveling to India. That said, I love the drudgery — all of it is rewarding and meaningful.
"Every Monday, someone on our team presents an artist of the week who they’re really excited about. It’s one of those traditions that helps us ensure that we’re starting off the week in a really positive and creative way."
What has been the hardest part of maintaining Block Shop?
"As far as lows, there are plenty of them: persistent copycats and management challenges. Also, Lily shifted to part-time a little while back, and that was difficult to navigate. It’s hard because the emotional stakes are so much higher when the company is your baby. Sometimes I wish I had a boss giving me feedback or making decisions for me, as nice as it is to be in charge in my own right. But then again, you just work through it. You take it one day at a time.
"Sometimes, the challenges even become highs. Recently, we got to a place as a business where we can provide health insurance — and maternity leave — to our six women employees in L.A., even though we’re far below the mandated size for doing so in California. Obviously, that was born out of this frustration that we weren’t doing enough for our employees or offering them the care they deserved, but it felt amazing to achieve. When I was growing up I never thought, Gee, I really hope I grow up to be the sort of person who can offer benefits to working moms, but in all honesty, it’s been one of the highest highs of my career."