The Story of Cotton: Part 3: The Art of Indian Chintz

I have been tracing a path back and forth through several hundred years of history, as I’ve been learning about where Manchester’s textile story began, and why and how cotton became so important to the city’s history. In this third part of my journey, I will be looking at the origins of the ‘craze’ for cotton by examining in more detail the beautiful Indian cotton textiles known as ‘chintz’, which inspired and reshaped global trade, and why their popularity was exploited for our own country’s wealth and gain.Debra

Part 1 and Part 2 can be read here:

The Story of Cotton: Part 1: The Weaver

The Story of Cotton: Part 2: Empire

Origins of ‘chintz’ in India

Each part of India has its own distinctive textile traditions, which are strongly related to geographical place due to various climates, soil, and a diversity of local natural flora and fauna for dyes and different materials used for fibres. Cotton is one of the most common and well known of the textile fibres used in the Indian subcontinent and its cultivation goes back to over 9000 years. India has long been globally famed for the skills in weaving, embroidery, printing and dying of its textiles since ancient times; from the finest muslins from east India (a transparent lightweight cotton cloth known as ‘woven air’ by the Romans) to different types of patterned, striped and checked cloths.  

We think of ‘chintz’ as being a type of flowery, blousy patterned furnishing fabric synonymous with English floral furnishings. But this definition arose around the time from the 1920s and refers to something very different. The specific type of Indian textiles which are known by the name ‘chintz’ are a type of colourful, patterned, hand painted or printed cotton cloth, which became famous to the southeast of the Indian subcontinent along the Coromandel Coast. With origins in Western India in Gujarat, chintz cottons were also block printed with small floral patterns using wooden blocks as well as painted and applied with mordants and resist dyed. This area of India is also famous for its innovation in weaving, various examples of which can be found in our collection. The legacy of these wonderful textiles is globally far-reaching, and their influence can be found in textile designs, art and fashion and decorative patterns throughout the centuries.  

‘Decorated with chintz‘, Chintz meaning – coloured or spotted- comes from the Hindi chint, which comes from the Sanskrit chitra-s, “clear, bright.” It is one of many English words that come from Indian languages

The quality of the spotted one is best, but the effect is chintzy and would be unbecoming. – George Eliot, 1851

India had long been exporting their textiles to different global markets for thousands of years including China, Indonesia, parts of the Roman Empire, Africa and the Arab world.  

The oldest surviving Indian textiles have been found in Egypt dating as far back as 4000 BCE with documentary evidence showing trade with Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, India’s humid climate and monsoons means cotton textiles have not been found as old as those exported to Egypt, which due to its arid climate has allowed these ancient textiles to be preserved.  

It was European colonists from the late 15th century onwards, starting with the Portuguese, then the Dutch, English, and French who eventually brought the fabrics to European shores. 

These Indian cotton textiles were highly sought after because they had a unique beauty and the skill involved in their making was incomparable. They were so highly coveted that they were used as a form of currency in exchange for a variety of important commodities, such as spices and other luxury goods. In time Indian chintz and European copies were used in exchange for enslaved people from the West African coast, who then in turn were forced to cultivate cotton across the Atlantic under brutal conditions.  

The Mughal Empire and Indo-European Chintz

“Emperor Babur Receiving a Visitor”, Folio from a Baburnama (The Book of Babur) 
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper Page: 14 x 9 in. (35.6 x 22.8 cm) Painting (with margins): 10 1/4 x 5 13/16 in. (26 x 14.7 cm) 
Painting: 9 1/4 x 4 15/16 in. (23.5 x 12.6 cm)  
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons 

The Indian textile trade had long been one of the largest trades in the world for hundreds of years. Its peak was between the 16th century and 18th century, when the Indian subcontinent was ruled by the Mughal Empire. During this period India became the wealthiest country on Earth due to a flourishing textile industry in silk and cotton, which allowed them to dominate world trade.  

By the 18th century the economy of the Mughal Empire accounted for 25% of the world’s wealth (amounting in today’s money to trillions of pounds) and their economy was larger in size to the whole of Europe at that time. During the 17th century the Taj Mahal, one of India’s most famous landmarks, was built and in the Bengal region there was a higher standard of living than in Britain during the same period. 

The designs of ‘chintz’ gradually began to reflect the styles from Mughal art, which are Persian in origin and took inspiration from nature. The first Mughal Emperor of India, Babur (1526 – 1530) established beautiful palatial gardens and had a love of flowers which was passed on throughout the Mughal period of rule. Floral patterns on these textiles became more decorative and stylised throughout time and certain motifs became popular, especially the ‘tree of life’ or ‘flowering tree design’; an ancient symbol common in diverse cultures and religions. 

These motifs can often be seen on huge tent designs which were popularized by the third Emperor Akbar (1542 – 1605). Akbar was considered the greatest of the emperors and expanded the Empire during his reign covering what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. He also had a lavish passion for art and during his reign as Emperor a variety of animals such as birds and insects as well as botanical motifs such as fruit and flowers became a dominant decorative feature of South Asian arts in this period and onwards.  

1851 – 1869 hanging (palampore) Masulipatam, India Painting, block printing; resist dyeing h1905 w 1168 Source: the Whitworth
‘Palampores’ were bedspreads made for the European market and composed of a single decorative panel rather than a repeating pattern. The flowering tree motif seen here was one of the most distinctive features of Indo-European chintz. It represents an amalgam of Indian, Persian, Chinese, and European influences. A number of ‘palampores’ were specially commissioned for the Indian stands at international trade exhibitions in the 1850s but, by that time, the flowering tree imagery had lost much of its freshness. 

There is a notable Chinese influence with the designs made for the European market from the 18th century because of the popularity of Chinese ceramics and wallpapers and a fashion for ‘orientalism’ in the decorative arts more generally; with inspiration also coming from Japanese lacquer wear and textiles. Indo European Chintz commonly feature a white background similar to Chinese porcelain to reflect this trend. As well as being more desirable and trendy to European taste, it also required a more technically complicated and time-consuming process to achieve.  

There was also in the 18th century a growing fashion for botanical illustration, plants, and gardens in Europe. Plants discovered through global exploration and empire building were being documented. This fuelled the consumption and popularity of these floral fabrics in Europe ever more so.   

Dress (robe à l’nglaise) and skirts in chintz, ca. 1770-1790, shawl (fichu) in embroidered batiste, 1770-1800. Jacoba de Jonge Collection in MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp, Photo by Hugo Maertens, Bruges

In the 18th century Indian Chintz had become so popular in Britain and France that it threatened local textile industries, so import taxes and laws were imposed. In Britain these were to protect our wool and silk industry and in time Britain sought to emulate the popularity of Indian chintz by copying the designs and inventing more mechanised processes of spinning, printing, and weaving in the 18th and 19th century during the Industrial Revolution.  

The popularity of Indian chintz in Britain had been created through colonial trade, via the East India Company (EIC), a British corporation which used military means to take over India in the 18th century. This allowed it to become the largest most powerful multinational companies in the world, richer than Amazon or Google in comparison. By the 19th century Britain had taken over as the main producer and exporter of cotton and as a consequence the Indian textile industries were severely affected, which impacted on thousands of Indian workers connected to the textile trade. 

The Process of Making a ‘Chintz’ ‘Kalamkari’ Cloth

kalamkari (from the Persian “ghalamkari”, meaning “pen-work”)

There are several stages in making an Indian ‘chintz’ cloth which, depending on the complexity of the design, would have taken several months and required several highly trained artisans due to the different processes required. It was by no means an efficient method of production but the quality of the finished textile took the simplicity and ordinariness of cotton cloth to something of great beauty, which mass-produced chintz made in Britain could never achieve. 

Locally grown cotton was used, which was processed by hand to remove the seeds, then hand spun and woven into a dense cloth. The quality of the spun cotton yarn and weaving process was a crucial element to the finished product. A high-quality woven cloth was created so that it could withstand the repetition of washing in the local calcium rich waters and the bleaching and finishing processes used. It meant that superior results were achieved when applying mordants and dyes to the decorative elements. 

Different surface designs were stencilled onto the cloth with charcoal, then drawn by hand using a bamboo tool called a ‘kalam’ using different water based mordants (such as iron and alum). The patterns created were often small and intricate. The mordants allowed natural dyes to fix to the fabric and were applied evenly to the surface of the cloth. Buffalo milk was also used as a coating on the surface to prevent the colours bleeding.  

Animal dung was used as a bleaching agent and the cloth and was then left to bleach in the hot sun. Further processes involved polishing with shells and using rice water as a glaze to produce a shiny surface if so desired. Chintz fabric which had a shiny surface looked almost like silk, so was a much more inexpensive and practical alternative.  

Two dye colours commonly used and which made Indian textiles widely celebrated for thousands of years, were blue and red. Indian artisans were famed as masters in the skill and science of making these dyes permanent and vibrant. 

Blue was made from ‘Indigo’ which takes its name for the Latin for India (indikos) and derives from the leaves of a plant from the plant Indigofera tinctoria, a type of bean plant.

A botanical illustration of Indigofera tinctoria 
Indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria L.): flowering stem with separate flower and fruit segments. Coloured engraving by J.J. or J.E.Haid, c.1750, after G.D.Ehret. Source: Wellcome Collection

Wax needed to be applied as a resist for when indigo dye was used because it is a very strong dye; the smooth tightly woven cloth means the wax could adhere with minimal cracking on the surface. This process required a high amount of skill and expertise to master successfully. This skill is still a closely guarded secret and hard to achieve without expert knowledge. 

Red dye is created in a range of tones (including pink) from using the root of a plant called chay, which grows in the southeast of India.  

The Chay Root (Oldenlandia umbellata) is a plant native to India used for the red dye that can be extracted from its root. “Shaya-root … a, flower; b, pistil and calyx.” -Whitney, 1911 
Source: William Dwight Whitney The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language (New York, NY: The Century Co., 1911) 

It is common to see patterns on antique chintz fabrics of mainly blues and red, but yellow dye (which comes from many different plant sources such as turmeric) would have also been painted onto certain blue areas to create green, and onto red to make orange. As natural dyes which are used to make yellow are not as stable to light and fade over time because of frequent washing, it is common to see floral designs with blue leaves because the yellow dye has faded.  

(Above) Palampore (hanging or bedspread) 19th Century 
Hand printed and painted cotton Made in India. (T.9722) 
(Below) Calico Printers Association Ltd Cloth for export market 1940s 
Machine printed cotton Made in Manchester (T.2001.189) 
Exhibited in Standardisation and Deviation: 
The Whitworth Story  2 July 2021 – July 2022 

Influence on Other Cultures: Hybrid Designs

Indian chintz was commissioned from buyers around the world who would request certain patterns, colours and decorative motifs. Indian artisans were so highly skilled they were able to adapt designs to suit the different cultural tastes and requirements of foreign markets.  

Evidence of the influence of these textiles can be found across Southeast Asia, through an assimilation of techniques and designs, perhaps most notably in the Islands of Indonesia- which is famed for batik fabrics. Indonesia was particularly important to the trade of these textiles for over 500 years. Up until the 1700s there were spices that were only found in Indonesia (such as nutmeg, mace and cloves) and these would be exchanged by spice merchants for Indian chintz, which was a highly desired and coveted product. They were required to be made with bold graphic patterns and intricate designs, and notably only royalty was allowed to wear these textiles.  

Chintz has had a major influence on other global textiles, as can be seen with this textile from Indonesia. Sarong, Java, c.1890 resist dyeing technique (Batik) Source: the Whitworth

Indian chintz made for the Dutch market were much bolder and colourful in their designs and, unlike other European countries, there were no laws enacted to prohibit the trade. In England (1700) laws protected the wool and silk trade; and in France (1686) punishment around chintz fabrics was very severe (including a capital offence), but such legislation did not stop the craze for chintz textiles which were still smuggled despite the harsh penalties. 

Petticoat, India 1759-1761, block printed resist and mordant-dyed cotton possibly made for Dutch Market (note bolder large scale design). Source: the Whitworth

The secrets and innovation of Indian chintz techniques (such as the wax resist) were a well-kept secret for centuries and are still carefully guarded to this day. The emulation of these textiles by Europeans was only possible through the use of modern mass-produced processes of printing, spinning, and weaving and chemical dyes but they could never quite achieve the quality or beauty of the Indian made chintz because of their handcrafted nature.

In the late 19th century, the influence of South Asian Textiles had become the height of ‘good taste’ in fashionable clothing and interior design, during a period when design reformers and theorists championed non-European sourced patterns and ornamentation. An Indian influence was imitated by several well-known designers and manufactures, alongside the import of a range of handmade printed, woven and embroidered textiles from the Indian subcontinent. 

In Part 4 of the Story of Cotton, I will be exploring further the trend for Indian textiles in Britain, including the Great Exhibition and William Morris.  

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