Post 349 –  by Gautam Shah


The word Calico derives from Caliyans, a community of weavers from Kozikode or modern Calicut city of Kerala state in South India. Calico, all cotton fabric in plain or tabby weave ordinary cloth, was manufactured since 11th C., or perhaps earlier. It was later manufactured at several coastal locations like Surat and Cambay of Gujarat, indicating its export value. The exported Calico was floral patterned printed fabric, sometimes called Chintz. By 17th and 18th C., when European traders and colonists established trade-posts in India, it was as important a commodity as the spices traded between India and Europe. The European interest in the fabric was for the unprocessed or Grey fabric as well as for the printed version of it.

Printed Calico dress

Hemachandra, an Indian writer, of 12th C., mentions chhimpa, or calico prints, decorated with chhapanti, or a printed lotus design. The earliest fragments of exported fabric of 15th C., have been ‘found at Fustat near Cairo’. It shows resist dyed fabric. During the Mughal period block printed cotton fabrics were manufactured in Ahmedabad, Surat, Cambay of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and in Burhanpur, in the Khandesh region of Central India. All these centers were surrounded by cotton growing lands.

Grey Cotton print for Razai (cotton filled blanket)

Grey Cotton print for Razai (cotton filled blanket)

In India, Calico processing and printing, both, were improvised to suit the European market requirements. For home use simpler geometric patterns and motifs of small flowers were used whereas for the Europe needs larger patterns or ‘all-over’ designs were produced. Calico prints, procured by the East India Company from India, were comparatively cheap (compared to wool-cotton combinations) and popular. It affected the English weavers, so an act was passed (1700s) preventing import of dyed or printed fabrics from India, China or Persia. The importers shifted, to Grey (non-processed) fabrics. These were processed and printed in England. Local weavers also began to import raw cotton, and produced grey cloth with linen warp and cotton weft, known as fustian. This was not enough to satisfy the expectations of local projectionists. A law now banned the use (wearing) of any printed or stained calico, muslin, etc. except the local fustians. These laws made India just a supplier of low cost raw material, rather then an exporter of a value-added commodity, the Calico.

France,_late_18th C _Fragment_of_Block_Printed_Cotton cleveland_Museum_of_Art

A feature of the original cotton chintz is the low shine which was obtained by calendaring using rice water and stone polishing. The characteristic sheen was applied to the cotton fabric not merely to given the appearance of the silken materials of the time, but of course also to resist dirt and moisture’.

printed cotton designed by William Morris

In Europe calicoes were generally used for hangings, curtains, bed-covers, and dresses. The fabrics were bleached, base or ground dyed and then printed through rollers or screens. Block printing was not common in European factories. Indian-made chintz or calico fabrics were with darker ground colours compared to very light base in European fabrics. Early Indian chintzes, the glazed calicoes, were blocks mark printed with large floral patterns. But Europe, in later periods preferred patterns with smaller motifs.

print cotton