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Textile Guide: Chintz

Chintz, polished cotton of verdant foliage and leaves coloured in multiple rich hues, was unlike anything Europeans had known. Its lustrous beauty evoked visions of strange cultures and unknown lands.

International Quilt Study Centre and Museum

What is chintz?

The word "chintz" originates from the Hindi word ‘chint’ or ‘chitta’ meaning spotted or variegated. Historically, chintz referred to plain weave, calico cotton that was hand printed, mordant- and resist-dyed in brilliant, gaudy and vibrant patterns of exotic birds, wildlife and flowers on neutral, light backgrounds.

It required a lengthy process that could take up to several months and involved several seperate dye baths using natural dyes, such as madder and indigo. It was usually glazed and hence was lustrous. Chintz was originally manufactured in India and exported to Europe. Later on, chintz also came to refer to the industrially printed textiles produced in England, as well as floral printed ceramics and wall paper.

The history of chintz

Chintz originates in the Subcontinent, where it was inspired by the floral prints of the Mughal rulers; the Muslim rulers of northern India before the British. The floral prints were loosely based on Islamic art - arabesques and the Safavid art of Persia. The first chintz patterns were of the tree of life.

Chintz was manufactured in India as block printed, painted or stained calico (calico being predominantly produced in the South of India) and first exported to the Middle East and South East Asia. The first samples came to England, France and The Netherlands in small quantities via early Dutch and Portuguese traders in the 16th century.

By the 17th century, English spice traders found chintz to be a valuable trade commodity (textiles have long been one of the most useful trade items - just think of the Silk Road!). When they began importing the fabric into England, they found an even greater market for the textile. "Chintz, polished cotton of verdant foliange and leaves coloured in multiple rich hues, was unlike anything Europeans had known. Its lustrous beauty evoked visions of strange cultures and unknown lands." The print was bright and colourfast, the pattern exotic, and the cotton - which was new to the west, was highly desirable in itself. It was far superior to anything produced in Europe at the time and there was an immediate demand.

Soon, it was textiles rather than spices which came to dominate British-Indian trade. Queen Mary was known to have decorated her bedroom with these cottons, and by 1680, more than a million pieces of chintz were exported to England per year, with a similar number exported to France and The Netherlands.

While the inspiration was Indian, the local designs were thought to be unsuitable for the English market, and orders from Europe took on a hybrid "exotic" style - the rich colours of the local production with designs based on English flowers and birds. Chintz became extremely popular as bed covers, curtains and draperies for the rich.

When the fabric was worn out, it was given to servants who recycled it into clothing. The beauty of the prints and the comfort of the cotton quickly caught on, and soon upper class ladies were using chintz first as lining, and then for their entire wardrobe. The original large floral prints were revised into smaller, delicate patterns more suitable for clothing. Daniel Dafoe is quoted as protesting over "persons of quality dress'd in Indian carpets."

Chintz: the dark side

The import of chintz was of serious concern to the European textile mills who were unable to reproduce the complex dying methods. Chintz threatened the local wool and silk industries of England, and to counter this, France and then England made the import and then the use of chintz illegal in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In France, women who wore chintz faced severe penalties, even death.

In 1742, a French missionary trying to convert Indians to Catholicism stole the knowhow behind making chintz and brought it back to Europe. From there the mills developed new mechanised processes of cotton spinning and weaving and invented commercial roller printing and and were able to produce similar fabric. The ban on chintz was lifted in 1759, but with the industrialisation of chintz production firmly in Europe, the demand for Indian-produced chintz was essentially over. For the next century, the fabric enjoyed a boom in popularity as European mills continued to develop their own prints and patterns; the term "chintzy" became synonymous with anything common or overly abundant.

The making of chintz

The original chintz production, as carried out by Indian master artisans, was a very complex process involving drawing, mordanting (fixing a dye), resisting and dyeing depending on the colour being used. The original chintz designs were hand-drawn and resist-dyed but block-printed designs were incorporated later. The hand painting was made using a bamboo pen called a "kalam" (literally "reed" or "pen", from the Persian. Early chintz is thus closely related to "kalamkari", the local term for hand-drawn textiles.

The laborious craft of chintz requires the fabric to undergo 17 meticulous steps. From a young age, the children of master craftsman apprentice to learn a single, specialized function and become a skilled artisan. From making the block to treating the cloth to printing and washing, approximately 8 to 10 craftsmen are involved in creating each yard of Kalamkari fabric.

Chintz today

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