Indian Cotton Calicos

Indian calicos came to Europe in the 1500s due to the emergence of globalization. Countries all over the world started trading with each other, but India’s trade with Europe was one of the most important. Calico refers to the stylish patterned cotton textiles from India. Before the arrival of Indian cotton and calicos, linen was the most popular textile in Europe. However, when calicos arrived everything changed. There were many reasons for the success of this textile. Cotton was extremely durable and comfortable, and the designs of the calicos were gorgeous due to the unique floral designs. Nothing made in Europe could compare to these Indian cottons, as they “embodied qualities that could hardly be achieved by worsteds and wollen textiles, including permanent colour and washability” (Riello & Parthasarathi, 226). These qualities shocked Europeans, for they had never seen such durability and designs before. The textile retained the dyes and patterns perfectly, and the colors never faded. Cotton could be washed easily without fear of shrinking or destroying the colors. Cotton textiles were not outrageously expensive, which contributed to their popularity. Overall, cotton was attractive, affordable, and easy to manage, thus all Europeans wanted some.

While this bed skirt is not calico, it resembles a calico pattern with its repetition of the same design.

Indian cottons were not just used for clothing, they also were found in homes. When Indian cottons first emerged in the sixteenth century they “were used primarily for decorating domestic interiors” (Riello, Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World, 126). Europeans did not realize that cotton would be suitable for clothing, so “these curious painted and printed cottons were initially imported as furnishing fabrics” but by the 1660s “they were increasingly marketed as a new textile for fashionable clothing” (Berg, 85). Once Europeans realized that cotton would make a good textile for garments, it took over the European textile industry. Designers started using Indian cotton for dresses, skirts, pants, blouses, and much more. Cotton, especially printed calicos, became the leading fabric for clothing in the early modern era due to its quality and because most of the European classes could afford it.

Calicos were extremely popular due to their variations. Both the patterns and prices ranged significantly. While they were not the most expensive of all textiles, they “were not inexpensive: their price ranged from 10 to 30 pence a yard” (Riello,Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World, 113). Due to this twenty pence range, most upper and middle class families could afford calicos. In fact, “slowly people came to adopt cottons into their everyday attire”, as most could afford it and it was extremely fashionable (Riello, Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World, 129).

The repetitive floral design resembles calico prints.

There were many different styles of calicos and many different ways to produce them. The two main ways of producing designs on cotton were from printing and painting. Painting was the original, Indian,
way of producing cotton garments with a pattern, and the term “chintz originally referred only to painted clothes” (Peck & Bogansky, 86). Printing emerged a little later, in the eighteenth century, and this is when the term calico came about. However the term calico was not limited to just the printed designs on the fabric, it referred to “either patterned or plain cotton fabric” and the patterned fabric could be from printing or painting (Peck and Bogansky, 86). As the popularity of calicos grew, Europeans attempted to mimic the Indian textile. As Giorgio Riello notes, “by the late eighteenth century, Europeans were able to produce cotton textiles that could rival high-quality Indian goods” (Riello, Asian Knowledge and the Development of Calico Printing, 3). Advances in printing invented by Europeans allowed Europe to take over the industry eventually. Instead of spending most of their time hand painting floral chintz patterns on cotton, they created innovative ways of printing. The first method used by Europeans was wood blocks, which printed the design onto the cotton. In 1754, Europeans created copper plates that more easily printed patterns onto the calicos. The Europeans spent less time manufacturing calicos than the previous Indian producers because of their innovative technologies. This led to higher production, which caused Europeans to take over the textile industry by the late 18th century. It took time, but eventually European mock Indian calicos were just as popular, if not more popular, than authentic Indian textiles.

Cotton, especially calicos, took over Europe, and the rest of the world, in the early modern period. The quality of the textile was magnificent and the patterns were very fashionable. Even today, calicos still exist and are popular world wide.



Recommended Readings:

  • Riello, Giorgio, and Prasannan Parthasarathi. The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200-1850. Vol. 16. Pasold Studies in Textile History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Riello, Giorgio. Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Berg, Maxine. “In Pursuit of Luxury: Global History and British Consumer Goods in the Eighteenth Century.” Past & Present, no. 182 (February 1, 2004): 85–142.
  • Peck, Amelia, and Amy Elizabeth Bogansky. Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013.
  • Riello, Giorgio. “Asian Knowledge and the Development of Calico Printing in Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Journal of Global History 5, no. 1 (2010): 1–28.