Childhood is full of words whose common usage we master, but whose precise meanings only dawn upon us in adulthood. I remember that whenever my mother had to find a hostess gift, select a greeting card, or decorate the house for Christmas guests—any social obligation, in short, that exposed her taste to the judgment of non-family members—she would agonise over whether her offering would look “chintzy,” an adjective that I readily understood to convey bright colours and low quality. I had a vague notion that chintz was a kind of textile, and since I grew up in the 1990s, I imagined it as something polyester with loud neon stripes. I had no idea how far off the mark I was, nor that, over three hundred years earlier, cotton chintz fabric had stood at the centre of a fierce controversy that involved class barriers, global trade, and the future of the Industrial Revolution in England.
This place at the intersection of vast societal and economic forces has made chintzes the subject of numerous books and scholarly works. The present article draws much of its information from a lecture by Rosemary Crill of the Victoria and Albert Museum, available online, with extra details provided by historical texts and current scholarship (listed at the end). These sources agree that “Chintz” is derived from a Hindi word meaning “spotted cloth,” and refers to a glazed cotton calico with a colourful design, originally made only in India. Giorgio Riello of Warwick University explains that through most of European history, designs had usually been integrated into textiles at the weaving stage, as in brocades and damasks. Setting up a loom to create a simple floral design was unbelievably labour-intensive, which was reflected in the cost of these fabrics (Riello 2010).
In contrast, chintz designs were either hand painted, or occasionally made with block printing. While the dye could be applied directly, many colour effects were achieved by either painting the design with a mordant (a chemical compound to bind the dye), or covering the negative space with wax, before immersing the whole fabric in the dye. Craftsmen in India targeted their designs to the various countries where they would be sold—in the case of England, these were usually flower and tree motifs modelled after traditional crewel embroidery (Crill 2017). These complex, multi-coloured designs looked luxurious to European eyes, but they were astonishingly affordable, and in the late seventeenth century their popularity soared.
Originally used only for furnishings such as quilts, wall-hangings, chair seats and curtains, chintzes soon began to be used for garments. One story is that this started because of the practice of giving worn-out fabrics to servants, who then transformed them into clothes. The fashion for chintz clothing spread to all levels of society, including Queen Mary II (of William-and-Mary fame). Thus, from the beginning, chintzes disrupted social boundaries. One writer joked that chintzes had become so widely used that gentlemen no longer “knew their wives from their chambermaids,” and many puns were made on the lightweight fabric, its “light” value, and the “light” women who wore it (quoted in Thomas 1926).
From its first arrival, chintz was already stigmatised with the labels of cheapness and low quality that my mother, in the twentieth century, would try assiduously to avoid. However, the root of the venom against chintz was economic rather than aesthetic. Imported chintzes competed with local woollens, an industry that held a central place in English national identity. The new textiles were reviled in essays and pamphlets: opponents even cited the greater flammability of cotton, with lurid stories of children burned to death in their calico frocks (Thomas 1926). In 1701, following the lead of countries such as France, which was trying to protect its own silk industry, England placed a ban on importing printed cottons for domestic sale.
England at that time was still more than a century away from developing the technology to manufacture chintzes itself. Although both England and India used the spinning wheel, English spinners were unused to the shorter fibres of cotton compared to flax, and could not produce a yarn strong enough to use as warp. The closest that they could achieve was a mixed fabric with linen warp and cotton weft, called “fustian.” (Incidentally, this is another word that I encountered through idiom many years before I understood its literal meaning. Historical romance novelists like Georgette Heyer settled on the phrase “a load of fustian” to mean “a load of nonsense,” apparently because fustian was used as a padding material. I’m unsure whether actual writers of the era would have recognised this usage.)
While the problem of spinning cotton couldn’t immediately be solved, colour was a relatively simple issue. Because of the different chemical properties of cotton versus wool, it requires different dying techniques to make the colours fast. Indian manufacturers had a number of dyes and mordants that were unknown in the West, including some plants that only grew in southern India (Crill 2017). Other, known dyes still faced legislative hurdles, such as indigo, which was seen as competing with locally produced woad, and was called “the Devil’s Dye” in Germany. These techniques eventually spread throughout Europe, greatly helped, as Riello points out, by the Armenian diaspora, which included many skilled craftspeople (Riello 2010). Ancient techniques were supplemented by new chemical and industrial processes. For example, one of the most common mordants was alum, which for many centuries had only been available from a single mine in Tolfa, Italy. In the 1630s, the beginning of alum production in Yorkshire made it readily available to English manufacturers, along with its more effective derivative, aluminium acetate. The process of producing alum from shale, which took months and consumed huge quantities of wood as fuel, has left a lasting mark on Yorkshire’s coastline.
Equipped with these new dyes and methods, English manufacturers had already begun printing their own chintzes in the seventeenth century, and this industry received a boost from the 1701 ban on imports, since unfinished calico cloth could still be brought in despite the prohibition. The developing technologies of engraving, etching, and cylinder-printing contributed to increased production.
Domestic calico printing was just as alarming to wool and silk manufacturers as the imported chintzes had been, and was attacked using similar language, including the emphasis on its destabilising effect on the social order. Because printing could be applied to old fabric as well as new, it gave “great encouragement to servants to rob their masters or mistresses, for by getting it printed alters it so much as cannot be known” (quoted in Thomas 1926). As before, however, the main concerns were economic. Silk weavers in Spitalfields famously attacked women wearing chintz dresses, tearing them from their bodies, and in 1719 they organised a protest march on Westminster (Crill 2017). The novelist and pamphleteer Daniel Defoe took up their cause in at least two essays, “Just Complaint of the Poor Weavers” and “A Brief State of the Question Between the Printed and Painted Callicoes and the Woollen and Silk Manufacture.” These and other efforts led to a prohibition in 1720 on wearing any printed cotton fabric except for muslins, neckcloths, and fustians. This law would not be repealed until 1774—by which point England’s textile industry was on the brink of a transformation almost beyond recognition, one which had been fuelled by the demand for cotton fabrics like chintz.
By 1768, the development of spinning with rollers and water-power had finally made it possible to twist cotton fibres into a thread strong enough to be used for warp, and purely cotton cloth could be made in England. This invention rivals steam power as the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, with all the societal changes that this would entail. Within decades, England went from importing cotton fabric from India to exporting such great quantities that the local Indian industry collapsed.
As for the word “chintz,” its use spread to any floral decorations of a similar design, particularly, from the 1920s on, in chinaware, but it has never been entirely free of the original ambivalence attached to it. By the time that my mother was growing up, the connotations seem to have become almost completely negative. Whether loved or hated, though, chintz has wielded an immense economic and social power in incongruous contrast to the delicate weight and beautiful colours of the original Indian textiles.--Mary Thaler
Baines, E. History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. London: Fisher, Fisher and Jackson, 1835. Crill, Rosemary. “Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West.” YouTube video, posted by International Quilt Study Center & Museum. 19 July 2017. Riello, Giorgio. “Asian Knowledge and the Development of Calico Printing in Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Journal of Global History 5: 1–28, 2010. Thomas, P. J. Mercantilism and the East India Trade. London: P.S. King & Son, 1926.