" Of all the remarkable textile traditions that India has bestowed on the world, its printed and painted cotton textiles, popularly known as chintz, have arguably had the longest and greatest global impact."
- Sarah Fee
The extraordinary story of chintz in Europe began in the 17th century when the first pieces of Indian chintz were brought home by traders of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, or VOC) who used the cottons from India in exchange for spices in Indonesia.
The word chintz - from the Hindi word chint meaning spotted, speckled or variegated - has had different meanings. From 1497, the Portuguese word pintado was used to describe the painted and printed Indian cottons but it was replaced by the word ‘chintz’ or 'chints' from 1600 when the Dutch and English took over from the Portuguese as the main handlers of Indian cotton. It referred to cotton fabric decorated with wooden printed blocks or a kalam pen. During the 18th century the term was used to refer to industrially printed cottons and during the 19th century it came to be associated with glazed fabrics with floral designs, ivy and cascading ribbons.
"Contrary to what many think, chintz does not necessarily have anything to do with glazed fabric, or even floral prints. Simply put, chintz is cotton to which substances called ‘mordants’ and ‘resists’ — used to help dyes adhere to it — have been applied."
- Joobin Bekhrad
When the European elite first laid eyes on the pieces of Indian chintz brought home by the VOC traders, they fell in love with the new fabric with its silk-like lustre and exotic bright floral designs. Apart from the cotton being soft and pliable, it was extremely practical - washable and colour fast which added to its popularity. Specialised Indian artisans used mordants and resists to draw or paint patterns onto cotton fabric which they used as a canvas. Exquisitely coloured fade-proof fabrics were produced by combining the mordants and resists with vegetable dyes.
It is understandable that these bright, fade-proof fabrics were so popular as nothing of the sort had ever been seen in the West before. The painted and printed fabric produced in England at the time were mainly linen cloths to which insoluble colours were applied,and they couldn't compare to the bright colours of the Indian textiles.
“...it crept into our houses, our closets and bedchambers; curtains, cushions, chairs, and at last beds themselves were nothing but callicoes or Indian stuffs.”
- Edward Baines (18th century)
The directors of the East India Company realised very early that were they to make a profit from importing Indian chintz, the designs would have to conform to the “established taste” in England, a taste which already included a fashionable liking for anything Chinese and as early as 1643, they sent patterns and instructions to the Indian artists to adapt their designs to suit English taste. These patterns sent to India were based on English Crewelwork designs which already contained a strong Chinese influence.
The Chinese taste in England was at its height during the early 18th century and expeditions to the Orient led to a magnified interest in exotica, especially from East Asia and India.
From the 16th century Chinese items would arrive on ships from the East Indies and were subsequently sold in the fashionable ‘China shops’ in London. The typical Western consumer didn’t have a good understanding of geography and certainly didn’t recognise India as a separate part of the East Indies at the time. As a result, anything arriving from the East was simply labelled as ‘oriental’.
This new style that emerged, which was entirely invented by Europeans, became known as Chinoiserie, but it didn’t accurately portray Chinese motifs and designs, it grew out of a mixture of miscellaneous pieces from India to Japan, tales from the Orient and the European imagination of the exotic. Indian textiles were also included in chinoiserie and where these came from was “of little or no consequence to their consumers: Chinese wallpaper was referred to as ‘India paper’ and Chinese embroidery as ‘India work’” according to Dr. Rosemary Crill, a senior curator at the V&A Museum.
Female consumers’ desire for the exotic played an important role in the popularity of Indian chintz and it was often used in bedrooms, closets and dressing rooms. As an alternative to the ceremoniousness of the formal reception rooms, these spaces became venues for elegant relaxation during the 18th century and it is understandable that women wanted to decorate their more private rooms in a slightly less formal way. Chintz, as a softer, more informal fabric suited these feminine spaces perfectly.
Also, as the Picturesque movement during the Regency period promoted a growing taste for freedom and irregularity in landscape views, people stared to adopt a more relaxed way of life and the naturalistic floral designs of the Indian fabrics complemented the new trend for informal interiors.
Many of the earliest Indian chintzes were intended as bed hangings rather than wall hangings and together with quilts were ordered in large quantities during the boom in England in the late 17th century.
Indian chintzes became a source of political contention during the 17th century when woollen and silk manufacturers rioted and protested to demand protection from the very large quantities of chintz that were being imported from India at the time. British weavers felt threatened by the popularity of the imported Indian chintzes and their protests and attacks on ships carrying Indian cottons led to the start of the chintz crisis.
The English printing industry was encouraged by the first Calico Act of 1701, which prohibited the import of genuine Indian fabrics from India. However, despite these restrictions, the imported Indian goods were still smuggled into the country.
The intention was to protect the English wool and silk manufacturers from the competition from Indian goods and, although a duty was imposed, this Act still allowed for plain fabrics to be imported from India and the cotton print industry became a serious threat to the established English silk and wool industries.
Despite this ban, the printed calicos was still being smuggled into the country and it led to the second Calico Act being passed in 1720 which prohibited the household use and wearing of imported chintz. Chintz could still be produced in England for export and the import of printed Indian chintz for re-export was allowed.
The Calico Acts were repealed in 1774 and with the mechanical inventions in England during the late 18th century, it was possible to produce a cheap cotton fabric that could compete with the Indian fabrics, and a slow decline of the local Indian industry followed due to competition from
But fortunately, with many craft revival programs after Indian independence in 1947,
the awareness of craft was raised, new products were developed for urban and overseas markets and retail outlets for craft goods were created with the result that block printing in India has grown again since the 20th century with Indian block print fabrics becoming very popular as soft furnishings.
Today, many of the Indian designs are being re-invented and when used as curtains or other soft furnishings, the inherent history of these fabrics can add a tremendous amount to a room.
Aleta Fabrics is a fabric studio based in London who specialises in bespoke, hand-produced artisan textiles inspired by the decorative arts and designs of 17th and 18th century India.
The beautiful Palampore fabric from Warner House is available as a linen fabric and wallpaper. The design is based on the famous tree of life design of the 17th century Indian chintzes.
Jannah is another design from Warner House adapted from the tree of life patterns so popular during the 18th century. Their reinterpretation has been modified to suit the taste and interior settings of the modern decorator, and is printed in seven striking colourways.
For a long period during the history of English interiors, the word chintz was very closely linked to the well-known English Country House style of 19th century England and the arrival of Indian chintzes in the 1600's was one of the main events that led to the English chintzes so characteristic of this look.
Royal Ontario Museum website
Fee, S. (2019) The Cloth that Changed the World: India’s Painted and Printed Cottons. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Porter, D. (2010) The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.