Through the pages of world history, India has been one of the richest lands when it comes to textiles and the crafts surrounding it. The abundance of high-quality materials, colour-fast dyes, floral patterns, sacred motifs, and geometric forms are what have made Indian textiles enviable. Moreover, the country has artisans that are skilled in almost every process of textile manufacture (such as spinning, weaving and dyeing) which also gave it an edge in the global markets. It was only in the mid-19th century, when the Industrial Revolution in the West with its exponential increase in productivity ended “500-years of Indian monopoly over the world’s textile trade.”
However, Indian textiles till today continue to shape the design vocabulary of contemporary sartorial aesthetics, even though often the story of their origin is lost to the modern consumer. So, we decided to compile a list of 5 of our favourite Indian textiles that have travelled the world — making their mark in ancient civilisations like Babylon to the Jazz Age in America. Look closely, and you will find that even today they make appearances in world fashion!
Originally, chintz was a brilliantly coloured cotton calico from India though today it is used to describe any floral fabric. In the 17th century, it was considered a mark of royalty. It has been used to make tents for the likes of the heroic Tipu Sultan of Delhi, to the furnishings and wall-hangings of Queen Mary’s private room. What was most attractive about Indian chintz was its brilliance of colours, detailed aesthetics and glazed finish. A meticulous craft chintz requires the fabric to undergo 17 meticulous steps before it could be made available in the market which includes making the block for the design, printing, washing and then treating the cloth. It could take 8-10 craftsmen just to make one yard of it!
Originally the designs were all hand-drawn with a simple bamboo pen called a kalam (literally ‘reed’ or ‘pen’), providing its local term of ‘kalamkari’. The handcrafted designs also gave birth to a Hindu-Muslim textile tradition; each having its distinct aesthetics but created with similar skills. The vibrant colours of chintz were derived from indigo, madder root and an unknown yellow dye all indigenous to India. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the European craze for such Indian chintz, prompted several governments to tax and even ban imports! By the late 18th century mechanised modes of producing textiles in Europe replaced the labour intensive chintz. Today chintz influences can be felt in most sartorial floral; a true evergreen global motif.
Paisley or the paisley pattern is an ornamental design using the buta or boteh, a teardrop-shaped motif with a curved upper end of Persian origin. By the late 18th century, it became a rage in Europe when Kashmiri artisans weaved it into pashmina shawls. Usually adorned by women as a much-loved status symbol, its English name derives from the town of Paisley, in Scotland which became the center for producing its designs in Europe. Though the handiwork of the weavers has been replaced by mechanised looms the pattern is still commonly seen in Britain and other English-speaking countries with men’s ties.
This craft that has acquired the status of the eternal bohemian vibe requires threads to be tied and dyed prior to being woven into cloth. The technique seems to have developed independently across many different cultures and continents since at least the Dark Ages and reached different parts of the world. Ikat’s stylistic ‘flame’ like edges on the motifs of the finished cloth attracted traders and merchants to introduce it in different parts of the world. It was in 18th century France that silk producers seeking an exotic look manufactured an Ikat known as chiné à la branche taffeta; famously used as silk ribbons. The technique of producing Ikat requires such a skilled process that the art remains alive only in three places in the modern world – Tengana in East Bali, Indonesia, Ryuku islands in Japan, and in Patan, Gujarat which produces the intricate double Ikat or Patola. Today this timeless weave continues to be created and re-created by both mainstream and independent fashion labels.
IV. Silk Brocade
Indian silk brocade work refers to the process when silk is twisted with gold or silver to produce designs with raised patterns. Contrary to the popular beliefs archaeological findings in Harappa have proved that silk manufacturing existed in the Indus Valley civilization which predates silk-making in China. Indian silk brocade travelled to various parts of the ancient world, including Babylon representing India as a land of surplus riches. Today the silk brocade is globally synonymous with the Banarasi sari.
V. Madras Plaid
This summery cotton plaid has united both paupers and the wealthy from different corners of the globe! According to a popular story, it was in 1718 the East India Company governor of Madras, Elihu Yale who introduced the Madras Plaid in Connecticut. Though on delving deeper this cloth has a more complex travel history from its origin in south India to the slave colonies of the New World before it became a symbol of American privilege. Today it remains a wardrobe staple for the country club as much as it also associates itself with the identity of the peasantry.
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