If you’re like me, the first image that pops into your head when you hear “calico” might be that of a friendly feline. In fact, the cats may borrow their designation from calico fabric, a simple, patterned material that belies a rich history in fashion, home decor, and the very roots of industrialized textile manufacturing as we know it today.
Calico originated in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, where it was produced for centuries before European traders first encountered it. Since at least the 12th century, calico has served as a relatively cheap and extremely durable canvas for artists and designers, most notably as the vessel for chintz fabrics, which have cycled in and out of fashion in recent decades.
The term "calico" refers to an unbleached, unfinished fabric made from cotton fibers. It is often described as a half-processed cotton cloth, because it’s typically sold as a “loomstate fabric,” meaning it’s sold as-is after its final stitch is woven. As a result, this plain weave textile usually has a slightly beige or gray tinge—and you may even be able to spot tiny flecks of cotton seeds in the final product. It’s a bit heavier than muslin, but not as weighty as canvas or denim; a common use for calico has been for designers’ toile, or for the mock-ups made before final garments are crafted in more expensive fabrics.
The word is derived from ‘Calicut,’ the English name for current-day Kozhikode, the city in Kerala where Portuguese traders first saw the fabric. Skilled painters and printers developed sophisticated techniques to embellish calico cottons, typically using natural dyes; these decorated calicos are then called chintz fabrics. Traditionally, they were painted using a specialized bamboo pen or printed using wooden blocks. According to Sarah Fee, curator of African and Asian Textiles at ROM Ontario and the author of The Cloth That Changed The World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz, these were used for everything from depicting religious beliefs in temples to luxurious “wall hangings that Indian rulers commissioned for palace furnishings,” she explains in an online exhibition guide. Initially, this multi-use cloth was popular throughout India and was exported to northern Africa, but in the 17th century its appeal reached Europe, tipping off a global trade chain reaction.
Cotton was not a crop that took kindly to the Mediterranean climate, so the East Indies, as much of Southeast Asia was then referred to by Europeans, were a primary target of the British East India Company. As the multinational enterprise that dominated commerce around the world for more than 250 years, these traders took an artisanal, hand-crafted tradition and industrialized it, spiking the demand for cotton, which in turn fueled much of the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the 18th century. Their efforts to provide Europeans with the finest luxuries the “new world” had to offer had lasting effects that reach to our current-day economy.
At first, calico was most used for home linens like tablecloths, napkins, and bags, but eventually, working-class women in Europe started to turn calico castoffs into apparel, precipitating a proper craze. It was then that the chintz patterns we now recognize started to circulate more broadly. While the term “chintzy” often indicates ornate, floral, even passé design mores, chintz is in fact a highly artistic expression that continues to evolve today. While not all chintz patterns are currently made on calico, it is undeniable that this style, which has floated in and out of the mainstream since its arrival in the global market centuries ago, was made possible by this humble fabric. Whether considering a new upholstery for your sofa, or starting a craft project while in quarantine, remember calico, an essential and endlessly useful cloth that makes up a pillar of our contemporary textile landscape.
Follow House Beautiful on Instagram.
You Might Also Like