A rough fabric woven from unbleached cotton containing parts of cotton seeds in the weave and often printed with designs that vary by region. Named after the city of Calicut (now Kozhikode) in Kerala, Calico is prized for its durability and versatility. The fabric simple but close criss-cross pattern produced by a tabby or plain weave.
While scholars believe that the fabric was first woven in eleventh-century Kerala, the earliest evidence of Calico printing comes from a fifteenth-century patterned cloth made in Gujarat and discovered in Egypt — likely a result of extensive trade across the Indian Ocean. Trade of cotton fabrics was regularly conducted by merchants and intermediaries plying between the eastern African and western Indian coasts.
Due to its low cost and high durability, the plain fabric was prefered by Arab and coastal African traders for the clothing of enslaved or indentured workers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and later, until the mid-nineteenth century, by European powers engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. Printed Calicoes were popular among wealthier buyers from across western Asia and Africa, with Vaniyas — upper-caste merchants from present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu — commanding most of the market and often crowding out Portuguese textile traders in colonies such as Mozambique. By the seventeenth century, printed Calicoes featuring floral motifs on light backgrounds gained popularity in Europe and North America and were used to make dresses, quilts and home furnishing. In pre-colonial India, the cloth was used primarily for sarees and was typically dyed in darker colours.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, the growing popularity of Indian fabrics such as Calico and chintz eventually led to a British monopoly on most finished cotton textiles in the world. Prior to this, Indian producers still commanded much of the cotton market. To shield its own textile economy from high-quality, imported cotton fabrics, Britain passed the Calico Acts that effectively banned the import and sale of most cotton textiles in England and indirectly promoted its native wool industry. However, the growing promise of control over a colonial market caused a change in attitudes so that by the 1730s, exemptions were made for the import of unbleached Calico cloth. The British East India Company’s hold on cotton weaving in India ultimately allowed them to make Calico weavers — often already exploited lower caste groups such as the Saliyas — produce the plain fabric at low rates for export to Britain, where the cloth was printed and sold in Europe and North America.
The erosion of the Indian presence in the Calico market of the nineteenth century was largely due to the use of mechanised looms, which had been improved over the decades inside Britain’s protected textile economy. This effectively rendered both Indian and British weavers decreasingly useful to British interests and ultimately led to India being demoted to a mere supplier of raw cotton. However, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Indian manufacturers — especially those from key western coastal cities such Bombay, Surat and Ahmedabad — had built factories of their own, allowing for a measure of economic independence from the British, especially during the period of the Indian National Movement.
Today, Calico is produced in much the same areas as before — that is, on the Gujarat and Malabar coasts. A testament to the impact that the global trade, since the British colonial era, had on the commodity is the current homogeneity of its use across the world: chiefly as a household textile and often as a discarded material used for appliqué or dummy designs or as base fabrics for test prints.
Historical collections of India’s Calico traditions are housed in museums across the world, the most notable and comprehensive of which is in The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, which gets its name from the Calico Mills of Ahmedabad, where it was originally housed.
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