A glazed cotton fabric with a plain or tabby weave, typically printed with floral and geometric patterns, chintz is believed to have originated in Golconda, Hyderabad. Along with calico, it was traded across the Indian Ocean as far back as the fifteenth century, usually as painted (kalamkari) or printed cloth. It gained popularity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it began to be exported from India to North America and Europe. The word derives from the Hindi word chint, meaning “spotted.”
Indian chintz is characterised by its printed or painted floral designs and vibrant, durable colours. This was primarily the result of natural dyes like chay and indigo, and the carefully guarded techniques employed by Indian dyers. The bright floral designs are considered to be the result of Mughal patronage as well as that of smaller sultanates in southern India, owing to similar designs in Mughal miniatures and architecture. Alternately, textiles for the European market were characterised by a light background featuring intricate floral imagery or larger, asymmetrical patterns and narrative scenes. A popular motif among British consumers was the Tree of Life, which was frequently depicted with deep red flowers characteristic of Indian chintz.
The Netherlands, Britain and France were early manufacturers of imitation chintz in the late seventeenth century, often using plain cotton cloth imported by the Dutch East India Company. The fabric was exported to North America and Europe as well as Portuguese colonies such as Brazil and the Philippines. The Company dealt in Guinea cloth (a simple, striped cotton cloth) in and around present-day Indonesia through pre-existing trade routes between southern India and South East Asia, while exporting the more expensive chintz cloth to the Netherlands for sale in Europe.
Chintz was either printed or painted, with the former being done at workshops along the western coast of India, whereas the painting tradition was particular to towns such as Masulipatnam (now Machilipatnam) on the south-eastern coast. Printing was the faster method and allowed for mass production even before British control over the industry. The production of Indian chintz involved covering the cloth in resin, which helped confine the mordant to certain areas of the cloth while also brightening the colours. The resin would later be washed off before the cloth was printed or dyed, making this technique unique to Indian chintz and differentiating it from imitation chintz produced by early European manufacturers; since resin alum had to be imported to Europe at high prices, the cotton cloth printed or dyed in Europe had duller, less defined colours. After being washed, the cloth was printed using wooden blocks that had the pattern carved onto them. The block was coated evenly with dye and pressed on the fabric, with a different block used for each colour and outline.
Chintz is used extensively in upholstery and clothing. In Europe, until the nineteenth century, imported Indian chintz was the preferred cloth to make curtains, upholstery and, to a lesser extent, dresses. Some scholars believe that chintz began to be used for garments when maids were given old or damaged household textiles, which they would fashion into dresses. As chintz dresses became more fashionable, manufacturers began to sell the dull, heavier cloth for household use and a lighter, more glazed cloth to serve as clothing.
By the early nineteenth century, chintz printing and glazing were being produced in Europe with the aid of synthetic dyes, specialised machinery and systems of mass production. Owing to the ban on imported Indian cotton, cheaper British cotton began to outnumber block-printed textiles from India, and Indian exports of the fabric became limited to a small number of painted chintzes from the Coromandel coast. Today, most chintz fabrics are produced through mechanised printing, which became the norm from the late nineteenth century onwards.
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